Of Anti-heroes and Pop Culture

Vacation--such as it was, given that we were fanatically busy with my sister-in-law's wedding--is now over, and I'm trying to take a few days off before I start work again. I've been doing a lot of WILFing on the net lately (What was ILooking For?) and came across a remarkable little piece called Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. It put me on to a line of thought that I felt I should share: I think this innovative little video start up tells us about a pretty major shift in our culture.

By the time you read this, you probably won't be able to see it any more (except for illegal versions on YouTube, I'm sure), so I'd better describe it a little. Joss Whedon--he of Firefly, Buffy the Vampire-Slayer, Veronica Mars and Serenity fame--worked on this little project during the Hollywood Writer's strike. It's a little set of 3 videos (about 13 minutes each, if I remember correctly) that follows a sympathetic evil-genius wannabe Dr. Horrible (acted wonderfully by Neil Patrick Harris) chase the woman he loves (Felicia Day) and face off against nauseatingly self-satisfied hero The Hammer (Nathan Fillion). It's obviously done on a budget, and it's not the very best thing I've ever seen, but it's fun and a pretty high-quality production considering that it's been released first and foremost on the internet. (You can read more about the production in the article I originally heard about it in.)

There's any number of reasons we could talk about this. One of the biggest is the attempt to create a new revenue model for material with high-quality production values. They're releasing it free online for only five days to drum up interest, and then selling it for download on iTunes, and later in a DVD version. Personally, I'm not sure that's going to work super-well for something so short form, but what do I know? It's interesting, anyway. I also think it's interesting to see what kinds of people and productions try to make it on the internet rather than trying to go mainstream on TV (even the 500-channel cable TV universe). I believe (and I'm not alone in this) that the internet is going to give rise to a greater diversity of cultural forms than TV and cinema ever did.

But what I found so interesting about this production was not how it was original, but how it was predictable and formulaic: namely, its storyline. Melodrama is an old cultural form that features larger-than-life characters and simplistic stories that are heavy on emotion. If you have ever seen those little silent-film goofy clips with the woman tied to the train-tracks as the train approaches, you've seen the uber-melodrama. But toned down, that pretty much describes the vast majority of our TV shows, films, books and so on. Think Titanic as a classic example. Good, beautiful, poor boy meets sad, lovely, chained bourgeois girl. Evil upper-class slick-haired fiancé tries to stop their love, but it triumphs in spite of much wetness and ice cubes. Or more recently, Iron Man. Reformed playboy in tin can with a repressed romance tries to fix a misguided weapons conglomerate but is opposed by an evil corporate master in a larger tin can. Even if you haven't seen it, I think you can guess how it ends. In fact, comic-book hero stories are almost exclusively melodramas (the intriguing-looking Dark Knight might just be a break with this). But all kinds of shows draw on melodramatic formulas, even supposedly-dull historical documentaries.

Dr. Horrible is very much a melodrama. There's a hero, a girl, and a villain, lots of simplistic, over-the-top action, and plenty of romantic emotion. The thing is, the hero of the story is a villain bent on world domination, and the bad guy is a man who's supposed to be a superhero. Dr. Horrible, we quickly learn, is a nice guy who just happens to be in a bad profession. Likewise, The Hammer is, by public reputation and profession, supposed to be a fantastic person, but is instead a preening, self-involved jerk who takes blithely takes credit for success he's not really responsible for. Now I'm not highlighting this reverse-hero structure because I think it's new and surprising. Rather, I'm paying attention to it precisely because it is so common nowadays. It's notable because it's so heavily used. The story effortlessly hooks us into what is by now a well-known pattern.

So it's a cliché. So what? Well, where there are pop culture clichés, there lies an opportunity to learn something about our culture. When I was an undergrad, I was taught that if a lot of people watch a certain kind of story, they probably like it in some way. And if they like it, we can look at those stories and get a sense of what it is they think is important, what they value, and what they think of the world. Four years of graduate school almost cured me of that thinking. The counter-point is that we have to be careful when we analyze TV shows and books and stuff, because what we think people value in those stories may not be what they actually value. This is a good and valuable caution. That having been said, though, if a specific theme starts showing up in enough places, surely it tell us something.

And the anti-hero hero is all over the place nowadays. Oh sure, you could find conflicted heroes and humanized villains long ago. Try the somewhat sympathetic Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Or the it-takes-a-long-time-to-do-the-right-thing Rick in Casablanca. But we've got a flood of people in our pop stories who are all mixed up. Take Dr. House in the popular TV series titled after him. He's clearly the hero of the piece, but he's an unbelievable jerk. Not just lovably cranky, understand: lying, manipulative, cruel, and completely unethical. There is no good personality trait that is not accompanied by some vice. It works the other way too. Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers series is funny largely because he's such a softie--just like Dr. Horrible. We love heroes that are flawed and villains that are complex. You didn't see that in E.T., The A-Team or MacGyver, to name a few hits from my childhood. And of course, there are plenty of films and shows that still employ ye olde black-and-white characterizations. But the mixed good-and-evil personality is really popular right now.

And what does that tell us? Let me just stick with one point. I'm not the only one to note this (I just don't have any particular statements in mind to link to--if I find some or think of some, I'll update here) but it seems our culture does not like simple idealism. In a networked world full of millions of voices, we are now exposed to too many perspectives to easily allow us to paint the world in simple tones. The whole "we are good, you are bad" narrative that underlies so many groups and cultures doesn't fly very well today.  (Ever wonder why today's demon is fundamentalism?) We see too many arguments that point out everyone's flaws. But we still hope for good and idealism--and see enough examples of it to keep on hoping.

For the Christian community, which is very much a part of this pop culture and swims deeply in it in any case, this represents both threat and opportunity. The threat is the very easy move from "we're all flawed" to "your truth isn't any better or worse than mine." Relativism, in other words. The problems of that are worth discussing some other time. The opportunity lies in the fact that Christians, of all people, have realized all along that there's no such thing as a perfect human hero. We had one, and He was the rock upon which the kingdom of God is built. The rest of us have fallen short. The kingdom is often built less because of our efforts than in spite of them. While the Church has often forgotten this message, it's always been there for anyone to see or hear. The trick now is for us to hook that eternal point into the culture of our day.

Last updated Jul. 22nd, 2008 at 2:17pm by Jared Crossley