This week Adam Smith wrote about Vin Diesel, Riddick and Austen (it’s really rather interesting; go on have a look i’ll wait…). Completely unaware of Mr. Smith’s dissection of subscription driven work I have also been writing on the subject of Vin Diesel; maybe it’s fate, maybe it’s a reflection of Diesel’s wonderful personality. Maybe it’s just because he’s a fine specimen of a man… or maybe it’s because of the new archetype that the bald god-man almost always plays.
Here begins the possibly slightly apocryphal history lesson.There has always been a fine line between hero and villain; writers, directors and actors constantly struggle with the tumultuous nature of heroic classification citing virtues and moral qualities all of which hinge on one key premise, the intention is more important than the action.
The original concepts of hero and villain were coined by Aristotle and his contemporarys, stating in his Poetics that the tragic hero is a man “who is eminently good and just, whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty”. The hero would be a victim of circumstance and the actions of others and thus the villain is the one who causes these circumstances or antagonises them at the detriment of the hero.
The good hero, bad villain concept continued on for a very long time and with the irregular exception was the mainstay of literature and narrative until the late 16th century and the work of Marlowe and Shakespeare. Elizabethan, Jacobean and Carolinian theatres laid the groundwork for the anti-hero and the corrupted saviour and by the advent of the Romanticism and Realism in the mid 18th century a new form of hero had emerged in the form of Byronic heroism. Mysterious men who wandered the globe doing good deeds but by the standards of polite society suffered from villainous origins or history. This moved forward even further through the Victorian period and pre war era with the development of heroic/villainous duality in the form of characters like Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde and the ineffable Dr. Frankenstein. It was the second world war that massively shifted the paradigms and archetypes of heros and villains and allowed for the creation of the herovillain.
Over the course of six years the world saw the atrocities of concentration camps, atomic bombs and good men destoryed by ‘morally good’ actions. Following WWII the relatively simple concepts of hero and villain became a web of different factors, given the world had just seen the possible cost of moral virtue a new and somewhat darker breed of anti-heros and villains began to develop culminating in the herovillain of today; less agreeable than the anti-hero and more beneficent than the anti-villain he does terrible things but for almost the right reasons…
The hero/villain dynamic has developed into something very different in the last few decades; interestingly the most common and comprehensive classification system has developed out of the word of role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and internet sensation World of Warcraft in the shape of the Alignment System.
Rather than utilising terms such as hero and villain the system lays out 9 possible incarnations through varying levels of good to evil and lawfullness to chaos. DC’s Superman is the Lawful Good; he follows social, legal and moral laws in the pursuit of goodness, justice and given the option will always take the most morally good action. The Joker from DC’s comic series is the epitomy of chaotic evil; a character that seeks only to destroy and cause mayhem and will take every oppertunity to inflict evil no matter how small. In the centre of this table is the true nuetral; often afflicted by factors such as telepathy, clairvoyence or being from a different time period or universe this character is often seperate from the world either through choice or through circumstance for example the character of River Tam in Joss Whedon’s cult TV programme Firefly. Herein lies Vin Diesel.
We’ll be looking at Diesel’s arguably most successful film franchises; the Fast & Furious franchise. Now 6 films in total the Fast & Furious narrative sees Diesel cast as Dominic Toretto a dangerous and extremely talented driver who with his gang commits crimes on huge scale featuring fast paced driving, dangerous stunts and agressive tactics. Rebelling against the constraints of corrupt society (and also legal society) in their pursuit of fortune across the 6 films we see Toretto’s gang actively commit crimes under the guise of morally good(ish) actions. In the first instalment of the saga (The Fast and The Furious, 2001) we see Toretto and his bunch of badass racers (and fiery latino women) infiltrated by an FBI agent who is undercover to investigate a string of high-profile electronics thefts.
Agent Brian O’Conner must decide whether to break his cover after falling in love with Toretto’s sister to save a member of the gang after they were shot by the truck driver they were attempting to rob. Which is, in all honesty, not an unfounded response from the truck driver. Enraged by the revelation a chase ensues between Toretto and O’Conner which culminates in O’Conner letting Toretto get away.
He lets the confirmed career criminal get away, with his car because he likes his sister… and we cheer when that happens. In the fifth installment (Fast Five, 2011) they break into a police station (which is corrupt naturally), steal a safe full of billions of dollars, have a chase through the streets of Rio causing untold amounts of civic damage by dragging said safe behind two surprisingly powerful cars. All the while declaring that it’s the right thing to do because the guy they’re stealing from is a crime lord, and that makes major damage to the mostly innocent civilian population’s lives absolutely acceptable. At one point in said chase they smash up a bank with people in it with the same safe as they use it’s momentum to swing round a corner; the film shows normal people having to literally jump out of the way at this oncoming steel deathbrick.
I find it very hard to believe that in this whole sequence not one person died; oh wait, scratch that literally dozens of police officers die as a result of Toretto & O’Conner’s fancy driving. They’re corrupt though, so surely that means they deserve to die? In that moment you really think they do. Upon reflection however we realise that many of the officers involved in the chase were just normal policemen and normal people who’ve been directed to stop the psychopaths driving through the streets dragging a safe behind them which is just for clarity illegal in so many ways. It may be that they’re all corrupt cops but in a city where the local crime lord has made it painfully clear that either you do things his way or you die, many of these cops still look like victims because lets be honest they don’t have much of a choice. As exemplified by the beautiful Elena Neves, a widow police officer whose husband was killed in the line of duty by the crime lord’s thugs there isn’t much choice as to whether or not you do the bad guys bidding.
Alongside this US DSS agent Luke Hobbs arrives in Rio to hunt down O’Connell and the Torettos, played by the terrifyingly muscular Dwayne ‘the Rock’ Johnson of WWF fame, Hobbs is powerful, no bull**** enforcer of the law who over the course of the film becomes a supporter of Toretto (even if only temporarily) and he helps them break into the police station with his super car tank (which incidentally is a hilarious example of american ideas of superiority); again the law falls in Toretto’s favour. But all these terrible actions are okay because they’re doing it for the benefit of the people… except they’re not, at no point is it suggested that the general populace is benefiting from this, if anything they’re lives are going to be even harder what with all the damage to the city, their roads, their homes, the disbanding of the law enforcement system in the city and a now enraged crime syndicate. None of that matters at the point in time you’re watching, you want them to drag that safe across a bridge, causing corrupt police officers to crash into civilian cars and smash apart the city’s infrastructure; if anything you want more of it.
The Fast and Furious franchise is a weird world. We know what these people are doing is bad; not bad in the sense of “oh the baby swallowed a marble”, bad in the sense of… “oh god, oh god I think the hooker stopped breathing”. The latter is the perfect example of what Fast and Furious does to us; it has led us down a road where the bad is acceptable and at some points appealing; it clouds our moral judgement and we only realise our dubious moral standing when reality smacks us in the face.
At the end of Fast Five Hobbs (huge, muscular and covered in patriotic sweat) gives Toretto a head start with the promise that he will chase him. This snap back to a more morally true universe makes us realise that really we have been rooting for someone that in a cop movie would be the villain… several times over. I’m still mystified how the Fast and Furious franchise does this; there is a chance that it has something to do with moral suspension in conjunction with suspension of disbelief or it may be tied to the pure escapist fantasy elements of the saga (like the fact that these men can lift their arms above their head with all those muscles). Even now, when I think of the narrative and dissect them from a point of view where i’m not drunk on revving engines and beautiful people I find myself justifying their actions and in a way agreeing with them.
That is the terrifying power of the Herovillan; they personify a world where bad deeds are acceptable and even to be encouraged if for the right reasons and not in a Spockian “needs of the many” way in a selfish capitalist way. No longer are we accepting of a hero’s flaws from an empathetic place but rather a sympathetic, understanding and uncomfortably approving place.
Strangely, I am totally ok with that.