I’m on vacation this week. In addition to my beach reading, I’m doing a little beach writing. I’ve had some posts swirling around in my head that I’ll finally have some time to put down. I should warn you, some of these might get a little geeky. Take today’s for instance…
I’m a huge fan of comic book movies, in particular, I’m a fan of what Marvel has done with the properties for which they own the movie rights. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, MCU to us geeks, has been a sprawling accomplishment that includes thirteen films over seven years. I knew when I first saw Iron Man in ’08 that this was the beginning of something special, but I didn’t imagine that what Marvel has done could be pulled off so successfully. I wasn’t a huge comic book reader growing up, but I knew the characters and I was excited to see them on a big screen. Since the first film we have seen an epic storyline unfold that has crossed decades and galaxies. My inner 12 year old has been thoroughly entertained.
I haven’t seen Ant-Man yet. I’m hoping that’s a piece of business I can take care of on vacation. Word of mouth has been strong, but one critique has emerged that got my wheels turning. Ant-Man’s protagonist in the film is Yellowjacket, a villain who more or less has the same technology as Ant-Man’s with very similar abilities. In the comics, Yellowjacket is the original Ant Man, Hank Pym, in an anti-hero kind of role where he gets to be his full douchebag self so there were bound to be some similarities. The criticism, though, is that this is what Marvel does with their villains; they create a bad guy who is essentially the same as the hero only with “haters gonna hate” motives.
I gave this some thought and a quick run down the roster shows that this is indeed a well that Marvel has returned to once or twice: Iron Man had Iron Monger who was just a larger Iron Man suit with less likable billionaire at the helm, Tony Stark has had to go up against several other arrogant industrialists, Hulk had Abomination, Captain America has had Red Skull and Winter Soldier who were both his equals with the later even sharing his upbringing, Thor and Loki aren’t similar in terms of powers, but their brotherly dynamic creates a mirroring effect. Ultron was Tony Starks’ ego put into a machine.
Just a brief look outside of the MCU and we see that Marvel has done this with others of their characters: Wolverine and Sabretooth are practically the same guy, Venom is the best Spiderman villain because he’s Spiderman on steroids (also Spiderman’s main villain being Dr. Octopus gives you that “things with eight legs” dynamic), Magneto is the mirror image of Professor Xavier both in terms of philosophy and powers. One controls the physical world (metal and electricity) the other the psychic world.
The critique seems to be that this is lazy storytelling. I don’t think so. I think what we’re seeing are re-workings of Joseph Campbell’s classic hero’s journey structure. In The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Campbell speaks of heroes having to go through their “inmost cave”. It’s where they face their doubts and fears. It’s also where they may be shown their destiny if they are unwilling to embrace their heroic identity.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke’s inmost cave is an actual cave. In it, he fights a version of Darth Vader, defeats it only to find that his own face is behind the mask. This point is echoed in Return of the Jedi when Luke looks at his own robotic hand after cutting off Vader’s realizing that he is heading down the same dark path as his father. What ultimately makes Luke a redemptive character is that he is Anakin Skywalker, but at the critical juncture, chose to make a different decision. Vader is Luke’s dark reflection. Incidentally, this is another place where the Star Wars prequels failed. Anakin’s journey should have more closely followed Luke’s, only with Anakin making the “wrong” choice at his moment of truth. This is sort of what happens at the beginning of Revenge of the Sith when Anakin kills Dooku, but it is way underplayed for a moment that should have had great significance. Anyway…
What makes hero stories compelling is that they bring internal battles into the external world. While we may each have battles with things that are “other” or foreign, the daily battle we all face is with the dark version of ourselves, the version that goes after ego, greed, power, and selfish ambitions. We often side with the villain in movies because we imagine there is a freedom in getting to make selfish decisions on a regular basis. There is a seductive aspect to it. What Marvel has done is to make the hero’s path the attractive one. The MCU seems more interested in examining the internal mechanisms of the good guys’ hearts and minds than creating sympathy for a villain’s motives. Marvel has sacrificed complex villains for complex heroes and easily accessible villains. In an adult world where the struggle to make wise, compassionate decisions is constantly before us, I appreciate the reminder that the hero’ path is the more compelling journey.