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It’s Time for A New Type of Hero
Like any movie, I’ll admit that Iron Man 3 had problems. There were plot holes, dorky moments, and cliched tropes used throughout the story that might have made for a more cohesive storytelling experience had they been properly addressed.
But for all the issues it had, there’s still one fact that stands as nearly undeniable in my mind: Tony Stark is a great character.
Now, let’s be honest for a second; yes, the Marvel movies are fun to watch. But in my mind, it’s the Iron Man trilogy that stands out as the strongest comic to movie adaptation in Stan Lee’s universe.
Now why is that?
I think it has a lot to do with Downey Jr.’s acting prowess and ability to bring Iron Man to life. But for all the great acting involved, I also think there’s something to the fact that Iron Man’s personality in the films re-creates the idea of what a “hero” is in a way that makes him more endearing to us.
Iron Man isn’t noble. He isn’t the stoic, strong, do-good boy scout that defined classic heroes of old. He’s rude, he’s selfish, he’s snide, and he comes off as the type of egomaniac you’d love to punch in the face.
But for all his faults, we still find him to be a completely endearing character. We love to watch him work, cheer him on in confrontations with bad guys, and laugh at the quips he has with other characters in the film. Why is that?
I’d like to suggest something here. We don’t like Iron Man because he’s greater than us. We like Iron Man because he feels like one of us.
The older I get, the more I realize that the world isn’t in black and white. Rather, it’s painted in a million different shades of grey (no, not that shades of grey). Not one of us is all good or all bad; we have our own individual ratios of good to bad actions that make up who we are as a person. Not one of us is perfect, and that’s what makes us human.
When applied correctly, this principle makes for amazing characters. The classic good guy vs. bad guy battle of old is fun, but it fails to connect with us on a deeper level. We love to imagine strong and stoic heroes who can do no wrong, but in reality, this isn’t feasible.
That’s why we love heroes like Iron Man. Because he’s not perfect, and he does make mistakes. But for all of his shortcomings, he always manages to do the right thing in the end. His good to bad ratio is similar to the average person’s, and he’s a stronger person for it.
Furthermore, he’s not infallible. Quite the opposite, really. Although I don’t think the story capitalized on it in quite the way it could have, the sub-plot of Tony Stark dealing with anxiety was a really incredible sequence to watch unfold. Especially since I have had my own struggles with anxiety over the years, the fact that a super hero could be dealing with a real-world problem like mine really made his character relate to me on a whole new level.
So, I’d like to go out on a limb here and suggest something. Across all storytelling mediums, it’s time for a new type of hero. It’s time to redefine what makes a hero a hero. It’s time to get rid of the all-powerful do-gooder and all-powerful types and start to usher in a new era of characters with faults and weaknesses that not only challenge them, but can define them and make them stronger in our eyes.
While film and literature have done a great job of portraying this over the years, I’m looking more to video games as one of the mediums that needs to overhaul how it portrays a hero. While we’ve begun to really explore this in recent years, we still have a strange fascination with overpowered characters, whether it’s the grizzled marine with a shaved head and a gun in his hands or the tired “chosen one” type who’s had great power put to them along with the responsibility to save the world.
Are these characters fun? Sure, why not? Everyday life is boring, and we love to engage in our power fantasies that allow us to be all-powerful beings outside of a world that confines us to normalcy and conformity. But if we want to push storytelling in games to the next level, and if we want to create truly memorable characters that resonate with us in a big way, we need to start re-thinking how we portray our heroes today.
Take Kratos, for example. It’s super fun to play as Kratos, ripping out eye balls and taking down the most colossal of Gods in battles epic in both size and scope. But for all the fun you might have playing as Kratos, I can’t help but see him as a terrible character. He has no personality, the troubles that do haunt his past almost never seem to faze him, and he’s an all-powerful character who never truly acknowledges his weaknesses in a way that would make him compelling.
On the flip side, there’s something to be said about the strength of a character like Nathan Drake. Drake has a tendency to place his friends in danger thanks to his zeal and craving for adventure, he can be hurt, he has real fears, and the sequence in Uncharted 3 that saw you stumbling through a crowded marketplace while on a drug trip really brought to life how human Drake really is. Like Stark, Drake is someone who you might normally want to punch in the face. But for all he does wrong, he still manages to do the right thing at the end of the day. It’s because of this that he embraces humanity and empowers us by showing that there’s still a chance for a hero to exist, even if they do have human flaws.
Another great character from a recent game is Wei Shen from the once-troubled crime drama Sleeping Dogs. While so many facets of the game were fantastic, Sleeping Dogs managed to tell a real and interesting narrative about Wei Shen. We see him go from being the hardened cop meaning to bring gangsters to justice to becoming someone who somewhat sympathized with the Triads after making friends with them and gaining their trust. Once this happened, his character became confused, and the lines between good and evil became incredibly blurred. What made this interesting was watching everything unfold and trying to gauge exactly how Wei would go about settling everything without getting himself into deeper trouble.
Adding to my list of needs from a new-age hero, I’d love to see a departure from the overused middle-age male protagonist. No, I’m not a raging feminist, and I’m not calling for the eradication of all male heroes. But we all have the capacity to be a hero in many different ways, and exploring this in a meaningful way could make for some truly interesting storytelling.
I really liked the way the creators at Crystal Dynamics handled the evolution of Lara Croft’s character in the recent Tomb Raider. While there may have been some disconnect between the cutscenes and Lara’s ability to mow down hundreds of attackers throughout the campaign, there’s still something incredibly real about the way she evolves from being a vulnerable young woman to a hardened survivor. You witness her pain as she kills someone for the first time and deals with the death of her friends. You see that she’s not the most powerful and dangerous of characters when she is running around the island and trying to survive. But you can’t help but feel connected to her, because this is the way many would experience the same events. You’d be scared and vulnerable, and you’d probably experience a bit of trauma from seeing so much death and dealing with so much stress in such a short period of time.
And yet, for all the troubles she’s encountered, Lara still remains fixated on saving her friends, no matter the cost. It’s her troubles that drive her, strengthen her, and ultimately define her as an empowered character. It’s this sort of arc that creates a memorable character we can both relate to and draw inspiration from.
Really, there are so many other avenues where we could draw interesting heroes from. What about a gay character dealing with their sexual identity while also engaging a much larger crisis? What about a child hero? While he didn’t have much of backstory or personality, there’s still something to be said about the strength of the protagonist in Limbo. Anyone who’s played Mortal Kombat has seen a head pop off or seen someone get skewered through their abdomen, but it’s doubly horrifying when this happens to a small, vulnerable child. Add to this the fact that your character in Limbo doesn’t have a crazy set list of fighting moves that allows him to engage enemies offensively, instead resorting to wits and movement, and you have a character that more closely resembles the everyday human being, thereby becoming a great mode of transportation for the player to experience the game’s world.
Now, here’s the thing: is it bad to have bald dudes running around a battlefield and shooting enemies in the face? No. If that’s what you enjoy, then it’s your right to enjoy it as far as I’m concerned. Of course there’s room in the market for the more cliched heroes, and there always will be. But there’s something uniquely memorable about the power a strong and well-developed character can have when they’re handled right. If we want this medium to evolve, if we want to have the storytelling in games reach a new height, and if we want to be taken seriously by other facets in the entertainment industry, it’s time we took a good look at how we portray heroes and try to find more compelling ways to convey them. Doing so will not only strengthen the ability of games to tell stories, but it will also open new avenues we’ve never even considered before this moment in time.