Since the dawn of storytelling, good guys with strong moral compasses were glamorized, while bad guys with wayward moral compasses were vilified. Yes, there were gray areas when good guys sometimes did bad things for good reasons, but a slew of recent films and television shows have turned gray to black.
The Wolf of Wall Street is a recent example. Directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, the film glamorizes the real life story of a drug- and sex-crazed stockbroker who cheats investors to enrich himself. Rather than vilify the man's actions, the filmmaker glamorizes his misdeeds. In fact, when suspicions grow of the con man's wrong doings, the narrative turns him into a celebrity hero for villains-in-the-making. After he is briefly tossed in jail, he is reborn into the lucrative conference circuit where he can teach his dubious trade to others. The FBI agent who apprehended him is portrayed as impotent, unable to exact any lasting justice, while leading a rather sad existence himself. There may be a degree of truth in this portrayal. But could the filmmaker have glamorized the FBI agent while vilifying the stockbroker? Absolutely. Would there have been a degree of truth in that portrayal? Yes. But the filmmaker didn't. Nor did the filmmaker turn the camera toward the con man's many victims. They are not portrayed in the film at all, and thus Scorsese paints the villain with a rather one-sided brush. It was a subjective call, and that's the point.
The Netflix series House of Cards is a political drama that tells the tale of an unscrupulous congressman named Frank Underwood. Played by Kevin Spacey, Underwood exacts revenge on political foes who betrayed him. He not only destroys the careers of others, but he resorts to murder as well. Most interesting is that there is no hero in this narrative; at least none thus far. Perhaps the storyteller wants us to believe that Underwood is the hero, suggesting that evil people are good if they do evil to others who are equally evil. This is the idea behind Showtime's Dexter, a story about a serial killer who only kills heinous criminals. Does that really make him a hero? In Hollywood these days it sorta does.
It makes the lyrics of Bonnie Tyler's song "Holding Out For A Hero" ever more relevant.
Where have all the good men gone.
And where are all the gods?
Where's the street-wise Hercules
To fight the rising odds?
Isn't there a white knight upon a fiery steed?
Late at night I toss and I turn and I dream of what I need.
I need a hero.
Good question. Where have all the good men (and women) gone?
It's true that lovable bad guys have a rich history in story. The 1973 film The Sting is one of my favorites. It's about two endearing swindlers who con a mob boss. Since their target is a man much more evil than they are, the con artists can easily be construed as heroes. But today's villains-be-heroes tend to be much, much darker.
In AMC's Breaking Bad, a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Facing death, he decides to cook and sell meth in order to make enough money to give his family a comfortable living after he's dead. Would a real hero cook and sell meth, knowing that the drug would destroy the lives of others? Nope! So we can count Walt as a villain. Yet the creators of the show carefully crafted his persona so that viewers (including me) would root for him. Though he destroys the relationship with his wife and son, he does manage to steer cash their way while killing villains even more evil than he. Then he dies of a self-inflicted bullet wound, amidst a meth lab of his design, with a thin smile on his face as though proud of his accomplishments. His brother-in-law Hank, a DEA officer and one of the few recognizable heroes, gets murdered before he can bring Walt to justice. He was impotent in the final solution.
I wonder if the trend of showing sympathy for bad guys reflects something deeper, a belief by some storytellers that people who do evil are not bad, but are simply misunderstood victims of circumstances such as poor parenting or an evil society. And thus they are to be understood, coddled and helped, not shunned, killed or incarcerated. "I'm not bad," said Jessica Rabbit in the 1988 film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, "I'm just drawn that way."
Making heroes impotent gained prominence when the 2007 film No Country for Old Men won an Oscar for Best Picture. It's a story about an aging sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones who confronts drug cartels and a ruthless hit man. By the end of the story, masses of innocent people are murdered, the hit man makes his escape, and the sheriff retires because he is not up to the task of confronting today's villains.
Narratives that empower bad guys and weaken good guys won't disappear; nor should they. It's good that storytellers explore the thin line that separates good from evil, us from our demons. We learn a bit about ourselves in the process. What's most encouraging is that audiences are still on the side of strong heroes who thwart villains. The 2013 film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire has made $422 million domestically whereas The Wolf of Wall Street made only $108 million, and some of that came after its nomination for Best Picture which piqued audience interest. But in the end they were not amused. Audiences graded The Wolf of Wall Street a "C" while Hunger Games: Catching Fire received an "A" (CinemaScore).
In a comforting way, it demonstrates that while evil may beat good on the big screen at times, good more often beats evil at the box office. That is the best indicator of what audiences desire, and perhaps more deeply, what humankind values.