So far James Cameron’s Avatar has gotten predictably mixed reviews. On one hand, the visuals and heroic story are grounds for A. O. Scott of the New York Times to rave “I had the feeling coming out of this movie that I haven’t felt since maybe I was eleven years old in 1977 and I saw Star Wars for the first time.” It has also been panned by critics like Kevin McCarthy for having a “derivative, unimaginative story and … shallow characters.” Says McCarthy, Avatar matches “terrific special effects with a lousy script — which is the way Hollywood has made many movies in the 32 years since Star Wars.”
Also predictable is the “Stuff White People Like” school of criticism that correctly (and predictably) points out that the hero story is geared to white boy fantasies. Annalee Newitz says “Whites need to stop remaking the white guilt story, which is a sneaky way of turning every story about people of color into a story about being white. Speaking as a white person, I don’t need to hear more about my own racial experience. I’d like to watch some movies about people of color (ahem, aliens), from the perspective of that group, without injecting a random white (erm, human) character to explain everything to me.” Speaking as a white person, you’d think she would realize that wanting to “watch some movies about people of color … from the perspective of that group” is just as condescending in that uniquely white, anthropological way as watching movies about your race’s triumph over (ahem) aliens. But I digress. The blogger Remington’s totally subtle title says it all: “Avatar: ‘Totally Racist Dude.’” (For a good laugh at such pretensions check out this critique of Stuff White People Like.) While we’re at it, I’ll mention that this is a profoundly patriarchal movie (it’s a man’s, man’s, blue, hyper-masculine, African-Native-American, man’s world) that tries to be hip and not misogynist by promoting the wife of the Na’vi tribe’s chief to high priestess of the Mother Goddess.
Big action flicks with lots of computer effects are the movies the average American loves to hate. The story takes a back seat to the visuals, and what amounts to a story is actually a racist, sexist fantasy of domination. The dialogue is a mix of banalities and absurdities, like when our erstwhile white guy hero turned native says to his adopted blue family about the upcoming war, “We’ve got to take it to the next level.” But the visuals are so stunning we half remember the first time we were transported off this rock and taken to a completely believable world, far, far away. In the end everyone agrees this movie wants to be Star Wars and fails.
Stanley Fish recently made a good case for the popularity of revenge movies. Says Fish: “The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it.” A justified motive for revenge makes you special: it gives you an out on the rules that regular schmucks have to live by. The same goes for heroic action movies. Heroes are by definition special. They are natural aristocrats, even in a culture as obsessed with meritocracy and equality as ours. Heroes can do things ordinary mortals can’t do — like face impossible odds, champion the little guy over the soulless corporation, and ride a dragon into a fight with a spaceship and win. When the Na’vi shoot a good, old-fashioned arrow into the high tech body armor of some random, nameless white dude, we can all cheer. Simply put, heroes are real people whose faces are so recognizable they don’t need a last name (Madonna, Jay-Z) or any name at all (Prince, MJ). On a planet drowning in non-entities, they save us from obscurity and oblivion. They are our avatars, and by watching them on TV or reading about them in magazines, we share in what it means to be a real person. This is an enduring feature of human psychology from the Pharaoh worship of Ancient Egypt to worshipping Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.
By the definition given above, celebrities are heroes. Is it any wonder that 21st century America is suffering from hero fatigue? These days celebrity is a sexually transmitted disease. How else could Ashley Dupré get a job writing for the New York Post? Who would know or care who Elin Nordegren is if she hadn’t married Tiger Woods? It is a symptom of the Silver Age of the American Empire. In the Golden Age of The Greatest Generation heroes were unmistakably heroes: Charles Lindberg and John Glenn, for example, did impossible things and made them look easy. For us, making an ass of yourself on TV qualifies you for hero worship. Meanwhile, for the past ten years one celebrity after another has been exposed as a douche bag, one corporation after another has been exposed for grand larceny, one politician after another has been exposed as a pathological liar, one famous husband after another has cheated on his wife, and even the famous kid in a silver balloon turned out to be a hoax.
George Clooney’s new movie Up in the Air captures hero fatigue by re-imagining Tyler Durden after a decade. In Fight Club our hero slipped the bonds of gravity by blowing up the skyscraper headquarters of evil credit card companies. Two years later some real anti-capitalist revolutionaries blew up the real skyscraper headquarters of world trade, and set the tone that defined the “aughts.” Mohamed Atta exposed the puerility of neo-liberal American revolution fantasies quicker than you can print Che Guevara’s face on a T-shirt and sell it at Wal*Mart. Young American men who dreamed of being tough and opting out, getting off the grid, being an individual — a hero — were forced to make a choice: join the Army and literally become a tool of a government that reeks of corruption, or side with “the terrorists” who reek of group-think fanaticism. Today’s Tyler Durden has been significantly tamed. Not only does he not get the girl in this movie, he finds out she’s been cheating on him with her husband, who she’s not about to give up. Add her to the list of Spitzer, Letterman, and Woods. Instead of bringing down the corporations who stole his soul, he continues to fly, high above the world in a sealed aluminum canister — an obvious metaphor for a momentary escape from a force that in the end always wins.
As I mentioned before, America’s Silver Age appears to be birthing a very un-American sadness, a tragic sensibility that hasn’t seen these shores before. Part of it is the hangover of the financial crisis and the leveling of the global playing field, but part of it is hero fatigue. Bush and Co. tried to revive the cowboy jingoism of the 50s, but failed. Foreign wars are fun when the cowboy rides in to restore order (Europe) but not when he rides in to “liberate” a native population from their natural resources. And so it is that Jake Sully has to go through some mind-bending, metaphysical contortions to empathize with the Na’vi, and even then he’s still just a meat puppet.
If Hollywood wants to make a hit hero / action movie, it should follow this advice:
- Realize that you’re not going to remake Star Wars by following its formula. There is only one Star Wars; let it be.
- If you are going to follow the formula, take the time to read Joseph Campbell all the way through. Don’t have your assistant read it and summarize it for you. Then pay attention to these facts:
- The hero has to die a symbolic death before he can save his people. This is true from Gilgamesh to Odysseus to Aeneas to Arthur to Jesus to Luke Skywalker. (Remember the scene on Dagobah where Luke cuts off Darth Vader’s head, only to discover it was his own?)
- Death is always sad. It doesn’t test well with audiences. Let’s remember that while critics love The Empire Strikes Back now, it garnered mixed reviews in 1980. If you are worried about your opening weekend take, you won’t produce something sad and good. But here’s the rub: Empire’s take over the last 30 years has been half a billion dollars.
- Death in heroes is always dignified. That means DO NOT have anyone cry “NOOOoooooo!!!” and refrain from using slow motion at all costs.
- Your hero doesn’t have to die a tragic death, but someone does. In Star Wars that was Han Solo. In Avatar the role was foisted off on to a thousand minor Han Solos that no one cared about.
- Sometimes there are two heroes in a hero story, and the other one is actually the enemy. Think Hector or Dido. Comic book villans have exactly two dimensions: flat and thin. A real enemy is someone deserving your respect. If you want to make a movie that makes people cry cathartic tears, but you don’t want your hero to snuff it, make the enemy so good the audience cries when he dies.
- Try writing a real tragedy! Yeah, you heard me. A story where the good guy dies. We just may be ready for it.
- That means write a hero that deserves respect. Celebrities are accessible — we all think we can identify with them. Heroes are not accessible. They are great, awesome in the old sense of the word, that is, fearful. But we respect them. That is why they are heroes — not because they are “like us.”
If you follow these rules, and aren’t afraid to experiment, I guarantee you’ll have a generational, epic, once-in-a-lifetime hit.