(This blog contains spoilers for Sicario and Captain America: Civil War.)
I’ve been thinking about heroes recently, particularly as it pertains to Sicario and the failure of Captain America in Civil War. We like our gritty, edgy, often morally compromised (anti)heroes. With the success of Deadpool and the release of the ever-so-slightly-psychotic Suicide Squad, it seems that this has never been truer. We’re over the square jawed, right-on-his-side, morally simplistic heroes of yesteryear (though I wonder if this was ever truly the case). Nowadays even Superman’s got a dark side. Mad Max, James Bond, absolutely everyone in Game of Thrones, Deadpool, Deadshot, other characters with dead in their names, seem more interesting somehow, more grown up. Besides everyone knows that heroes are boring, villains are much more fun. Though when your heroes aren’t terribly pleasant the villains have to be that much worse. All of these are variants of the existential hero, most of them are disillusioned, let down by a corrupt society that they have chosen to reject, why then would they obey the rules? Hmm rules. We do like a rebel.
Which brings me to Captain America. Captain America is my favourite Avenger. With an unabashed lack of comic-patriotism I even prefer him to the darker, more complex, Captain Britain (presumably soon to become Captain England & Wales when Scotland gets its own captain). My first truly memorable experience with Cap was in the late 80s during writer Mark Gruenwald’s epic ten-year run. When I started reading, Caps had been forced to give up the mantle of Captain America due to legal wrangling by the US Government who wanted him to work for them. Already troubled by the corruption he had encountered within the Government (most notably the Nuke incident) he decided to go his own way.
Now this may sound rebellious, he had, after all, turned his back on (governmental) service to his county. The difference is that for the antihero/existential hero the ends justify the means. For Cap the ends do not justify the means. He is a man with a tremendous moral code, a man of honour. To my mind Captain America is the near perfect critique of the American Experiment. He embodies the America that you want, the America that stood by their allies during World War 2, the America that sent people to the Moon, the America of innovation, of the entrepreneur, of civil rights, and all the other countless positive contributions that the US has made. Contributions that we frequently like to pretend don’t exist when Europeans look down our noses at the ‘colonials’. It is the America that Trump is terrified of, because it is an America of fairness, hard work and a level playing field where everything is possible. It is not the America of privilege and trickle down economics. (Obviously this is completely subjective and my own interpretation.) Cap is America’s assumed moral imperative, uncorrupted. For my money Captain America embodies truth and justice much more so than a space god in a red cape, and part of this is because he’s just a bloke from Brooklyn (though arguably Superman’s a bloke from Kansas). (All of the above are reasons why I didn’t like the Ultimates Cap. It was an impressive ground-breaking and very interesting series but I didn’t get on with that particular incarnation.)
Now fast forward thirty years and Captain America is on the cinema screen. The writers and Chris Evans‘ charismatic, humorous, man-out-of-his-time performance have done a wonderful job of breathing life into what could have very easily been a walking-talking cliché. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe it is Cap who stands up to the excesses of Tony Stark. It seems to me that one of the main reasons for their conflict is that Stark, in Cap’s eyes anyway, is always looking for a quick fix. Cap, on the other hand, believes that problems require hard work to solve. It’s almost a political or class struggle. At the core of it is the difference between the two men. Stark, a more complex character, believes that the end justifies the means, he believes in cutting corners to achieve a positive result, he is much more the existential hero. This is seen most obviously in Age of Ultron, where it goes horribly wrong and puts the entire world at risk. Cap, on the other hand, is a man whose life is governed by rules, some self imposed, others not. We can rely on Cap to do the right thing. That is until Civil War.
The problem is twofold. Firstly, Cap trying to help Barnes avoid capture. I understand Cap’s loyalty to his childhood friend. I understand him wanting to protect him from being murdered by the Black Panther but surely the safest way to do all this is bring Bucky in for trial and help. The irony is its only after Cap has made his decision to keep Bucky out of the authorities hands that Everett K. Ross (I think, I’m going by memory here) tells them that they’re just going to lock up Bucky and throwaway the key without a trial. At which point Cap would be completely justified in going beyond the law, because it is the law that has failed. Secondly is the rejection of oversight for the Avengers. Cap all but says he would rather use his own judgement. This is the end justifying the means. This is cutting corners. Cap provides hope that the ‘system’ isn’t utterly broken, that it can be fixed for a better tomorrow, by rejecting it as corrupt it removes that hope and we’re left with just another antihero. The role reversal with Stark is well done but suddenly Cap seems to have clay feet and he’s just the same as every other morally ambiguous ‘hero’. He is on a slippery slope.
Which brings me to Sicario. Sicario was a slow burn film for me. I wasn’t sure about it initially but kept on being drawn back to watch it, and with each viewing I find something else interesting that I like about it. If you haven’t seen it watch it when you’re feeling patient, it takes its time. The principle character in Sicario is an FBI SWAT team member called Kate Mercer, played by Emily Blunt in a wonderfully understated and nuanced performance. Mercer is a very by-the-book character. She believes in the rules and follows them as best she can. Much of the theme of the film centres on the price of ends-justifies-the-means thinking, as Mercer is sucked further and further into the corrupt world of the Mexican drug war. At every juncture Mercer tries to do the right thing, tries to avoid the cutting corners, tries to follow the rules until… Well I’m not going to tell you, go and watch the film.
In the special features for Sicario, Taylor Sheridan, the writer, says something quite interesting: there was some question as to whether or not the character of Mercer should be female. It was the usual bollocks about whether or not a female would be physically capable of the kind of things that Mercer does in the film (despite females all over the world physically doing the sort of thing that Mercer does in the film but hey-ho). Sheridan’s response was that Mercer’s adherence to the rules, which in turn provides her near-incorruptible nature, meant that she had to be female. Now we need to be careful of sweeping generalisation made about anything, not just gender, but the thing is, I kind of know what he means. I’m not saying it’s a universal law, just that it tracks with my experiences. Many of the women I know have to work harder than their male counterparts to achieve the same level of success. In the majority of cases they abide by the rules much more so than male colleagues who are more likely to cut corners, or make ends-justify-the-means decision. Now let me repeat this is not a universal law, this is just my experience.
So what? Well other than wanting to see more intelligent action(ish) thrillers like Sicario, maybe I’d like to see more protagonists who are less morally compromised, more characters who follow the rules like Mercer does, because rules are there for a reason. Because when we embrace ends-justify-the-means thinking there’s a good chance that we become the bad guys. But of course we’re talking about fiction it couldn’t possibly have any effect in the real world, could it?
All of this is of course is rank hypocrisy on my part. Many of my protagonists (I tend to avoid the word hero) are morally challenged, or in the case of Woodbine Scab in the Age of Scorpio trilogy, downright villainous (though somewhat worryingly he is my partner’s favourite character). That said one of the themes of Veteran, my first novel, was whether it’s possible to be a good person in an utterly corrupt world.
With characters like Mercer and Hermione in the Harry Potter series, I wonder if there is a micro trend of female characters as our (society’s) moral advisors, if not moral guardians. (Though the gender roles are reversed with Black Widow and Cap in the Winter Soldier.) One thing I do believe is that we should reject the idea that the ‘good’ person, the moral character is somehow less complex and less interesting than the more morally challenged characters, as I’m starting to find all these dark sides a little samey now (y’know except my own characters). Part of my thinking behind this is if I was given a choice between Kate Mercer from Sicario and Jack Bauer from 24 to safeguard my security, I’d choose the former every time.
But hey, it’s only stories.
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