Writer David Brin has an interesting article on Locus Online about “why films and novels routinely depict society and its citizens as fools.” He points out how a lot of stories pit the main character against society, often unrealistically. Yet we, the collective audience, who make up that society in the real world, are meant to empathize with the hero, not the dumb society. After all, who doesn’t go around thinking in his head that his own life philosophy is the objectively best one? No one goes around thinking he’s morally wrong in his philosophical beliefs, at least not while keeping sane. So it’s easy to naturally vilify the rest of the dumb world that just doesn’t (or refuses to) see and understand all the obvious truths you see so clearly.
Of course, there are plenty of stories in which worldly rejection is established as a character flaw to be overcome. For example, in the animated film Shrek, our ogre hero says something like: “It’s the world that seems to have a problem with me! They take one look at me and say, ‘Ah! Help! Run! A big stupid ugly ogre!’ They judge me before they even know me.” Or Jean Valjean of the Les Misérables musical and recent film, who sings: “For I had come to hate the world, this world that always hated me.” The point of this sort of conflict isn’t so much that the rest of society is truly evil and stupid, but that the main character’s attitude toward the world needs to change, regardless of whatever the world did to help instill that attitude.
What caught my attention in Brin’s article was what he mentions of the Spider-Man films:
One of my favorite recent exceptions is the series of four Spiderman flicks. None of them are highbrow or classy. But despite their clichéd fluffiness, there appears to be a little-noticed tradition. In all of the first three films, Spiderman repeatedly saves New Yorkers from harm. But there is always a moment of brief role-reversal… when normal people, regular New Yorkers, step up and save Spiderman. Indeed, when I watched the recent fourth one – the reboot – I had to start by quashing sadness over Hollywood’s craven inability to ever try anything new. Still, there came a moment, near the end, when – once again and with style — citizens stood up again for their hero. And I felt a thrill.
I felt proud.
How do such unpoisonous moments manage to sneak in, despite the driving needs of jeopardy pacing?
A moment like this came in a 2009 animated film I recently watched called Summer Wars. Near the end, one of the main characters finds herself unable to defeat a villain because her virtual account has run out of resources. She’s at a brick wall. Who should come to her rescue but countless other online players, willing to give her their accounts so that she can defeat the villain. (And the better the accompanying film music, the more this moment can be milked for its dramatic power. Summer Wars features a heavenly choir swelling at this moment.)
Or there’s the more quotable moment in the 1960 epic Kubrick film Spartacus. Wanted by the authorities, a soldier asks a defeated group of slaves which one of them is Spartacus. He must be crucified for his crime of a leading a slave rebellion. All the slaves come to Spartacus’s defense. “I’m Spartacus!” they all say, each willing to share in their leader’s fate.
It is the complete opposite of feeling rejected. Not only is it support for the main character as a person, it’s support for what the main character is fighting for. No one says, “I’m more capable of being the hero here, stand aside and let me take over.” But it’s not so much that the hero maintains his status and receives personal validation, but that what the hero is fighting for is proved to be something bigger than the hero himself. The hero does get to maintain his status, not because of who he is, but because of what he represents in the story. What he’s fighting for is something that affects everybody.
In this way, the main character’s connectedness to society is emphasized. Not only is his goal something bigger than himself, but he himself is part of something bigger than himself: society as a unity, not a bunch of a competing individuals. Note, this is not collectivism as opposed to individualism; rather it’s the marriage of both. Society is made of each individual, so each individual adds to the whole. Each individual is just as important as the whole, and vice versa. They make each other. They are separate, but they are part of each other.
Like love, and as an element of love, every human instinctively understands this. Perhaps not necessarily as a philosophical concept (collectivism vs. individualism and selflessness vs. selfishness are incomplete understandings), but as an instinctual desire, something that will satisfy the human soul because it is what the human soul is made of.
And stories are great at giving humans glimpses of this.
A variation on this sort of moment is when a supporting character comes to the hero’s aid in the battle’s final moments. It might be the return of the rogue, such as Han Solo of Star Wars flying into battle to help the rebels’ assault on the Death Star. Or it might be the ever-reliable Samwise Gamgee of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King proclaiming: “I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you!” Our hero rises with the aid of a supporting character. Again, it’s a powerful moment for the same sorts of reasons.
Appendum: The “Rescue the Hero” moment
Now that I think more about it, I’d call the “I’m Spartacus” moment a type of more general “Rescue the Hero” moment.
The “Rescue the Hero” moment may happen shortly before the climax, as one or more supporting characters aid the hero in getting to the climax. Examples include Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, or Gonji in Yojimbo.
It may happen as part of the climax (especially when the main character is not the protoganist), as in the bike flying of E.T. in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, or the sacrifice of the giant in Iron Giant, or the entrance of T-Rex in Jurassic Park.
It may happen right after the climax, to save the hero from his own self-sacrifice. Examples include Dr. Jones Sr. holding Indiana over an abyss in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, or the mentos mountain rescue of Vanellope von Schweetz in Wreck-It Ralph. Or, again, Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. And again with the eagles in the same film, lifting the hobbits to safety.
Finally, it may happen as icing on the cake as a “Thank the Hero” moment, when the climax is over. Examples include Chief Bromden’s tragic “rescue” in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the bowing to the hobbits in The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the money donations to George Baily in It’s a Wonderful Life, or the medal ceremony in Star Wars.
Whenever a crowd gives the character support instead of just one supporting character, I’d call it an “I’m Spartacus!” moment, a crowd variation on a “Rescue the Hero” or a “Thank the Hero” moment.