Chimera and Bellerophon on the big screen

In the interests of full disclosure, I first learned about the mythical figures Bellerophon and the Chimera through (the rather disappointing) Mission Impossible II. In the film, biochemist Dr. Nekhorvich splices together “strains of influenza to create a cure for all influenzas.” Like the authors of Greek Mythology, he needed to engineer the ultimate enemy – a super-bug named Chimera – to let their greatest hero – the vaccine, aptly named Bellarophon – shine: “Every search for a hero must begin with something that every hero requires; a villain. Therefore, in a search for our hero, Bellerophon, we created a monster Chimera.”

Nekhorvich’s analogy is a telling examination of the interdependence of protagonist and antagonist, whether it is in the context of medicine, folk lore, Science Fiction, or Hollywood cinema. Every protagonist needs their evil twin to prove their mettle.[1]

According to the awesome Writing Screenplays that Sell, every good film has the following:
  • a protagonist
  • an antagonist 
  • a companion 
  • and a love interest. 
A topical example is Inception, where Dom Cobb battles to reunite with his children. Within the world of Inception, it is natural to assume that Dom’s antagonist is Robert Michael Fischer (played by Cillian Murphy of ‘Scarecrow’ fame); similarly, that his love interest is Mal (played by Marion Cotillard of Un long dimanche de fian├žailles fame). However, Fischer is actually just a pawn in Dom’s whole journey, and his love-interests are his children – more important to him than the question of whether he is actually awake.

It is ‘Mal’, or rather the manifestation of his guilt regarding his wife’s suicide, that is his enemy, and whose slaying marks his victory:
“I wish you were [real]. But I couldn’t make you real. I’m not capable of imagining you in all your complexity and ... perfection. As you really were. You’re the best I can do. And you’re not real.”
What allows Dom to conquer his foe and reclaim his family is his realization that his wife is dead and that her ghost is a product of his own guilt – thus subject to his will. Dom has met the enemy and realized that he is it. Like Labyrinth, where Jennifer Connelly’s character vanquishes the Goblin King, he understands his wife’s shade has no power over him.

We don’t need another (super)hero

However, a similar motif of particularly speculative fiction really bugs me. This is where superheroes spend all their time fighting other people with similar superpowers – effectively nullifying their productivity, and leaving little time for any other civic duties. A classic example is the television series Heroes. The Indian narrator, Dr. Mohinder Suresh, predicts that the emergence of a new strain of humanity will allow us to solve problems that our modern democratic institutions, armed with 21st Century technology, cannot:
“Look at what’s happening to our planet: over-population, global warming, drought, famine, terrorism - deep down we all sense something’s not right. My father always talked about how an entire species will go extinct, while others no more unique or complex will change and adapt in extraordinary ways- He had a romantic take on evolution ... [But there is] a disease which threatens to eradicate them all. And in doing so deprives our species of its evolutionary advancement. Without this advancement, the challenges of the modern world – global warming, terrorism, diminishing resources – seem almost insurmountable on our thin shoulders.”
Yet in the first season of Heroes, and for at least the first half of the second season (by which point I gave up in disgust), the various protagonists focus their magic powers against each other and themselves; as with Peter Petrelli almost nuking New York City by mistake. In Heroes, the emergence of superpowers appears to result in no positive gains for society or the world at large – certainly none of the benefits predicted by our optimist Dr. Suresh.

When a cosmic energy cloud impacts a space station, rather than helping mitigate climate change, or reduce world hunger, the five astronauts whose evolution has been accelerated end up battling it out in grand style in ‘Fantastic Four versus Doctor Doom’.

Alternatively, in Lord of the Rings, Gandolf the Grey struggles against Saruman the White – one of the three wizards created to protect Middle Earth from Sauron, yet who eventually becomes Sauron’s ally.

Each rescue remedy itself becomes something from which we need rescuing.

Yes, a hero and their nemesis are only enjoyable to watch if they are of evenly classed. This also carries strong thematic and character development importance, as it allows us to isolate the essential differences between good and bad guy.[2] Yet the world of the superheroes and super villains increasingly resemble that of tribal militias, venting their petty squabbles in third-world countries, amidst civilians who – like the peasants in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – find the exact name of their current dictator irrelevant.

We might well drool over the Jedi in the Star Wars universe. Yet a closer look at its broad history reveals the following, eternal cycle, with countless civilians caught in the crossfire:
  1. Sith getting their revenge 
  2. Jedi return triumphant 
  3. Sith get their revenge again
Even after the original Star Wars trilogy, I wonder how the Force actually helps the cause of freedom and justice in the galaxy:
By the conclusion of the original trilogy, Luke has gained a moral victory over the Emperor, and saved his father’s soul – which, strategically speaking, means diddlysquat. For had he capitulated to the Emperor, killed his father, and joined the dark side, the Millennium Falcon would still have just blown them all up. Even the great Yoda could not even hang around for a few more days for Round 2 of Jedi Master versus Dark Lord of the Sith. The Ewoks aided the Rebel Alliance far more than any Force wielders – risking their species and their planet in the process.

In fact, if we asked those in that galaxy far, far away, who endured a Sith-led military dictatorship brought upon by with the full-cooperation of the Jedi,[3] whether they would abolish the Force-wielding Jedi and Sith alike from the galaxy, I think we can guess what they would say: ‘Order 66 for the lot of you.’

Image by DetroitVideoDaily

End notes

[1] As Anthony Hopkins’ character tells HuntThis isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. “Difficult” should be a walk in the park for you.

[2] These differences usually include a loyal team, compassion, or – as illustrated in The First Avenger – humility and good old fashion American values:
  • Red Skull: What makes you so special? 
  • Captain America: Nothing. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn. 
[3] The so-called heroes of The Clone Wars, such as ‘General’ Kenobi, were fighting a war that was just a ploy by their power-hungry Chancellor come Sith-lord to consolidate power. Put simply, the Jedi were tools, and there is nothing redeeming, or glorious, in depicting them getting so used. While such labels may appear easier in hindsight, it should have been exceedingly evident that accepting into your ranks a few million clones, manufactured by some mysterious entity without your consent, was clearly dumb.

This is reminiscent of Mass Effect’s ‘Citadel’, which is a giant space station conveniently placed in the hub of galactic throughways. Numerous space-faring races use the Citadel as the centre of their shared governance, unaware that a malevolent AI race – intent on eradicating all organic life every few thousand years – planted it as a giant booby-trap. Do no other advanced sentient species have the equivalent expression ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’?