When faced with a totalitarian government, institutionalized corruption or a plain ol’ supervillain, pop culture’s superheroes and revolutionaries are almost always reluctant, and it’s getting to be a rather predictable trope, even within the context of otherwise enjoyable franchises. I got to thinking about this odd trend when watching “The Hunger Games” movies on Showtime.
All the way through the first three movies of the four-film saga, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) resists the mantle of inspiring revolutionary figurehead that has been thrust upon her. The path to hero-dom has been laid out before her mostly through happenstance. Because her friend Rue gives her the Mockingjay pin in the first movie, she is willing to “be” the Mockingjay, the symbol of rebellion.
However, Katniss only wears that pin because Rue gave it to her, just as she only volunteered for the Hunger Games to save her sister. She is only hanging out with the rebellion because they pull her out of the Quarter Quell Hunger Games. Plutarch (Philip Seymour Hoffman) believes Katniss is the inspiring figurehead they’ve been waiting for, but the audience isn’t told why he feels this way. And indeed, Katniss herself doesn’t agree, and asks Plutarch to consider Peeta instead. Later, she tells President Snow that if he returns Peeta safe and sound, she’ll disappear. This is after Snow has bombed her home district into rubble! Obviously, in the final movie, “Mockingjay Part 2” – now in theaters – Katniss becomes a full-fledged rebel leader, but it’s remarkable how long she resisted that role.
Arguably, it would be more (or at least equally) interesting to dig into the stories of the people who did the grunt work of laying the foundation for the rebellion, such as Plutarch and President Coin (Julianne Moore). However, they are side characters.
Reluctant heroes are hardly a new thing. On a more intimate scale, Ripley’s arc in the “Alien” saga is similar to Katniss’: She becomes the central opponent to the evil Company through a series of random events, and she simply reacts to the situations she’s thrown into. Ripley happens to survive her first encounter with a xenomorph (“Alien”), she is impregnated by one against her will (“Alien 3”), and then she is cloned against her will (“Alien Resurrection”). The only self-determined thing she does is to kill herself (“Alien 3”) and thus prevent the Company from doing more harm with the xenomorphs. But she obviously resents this hero status that she never asked for.
Katniss and Ripley and Rambo are accidental “chosen ones” in the sense that outside forces drive their decisions. But more often, movie and TV heroes fit the archetype of someone who is selected by a higher spiritual or magical power. Sometimes they are literally called The Chosen One, as with Buffy Summers, or another capitalized title such as “The Boy Who Lived,” as Harry Potter is dubbed. Rather than having a path revealed for them step by step, as with Katniss, Chosen Ones have their entire path – or at least their role in life and a broad mission statement — laid out in front of them like train tracks receding into the distance: They are predestined to be a world-saving hero.
And they always resist their destiny. Originally wanting nothing more than to be a cheerleader and date cute boys, Buffy eventually accepts her Slayer status midway through the series and takes ownership of it. But even then, it’s clear she was chosen; she wasn’t the one doing the choosing. In a parallel yarn of reluctant heroism, Angel mopes around for a century after getting his soul back before Buffy’s example inspires him to likewise be a champion for good. (Arguably, Angel fits more into the “redeemed villain” archetype, but one could argue that Angel and the demon Angelus are different beings alternating possession of the same body. In that case, Angel himself – the vampire with a soul — fits the reluctant superhero mold.)
Harry Potter isn’t thrilled to be the Boy Who Lived, either. He eventually realizes that Voldemort has painted a target on his back, so he becomes the leader everyone told him he was going to be. But again, he is following a path laid out for him by higher powers.
“The Terminator” saga’s John Connor is the ultimate “chosen one” in that he has “already” led a resistance in the future. Like all chosen ones, he has to follow the path laid out for him. But it’s an especially well-lit path in his case, because people are waiting for someone named John Connor to lead them. His reputation precedes him, so unless he completely bungles things, he’ll be given every benefit of the doubt. Indeed, while Sarah Connor eventually gets around to training John to fight in “The Sarah Connor Chronicles,” her main concern is keeping him alive. As long as he lives to see the future, the resistance should fall into place.
Tris Prior (Shailene Woodley) of the “Divergent” series is also a chosen one, and again, her special status paints her with a target. Because she’s a Divergent – a free thinker whose skill set isn’t defined by a single faction – the futuristic communist government sees her as a threat. It’s not the case that Tris sees the injustices around her and decides to rebel; rather, she reacts to being specifically targeted.
(As with “The Hunger Games,” the young heroes of “Divergent” aren’t aware of political concepts other than the communist regime that makes up their whole world. As such, without any outside source of knowledge, it’s practically impossible that Tris could choose on her own to be a rebel. The third of the Big Three young adult dystopian books-turned-movie-franchises of the moment, “The Maze Runner,” likewise is set in an environment where self-determined revolution is almost impossible: The teens in that saga wake up in the middle of a maze with amnesia. Like the viewer, they don’t know who is ruling over them or what their motives are – at least not through the first movie in the series. The kids are reacting to their circumstances, not making big-picture choices.)
TV’s Supergirl has the most smoothly paved predestined path of any recent hero. Her cousin, Superman, has already made humanity comfortable with the idea of a good alien who serves as their guardian angel. As such, Supergirl has the support of the populace even before she makes her first heroic move. Nonetheless, until she is in her mid-20s (when the series begins), she is reluctant to embrace her destiny, as her parents and sister have instilled in her the notion that she’s better off living a safe and normal life.
Supergirl is proof that even characters who have a deep-seated (even genetic) desire to respond to a call to action still need a significant push or specific inspiration – Supergirl’s first heroic rescue is to save her sister from a plane crash.
Luke Skywalker likewise feels the tug of heroism, but he resists his inner nature for as long as he can. In a scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” that ended up on the cutting-room floor but still is crucial to Luke’s characterization (it can be found on the Bluray extras, plus in the novelization, the comic adaptation and the radio drama), Luke tells his best friend, Biggs, that he hates the Empire but he’s not going to take action against it. Deep down, he craves adventure, but when presented with the opportunity to join the Rebellion, he defaults to what has been passively drilled into him: His loyalty to his uncle and the farm. It’s not until his adoptive parents are murdered by the Empire that he joins the fight.
Han Solo likewise resists joining the Rebellion, as he thinks it’s suicide. He ultimately is inspired to rescue his friends, a parallel to Katniss Everdeen’s inspiration. Among the three “Star Wars” leads, Princess Leia is the only one who chooses to be a Rebel based on the broad principle of fighting for what’s right. But she has the shallowest character arc of “Star Wars’ ” major players. And she might not firmly fit the “self-made” mold anyway, as she was taught the ideals of liberty by her adoptive father; a case could be made that Bail Organa is the true self-styled revolutionary.
The title character of “V for Vendetta” is a self-made revolutionary, but – fitting with the trend – the story is not told from his perspective. Rather, the point-of-view character is Evey (Natalie Portman), who is trained — and even manipulated, to some degree — by V to be the key cog in the revolution. She is a component of his plan, not someone who becomes a revolutionary on her own.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE
Are there any exceptions to the rule that superheroes and revolutionaries must always be reluctant and guided by others? Yes, and a handful immediately come to mind.
Indiana Jones arguably isn’t a superhero or a revolutionary (in the purest interpretation of his character, he’s someone who wants important artifacts kept in museums rather than being used for selfish or evil purposes). But he does pit himself against evil forces by his own choice. He’s not even influenced by his father – as Princess Leia was – as we see that the elder Dr. Jones prefers journaling to adventuring.
“The X-Files’ “ Mulder – and by extension Scully, who is inspired to join his mission – falls into the gray area between “reluctant” and “self-made.” He’s a remarkably driven person who is obsessed with finding out what happened to his sister, who was seemingly abducted by aliens. But would Mulder have become a force against a sinister shadow government if not for his personal stake? Almost certainly not. And although the Cigarette-Smoking Man says he opts to not kill Mulder in order that one man’s quest not turn into a crusade (which paints Mulder as a revolutionary), that reasoning is thin, as the somewhat solitary Mulder doesn’t exactly have an army behind him. Also, while “The X-Files” is a grand tapestry when viewed in its entirety, the worldwide stakes are usually not apparent in a given episode, which tends to exist on a more intimate scale.
“Firefly’s” Malcolm Reynolds — and to a lesser extent, Zoe, who looks up to her captain — fits the mold of a self-made revolutionary leader better, although it takes the whole saga for a viewer to realize this. At first, it seems this trait is merely in their past: Mal and Zoe were military leaders for the rebelling Independents, but we see this only in the series’ introductory flashback. In the series proper, they just try to keep on flying outside the Alliance’s clutches. But then in the movie “Serenity,” they expose the Alliance’s botched science experiment on human beings and become full-fledged revolutionary heroes.
(Interestingly, “Firefly” also includes a classic example of a reluctant superhero in the form of River, a peaceful person who becomes a killing machine on the side of good only because of Alliance experiments. Totalitarian governments that push things too far and therefore bring about their own demise is a common thread in this genre. “Firefly” is a perfect example of the trope, as are the aforementioned Big Three young adult dystopian sagas.)
If Mal is a prime example of a self-made revolutionary leader, the purest example of a self-made superhero is Bruce Wayne, who makes the conscious decision to adopt the alter ego of Batman and clean up the corruption in Gotham. The TV series “Gotham” tells Bruce’s backstory in more detail than ever before, and it confirms that he is a self-determined individual, not someone who is chosen or who follows a predestined path or even a series of random events. Further driving home this point: Batman is a rare superhero who does not have any superpowers.
The murder of Bruce’s parents triggers the young teen to position himself as a force against the crime-ridden and corrupt city. Jim Gordon – also a self-made hero, and indeed, the series’ main character — is a good friend and role model, but Bruce isn’t actually following the noble detective’s example; despite the age difference, they connect as equals with common values. Bruce desires to use Jim as a tool to catch his parents’ killer, and beyond that, to fight crime and corruption in Gotham. Likewise, Alfred is a good role model, but Bruce asks Alfred to teach him how to fight rather than Alfred assigning lessons to his charge. Bruce also takes it upon himself to investigate shady dealings within his inherited company; Alfred initially resists him on this point.
Why are self-made heroes like Batman, Jim Gordon, Malcolm Reynolds and Indiana Jones so outnumbered by reluctant heroes who are guided by others? The cynical answer is that Hollywood – a culture that leans toward authoritarian politics – is generally not interested in promoting the ideals of self-determination and self-actualization, but rather the notion that a path to universal rightness and justice can be walked by a chosen representative of the collective.
But the actual reason is probably more practical: Showrunners and filmmakers want the audience to relate to the hero. It seems contradictory, but a superhero with down-to-earth traits is more relatable than a non-superhero with amazing traits.
In movies and TV shows about reluctant heroes, we can see ourselves as that reluctant hero. In the case of non-superpowered characters, we might have (or aspire to) a selfless quality like Katniss. But even superheroes work as metaphors: Like Luke or Tris or Buffy, we might have a trait that other people call upon to serve a broader purpose. We’re not a Jedi or a Divergent or a Slayer, but we might have a skill set valued by our employer. Reluctant heroes always have relatable wants and needs, even if they have ridiculous superpowers.
But self-determined heroes truly are special and larger than life – Big Damn Heroes, as “Firefly’s” Mal describes himself and his crew. There are real-world examples that come close, but they are few and far between. Such characters can be entertaining and fascinating, but we more often marvel at them than relate to them. As we sit in the theater or in front of our TV, we want someone to tell us we’ve been specially chosen to follow a path rather than to make choices for ourselves that might be risky. That’s not because of Hollywood influence, it’s because of human nature.