The World Needs Bad Men: How the Bush Era Caused the Anti-Hero Wave that Gave Rise to Trump

Toward the finale of the 2016 election, Mike Huckabee took to Fox News to give a defense of Donald Trump that I’ve been mulling over in my head ever since.

I see Trump as Capt Quint (Robert Shaw) on the boat, Orca, in the movie “Jaws.” He’s salty, drunk and says incorrect things. He spits in your face. BUT… He’s gonna save your rear. You may not like what he says but, in the end, you and your family survive.

“Vote for the fishing boat captain,” Huckabee said. “Not the shark.”

While ineloquent and muddled, Huckabee’s defense gave a great insight into why people were lining up behind Donald Trump. They saw him as a vulgar presence, but he was their vulgar presence against the greater dangers.

If Huckabee were more versed in film, literature, or television, he would have realized that there are a thousand better metaphors for who Donald Trump is: he is, in the eyes of his followers, the anti-hero of the True America.  

A different defense of Trump comes to mind, one that his followers would surely cite, had they seen the first season of True Detective:

Marty: Do you wonder ever if you’re a bad man?

Rust: No, I don’t wonder, Marty. The world needs bad men. We keep the other bad men from the door.

true-detective-anti-hero
“The world needs bad men,” from True Detective‘s third episode.

The world needs bad men. It seems like a missed opportunity that Trump’s campaign didn’t snap that up as their slogan. One can imagine Rust and Marty’s conversation rolling over footage of Donald Trump mocking Serge Kovaleski, or Rust’s defense of bad men and musings on man’s inability to love intercut with I moved on her like a bitch and you can do anything.

This is not a specific argument I’ve seen much of, unsurprisingly. It’s easy to assume that True Detective didn’t have a major following among Trump voters, particularly when one  compares one recent study on regional television viewership demographics with the breakdown of voter demographics in the 2016 election.

However, Huckabee isn’t the only pundit to notice that Trump’s appeal is not being a traditional hero, but being the scoundrel on your side.

quint
If you don’t recall, this is the character to whom Huckabee compares Trump.

You can take a look at some of the headlines to see that this has been thoroughly explored, including a) Trump and the rise of the anti-hero from CNN b) President Trump: America chooses an anti-hero from Yahoo c) The Anti-Hero Candidacy of Donald Trump from Huffington Post d) The Donald Rises: Why Republicans Want an Anti-Hero in 2016 from The Week ad e) Trump’s success as an antihero relies on the power of reality TV and drama over reality from The LA Times

At this point, I have to point out that there is nothing unique in saying that Trump is an anti-hero and our obsession with anti-heroes in our media and film is what got Trump elected. As evidenced by the articles I just listed, this has been exhaustively explored. 

What I do have is another layer to add to this: the rise of the anti-hero in our media came from the America that emerged during the presidency of George W. Bush. 

During the Bush era, America found itself in the role of the anti-hero. This is what propelled the flawed and gritty protagonist into our film and television. This is what prompted the wave of dark and gritty reboots that are still grinding today.

Art imitates life imitates art. Politics causes pop culture causes politics. Bush was our cowboy hero who became tainted, tattered, and gritty as our wars became unwinnable and our morals murky. Obama was our shining hero, our knight in shining armor, our warrior who could not be everything he wanted to be.

And now there is Trump: the gritty anti-hero, the protagonist who rapes, the populist king. He is the danger.

But, before I move forward with this argument, it’s important to pause and discuss what we talk about when we talk about anti-heroes. Continue reading “The World Needs Bad Men: How the Bush Era Caused the Anti-Hero Wave that Gave Rise to Trump”

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The True Theme of 2016: Never Meet Your Heroes

Hating 2016 and wishing for it to end has perhaps been the meme of 2016. It has been called a dumpster fire and was declared to “even sucked for Kim Kardashian.” Beginning in July and continuing non-stop, this year was deemed to “suck” and we saw a flood of hot takes either labeling it the worst year in living memory or at least asking the question of how bad it really was.

How bad was 2016?

I’ve only lived for thirty years, but am confident this wasn’t even the worst year I’ve seen of my lifetime. 2001 was awful. 2004 wasn’t great either. 2008 had the financial crisis, the rise of Sarah Palin, the death of Heath Ledger, and apparently Elon Musk’s personal rock bottom. Armed with the right confirmation bias and armory of evidence, one could make an argument that really any year is the worst.

It’s also worth noting that not every take on the outgoing year is as reductive and hyperbolic as “the worst!” Jia Tolentino called it “The Year We Played Ourselves” in The New Yorker. Stephen Pinker pointed out that, if you ignored headlines and value facts, 2016 is better than its previous years in almost every way. It was arguably the best year ever for black filmmakers and apparently the year that solar panels finally became commercially viable. The Economist, meanwhile, awarded “The Economist‘s country of the year award” to “plucky Estonia.” Congrats Estonia!

But there is one theme I see everywhere I look, from the Nobel Prize to the election of Donald Trump to the author of Harry Potter. One piece of wisdom, one particular theme, one pervasive lesson: the classic advice that you should “never meet your hero.”

heroes
Yes, this article is about heroes and 2016, and Bowie sang about “Heroes” and died in 2016, but it has little to do with Bowie.

To recap exactly how this theme presented itself throughout the last year, I’ve catalogued a list of disappointing heroes and their disappointed fans from the last twelve months.

Why shouldn’t we meet our heroes?

Before we jump in, it’s worth reminding ourselves of why exactly we should never meet our heroes. Ultimately, it always comes down to disappointment. They aren’t who you thought they would be. They’re not doing what you wanted them to do. The things they said that made you admire them? Either your hero never meant those things or they don’t mean them anymore or they never meant what you thought they did.

And now, let’s take a look at all the disappointment heroes unleashed on their admirers. Continue reading “The True Theme of 2016: Never Meet Your Heroes”

Some Thoughts and Observations That Won’t Appear in My Next Blog Post

Sometimes, I don’t want to dedicate a full blog post to an idea, but I still want to share the idea.

Is 2016 the Year of the Feral Child?

First, a fun and simple Jungle Book, which served as both a new adaptation of Kipling and a remake of the classic Disney cartoon. Then, a new Tarzan film. Soon, a remake of Pete’s Dragon, in which apparently Pete is a feral child raised by a dragon. Oh, also, Stranger Things and Eleven, its take on the feral ’80s child.

petes-dragon-movie-disney-2016

Why all these narratives suddenly? And does it mean that we will get even more in the coming years? Perhaps a reboot of George of the Jungle? Perhaps a biopic of Victor of Aveyron? Or will we see feral children shoehorned into other narratives, like the Justice League or the Marvel films?

It was hard to tell the difference between the RNC and The Purge: Election Year

The Purge movies aren’t perfect, but they’re a sloppy and disturbing look at what America could become. Violence across the country, burning effigies, mask-wearing killers. Continue reading “Some Thoughts and Observations That Won’t Appear in My Next Blog Post”

Which Batman Character Does Trump Resemble Most? Part 6: The Conclusion

For the past several weeks, this blog has investigated which Batman character has the most in common with presidential candidate Donald Trump. We have considered five Batman villains thus far: Oswald “the Penguin” Cobblepot, Dr. Jonathan “the Scarecrow” Crane, Harvey “Two-Face” Dent, legendary villain the Joker, and the most recent of prominent Batman villains, Bane.

At this point, it is worth asking an important question: what should we do with this information? Why does it matter which character from Batman has the most in common with Trump?

But first: are there important Batman characters left to consider?

batman-villains
From “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader” by Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert

How much does Donald Trump resemble Lex Luthor?

Lex Luthor, while predominantly a Superman character rather than one of Batman’s friends or foes, resembles Trump in two significant ways: a) he’s a billionaire who b) runs for president (and, frighteningly, is elected) in the DC universe.

lex-luthor-election
From Superman: Lex 2000

The two do share one other key characteristic: a hunger for power. However, Luthor is known for being two-faced, passing himself off as a thoughtful philanthropist (while secretly plotting and inventing.) As previously discussed in the Harvey Dent article, one of Trump’s traits, and potentially his only virtue, is that he is not duplicitous: he has repeatedly revealed his ugliness on the world stage. Continue reading “Which Batman Character Does Trump Resemble Most? Part 6: The Conclusion”

Is the Joker the Batman Character Who Trump Resembles Most?

This is the fourth installment of an ongoing investigation into which Batman character Donald Trump resembles most. You can read the beginning here

The similarities between Trump and the Joker have been discussed here before, in response to an editorial by The Economist. But that was before the current series of “Which Batman Character Does Trump Resemble Most,” and was limited to the Joker as depicted by Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight.

Let’s take a step further and evaluate how much the Donald and the Joker (in all his various depictions) really resemble one another.

To begin with, both men have remarkably poor taste.

In what they say, in what they wear, in how they look and present themselves: these are crude, tasteless men.

joker-car
From Batman #321, “Dreadful Birthday, Dear Joker!”

The Joker drives a car with his own face on it, while Trump will brand anything with his own name. Both prove that taste does not accompany wealth.

He uses chaos and anarchy as a weapon, manipulating the weak and confused.

Shouting, punching, screaming, hysteria, name-calling: these are regular trappings at any assembly of Trump fans. Above this chaos stands Trump, fanning the flames and upping the ante.

It is a key element of Trump’s campaign and rhetoric. He brands himself as “anti-establishment.” Consider what the Joker says about establishment and order in The Dark Knight:

Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos. Oh, and you know the thing about chaos? It’s fair!

Like the criminals in The Dark Knight who turn to the Joker to save them, Trump’s voters are at “the point of desperation.” They are the unemployed, the angry, the tired and the scared. As Alfred Pennyworth says, “in their desperation, they turned to a man they didn’t fully understand.” Continue reading “Is the Joker the Batman Character Who Trump Resembles Most?”

Is Harvey Two-Face Dent the Batman Character Trump Resembles Most?

This is the third installment of an ongoing investigation into which Batman character Donald Trump resembles most. You can read the beginning here

Harvey “Two Face” Dent represents the curse of the classic politician. He’s the fallen star, the Apollo destroyed by the harsh realities of politics. His ambition and ideals are corrupted by pain and reality.  He’s the Barack Obama who realized he couldn’t close Guantanamo in his first term, the John McCain who courted the religious right and chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, the Mitt Romney who denied inspiring Obamacare.

whos-who-two-face
Two-Face as depicted on the back cover of Who’s Who: The Definite Directory of the DC Universe #24, February 1987

“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” – Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight

Dent divides the world into those who die heroes (Kennedy and Lincoln come to mind) and those who live long enough to become the villain (Julius Caesar is the example he uses, although one could think of many more). Trump is of a third variety.

How does Trump resemble Two-Face?

Idealistic, handsome, charismatic. Donald Trump is none of these things, and there are those who admire him for it. He does not appeal to our higher selves, does not court intellectuals or idealists. He is humanity at our basest: frightened, hateful, and angry. He appears to have little-to-nothing in common with Harvey Dent, but there are some ways in which they resemble one another.

They promise a better world, whether they can deliver it or not.

Trump promises to “Make America Great Again.” Dent is elected to Gotham City’s District Attorney in The Dark Knight on “a crusade to take back our city,” with the slogan “I Believe in Harvey Dent,” which itself is a reflection of Batman’s recurring line in The Long Halloween: “I believe in Gotham City. I believe in Harvey Dent.” Continue reading “Is Harvey Two-Face Dent the Batman Character Trump Resembles Most?”

How the Republicans Have Become the Political Equivalent of Batman’s Villains

“This has never been about who the nominee is,” Paul Ryan said yesterday, explaining why his party will fight any Supreme Court justice nomination made by Barack Obama in 2016, and why they are specifically going to fight the nomination of Merrick Garland.

This, from a party ostensibly dedicated to the Constitution. This response to the President’s nomination has proved something: the Republicans have lost all sense of identity, becoming the contemporary political equivalent to the villains that Batman fights daily in the fictional Gotham City.

whatever-happened
From Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader by Neil Gaiman and and Andy Kubert.

How so? In Batman media – whether comic books, films, or television – there is a running theme that the Batman’s “rogues gallery” is defined only by being the yin to Batman’s yang.

Their ideals, their missions, their goals and visions are all ethereal, shifting, defined not by what they are but by what Batman is not: Continue reading “How the Republicans Have Become the Political Equivalent of Batman’s Villains”

Is the Scarecrow the Batman Villain Who Trump Resembles Most?

This is the second installment in an ongoing series of articles exploring which Batman character Donald Trump resembles most. You can read the first installment here, in which I explain the impetus for this series and compare Donald Trump to Oswald “the Penguin” Cobblepot.  Or if you’re interested in reading D. F. Lovett’s fiction, you can buy his books here.

Like many of Batman’s villains, The Scarecrow first appeared in the 1940s. His backstory has gone through some variations, but there are a few universal elements: his weapon is fear, he wears a Scarecrow mask, and he is a disgraced psychiatrist who worked at both Arkahm Asylum and Gotham University before his downfall into crime.

“I am fear incarnate.” – The Scarecrow in Batman: The Animated Series

Unlike most of Batman’s famous villains, Scarecrow had not been seen on film until the Christopher Nolan trilogy. Cillian Murphy portrays Jonathan “the Scarecrow” Crane in all three films, beginning with Batman Begins, in which Scarecrow works with Liam Neeson’s R’as al Ghul to poison Gotham with a weaponized hallucinogen.

scarecrow
Cillian Murphy’s Scarecrow in Batman Begins.

One’s first instinct is to think that Trump and Scarecrow are an odd comparison. Trump is a brutish bully with cash, while Scarecrow is a delicate intellectual with a mask. But they have one thing in common: fear.

Both men use fear as their key instrument.

The Scarecrow finds out what you fear, and uses it against you. He does this is many ways. One is to plunge the city into darkness. Another is to use various fear toxins, frightening people to death or leading them to believe that their worst fears are becoming reality.

“He preys on the innocent and instills them with fear. When I chose to wear my costume, it was to prey upon the criminals and instill them with fear.

The irony is not lost on me…”

-Batman, describing the Scarecrow, in Jeph Loeb’s “Fears” (1993).

Trump’s entire campaign is based around fear. He tells people to fear immigrants. Fear refugees. Fear Mexicans. Fear Muslims. Fear ISIS. Fear “The Establishment.” Fear liberals. Fear women.

You either cede power to him because you are afraid, or he is what you fear. Both men have legions working for them, ready to rabidly attacked the next enemy. Scarecrow scares his opponents into not even engaging in a fight, just like Trump’s ability to scare away opponents from taking him on.

Fear is a tool for manipulation in the hands of Scarecrow, just as it is for Trump. Their power grows as they use fear to turn people against one another. Continue reading “Is the Scarecrow the Batman Villain Who Trump Resembles Most?”

What We Failed to Learn About Terrorism from The Dark Knight

Or, “Stop Calling Them Gunmen and Start Calling Them Terrorists”

One of the most notable elements of Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy is that, despite being made by a British writer and director and set in the fictional Gotham City, the films capture the zeitgeist of the post-9/11 America in a frightening, realistic way.

But there’s one lesson in these films that we don’t seem to have retained: terrorism can take many forms. 

Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, the first and third films in the trilogy, show evil as an extensive international network motivated by belief in a higher cause: the League of Shadows, led first by Liam Neeson and later by Tom Hardy’s Bane. It’s an evil organization which resembles Al-Qaeda or IS/Daesh in its reach and tactics. 

Unlike the other two films, in The Dark Knight our villain is Heath Ledger’s Joker: a criminal who seemingly materializes out of nowhere. His background is unknown, with no criminal record or history of violence. He operates as a loner, with a few followers but no peers. He believes not in fundamentalism but in anarchy and chaos. He prefers easily-obtained weapons: in his words, “a few drums of gas and a couple of bullets.” He kills with abandon, targeting mob bosses, murdering his own followers, burning corrupt businessmen alive, turning civilians against one another. Throughout it all, he operates without loyalty and welcomes death. 

CA.0627.darkknight
Perhaps film’s most famous villain of the oughts.

He gives a speech, in one of the more famous moments from the film, explaining why people are so frightened of him. Because he disrupts expectations. He disrupts “the plan.” Because anyone can be his victim, not just “a gangbanger” or “a truckload of soldiers.”

The mass waves of shooters (most of whom are white and “Christian”) overtaking America resemble the Joker in every way: they kill innocents, make spectacles of their crimes, and fear nothing, including death. The American mass shooter is almost always suicidal. There are few mass shooters who begin their killing sprees expecting any outcome aside from death or life imprisonment.

Like the Joker, they cannot be “bought, bullied, reasoned, or negotiated with.”

But there is a key difference. In The Dark Knight, District Attorney Harvey Dent holds a press conference and calls the Joker what he is: a terrorist. America’s leaders, when they hold press conferences, talk about gunmen, about shooters, but not about terrorists. Continue reading “What We Failed to Learn About Terrorism from The Dark Knight”

Please, No More Origin Stories of How Evil Villains Used to be Good Guys or Children

If you haven’t heard, the latest complete failure at the box office was the flaccid reboot Pan, an attempt to create a franchise out of the Peter Pan story by starting with Mr. Pan’s origin as a young boy on an adventure to Neverland. In which the villain is Hugh Jackman as Blackbeard and Peter’s best friend is a guy named James Hook.

Okay, Hugh Jackman. You're too good to keep playing Wolverine but you'll do THIS?
Okay, Hugh Jackman. You’re too good to keep playing Wolverine but you’ll do THIS?

That’s right: in the new version of Peter Pan that you didn’t see, Pete’s best friend is a young, two-handed, two-eyed Captain Hook in his pre-pirate days. Meaning that the narrative is an origin story that includes a tragic bromance in which we watch one of the central characters become a villain.

This is the exact reboot/origin story/cheesy narrative that we do not need. And it’s a strange trend, with examples including the Star Wars prequels, Wicked, and a variety of superhero films and television shows in which the villain first appears as a classmate, friend, or family member of the hero.

It’s redundant and unoriginal and redundant.

As stated above, there is very little original left in the idea of “let’s imagine what happened in the part of the story before what we’ve seen,” whether its Pre-Pan or Not-yet-sleeping Beauty. It would perhaps be more interesting if it wasn’t so common, but there’s no longer anything unique about the idea that “what if Poison Ivy was a little girl before she became a bad guy” or “guys, maybe the wicked witch wasn’t always wicked?”

It’s sad and disturbing, but not in a compelling way.

There’s something very sad about a narrative in which we see a kid become a villain. There’s a reason that no one has made a summer blockbuster about Adolf Hitler as a kind little boy who becomes corrupted by evil. It would be disturbing and awful and sad. Although, based on the trends, I wouldn’t be surprised if someone creates an gritty origin story in which Jesus of Nazareth and Pontius Pilate are classmates who fight a battle against Herod before Pontius becomes a villain and Jesus becomes a hero.

The only good example of this trope is Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot, because at no point is Michael Myers an innocent young boy awaiting corruption. He’s evil from the start, killing animals in his bedroom and classmates after school. This works because it’s an over-the-top absurd slasher film in which Zombie’s endgame is overwhelming the audience with a visceral, brutal experience.

Yes, I kinda liked Rob Zombie's Halloween.
Yes, I kinda liked Rob Zombie’s Halloween.

Other than that, this cheap trope of the eventual villain beginning as a child is too brutal for a children’s story and too obvious for adults. Even the Sam Raimi Spiderman trilogy was weakened by the hackneyed writing that turned James Franco from Peter Parker’s bff into Green Goblin Junior.

It paints the world in unrealistic terms.

Here is the narrative we’re given in this unneeded origin stories: “He was good, and then he became evil.” The one exception is probably that of Darth Vader, in which the narrative is “He was good, and then he became evil, but then he became good for a second right before he died and then he went to Star Wars Heaven.” Either way, it declares that the world is good guys and bad guys.

The worst part is that these narratives often pose as “darker interpretations” or act as if they’re asking poignant questions about morality and heroism, when really the only question they ask if “what’s an easy way to show a good person become a bad person?”

It eliminates suspense from the story.

“Oh, his name is James Hook? So what, he’s Captain Hook? Yep. Okay. Wait, I need to watch him become Captain Hook for the next two hours? Great. This is exciting and suspenseful.”

ivy
I wonder which Batman villain Ivy Pepper will grow up to be.

This is the trouble with prequels and origin stories. They’re often yawn-inducing, because we know exactly what’s going to happen. Even Better Call Saul, a show I kinda like that provides some good laughs, suffers from the flaw that it’s completely unnecessary and we know what the ending will be. I mean, the ending already exists. It’s called Breaking Bad.

With Pan, we have reached peek reboot. And it’s a good lesson for anyone who has plans for an upcoming reboot or origin story or prequel, whether it’s the Adventures of Young Jesus and Pontius described above or the inevitable Back to the Future reboot.

Let's hope that the Pepsi Perfect is just a fun thing that's happening, and not the first step of the Michael Bay reboot of BTTF.
Let’s hope that the appearance of Pepsi Perfect in real life (first seen in Back to the Future 2) is just a fun thing that’s happening, and not the first step of the Michael Bay reboot of BTTF.

There is only one way to make a reboot work now: you need to make anything possible. Don’t write the story into a corner in order to match the original plot points or the expectations that the audience has. Ensure suspense by making anything on the table. This is some work and some don’t. Batman Begins and its sequels gave us moments we’d never seen; Craig’s Casino Royale killed the villain and the love interest surprising, unexpected scenes; Man of Steel, on the other hand, failed because it opened with the exact same Superman origin story that we’d seen a million times, in which the baby Superman is put into a spaceship and sent from Krypton to Earth.

So, please, if you are currently hard at work on a gritty reboot in which we see a familiar villain begin life as an innocent, a hero, or a child: ask yourself if you are providing us with anything new and anything that anyone wants to see.