We can all be quite cynical, us humans. When something comes along that unapologetically wears its heart upon its sleeve and contains no irony in the message it conveys, our reaction can often be to laugh at this transparency. And, okay, it’s true that unfettered emotionalism can often become ridiculous – just look at your typical non-Pixar animated movie to see how ‘heart’ can be translated into ‘manipulative button pressing’ incredibly easily. Equally, when a character shows up who is just simply good – good for the sake of good with no ulterior motive, there’s a very large contingent who will palm that character off, no matter how much development and depth they’re given, as ‘boring’. Just look at Superman, the ultimate embodiment of heroism who has been interpreted by Zack Snyder as a brooding anti-hero who murders people. Look at famous director Guy Ritchie, in an interview on his new King Arthur film, outright saying ‘good guys are boring’.
It’s because of this that we drift to anti-heroes, and moral ambiguity. In a time where goodness has been shown to conceal depravity in our public figures and where benevolent countries have created a morass of war and tangled conflicts, that just seems easier to swallow. Sometimes, this application of our current scepticism of being genuine manifests itself in fascinating stories: look at Breaking Bad, which deconstructed the idea of the man as the provider for his family, or Mr Robot, which scathingly examines the ways the exploitation of capitalism. Yet, often, it just becomes an excuse for treating genuine ideas with ridicule or scepticism – look, again, at Batman v Superman, a movie that treated the concepts of heroism and altruism as inherently flawed and near-impossible to reach, with the film’s heroes plagued by doubt that good can actually be accomplished. That kind of fiction might vaguely reflect our current psyche – that’s definitely the excuse of the creators for such unremitting grimness – but the avalanche of dark anti-heroes and narratives in which everyone’s motivations are cruel and selfish has soon become bland, with the attempt to move against the tide instead becoming the tide. These infinite gritfests may stem from genuinely good narratives such as The Dark Knight or Breaking Bad, but in attempting to emulate their careful capturing of an angry and uncertain time, they ignore the humour and sense of morality (in both stories, most, if not all characters eventually get what they deserve) that underlies both of those stories, and just come across as nihilistic.
The point of all that kind of mentality, the one that questions everything and portrays everyone as morally compromised when the chips are down, has become boring. Those anti-heroes and morally ambiguous stories that once so vibrantly represented the modern mood, more often than not, feel rote these days, mechanically playing out the same depressing tropes again and again with no real emotion behind them. It’s what TV Tropes calls ‘Darkness Related Audience Apathy’ – the inertia brought on by constant darkness in an ongoing work of fiction as that darkness becomes stale and predicatable. The Walking Dead, a show that embodies that grim ‘goodness will get you killed’ spirit, has creatively stagnated by overdosing on cheap shocks and increasingly ridiculous ‘dark’ moments where The Stakes Are Raised. Every interview for the show these days seems to be part of a major ‘just how many synonyms for ‘dark’ can I get in?’ bet the cast and crew have going. It’s boring, because we’ve seen the show’s grim tricks before.
And, to draw the comparison back to reception, it’s become a ritual of sorts for any positively-received movie to receive a huge backlash on social media days after the praise begins, usually featuring an obsession with plot holes and a picking apart of frequently non-existent subtext that gives people ammunition to take apart something that’s been the subject of so much enjoyment. What is the ‘Marvel vs DC’ debate but an obsession on both sides to not let the other ‘side’ enjoy what they enjoy?
So, with cynicism of the kinds I mentioned becoming more prevalent in fiction and in the reception of fiction, and with that cynicism sometimes escalating to outright hostility and abuse (just look at Ghostbusters – an unsurprising backlash to the reinvention of an original property metastasised in a few months to a full-on hate campaign spearheaded by horrible bigots), here’s what this post is all about (and NO, I did not take a long time getting to the point, because it’s the journey that counts and not the destination and this was a magical journey anyway back to my point).
The only way to counteract all I’ve described is to do the opposite (I’m not good at science, but I think that’s Newton’s Fourth Law). Celebrate the shows, movies and books out there that are genuine. That doesn’t mean ‘light’, or ‘silly’, or anything that this common solution is misconstrued as. It doesn’t mean every work of fiction should be a slapstick cartoon for embryos. Being genuine, in this case, simply means having some kind of heart or values in your work. That can be mixed in with an otherwise gritty work – look at the dry humour of The Dark Knight, and its respect for the concept of heroes – or simply be worn on its sleeve, like your average Pixar movie. All it means is that a work of fiction shouldn’t have to shy away from protagonists for fear that they’re boring, or away from emotional moments because they’re funny, because they don’t have to be. Sometimes deconstruction of everything and constant scepticism isn’t the answer.
Take at the crop of superhero shows on TV that have traded their way to success on a light tone and unequivocally heroic protagonists: The Flash, a show that’s, at its heart, about families both real and created and how they can help each other to accomplish what they couldn’t apart, or Supergirl, a show that’s, arguably, about how hope can bring people together as symbolised by its optimistic protagonist. Those are both, for all their flaws, genuinely good shows that have achieved considerable success by taking those above concepts utterly seriously. Their heroes help people because, in their eyes, it’s the right thing to do, and they’re still fully-realised, complex characters with flaws and fixations that make them human. And to pull an example from the other end of the aisle from TWD, its partner in global success, Game of Thrones, is coming off the back of what’s been acclaimed as one of its greatest seasons yet precisely because it allowed its ‘good’ characters the catharsis of victory, and deposed many unrepentant villains from their positions of power. GOT is far from a piece about the goodness of humanity, and a lot of bad things happened to good people in season six. Yet, crucially, it let its characters win, and it became all the more powerful and rewarding for those genuine moments of triumph.
Also, perhaps it’s time that people are free to simply like stuff. The desire of certain websites and people to switch into contrarian mode as soon as something popular comes along so they can denounce it is one of the biggest frustrations in pop culture right now. There is an unbelievable amount of good stuff out there for every taste in terms of TV shows and films (just qualifying: no innuendos here, this is a PG-13 blog), enough so that just about everyone of any persuasion can find something to enjoy, so what’s the point in tearing down that enjoyment for someone else just to get clicks, or to feel a hollow sense of self-satisfaction? It’s a frustrating thing to invest all your time into liking something, only to see someone else plug the same amount of time into denouncing that thing, with the typical hint that people who do like X are simply fooling themselves, or they’re too dumb to ‘see the light’, and no-one actually wins from that kind of ‘well, actually’ nonsense. It doesn’t have to be rational – hey, I unreservedly love GTA V, despite its troublesome treatment of women, bloated narrative, scattershot satire, buggy online mode and caricatured characters. It’s a mess in so many ways, but a mess that I can look past, even if all those flaws accumulated are rationally enough to consign it to the dumpster, because the game is so fun that to completely tear it apart for all those foibles seems cruel. It’s not cruel, obviously – that’s logical criticism. But hey, if we let logic govern all our hobbies and likes, then we’d be robots.
I know it sounds like I’m on my high horse, but I’m genuinely not aiming these criticisms and urges at you, my two readers. You’re here, and you’ve gotten this far (well… I hope you’ve gotten this far?), so clearly you’re not like the people I described above. This is more of a plea to the internet, and to creators, to… well, be genuine. Take some positive things, and people, at face value every once in a while rather than always delving to see the Darkness Beneath. That attitude, I think, has reached its sell-by date in a lot of ways, and it would be lovely if we kind of reversed that. Because what’s the harm in looking past our predispositions to suspect something good when it comes, or to embrace a character or work of fiction that’s about decent people?
Oh, and to my two readers? Check out The Flash or Supergirl, two shows at the forefront of the hope-driven classic hero comeback I’m hoping is happening right now. They’re really, really messy in a lot of ways, but I think it would take a pretty big cynic (or, er, someone who doesn’t like superheroes) not to admire, at the very least, the intent.
Or, you know, you could always ignore me, you monster.