One of the online discussion groups I belong to is dedicated to the life and works of the late Karl Edward Wagner. Wagner, in case you're unfamiliar with him, was a World Fantasy Award-winning editor and author. Among his most enduring and famous creations is Kane, an immortal, ageless killer cursed by a "mad, idiot god" to wander the earth. Kane is amoral, killing both the innocent and the corrupt in pursuit of his goals, and sometimes he's only cast as the hero in relation to the greater, more ancient evils opposed to him.
This leads some to describe Kane as an antihero. But according to Wagner's longtime friend John Mayer, Wagner himself would strongly disagree. He always preferred to call Kane a villain-hero.
This wasn't just an author playing pedantic games. Wagner would stress that "antihero" was a word with a specific meaning, one that was slowly being corrupted and lost by misapplying it to characters like Kane.
I agree with him.
When someone says antihero, the first thing that probably comes to mind is the tough, morally grey outsider. A character like Deadpool, the Punisher, or the Man with No Name. By any reasonable metric, these aren't people to be admired. They're criminals, outlaws, and mercenaries. They don't reflect the values of society. Under other circumstances, they'd be considered villains.
Yet we admire them anyway.
Despite their moral failings, we're drawn to their strength and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Their outsider status gives them the advantage of being able to ignore society's rules in pursuit of their goals. And because those goals often serve some greater good (either by accident or on purpose), they're moved a step closer to "heroism" on the morality scale.
Here's the thing.
All of that stuff up there, about the grey morality and the admiration solely for strength and courage? That's not antiheroism.
That's just straight, garden variety heroism. At least in the classical sense.
The English word "hero" comes from the Old French word "heroe," meaning "man of superhuman strength or physical courage." The Old French is in turn derived from the Greek and Latin "heros," meaning "demigod" or "protector." Its original meaning in English was "man who exhibits great bravery."
What all of the above definitions are lacking is a moral component. There's nothing in there about right and wrong, serving the greater good, or any of the other "traditionally" heroic qualities. That's because the basic concept of heroism (having great strength and personal courage) predates dualistic notions of good and evil. It isn't rooted in any specific morality, dualistic or otherwise.
This is readily apparent when you look at some of the Greek myths. Heroes like Achilles, Theseus, and Odysseus exhibited some genuinely awful behavior. Their stories are filled with betrayal, murder, kidnapping, and forced marriages.
So if these characters were such shit-heel human beings, why have they been admired for thousands of years? For that matter, why were they admired by the ancient Greeks?
Answer: They were admired because they faced the enemy in battle, risking death and crippling injuries. Because they challenged monsters spawned by the gods. When their own people or lands were menaced by outsiders, they stood on the field and fought tooth and nail to protect them.
Their strength, their skill, and their willingness to put everything on the line when it mattered is what made them heroes.
And as bitter a pill as it can be for us to swallow with our modern sensibilities, it's possible to exhibit all of those qualities and still be a reprehensible human being.
So, if heroes can be awful people, where do antiheroes come in? Why does the word even exist?
The Cambridge English Dictionary defines an antihero as:
"the central character in a play, book, or film who does not have traditionally heroic qualities, such as courage, and is admired instead for what society generally considers to be a weakness of their character"
In the original meaning of the word, an antihero is a very specific kind of character. The weak, nebbish leads in Woody Allan's films are antiheroes. The henpecked, buffoonish husbands in most sitcoms are antiheroes. The resigned and listless characters in Franz Kafka's work are antiheroes.
And just as heroes can be rotten piles of human garbage, antiheroes can be good people. In the case of Everybody Loves Raymond, Ray is a loving father and husband. He honestly tries to do right by his family. But he lacks almost any kind of courage or strength. Which means he will never, ever be a hero. Not in the classical sense.
Which brings me back to Wagner's original point. It's really not possible to apply this definition of antiheroism to characters like Deadpool, the Punisher, or Wagner's own Kane. Reprehensible actions aside, all of them display physical courage in spades.
Of course, language evolves. At some point, "heroism" picked up a moral component, one that seems to have completely replaced "strength and physical courage" in most contexts. This, in turn, bled into the idea of an antihero being someone who lacks that morality. But with that evolution, we're losing an important distinction. We don't have another word to replace "antihero" as it evolves away from its original meaning.
Considering how many characters in modern fiction are antiheroes in that original, classic sense, it's a loss the language can't really afford.
So thanks to Netflix, I finally got around to seeing The Last Jedi. I wasn't boycotting it or anything. It's just that my wife and I have a house now, and as a result, much less disposable income. Seeing movies in the theater can be an expensive way to spend the evening, so we tend not to do it unless we're 100% sure we'll enjoy the ride.
Frankly, when it comes to The Last Jedi, I'm glad we saved the money.
And no, I'm not some raging misogynist who can't stand women in "muh Star Wars." I enjoyed The Force Awakens for the fun nostalgia trip it was, and I thought Rogue One was the best Star Wars film since the original trilogy. My gripes with The Last Jedi have nothing to do with the politics of diversifying the cast. My gripes have to do with the fact that it was a boring, muddled mess that hinged on an "idiot plot" for the majority of its suspense.
Not to say the movie was without merits. Overall, it was visually stunning. The bombing run against the dreadnought might be my favorite space battle in the entire series. Some of the individual set pieces, in particular the throne room battle, were outstanding.
The problem is none of those individual pieces can make the whole stand together.
Case in point, the "idiot plot." For those of you unfamiliar with the term, an idiot plot is a plot that depends on one or more of the characters behaving stupidly to create the central problem. If the characters were smart or competent, then the problem would either be solved immediately or would never have come up in the first place.
Most of the suspense in The Last Jedi is driven by the fact that Vice Admiral Holdo refuses to share the plan with Poe. This leads to Finn and Rose taking on a secret mission, Poe leading a mutiny, and the hired hacker selling the Resistance's plan to the First Order. The First Order then blows the escaping transports out of the sky, slaughtering most of the Resistance and necessitating Holdo's suicide run against Snoke's flagship.
Oh. Um... Spoilers, I guess.
The thing is, Holdo not revealing her plan is stupid.
And yes, I understand this was done partly to give Poe his character arc. After disobeying orders and incurring heavy casualties on the dreadnought run, he needed to learn how to accept authority and work as a part of a larger team. I can even understand the need for Holdo to take him down a peg and assert her own authority.
But no commander worth a damn would do so at the expense of withholding the operational plan from her own troops. She's depending on them, and much more importantly, they're depending on her.
Yes, Holdo is a superior officer. No, she doesn't owe a long and detailed explanation to a junior, especially not one who is demanding her time on a busy command bridge.
But real world talk: Trust is a two-way street in the military. A commander needs to trust the troops to do their jobs, and the troops need to trust in the commander's abilities. And rank, contrary to what you'll see in movies and on television, does not automatically convey that trust. This is especially true in combat.
When Poe demanded to know what the plan is, the exchange should have gone something like this:
POE: "Admiral, you have to tell me. What's the plan?"
HOLDO (giving him a dismissive look, and putting special emphasis on his newly-reduced rank): "Your section leader has all the details. He or she will brief you, Captain Poe."
POE: "But I..."
HOLDO (more firmly): "There is a chain of command, Captain. I expect you to use it. Now get off my bridge before I have you demoted to scullery boy."
This would have immediately established Holdo as a strong leader, one who isn't going to take any bullshit from her subordinates. It would also have established that there is a plan, and that Poe doesn't get to be a part of the decision making process again until he matures enough to be both a leader and a follower.
In short, it would have built that two-way trust.
Of course, if you make that one change, the entire middle section of the movie falls apart. Poe is briefed on the plan, so he doesn't mutiny. Holdo isn't kept in the dark about the tracking device, because that information goes back up to her through proper channels. The side mission either never happens (because it's not necessary to her plan), or it gets full approval and enough personnel to pull it off. The majority of the Resistance survives. Holdo still makes her sacrifice, but to lead the enemy away.
Rather than come up with set-pieces and adventures that would have flowed organically from the characters making the smart choice, the movie settled on trying to sell us a Vice-Admiral who's not only too smug to share her operational plan, but also has no idea how to handle an out-of-line subordinate. It then expects us to believe that she's a brilliant and respected battlefield commander.
Even worse, The Last Jedi asks us to see Poe's mistrust of Holdo as a character flaw, in spite of the fact that mistrust is exactly the reaction her "leadership" style would inspire in any sane soldier. It asks us to believe that Holdo was worthy of his trust all along, and he was just too hotheaded and cocky to see it. It asks us to believe that, in witnessing her sacrifice above Crait to save the remains of the fleet, he has seen the error of his ways, and has grown and matured because of it.
A good message, one that was sadly undercut by making Holdo an uninspiring, ineffective buffoon.
There were plenty of other problems, too.
1. We really didn't see Rey struggle with learning to use the Force, so her ending payoff felt unearned. Lifting the boulders to clear the path would have been more dramatic if we'd seen her try and fail to do that on Ahch-To. Instead, her biggest dilemma was whether or not to believe Luke Skywalker, legendary hero of the Rebellion, or Kylo Ren, the man who murdered his own father while she watched. I can buy her not believing Luke. I can't buy her believing Kylo.
2. Rose stopping Finn's suicide run was incredibly stupid, and her actions would absolutely have killed everyone inside the base if not for the arrival of Astral-Projection Luke (something she had no idea was going to happen). She dooms her friends and allies to die, and then has the complete lack of self awareness to talk about "saving what you love." My working theory is that she suffered a severe head trauma in the crash.
3. Leia Mary Poppins. 'Nuff said.
4. I hated Luke's arc. I just couldn't square the optimist who saw good in Darth Vader with the burnt-out cynic who contemplated murdering a sleeping boy. It smacked of subversion for its own sake, rather than natural character progression. I have more to say on the subject, but I'll save it for a dedicated post in the future.
All in all, it just felt like The Last Jedi was trying to be too clever, too witty. The filmmakers were so focused on undermining the audience's expectations, they neglected to tell a coherent story.
At one point in the movie, Kylo talks about the need to "kill the past." While I wouldn't say The Last Jedi succeeded in that, it did manage to completely kill my interest in Episode IX, and the continuing adventures of Rey, Finn, and company.
That, in itself, was no mean feat.
“Write drunk. Edit sober.” - Ernest Hemingway
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I'm an award-winning science fiction and fantasy writer based out of North Carolina. This is where I scream into the digital void. I like cookies.