We love to hate bad guys. Some more than others. Especially Nazis. Very likely Nazis are the most-used standby bad guys. They feature prominently in nonfiction and fiction fields: from political rhetoric comparisons and Christian social-action documentaries, to action-hero movie plots and spy-thriller novels. Meanwhile, it seems stories about other villains like to attempt being more clever than that, by making the enemy Someone You Didn’t Expect:
- In X-Men: First Class, apparently, it’s not the Russians or the Americans in the Bay of Pigs (Cuba) standoff who are the bad guys. Russians really, really wish they were not involved. So Communists aren’t bad guys. Bad mutants are the real bad guys.
- For many movie versions of legends or books, authors or scriptwriters like to season the original meals with popular flavors of political correctness. Ergo, Arab terrorists originally featured in the Tom Clancy thriller The Sum of All Fears got changed into (guess who!) neo-Nazis, for the 2002 film version. Similarly, in the BBC series Robin Hood, Muslims want peace in the Holy Land just as much as Robin Hood does; it’s the Crusaders, the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Prince John, who are the real enemies.
- In How to Train Your Dragon, as mentioned last week, the dragons aren’t the bad guys. (Spoiler.) A huge kingpin dragon is. So love the little dragons. Kill the big one.
I’m not calling for everything to be predictable. Some readers do seem to prefer stories that way: give me good guys and bad guys, with easy differences, and don’t let’s have any of this messy “gray area” stuff. Scripture won’t permit that, not because we are all “neutral,” but because we all have mixed motives in varying degrees, good and evil.
Instead, a lot of these bait-and-switch strategies themselves miss the chief of all villains, and one of the most rarely used surprise,-here’s-the-real-enemy plot twists. In effect they claim the worst enemy may be an external person, place, or Thing, but never the human heart.
- “You’re a good person, Harry,” assures Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (the film), before adding that bad things have happened to Harry (which the series later actually proves untrue, because Harry does have evil within him).
- “Look inside yourself, Simba,” intones Mufasa in the clouds, from The Lion King. “You are more than what you have become.” Ultimately that is all Mufasa can offer, despite Simba’s yearnings to receive help from his departed father: my son, you don’t need me; you already have what you need inside yourself.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader film (2010), the story swerves wildly off-course from the original book’s emphasis on a quest that is partly to find seven lost men, but mainly “not to seek things useful, but to seek honor and adventure,” according to the knight-mouse Reepicheep. And seeking Aslan’s Country, the mythical paradise beyond the world’s end, is worth all battles, quests, and dying, the noble mouse adds. In response, the movie director said he thought the book gave “no real reason for the journey,” and the film swapped longing for Aslan’s Country for self-esteem nonsense and only fighting External places and enemies — namely, an Evil Green Mist™. That’s not only rejecting the book; it’s just a lame story.
All these are from movies. Perhaps movies do this more than books, which have more time to develop characters and themes, complex ones, that more closely match reality. But the “you basically good, all enemies External” theme is easier to package and present in a movie.
But I cite these examples not to pick on these stories or to say they are all corrupted. I only need to prove this theme recurs too often. It’s constant. No matter who the enemy is, he’s always an evil far greater than the wickedness you have inside you. No surprises, no clever twists of the trope — the external enemy cliché rarely varies.
This is a reflection of people’s nonfiction worldview. Do they believe man is basically good or “neutral,” or basically evil? If good/neutral, then a story’s enemy is only External. If bad, then (so the logic goes) we can’t identify with a hero. Why? Because we’re basically good.
For internal use only
These assumptions make for uniform stories and themes, without challenge, creativity or honest reflection on human nature. This could be done even by those who aren’t Christians, and even in stories that aren’t that good. After all, even the much-maligned movie Spider-Man 3 (2007) did this by showing the effects of an evil alien black ooze on the otherwise wholesome Peter Parker. The parasitic ooze did not impute evil onto Peter. It only amplified or magnified whatever the host already had. (A similar concept was in Green Lantern.)
If you prefer examples from more-loved stories, this may be why The Dark Knight and other “gritty” stories have gained popularity (and unfortunately also imitators that copy the whats without the whys). But whether “gritty” or not, the best stories match or complement the external conflict or enemy with the hero’s inner battle. Consciously or not, they dare to refute the usual “you’re a good person” lines and explore who we really are: humans, with good and bad desires, who — in the best stories — ultimately do make right choices.
So I don’t believe assumptions that only complex stories can handle this, or that if we show human nature as a mixture of good and evil impulses, we can’t identify with a hero. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, we know that we feel contrasting desires; even non-Christians can admit this. Thus we find the best stories also illustrate this struggle. Some even do this while chirping out the usual “follow your dreams” and “look within yourself” mantras — in those stories, what we’re told is not what we see! So the dialogue might as well go ahead and match what’s clear to everyone else: Hero X is not basically good deep inside. He’s a human.
The rebel flesh
What about for Christians? Scripture gives us even more reasons to suspect human nature.
Yes, we do read about two other sets of villains in Scripture — the Devil (Genesis 2, Job, and the New Testament) and his spiritual forces whom we fight (Ephesians 6), and the world (that is, our present evil age; such as in James 4:4). But the Bible’s overall emphasis is on fallen human nature. In Genesis 2, the serpent is not even named as the Devil — we guess that from later references. Scripture’s epic story begins with the enemy being, not Something Else, but ourselves. Later we are also told that Christ came to destroy the works of the Devil (1 John 3:8), just as His death accomplished many other goals. Yet the overwhelming thrust of Scripture’s story and theology is that He died to resurrect people from spiritual death — the otherwise inevitable state of our rebel human flesh (Ephesians 1-2). He saved us, not just from the Devil and his demons, or our world’s evil present age, but from ourselves.
How might our stories reflect this concept? Do they now? Next week: A savior isn’t enough.