Megamind, the new Dreamworks animated family feature, is only the second animated family feature film this year to focus on a supervillain. (Remember Despicable Me?) It’s also the latest in a longstanding tradition of movies in which the villain is supposedly more interesting than the hero. When did this shift happen? When did our heroes start to suck?
Heroes don’t have to be boring stand-ins for the audience (I’m looking at you, everyone who casts Shia LaBeouf). They can be compelling characters overcoming hardships, psychological turmoil and overwhelming odds to save not only the day but also their films from mediocrity. Heroes can be inspiring figureheads, neurotic losers and everything in between. Heroes can be wonderful, but for some reason many of them – often in otherwise very good (or at least popular) movies – again, just plain suck.
In this installment of The Weekly Listicle, Dan Fields and I (William Bibbiani!) take a look at heroes who could have been heroic but let us down. Maybe they lacked charisma, maybe the only thing they couldn’t overcome was a gaping plot hole, maybe they were simply ineffectual. Maybe… they just sucked.
Peter Ostrum as Charlie Bucket in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory (dir. Mel Stuart, 1971) and Freddie Highmore as Charlie Bucket in Charlie & Chocolate Factory (dir. Tim Burton, 2005)
Roald Dahl was my favorite author as a child, and despite the gradual onset of adulthood he remains a favorite storyteller to this day. One of his most beloved books is Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, in which a wide-eyed but extremely put-upon child named Charlie Bucket gets the opportunity of a lifetime: a trip to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. No mere warehouse full of sugar-laden conveyor belts, this factory is everything a naïve child assumes a chocolate factory should be, filled with trained squirrels to crack the nuts, singing workers who put Santa’s elves to shame and of course rooms in which everything is edible (and specifically made out of scrumdiddlyumptious candy).
In the books Charlie Bucket is a stand-in for the reader. Dahl elicits sympathy for his protagonist by making him feel like every child feels: underappreciated, lacking in life’s more pleasurable fineries and in need of escapism (hence the need for Dahl’s book). Once he actually gets to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory he essentially disappears from the narrative, allowing the readers to merely drink in the wonderful world created for them and watch as annoying and obviously inferior children are punished in hilariously horrific ways. In the end Charlie gets to keep the whole chocolate factory simply because he isn’t a jerk. He’s the center of a satisfying tale of wish-fulfillment… not a good protagonist.
Both of the (really rather good) adaptations of Charlie & The Chocolate Factory have attempted to beef up Charlie as a protagonist, and both have met with limited success. He’s a wallflower not just by nature but by function as well. It’s Willy Wonka’s world and Charlie is quite literally lucky to be visiting. Mel Stuart’s classic version gave Charlie a brief interlude of his own during the chocolate factory sequence. Everyone else had one, so why not Charlie? But in stealing fizzy lifting drinks Charlie acts completely out of character, and in fact is really no better than all the other kids who get punished for their transgressions by Wonka throughout the rest of the film.
But Stuart’s version compensates somewhat by giving Charlie a test to pass. Charlie must not only survive the tour, but also prove himself moral enough to resist betraying Wonka’s trust to Horace Slugworth. In Burton’s version, Charlie has nothing whatsoever to do in Wonka’s chocolate factory. He pretty much disappears for the bulk of the film, only to emerge at the end with an admittedly interesting twist on the climax: he refuses Wonka’s offer to run the chocolate factory because Wonka wants Charlie to abandon his family in the process. This subplot probably seemed like a good idea on paper but in practice it’s haphazardly tacked onto the end, like someone suddenly remembered at the last minute that there should be some kind of theme going on here somewhere. It takes the edge off of our dull, dull, dull hero (or perhaps more accurately puts on edge on him), but it doesn’t actually solve the problem. Charlie Bucket, in all his incarnations, just isn’t very interesting. Sure, that’s by design, but the Titanic wasn’t designed to have enough lifeboats. The design itself is sometimes the problem.
George Clooney and Chris O’Donnell as Batman and Robin in Batman & Robin (dir. Joel Schumacher, 1997)
It’s easy, and fun, to rip on Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin. Schumacher himself has accepted these criticisms and spent almost an entire commentary track apologizing for just how very ridiculous and out of control this particular train wreck became. Let’s not talk about the nipples on the batsuit (they were there in Batman Forever, you know). Let’s not talk about Arnold’s bizarre attempt to overemote while playing a character with no emotions. Let’s talk about Batman and Robin themselves. In this movie, they suck.
Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies, as well as Tim Burton’s under-rated Batman Returns, all elevated themselves above the usually spandex-fare by applying the operatic world of Batman to well-realized themes. In Batman Returns it was identity: the duality of female empowerment, the thin line between the events that turned Bruce Wayne into Batman and Oswald Cobblepot into The Penguin (or Bruce Wayne into Bruce Wayne and Max Schreck into Max Schreck). And so on. In Batman Begins the theme was fear, both overcoming fear and using it as a weapon. And, once again, so on. In Batman & Robin, Bruce Wayne needs to learn to trust Robin as his partner. Comparatively, that’s pretty thin.
One can imagine that Batman & Robin, with its attempts to introduce Batgirl into the franchise and its subplot about Alfred dying from Ali McGraw’s Disease, was meant to be a story about Batman building a new family to replace his tragically lost one. But it doesn’t play. Batman and Robin come across like annoying roommates when they fight over Poison Ivy, and abandon all pretense of maintaining their secret identities by A) appearing in public, B) revealing key clues to their identities in public (like the fact that they are millionaires, which really ought to narrow the field down a bit), and C) having personalized credit cards. I guess MasterCard has Bruce’s secret identity. He’d better keep up with his payments.
They’re silly characters who cannot for a single moment be taken seriously. Obviously this was Joel Schumacher’s whole idea, but even Schumacher has admitted it was a bad one. We’re going to be talking about this stinkburger for decades to come, and thes lousy protagonists are a big part of the reason why.
Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (dir. Chris Columbus, 2001)
I actually really like the Harry Potter series, both the books and the films. They’re not all made equal but in both cases they get better – even brilliant – as they go along, which is a good thing because the first story kind of stinks. Actually, it suffers from many of the same problems as Charlie & The Chocolate Factory: J.K. Rowling instills empathy with her protagonist by making him a Dickensian loser, and then gratifies herself and the readers by giving him everything a boy could ever ask for: fame, money, power, friends, you name it.
Seriously, neither the book nor the movie seem able to be able to go five minutes without giving Harry a gift of some kind. He gets a cloak of invisibility for Christmas. He gets the power to destroy evil with the touch of his hand. He saves the world, he wins the Quidditch match, Gryffindor wins the weird (and thankfully later abandoned) house competition thingy, and in the last scene Hagrid gives him a magical photo of his parents. Most gods don’t have it this easy. Rowling took the edge off a bit by focusing throughout the book on such childhood unpleasantries like schoolwork but Columbus never makes time in his epic fantasy film to bring Harry down a peg. He’s awesome but unappreciated at the beginning, and he’s awesome and everyone loves him by the end of the first act. Little changes afterwards. It gets to the point where you actually respect Professor Snape and Draco Malfoy, if only because they’re the only ones who stayed away from the Kool-Aid.
Each subsequent book would gradually bring Harry’s beautiful fantasy world down amongst the muck again. Friends would die, failure would become a constant companion and growing up would prove as hard in Misty Magic Land as it is in real life, but in the first book, and even moreso in the first movie, life quickly becomes far too easy for Harry Potter to be much more than an implausibly perfect Mary Sue-ish figure, and that just doesn’t make for good drama.
Sam Worthington as Jake Sully in Avatar (dir. James Cameron, 2009)
I’m not picking on Sam Worthington here, since the shoddiness of this protagonist really isn’t his fault. I saw him in a really good movie once. It was called Rogue, and it starred Worthington, Radha Mitchell and a host of other character actors who were stranded on a small island and hunted by a giant crocodile (or possibly alligator; frankly I can’t be bothered to remember the difference). He was introduced as a total jerk but eventually, through adversity, grew up and assumed a leadership role in the group. He was a compelling protagonist. Jake Sully is not. He sucks.
I’ve gone on at length about Avatar so I’ll try to keep this short and simple. Jake Sully is a terrible protagonist because he causes all of the devastation in Avatar through his inaction, and then he has the nerve to get high-and-mighty about it. After he accidentally infiltrates the Na’Vi society, The Big Corporation and The Military give him three whole months to build the Na’Vi’s trust so they can find a diplomatic solution to everyone’s problems. Jake Sully spends each of those three months making goo-goo eyes at a cat person and sticking his alien phallus into forest animals, often against their will. Seriously, all he had to do was have a conversation about this and he never brings it up. Not once. He never says, “Incidentally, a bunch of people want the mineral deposits you guys live on. They’re really very serious about it. They want me to find a way to resolve this peacefully, and trust me, you don’t want to push your luck. These guys are jerks.”
The great massacre – which some refer to as “Na’Vi-11” – was entirely avoidable, but our protagonist couldn’t be bothered. Sure, he saves the day at the end, but talk about “too little, too late.” And you just know that The Big Corporation and The Military are going to come back and nuke the place from orbit. (It’s the only way to be sure.)
Aaron Johnson as Kick-Ass in Kick-Ass (dir. Matthew Vaughn, 2010)
Like Charlie Bucket and Harry Potter, the reason why the hero sucks is rooted in the source material. Kick-Ass has a lot to do in his self-titled comic book series and movie, but none of it matters. At all. To anyone. Ever. It’s really frustrating.
You see, Kick-Ass is supposedly a film about a kid who decides to put on a costume and try to fight crime. His motivations are never entirely clear. He’s clearly got some issues but mostly it just seems like a “something to do.” Nobody else is doing it, and the media has glamorized the lifestyle for longer than he’s been alive. So he does it. He gets a YouTube video and achieves a little notoriety but he isn’t actually good at the job. Eventually he more-or-less abandons it as a hobby once he starts getting laid (which is really kind of a slap in the face to comic book fans, whom many think are supposed to abandon their own “hobby” once they discover girls, but I digress).
Meanwhile, there’s an actual story going on. Big Daddy and Hitgirl are blazing a trail of revenge against a crime boss and doing a very good job at it. They’re highly motivated, psychologically complicated and their journey takes them to unexpected places. They meet Kick-Ass a couple of times, but aside from a single similar interest they have nothing in common. For you see, Big Daddy and Hitgirl are protagonists. Kick-Ass is a distraction in his own story. Kick-Ass’s actions did not inspire Big Daddy and Hitgirl to action. He didn’t even inspire them to put on a costume. In fact, the only thing Kick-Ass is allowed to do in his own film (besides get his ass kicked) is show up at the end in a ridiculous deus ex machina. And he’s only able to do that because Hitgirl made him, gave him the technology, etc.
I’m trying to think of a clever or witty way to segue into Dan’s Picks this week, but I’m too frustrated by writing about Kick-Ass. Let’s just move on now.
David Carradine as Frankenstein in Death Race 2000 (dir. Paul Bartel, 1975)
Paul Bartel, whom you would recognize from the weirdo comedies Eating Raoul and Rock & Roll High School, directed this freaky, Roger Corman-produced romp about a cross-country road race in which innocent bystanders are point-scoring targets for reckless motorists, and just about anything goes in the interest of winning. The story is part Cannonball Run, part Running Man, all Corman. It’s full of dark comic satire, sexual abandon, and large explosions. But for all that, it plods along rather slowly for long intervals in between.
The central narrative revolves around the mysterious Frankenstein, the most notorious racer in the world, “constructed” for the purpose of the death race. He is rumored to be monstrous in appearance and temperament, and appears cloaked and masked in black for the public to fear and loathe. He is also rumored to be indestructible, a challenge taken up gamely by his chief rival, “Machine Gun” Joe Viterbo (Sylvester Stallone).
Those of you who don’t want any plot spoiled, look away now.
Here’s the problem. It’s all an act. Frankenstein is actually a thoughtful, sensitive being who is no more interested in being a monster than he is in allowing the popular death sport to continue. Instead of allowing us to enjoy a movie about who’s the biggest freak in the world, a rather tame romantic subplot overtakes the film’s outrageous premise and slows everything down until the whole middle section is pretty darn boring. The supporting cast is pretty good, and Sylvester Stallone is far and away the highlight of the film, as a supremely hateful and hilarious sociopath. David Carradine has to contend with a rather limp role by contrast. Given its high cult status, I hoped the film would be much more over the top than it was, and kindly stay that way for its brief running time. Instead it peters out for a good stretch, and loses too much moment to get going fully again for the climax.
Dale Midkiff as Louis Creed in Pet Sematary (dir. Mary Lambert, 1989)
To begin with, Pet Sematary is one of the finest horror stories ever committed to paper. Stephen King himself once wrote that upon completing it, he found it so bleak and scary that he almost never published it. For those not in the know, it is perhaps the definitive “Indian burial ground” story, in which a misuse of ancient power leads to death, damnation, and the like for all concerned. Louis Creed, physician and dad, is coping with the stress of relocating his family and career. Right on the edge, is what he is, much like Jack Torrance at the beginning of The Shining. Then, the tragic death of his child threatens to push him over that edge.
Enter mysterious neighbor Jud Crandall, who knows a dark secret or two about burying the dead out behind the local pet cemetery, in order to bring them back to life. Nasty things follow. Wendigos and the undead and such. Very very scary.
Unfortunately, Mary Lambert’s adaptation fails pretty completely to capture that elusive feeling of dread that made the book so terrifying. This movie is clumsily made, and the plot ends up seeming rather silly. King himself wrote the screenplay, and seems to have cut and scrapped large sections of the narrative at random, unmindful of the helpful context he was snipping away from the characters and their motives. It is less an adaptation than a poor abridgment. Go figure. One of the most popular novelists of all time, but apparently not much of a screenwriter.
The film might have been better salvaged with proper casting, but there is only one really great performance in the movie. Fred Gwynne, as Jud, is spectacular. His grizzled Yankee drawl has been spoofed countless times, most notably by the creators of South Park, in two of their best episodes.
Dale Midkiff, on the other hand, is excruciatingly bad as Louis Creed – the protagonist, dont’cha know. He sounds and acts like a second-rate Keanu Reeves – and in that category, many of us don’t even care for the genuine article. For a man dealing with extremes of grief, terror, anxiety, and obsession, he maintains the kind of slow, wooden delivery one might expect from a fellow on a wicked cough syrup bender.
There are many things wrong with this movie, but several of the lesser King adaptations came out better than this because of a strong leading performance or two (see below, however, for one that’s much worse) The mediocre and rather silly Silver Bullet, for example, is nice and entertaining thanks to the substantial comic presence of Gary Busey and the bizarre menace of Everett McGill. Without a protagonist worth caring about, any great story is sunk.
Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels (dir. George Lucas, 1999-2005)
So much has been written, spoken, shouted, and blogged on this subject I feel I hardly need add much, but a discussion of severely disappointing heroes would be incomplete without it. The long-awaited, much-lamented Star Wars prequels marked so much dashed hope, such severe betrayal of legend and nostalgia, it is only fitting that they have a central character whose mythology fell completely flat under the pen of an aging, and possibly demented, George Lucas.
In a way, Darth Vader was doomed never to live up to his own reputation. He is such a colossal figure of evil that any attempt to dissect his fearful history only undermines his mystery. Writing the character poorly and casting a couple of young duds to play him helps not a bit either.
Young Anakin Skywalker is everything we never wanted to see Darth Vader being. A sappy little kid, a mama’s boy, an awkward and moody adolescent – everything irritating about watching someone grow into adulthood. We just didn’t want to see it. Let Harry Potter do the coming-of-age bit. It suits him a great deal better. Darth Vader simply is. Legends and whispered rumors do him far more justice than actually seeing his lame childhood adventures. No wonder Luke Skywalker came out on top. He didn’t stay whiny and irritating for more than two scenes before he started growing into his space boots and became a real hero.
By the time Anakin Skywalker began to show some compelling potential as a character, he was very nearly Darth Vader and Revenge Of The Sith was about over. Devoting all three of the films to the arc of that single one would have been a much better idea. Fooling around with all that junkyard racing and meadow prancing in the first two films really put a bullet in the character before he had a chance to shine. And as many of you know, there is a gross discrepancy in Darth Vader’s coolness factor between when we last see him in Sith and when we first see him in A New Hope. Suffice it to say, “Do not want.”
Ted Levine as John Hunton in The Mangler (dir. Tobe Hooper, 1995)
Pet Sematary is pretty bad. The Mangler is really bad. Another, less enduring Stephen King tale, it concerns the gruesome behavior of a possessed laundry machine. Believe it or not, the original story is not bad, considering how ridiculous the idea sounds. By adding in a lot of nonsensical backstory and a host of very irritating characters, director Tobe Hooper and company sap the limited promise of the premise and create a real stinker of a horror flick.
Robert Englund deserves special mention here in an unbelievably hammy villainous role – a nasty old megalomaniacal man in a weird semi-robotic walking frame. It’s just insane. But he is far from the most baffling choice of cast. Our hero – the cop, who unlocks the evil secrets of the machine and battles it in the name of good – is played by none other than Ted Levine, also known as the ruthlessly unsettling “Buffalo Bill” character from The Silence Of The Lambs. I’ll just get it all out at once – he looks weird, he sounds weird, he acts weird. He is quite good in the right role, but some men are simply not meant to play heroes. Aside from his acting history, the guy just seems like a creep.
Perhaps the role could have written differently, but as it stands the movie makes it hard to root for anybody. The closest thing to a good guy is a mumbling, unkempt, very disturbing and unsavory character. Maybe the film could not have been saved, but a substantial heroic presence would have been worth a shot. This movie doesn’t scare me. It doesn’t amuse me. It just makes me feel weird, and mildly annoyed.
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (dir. Dick Powell, 1956)
This may be the grandfather of all blown badass opportunities. Dick Powell’s The Conqueror is a train wreck to begin with, but the drunken engineer at the throttle– to stretch a metaphor beyond safe limits – is John Wayne himself, icon of the Pacific Theater war film and the pre-Eastwood western, as Mongol warlord Genghis Khan.
This is not a joke, at least not intentionally. Instead, it’s one of the many crackpot projects produced by the late Howard Hughes. Hollywood poured valuable resources, and renowned talent, into this misguided epic, set in a far-off land remarkably similar to the American West, and full of lusty, red-haired, Irish-looking Tartar women. Susan Hayward, one Hollywood’s classic beauties, is stunningly, but unfortunately, in attendance as the great Khan’s war bride.
Come on, folks. This is Genghis Khan! The Bad Bad Leroy Brown of the ancient world, and he’s stuck in the skin of an actor renowned for having only one speed and a complete inability to change his mannerisms or voice. It’s amazing how well it worked in The Searchers and how painful it is to watch here. Wayne reportedly campaigned hard for this role, which makes the final result all the more pathetic.
The production is also infamous for the high number of cancer cases later reported among its cast and crew. The location’s proximity to nuclear testing sites is rumored to have had something to do with it. Personally, I would like the numbers on how many of them died of shame instead. If indeed the production was lethal to those involved, it is even sadder that it was not a decent adventure. Someone injured or killed on the set of, say, Lawrence of Arabia, might at least have gone with a greater sense of accomplishment.