The New Archetypes: Part 3

When Lego Ninja Attack...
Image by Neil Crosby via Flickr

Last time I talked about the Nobody.  Everybody has felt like a Nobody at some point which makes the Nobody a sort of everyman.  If you can’t root for him at least you can identify with him.  Before that was the Rogue Cop.  This guy (it’s almost always a guy) plays by his own rules but we know he’s the good guy.  But what if our good guy doesn’t do good things?  What if he’s a bad guy?  How can he still be the hero?  Why do we root for the modern Archetype of The Assassin?

Murder is by and large a bad thing, even in the violent make believe world of movies.  We the audience can’t seem to get enough killing though and the storytellers are always happy to oblige.  But that whole morality thing keeps popping up.  Even if it’s fiction some of us might feel guilty for cheering on killers.  Some of us might feel guilty enough to digitally alter (and not very well, I might add) a decades old iconic scene to make a cantina shooting look like self-defense.  So how do we make it okay for the hero to murder people in cold blood?  Simple.  We pay him lots and lots of money.  For some reason we love movies about assassins.  The ProfessionalAssassins, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Grosse Pointe Blank, WantedLa Femme Nikita/Point of No Return…that’s just off the top of my head but the list is pretty long.  So what is it about the Assassin?

Well for starters he’s cool.  I don’t know anything about the real world of assassins.  I don’t know if they’re cool or not but in the movies they’re cool.  They wear cool clothes and use cool weapons.  They have cool training sequences perhaps in a cool facility or in some secret ninja stronghold in the mountains.  They have cool moves for every situation; getting into and out of buildings, finding their targets and evading detection.  They remain cool under all kinds of pressure whether they’re being shot at or laying in wait for their targets.  Just laying in wait has to be cool.  You can’t just sit on a lawn chair with a deer rifle; you have to hang on to the chassis of a car or climb headfirst down a rope or…whatever.  Call it the Batman factor:  if you look cool enough it doesn’t matter how insane your actions are.

There has to be more to it though and I think there is.  It’s not just cool moves that are attractive but the power and freedom.  The Assassin strikes at will and without hesitation.  He has the power of life and death.  He’s free from moral judgement, at least from himself, because he’s only doing his job.  A plumber doesn’t feel guilty about snaking a drain.  Despite the fact these people are ending lives most of us wish we could operate so surely and powerfully.  We live by countless rules every waking moment and being free of those rules is a strong fantasy.  Of course there’s a price to pay and that’s humanity.

Humanity is the other side of the coin for the Assassin.  Most of these characters have either been stripped of their humanity through training or lost their connection to humanity from years of killing.  It’s the lack of morality and humanity that give the Assassin storytelling legs.  The assassin story is usually a redemption story.  Perhaps the Assassin never wanted the life he was in and has to find a way out (Point of No Return).  Perhaps there is an unexpected connection that makes the Assassin want to be human again (The Professional).  Sometimes the Assassin sees the effect he has on the rest of humanity and wants to make things right (The Killer).  Whatever the case the Assassin is usually trying to regain his lost humanity and we root for him to make it.  If a paid killer can find redemption than so can the rest of us.   

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About Eric Bahle

Eric Bahle stopped going to his real job so he could be a full time digital author and storyteller. He loves being in the woods with his bow or on the water in his kayak. He lives in Pennsylvania with his lovely wife and a mongrel dog. He is working on his next bestselling story.

Comments

  1. Nice post.
    I’m a big fan of assassin movies, and you hit on a lot of the through-lines.

    Another very common thread in these kinds of movies is that the hero must eventually die. I think it appeases that part of us that we’ve been trying to shut up the whole time. That part of our conscious that says, “uh… but wait, this is like, wrong… right?”
    And in a very ancient eye-for-an-eye sense, the only logical ending for an assassin is to be killed. It’s usually noble, but he must pay for his crimes.
    In Usual Suspects, Kaiser has no remorse, and therefore has no need to absolve himself, so he may continue to walk the earth. But in Man on Fire and The Professional – these men have had a reckoning and as you say “want to be human again” … but sadly, they cannot.

    Granted, it’s not a 100% rule, but it’s pretty common and I find it fascinating.

    Keep on rocking the free world, J.

    • krystoferJames says:

      (and my coworker “J” was talking to me as i signed off, so… “J”= Eric)
      yikes.

  2. Eric Bahle says:

    You’re quite right and I think the Assassin’s death as part of his redemption is a sort of account settling ritual. Man on Fire was especially good because it was a revenge story for a long second act and then suddenly becomes a redemtion story. Thanks for the kind words and thanks for reading.

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