The Metallurgy of Action Heroes
Monday, August 25, 2014
This week(ish), the articles and stories on Pornokitsch are all focused around a particular theme: the action hero. The men and women of big guns, cunning stratagems and intense stares. The men and women, they say, of iron.
But are they?
In my compulsive need to generate pithy diagrams, I wanted to tackle the classification of action heroes. Be they cowboys, sleuths, spies or superhumans, what sort of consistent spectrum could we generate for these characters?
Before I get into the classification process, it is important to note the base assumption for all these action heroes: they need to be characters with agency. Fundamentally, what makes an action hero isn't what they can do, but what they choose to do. These are people that have extraordinary lives and adventures, because, above and beyond their capabilities, they have a mission. They have chosen to prioritise that 'thing they do' (revenge, vigilantism, assassination, general world-saving) over the other aspects of their lives; over normalcy; over fitting in. Action heroes have escapist appeal because they've made the conscious choice to follow a higher (or lower) calling, and disobey the strictures that confine the rest of us.
When it comes to classifying the results of their agency, I've selected two axes.
The first is 'temperature': how reticent - or committed - is the character? Are they a reluctant hero or an eager one? They've made the choice to live outside the bounds of convention, was that choice a willing one? An easy one? The spectrum ranges from 'cold' - the hero forced into action - to 'warm' - the hero that is committed to their quest. As an example of the 'cold' hero, Clint Eastwood's character in Pale Rider - a retired gunslinger, one that found god and abhors violence. Even when faced by overwhelming villainy, he is glacially slow to get involved. Slightly less 'cold' heroes include John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee and Peter O'Donnell's Modesty Blaise. Both are marginally reluctant to get involved. They 'pick and choose' their clients and, more often than not, they have to be spurred into action by some external force (the enemy comes to them, they're 'tricked', a friend is in danger, etc).
'Warm' heroes include private eyes like Jack Lynch's Peter Bragg and Stephen Marlowe's Chester Drum - again, they have a choice of clients, but the operating assumption is that they're always available for hire. They don't need to be provoked - just asking will do. Sherlock Holmes is here as well - he may be fussy about selecting a case but he wants them - needs them, in fact.
And 'hot' heroes are always on: the Punisher, James Bond, Steve Carella (Ed McBain). There's no whiff of reluctance, they are armed, ready and looking for action. In the case of Bond and Carella, it is a matter of a chosen - and embraced - profession. 'Spy' and 'cop' don't allow for choice like 'private eye' does. For the Punisher - and other vigilantes - it is simple obsession, they don't shut off.
The other axis is 'hardness' - the action hero Mohs scale. How much does the hero care? Are they empathetic or stoney-faced, considerate or cold-hearted? Do they contemplate the repercussions of their actions, or pull the trigger with absolute certainty? On the 'soft' end, we have our more sensitive action heroes. Travis McGee again - he of the perpetual self-awareness and existential angst. Jack Lynch's Peter Bragg has a similar sense of empathy. It isn't about 'self doubt' - unlike McGee, Bragg is certain he's doing the right thing - but it is about appreciation of consequences. Bragg thinks about the domino effect that he causes, the damage he wreaks, and it makes him contemplative.
Our harder heroes include James Bond, who, once triggered, is little more than a killing machine. Or the Punisher, who is notable for his unwavering stance on crime. Our Clint Eastwood characters show up here as well - sure, he may be a reluctant gunslingers, but once he begins, he is implacable and utterly merciless.
Why is this useful?
Assigning arbitrary ratings of 0-3 [please fire away with disagreements and additions in the comments] for all values, it means we get a rather charming visualisation:
Again, this all presupposes that the most important thing about an action hero is that have chosen this way of life. When these axes are applied to groups, they don't work as well - for one, group dynamic creates a different sort of motivational spectrum (Casey is 'hot', but hates his assignment with Chuck - where does he go?). Similarly, characters without agency - either because they're badly written or completely in thrall to another character - are ungraphable. Willie Garvin, for example, is defined by his unquestioning loyalty to Modesty Blaise - he has no choice of his own on whether or not they're off on an adventure, or even how 'ruthless' they are when they're on it.
The agency - the choice - is also why the action hero is so appealing. They're the rebels with a cause - the perfect combination of someone free from society and free from guilt. Independence without shame or accountability. It is no surprise that the classic action hero is on the rise - from the reprinting of The Destroyer to the (rather embarrassing) success of The Expendables franchise. In a world that feels ever-more restricted by regulation and review - from the government, our jobs, even our peers - the idea of abandoning responsibility and accountability - and being rewarded for it - is an enticing one.
The chart also allows us to add another dimension - 'movement'. Even action heroes grow and change over time, and that change is - for the most part - what makes them better, deeper characters. Take, for example, Daniel Craig-era James Bond:
He begins as a stone-cold killer - committed and relentless. Vesper - SPOILERS - changes him, and with his resignation from Her Majesty's Secret Service, he becomes a different man. But then - SO MANY SPOILERS - her death triggers, if anything, a wild backlash. He ends the movie a 'harder', 'hotter' man than he began it. Arguably this motion is what makes the Craig Bond such a compelling one, as opposed to the brainless and unfeeling quip-machines of the unfortunate Brosnan era.
Another example of depth is with the Travis McGee series.
For the first nineteen novels, Travis is firmly ensconced as 'cold' and 'soft'. If anything, he gradually becomes 'colder' and 'softer' as John D. MacDonald despairs about the pace of modern life and the ruination of the Florida coast. But with The Green Ripper, Travis flips. It is a book that, on its own, makes little, but as part of a 21-book character arc is nothing short of catharsis: the book where Travis commits. The arc continues until the resolution of The Lonely Silver Rain, in which Travis finds a safer way to commit that doesn't involve being a serial killer: a means of connecting.
That said, just moving dots around doesn't make a better book. Take, for example, the not-quite-the-most-recent Spider-Man movies.
The character movement in Spider-Man is simple - and very familiar. Spider-Man is self-absorbed and unengaged. He's doing his Peter Parker thing and doesn't want to get involved. Then - SPOILERS FOR ANYONE THAT DOESN'T LIVE IN NARNIA - Uncle Ben dies and, hey, passion and commitment out the wazzoo. One move and done. Spider-Man 2, easily the best film of the series, plays with this tension: does Peter commit to being Spider-Man or does he commit to being Peter Parker? He's sensitive and reluctant or, alternately, sensitive and fully engaged. (Doctor Octopus, meanwhile, is just off building his doomsday device). This is all fine, and, despite the movie making Mary Jane weirdly awful about the whole thing, about the whole thing, pretty interesting tension. But then we get the character development of Spider-Man 3:
This is an accurate graphical representation of Spider-Man's character in this movie, and an excellent example of 'more "depth" does not equal more better". As a final note on this point, consider the opposite of the hyperkinetic character wibbliness of Spider-Man 3 - the two, very different but equally excellent, iterations of the Garth Ennis Punisher run:
In the first Garth Ennis (Punisher v4), the Punisher has absolutely no change in character. He is a ruthless and remote killing machine. But Ennis works with this by making the series about the Punisher's lack of character: he's not a person, he's an object; a force of nature. The Punisher has no consideration for the damage he causes, but the rest of the series - largely a black comedy that follows minor characters - takes place in his wake. The implacability of the Punisher makes for an uninteresting character, but an excellent literary device.
By contrast, Ennis' later Punisher run (Punisher v6) is, in fact, Punisher-centric. Although he's still a grim and gritty fellow - and this run is far more dramatic than the previous, Ennis provides moments of pause and heartbeats of contemplation. The entire run, arguably, is about the Punisher's internalised battle with empathy - a series that - ZOMG SPOILERS - begins with him executing his best friend and ends - ARGH - with sacrificing his chance at fatherhood. The Punisher is still firmly ensconced on the grid with only microseconds of wiggle-room, but rather than taking the role as mindless avenger for granted, the series examines what that actually entails. Regretfully, this is why canon Punisher is a better character than canon Sherlock Holmes - although both are in a similar place on the graph, the latter never explores or entertains the character's motivations. (Please note the use of 'canon' - the hundreds of thousands of post-Conan Doyle Sherlockiana are all extremely interested in Holmes as a character. Even if they're not particularly up to snuff as mysteries, at least they're trying to give some flesh to the enigmatic detective. Sometimes literally. Fnar.)
As with all graphs and visualisations, this examination of action heroes is a gross oversimplication of (mostly) complex characters. It also, as you may have noticed, relies on a great deal of subjective classification. That said, like all oversimplifications, it does add a bit of much needed clarity - and when you boil things down to being a few points on a graph, it comparing and contrasting them that much easier. The value isn't the graph qua graph, but rather developing a language to talk about the enduring (and perhaps rising) appeal of action heroes. They reflect the traits that we find admirable - empathy, commitment, passion, dedication, responsibility - but they do so in an exaggerated, larger than life way. Action heroes are, as I've argued repeatedly, most interesting when we understand the enormity of the choices that they've made - when we can understand not just what they do, but why they do it, and what that actually means to them. This depth is what gives them an appeal that goes beyond the escapist.