The New Archetypes Part 1

Harry Callahan, played by Clint Eastwood
Image via Wikipedia

Archetypes in the movies is certainly nothing new.  It’s almost impossible to discuss Star Wars (OT obviously) without talking about heroic archetypes and heroes’ journeys.  Many of those archetypes are so ancient that they are as old as storytelling itself.  Movies aren’t ancient but they seem to have had quite an effect on storytelling in barely over a century.  That effect is big enough that some characters seem to be becoming archetypes peculiar to the modern age.  Since this is the sort of stuff that fascinates me I guess you’re stuck reading it.  I have five in mind off the top of my head but I think I might find more as I ponder a bit.  Hopefully the comment sections will yield some I haven’t thought of.  Let’s start with…

The Rogue Cop.  This one is modern in part because the idea of a police force as we think of it is modern.  Not that much older than movies really.  Cops make good Hero archetypes naturally.  They’re good guys who stop bad guys.  They take oaths and carry shields.  Knight of the Round Table type stuff.

Then came Dirty Harry.  We love that guy.  Why?  There aren’t many reasonable people, including real life cops, who think a man like Harry Callahan should be walking free, let alone armed and carrying a badge.  Yet there aren’t many people, including real life cops, who don’t root for Harry.  He shoots people down rather than arrest them and apparently gets every partner he has killed as well.  Still, most people think of him as the good guy.  There has to be something there that we like or identify with.

I think it’s just the fact that he will always do what he thinks is right.  We all wish we were so confident about what to do that we can just go ahead and do it.  It doesn’t seem to matter that Callahan’s code isn’t legal and under the cold light of reason not particularly moral.  What matters is that it’s not relative.  Dirty Harry knows what has to be done and he’s the one to do it.  If you go against the code you go down.  Zero ambiguity.  Zero guilt.

I can’t really think of an ancient story Archetype that really fits the Rogue Cop.  Arthur’s knights were expected to follow the chivalric code at all times.  A knight that followed some made up code of his own just wasn’t a good guy.  Much of this is modern because of modern social structures of course.  Not just the idea of law enforcement but the idea of civil rights.  We tend to believe in civil rights but we can’t help but be pissed off when those rights protect those we know are bad guys.

So is Inspector Callahan and the Rogue Cop a true Archetype?  Well, what was the last movie you saw where a cop interviewed witnesses, filled out paperwork, got a warrant, gathered evidence, made an arrest (not by himself but with a squad of patrolmen), booked his man, filled out more paperwork, testified in a court of law, and then clocked out and went home?  How many people did Martin Riggs arrest compared to how many people he shot or just broke their necks with his bare hands?  I haven’t seen the last Die Hard movie but in the first three the only thing John Mclane does that even remotely resembles police work is flash his badge and say ‘I’m a cop’.  

The funny thing is real police makes pretty good story.  My wife is a True Crime addict and she got me hooked on The First 48, a show on A&E that follows real homicide detectives on real cases.  Fascinating stuff and real human drama but it takes the fantasy of movies to achieve the archetypal status and Dirty Harry is the gold standard.  

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Know Thyself

Recently, a person in my writing group lent me Dorothea Brande’s classic guidebook, Becoming a Writer. First published in 1934, this book is packed with solid advice for anyone wishing to become a novelist. One insightful gem is the idea that, if you want to write great stories dealing with life’s “big ideas”, you must first understand your own philosophical convictions.

For example, in her chapter entitled “The Source of Originality,” Brande writes: “If you can discover what you are like, if you can discover what you truly believe about most of the major matters of life, you will be able to write a story which is honest and original and unique. But those are large ‘ifs,’ and it takes hard digging to get at the roots of one’s own convictions.”

She elaborates on this idea further by suggesting that writers ask themselves a series of questions. Brande contends that an “author’s conviction underlies all imaginative representation…Since this is so, it behooves you to know what you do believe of most of the major problems which you are going to use in your writing….Here are a few questions for self-examination which may suggest others to you. It is by no means an exhaustive questionnaire, but by following down the other inquiries which occur to you as you consider these, you can come by a very fair idea of your working philosophy.

Do you believe in a God? Under what aspect? (Hardy’s ‘President of the Immortals’ or Wells’ ‘emerging God?’)

Do you believe in free will or are you a determinist? (Although the artist-determinist is such a walking paradox that imagination staggers at the notion.)

Do you like men? Women? Children?

What do you think of marriage?

Do you consider romantic love a delusion and a snare?

Do you think the comment “It will all be the same in a hundred years” is profound, shallow, true or false?

What is the greatest happiness you can imagine? The greatest disaster?”

Brande then goes on to note, “If you find you are balking at definite answers to the great questions, then you are not ready to write fiction which involves major issues. You must find subjects on which you are capable of making up your mind, to serve as the groundwork of your writing. The best books emerge from the strongest convictions—and for confirmation see any bookshelf.”

In school, we are taught to “write about what we know,” and this same principle applies not only to the surface details of a story, but also to the philosophical convictions which drive our characters and plots. For it is the honest portrayal of these convictions that often makes a story both meaningful and memorable.

Hulk: It’s Not Easy Being Green

Hulk (comics)

Image via Wikipedia

This is the third in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at The Hulk, a brutish misfit with near limitless strength.

The Hero

Bruce Banner, scientist, exploring the mysteries of gamma radiation is caught in a blast while saving the life of a foolish kid who wandered into the test area. Instead of dying, the blast transforms him. Normally a genius of no great physical strength, when he becomes angry a startling metamorphosis occurs. Banner transforms into a green, shirt (but not pants) splitting  monster with phenominal strength and endurance. The Hulk is one of the strongest beings on the planet, and woe be to anyone that crosses his path. Scared of hurting someone he loves, and often hunted by the government and other groups, Banner now walks the earth looking for a way to quell the raging beast that dwells within him.  More or less, anyway.

Why we love him

The Hulk is our inner demon. The one we often wish to loose on the world, but are forever struggling to keep bottled up.

Inside all of us is an anger, a devil, that we often wish to set free. It may be a brief rage at someone who cuts you off in traffic, or a deeper anger at an injustice that hit you or your family. You clench your fists, you grind your teeth, you glare, but you keep it under control… barely. You know it would feel good in the short term to unleash, but in the long term the damage would be too great. Watching the Hulk, we vicariously get to watch someone who has no way to stop his demon take it out in ways we wish we could.

When we unleash our fury, we want to believe nobody could stand in our way. We would triumph in our own furious quest. For the Hulk, this is basically true. The madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets. He will tear apart buildings, uproot trees, and bring down mountains if necessary to destroy the object of his anger. The Hulk may be nearly mindless, but he will never be thwarted in his quest. He is nearly a force of Nature, and able to exact his revenge as we always wished we could.

As A Character

The Incredible Hulk

Image by Darrren Hester via Flickr

Though not as complex as may superheroes, the Hulk’s focus is what makes him great. He is our raging, unfettered Id turned loose in the way we both wish for and fear. Hulk does what we cannot, and pays the price for it. We hope Banner finds his peace, yet delight every time picks up another boulder to hurl. Even the gentlest of us have wanted to unleash like the Hulk at times because, as he so eloquently puts it, “Hulk Smash!”

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Spider-Man: The Amazing Arachnerd



Spider-Man shooting his web from the web shooters.

Image via Wikipedia

This is the third in my series taking about superhero characters. In my kickoff post I explained how in some ways they are the modern Gods – created in our image to put into stories to help us understand ourselves better. This time I’m looking at Spider-Man, the wall clinging misfit who has bigger struggles outside his mask than inside it.


The Hero

Young, unpopular, picked-on science student Peter Parker is bitten by a radioactive spider while on a field-trip. He discovers he has gained incredible strength, lightning reflexes, and the power to climb walls. He basically does whatever a spider can. He even builds web-shooters so he can spin a web, any size. Hiding under a mask, he enters a local wrestling show where he easily wins the cash prize. Cocky and no longer wanting to be pushed around, he doesn’t intervene when a robber rushes past him. The robber then kills Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, the man who raised him. Stricken with grief, Peter vows to use his power to help people and dons the mask of Spider-Man.

Why we love him

Spider-Man is every geeky, awkward student who struggled to fit in and pay his bills, forever knowing he had something more amazing and wonderful inside him than anyone realized.

Peter Parker is a great character apart from his powers. He is brilliant, designing web shooters (in the comics, anyway) that fill in a missing power, and working with some leading scientists and researchers (even thought they have an odd habit of turning into Spider-Man’s enemies). He is also a talented photographer, selling pictures to one of the largest newspapers in New York. Count the number of pages where you see Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent versus their spandex alter-egos, then compare it to how often you see Peter Parker. He is an honest, interesting character by himself and as a result can get more page time than Spider-Man.

Going further, Spider-Man’s powers are almost irrelevant to what makes him such a compelling character. There are no spider traits that infuse his personality. It’s not his ability to stick to walls that makes him special, it’s that he has an incredible secret and it’s hard for him to handle. If he could fly or shoot fire out of his eyes, he would still be the quiet nerd, never quite winning the battle but always struggling.

As A Character

Spider-Man Loved by Katie Grace

Image by Travis Seitler via Flickr

Spider-Man is every kid who felt out of place or picked on in school, but knew deep inside that he was something better than everyone else suspected. Which is probably almost every kid at one time or another. It is this combination of awkwardness and amazing that Sam Raimi captured so well in his movie. Spider-Man broke open superhero movies to the mainstream exactly because it focused on the character, and made Peter so personable, so human.

In some ways Peter Parker was every comic book loving fanboy as they were growing up – quasi-loners peeking into this amazing world of heroes and battles that they couldn’t share with others. It gave those young nerds a connection that they we shared this inner struggle and self-doubt, and that it was only a chance encounter with a radioactive arachnid that separated them from their friendly, neighborhood Spider-Man.

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3:10 to Yuma– Weapons as Character

I love Westerns and I don’t trust people that don’t.  3:10 to Yuma (the 2007 version) is one of my favorites for a bunch of reasons.  Great performances, gorgeous cimematography, lotsa shoot outs, and a nice tight pace.  The tight pace is accomplished partly by keeping exposition short and simple.  Get him on the train, get paid, save the farm.  It’s also smart enough to use genre convention to save time.  We’ve all seen enough evil ranchers, poor farmers, suave outlaws, and ruthless pinkertons to know where we stand. 

Yet the characters all feel real.  What struck me about this movie (and stikes me everytime I watch it) is how smart the weapons choices were.  I’m a gun enthusiast (some say gun-nut) and would guess that a lot of Western fans are as well.  In this one not only are the guns and gear correct for the period, they serve as a shorthand for the characters.

The Whip:  Okay it’s not a gun and some might (foolishly) not consider it a weapon but Ben Wade has a coiled whip on his saddle.  He doesn’t use it, doesn’t even touch it I don’t think.  So why is it there?  It’s a long bullwhip with a bone handle, a stockman’s whip and a working tool.  Wade hardly seems like the type to move cattle or drive freight.  A whip is supple, has a long reach, a wicked lash, and despite being kind of cool to look at, relies on cruelty for effectiveness.  Kind of like Ben Wade.

The Old Soldiers:  It’s mentioned early that Dan Evans fought in the Civil War.  Later he’s asked North or South but we can already guess.  The gun he uses most is a Spencer Carbine, a Union weapon and a cutting edge design in the War but at the time of our story most folks would rather have a Winchester.  His pistol is an open top Colt, an 1851 Navy with the cartridge conversion.  Servicable but again old fashioned.  In Dan’s house we even an old musket, probably a Springfield rifle-musket already a relic in the movie’s time frame.  It could be that Dan doesn’t care about fads or newfangled guns when the ones he has work fine.  It could be he’s just too damn poor to afford a new rifle.  But it could also be that he’s stuck in the War, can’t let go or get over what happened to him. 

The Hand of God:  Ben Wade’s pistol is a Colt Single Action Army.  Hundreds of thousands were made and carried and indeed it’s still made today.  It’s a fine weapon but it was by no means the only pistol in the West yet it’s the iconic ‘Old West Gun’ today and that’s it’s place in the movie.  There’s plenty of SAA’s in the film but Wade’s is special.  It’s decorated with a crucifix, has a name (Hand of God), and according to Wade is cursed.  He wears it in a holster that’s damn close to a modern quick-draw rig.  All gunman’s affectations that are largely the stuff of fiction.  There’s no doubt that there are two Wades.  The real man and the image he’s had a large hand in crafting.

‘Not the Prince of Cats’:  We’ll leave for now the question of whether Ben Foster as Charlie Prince stole the movie (hint: he did) and just focus on his gear.  Physically it’s the only thing to focus on.  With his leather jacket and leather chaps he just looks like one big holster.  It’s all about his pistols.  Smith & Wesson Schofields worn butt forward.  For the period the Schofield would be just about the pinnacle of handgun technology.  The big selling point then was it’s quick reloading capability which Prince shows off in the film.  Charlie Prince obviously loves his pistols and loves to use them.  Were Charlie Prince in a modern setting he would never own a Glock.  Sure it shoots bullets but where’s the style?  Where’s the love of using the finest tool money can buy (to kill someone)?  There’s no question Charlie is using his guns to compensate for something.  But does that make him less dangerous or more?

The Scepter of Power:  The shotgun in the movie is a brutal looking coach gun (I didn’t recognize the make but research says it’s a Colt 1873).  It doesn’t really add to anbody’s character but I noticed that whoever had the gun seemed to be in charge of the group.  First McElroy, the Pinkerton, then Wade, then Evans.  I don’t know if that was on purpose or if it’s just the natural authority of a sawed off shotgun.

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