Last week we discussed “shock and awe” events in three popular serials. These events were supposedly meant for character development, but they only succeed in destroying said characters, along with the canon and continuity of the franchise. However, one has to wonder just why the actions forced on the characters mentioned in the previous post count as their destruction. The fact that these actions violate canon, continuity, and the archetypes of which these heroes and heroines are representative is obvious, certainly. But can’t there be a type of story where such behavior is acceptable?
In point of fact, there is, but these kinds of stories are anathema to the heroic archetypes of these series in the previously described article. This will take some explication, so please forgive me if I seem to veer off topic. When I do so that is because I must draw your eyes to something that affects the central premise of this post, but which is intuited or taken for granted, making it difficult to discern.
We will start with this basic question, which has been discussed previously here: what is the difference between a hero and a villain? Not between a protagonist and an antagonist; a protagonist could very well be a villain, while the antagonist is the hero. For example, in Breaking Bad the protagonist is Walter White. White is a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a drug manufacturer after he is diagnosed with cancer.
White does this to ensure that his family will be financially stable once he is gone, but even his early actions prove he is creating and selling drugs mainly because he has the capacity to do so. He wants to shed the civilizing influences he has lived with for his entire life and satisfy his own desires before he dies, and his behavior reflects that intent.
His brother-in-law, Hank Shrader, is a DEA agent who hunts drug dealers. Once White’s operation becomes big enough to gain the law’s attention, Shrader begins trying to discover his identity. This is a traditional cat-and-mouse police procedural told from the point of view of the villain, not the hero. For this reason, Shrader is the antagonist – the character standing in opposition to the protagonist who is White.
Breaking Bad’s success proves that there is a market for stories where the villain is the protagonist or driving character in a story. There have been other examples throughout history, of course; Shakespeare* pulled it off more than once and the Ancient Greeks were proficient in this department as well. If, however, someone asks you to name a modern series that follows this pattern, then Breaking Bad is an example that should turn heads more quickly than others.
Going back to the question of what is the difference between a hero and a villain, the answer is simple: a hero is someone who puts his or her desires secondary to the good of others or the greater good of humanity. A villain, on the other hand, seeks only to satisfy his base desires. He wants what he wants, and he is willing to do whatever he must to get it. If that means maiming, harming, or killing others, then he will do it and never lose a minute’s sleep over it. For some villains, these actions are ends in themselves and they take a great deal of pleasure in perpetrating these diabolical acts upon innocent people.
Again, Breaking Bad illustrates this fact. Walter White becomes a drug dealer and “cooker” entirely because he wants to be one. Financial security for his family is his stated goal, but there are ways to accomplish this without resorting to violence or crime. Moreover, the actions he takes – including willfully standing aside and letting a heroin addict choke to death on her own vomit – that will have little effect on his aims only serves to ram home the point that he is doing this primarily to please himself. He likes being this kind of monster, and he is tired of pretending otherwise.
So what does this have to do with the so-called “character progression” of characters like Seven of Nine, Pietro Maximoff/Quicksilver, and Luke Skywalker? Why do I bring up this stark difference between heroes and villains in relation to the “shock and awe” changes that occurred in Picard, Avengers: Disassembled/House of M, and The Last Jedi? These are totally different things. Aren’t they?
Yes, they are. But some people have confused them, purposefully and otherwise, in an attempt to blend these archetypes and their respective stories together. The naïve or beginning writer can confuse “shock and awe” tactics such as those used in Picard with real character development, as can the casual reader or the novice reviewer.
For the skilled or accomplished author and reviewer, however, the difference should be obvious: a hero typically follows a heroic archetype which means he is pursuing some goal outside of himself. In order to achieve his objective, he must become willing – if he isn’t already – to set aside his wants to draw nearer to his aim. This includes being willing to lay down his life for what he believes and/or being willing to die for the sake of others, counting such a sacrifice as worthwhile despite the cost to himself.
Villains inherently seek to gratify their own dark appetites no matter the cost to others. Any villain archetype one can name, from the evil overlord to the redeemable enforcer or assassin, has to abide by this premise. Yes, even the villains with redemptive arcs have to begin from a low position before they become true heroes. Becoming a hero isn’t easy – it isn’t meant to be so. Virtue isn’t given, nor is it stolen; it is earned. For a villain to become a hero he must shed his own desires, perhaps slowly perhaps quickly, to change from a man seeking his own satisfaction to one whose higher ideals can only be attained through sacrifice of self.
Seven of Nine quite literally begins from a low position in Star Trek: Voyager*: she is a Borg drone, a living piece of technology or hardware in the greater Borg collective. Her will is that of the hive and she desires nothing more than to be reunited with it after the Voyager crew forcibly severs her connection to the Collective. In the first episode after she receives her freedom she tries to return to the Borg, eventually breaking down in tears as the fear of being alone and “small” finally strips away her bravado and surety.
Watching this is much like watching a drug addict who is undergoing withdrawal fighting and begging to get another hit of the substance that makes them high. Seven wants the security of the collective’s will, much as an addict wants the safety of oblivion which a drug gives them. Assimilated at the age of six, Seven has some “excuse” for this attitude. She was “hooked” on the Collective at a young age and not of her own will, so she is not accustomed to being “sober.” But that doesn’t absolve the Voyager crew of their responsibility to aid her, having put her in this position to save her as well as themselves.
It also does not absolve Seven of her responsibility to “become sober” and learn to live on her own. Although she eventually decides to join the crew, “assimilating” to humanity is not an easy task for her. She has to purge a great deal of her Borg-induced habits which is painful and takes time. But by the end of the series she has achieved the goal she sought, proven when she does not push aside the hand of the man for whom she has developed a romantic interest (something that was hinted at in the first two episodes in which she appeared).
Picard replaces all that heroic development with one that focuses on what the writers think are Seven of Nine’s base desires – if not a villainous archetype per se. They try to put her in Walter White’s position, making her indulge in debasing habits (alcoholism), a lust for violence (joining the Fenris Rangers), and vengeance (killing the woman who mortally wounded her adopted son). But Seven’s archetype is inherently heroic, so the transfer does not work. It cannot work – not without destroying Seven of Nine and replacing her with another character entirely.
None of what happens in Seven’s Picard-written past meshes with her earlier portrayal. Rather than stay with Icheb and hold him as he dies, the way she held her semi-biological son One in the episode “Drone,” Seven euthanizes him. Although she would engage in physical combat when necessary to help protect Voyager, Seven’s forte was science. If one truly wanted to write a fall from grace for Seven of Nine, making her a mad scientist who disregarded the suffering of others as she pursued her twisted experiments would be more understandable, though less acceptable, than showing her enjoying the fruits of her heroic labor in Voyager.
This is the main problem with Avengers: Disassembled’s take on Pietro Maximoff as well. Quicksilver was established as a heroic character in the mold of the Grecian god Hermes: the messenger of the gods whose speed allowed him to arrive and offer aid or advice in the nick of time, often when it was least expected. Thus Pietro is the fleet-footed hero whose heart and soul are pledged to justice.
Even when he willingly served Magneto in his earliest appearances, Pietro never liked the man he would eventually learn was his father. He never agreed with him nor served him happily; he only aided the Master of Magnetism because the latter saved him and his sister from an angry mob. The debt had to be repaid and, although he hated it, Quicksilver accepted his duty. He discharged it until the obligation was settled and his honor was satisfied whereupon he and his sister almost immediately joined the Avengers. Despite being led astray via mind-control, betrayals and other hardships, Pietro always found his way back to the light. To put it more simply, he never stopped trying to be better.
It is not unbelievable that he would go to extremes to save his sister after Disassembled when others among the Marvel hero community began calling for her death. The twins have always been steadfastly devoted to one another, willing to do almost anything to protect each other if necessary. Threatening or harming one of them is guaranteed to cause the other to lash out at the attacker in a near-blind fury as each is the only family they have left.
What is bizarre about Disassembled and House of M is Pietro going to Magneto for help. That he should ask his sister to realize the future desired by their biological father, whom they have both disowned continually, makes even less sense. Once more we see writers trying to force a heroic archetype character into a villainous standard that embraces rather than fights his base desires. It just does not work or make sense because these things are out of character for Pietro, whose desire is to protect his twin sister.
Making a mutant-ruled paradise in line with his father’s designs has little to nothing to do with saving Wanda. It would have made more sense for Pietro to ask the Scarlet Witch to “reset” things to the way they were before she went mad or to create a reality where everyone they cared about was happy, perhaps tapping into their friends’ and compatriots’ heartfelt desires as she did so. The story of the heroes remembering what actually happened despite living in a paradise of their own making could still occur, with results similar to those seen at the end of House of M.
Instead, the writers tried their hardest to have their cake and eat it, too. They wanted Quicksilver to indulge in less-than-heroic appetites for “character development” and to prove that “he’s human, too.” In so doing they not only took their audience for granted, they showed they think very little of the people who put money in their pockets, food on their tables, and roofs over their heads. They wanted to make a good hero mediocre – just as they are themselves.
Luke Skywalker’s portrayal in The Last Jedi is another example of this type of storytelling. It is also one of the most egregious, since it strokes the writers’ egos while maligning an even larger audience than either Star Trek* or Marvel Comics could claim. Everyone on the planet knew Luke Skywalker. Mark Hamill still talks about the love he receives from fans around the world for his original portrayal of the farm boy-turned-Jedi Knight. People have fought through cancer based on the inspiration which his character gave them after they saw the original movies.
Rian Johnson, Kathleen Kennedy, and the others involved in the production and writing of The Last Jedi spat on the “fan boys” who enjoyed the series. They also mocked and laughed at the people who, suffering from a potentially terminal illness, gritted their teeth and reached for their dearest source of inspiration to keep fighting and clinging to life. Assigning Luke Skywalker base desires and beliefs to indulge in, they sought to reassure themselves that he was never that heroic in the first place, that they themselves were not mediocre people who could do and be better. Heroism was just an illusion, and Luke was the face of that illusion. Strip it away, and you get “reality.”
If the reality one wants is Hell, then abiding by this pattern is guaranteed to help land one there. Sloth is a sin, after all, and the writing in The Last Jedi is some of the most indolent and apathetic I have ever seen. The film doesn’t even attempt to tell a coherent story, preferring to simply blow everything up and “reveal” the supposed “truth” that “no one wants to admit”: “Ooh, look, nothing matters.”
Life matters. Man would not cling to it with both hands and his teeth, if necessary, as he has – individually and collectively – throughout history if life wasn’t the most precious thing he possessed. What one does, chooses to do, is willing to be and sacrifice to become MATTERS in this life. It matters in the next as well, and we can judge that by the way those who desperately want to avoid this fact vociferously deny its existence.
Future writers, the choice between nihilism and life is yours; I cannot make it for you. But I give you fair warning: don’t attempt to cast heroic archetypes as villainous or nihilistic ones and call it “realism” or “character development.” It is neither. Nihilism is the greatest lie, because it is the worship of death itself, the cessation of life.
But death was conquered. It was fore-ordained to die itself, and though the final victory is only glimpsed from afar by we poor creatures, the promise stands even now. No matter if the living envy the dead – and they may yet, someday – this fact remains because the One Who promised it never breaks His Word: “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He Who would not leave us orphans when the serpent usurped His rule of the world, Who came to die an ignominious death for our poor sakes, will not abandon us now.
The question then is, as it always has been: who among us will abandon Him?
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If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth, while her poetry appeared in Organic Ink, Vol. 2. She has also had stories published in Planetary Anthologies Luna, Uranus, and Sol. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she recently had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue and Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue. Order them today!
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