"Pacifying the Masses or Reminding the Individual?"
"Already long ago, from we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions – everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses."- Juvenal
In the final days of Rome, the politicians put on circuses and gladiator matches to help pacify the People of Rome and to distract them from their slowly crumbling empire. Rome was ending from an assortment of factors such as wealth inequality, political corruption, government overspending on foreign wars, and the rise of an Eastern Empire; but the people were entertained. It's 2019, and the United States finds itself in the same set of circumstances but substitute the bread, circuses and gladiator matches with high-fructose corn syrup, 24-hour news networks, consumerism, professional sports, the Kardashians, and social media. We've evolved our bread and circuses.
Some may even throw in the massively successful Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones into the endless array of constant stimulation, but I feel that these two fandoms are an exception. An exception because we are living in a time where we want heroes. We want the morally, moderate politician to take a brave stance. We want the underdog to win against the powerful conglomerate. We want our hopes rewarded. The MCU and Game of Thrones are successful in our contemporary culture because they speak to our need desperate need for heroes, while the two fandoms in return show us where heroism truly lies: with the individual.
The MCU and the Origin of Heroes
Marvel Studios accomplished an amazing and ludicrous feat by their powerhouse of 22 intertwined movies coursing over a decade. With Avengers: Endgame on its way to becoming the highest grossing box-office film in the world, the MCU has proven to be one of the greatest mediums of storytelling in history. The success stems from a multitude of factors such as the studio giving directors and writers creative control, access to top-notch leaders and actors in entertainment, and a massive budget. But why hasn't the MCU bombed yet? Why haven't they gone the way of the D.C. Cinematic Universe?
Before you ask Martha, the answer is in the fundamental differences in the depiction of the heroes in the comics. D.C. focuses on the superpower itself while Marvel concentrates on the person who wields the superpower. Robert Downey, Jr's. Tony Stark/Iron Man was showcased in 2008, during the recession when we watched bankers and the rich get bailed out while most of American's suffered and had to fight their way out of economic hardship. We wished they would use their resources and intelligence to help their neighbor, but instead, they took bonuses on top of their bailouts. We wanted a hero during those times, so Tony Stark/Iron Man was that greedy industrialist who was able to redeem himself. Iron Man substituted what we wanted from the affluent and the bankers during that difficult year; which was for them to do the right thing. But they didn't; so, the cinema gave us a man who did.
Steve Rogers/Captain America represents the true American ideal. Not a blind patriot who will follow the edict and dogma of nationalism, but a man who sincerely searches for what is the right thing to do and does it. Throughout the comics and films, Captain America proclaims his pride for the U.S.A. but also sees when freedom and liberty are fringed upon and knows when to stop it, even at the risk of becoming a criminal himself. With political corruption becoming more prevalent in America, such as what happened with Flint, Michigan in 2016, and what is currently happening with the Trump administration, it's becoming harder to trust leaders and institutions. We want to believe that the people we elect to represent our country will do the right thing, no matter the cost. But as we watch as our government is in disarray and gridlocked, we look to a man who never existed as a model of what we want from our leaders.
Bruce Banner/Hulk represents not only the duality of man, his humanity vs. his animalistic urges (such as Jekyll and Hyde), but he also represents both the best that science has to offer and the monster we can create from it. The Hulk represents an underlying fear of what we can create from science and innovation, something that can't or won't be controlled. Climate Change and Artificial Intelligence are two real existential threats created by science and industry that we will have to contend with in the near future. But what we see with the Hulk and Bruce Banner is a controlled monster. A powerful, controlled monster whose duality can be used to solve great scientific mysteries or to smash god-like enemies. Avengers: Age of Ultron illustrates what monsters science can create when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner attempted to create a weapon to protect the world but instead created a genocidal, sentient robot bent on destroying it.. But despite these existential threats we will face, it will be a combination of science and humanity which will save us — an agreement between our Banners and Hulks.
Game of Thrones and the Reality of People
Take away the dragons, the Night King and the magic, and you will be left with a fantastical retelling of European History. The War of the Roses, Hadrian's Wall, and the Fall of Rome all lend inspiration to George R.R. Martin's masterpiece. But what makes the show so compelling is the depth of humanity shown in the characters and the idea of redemption.
We see that evil is often embodied not by the ominous Night King and the undead but the humans that live in Westeros. Cersei Lannister is a cunning, sociopathic queen who uses people as dispensable pawns to move her agenda forward. Lord Baelish/Littlefinger is a master manipulator who pits siblings and friends against each other while posing as a loyal friend. These two distasteful antagonists make the show interesting because they speak to the maleficence we're afraid of encountering. There is a good chance you've met people like Cersei and Littlefinger. Such as the co-worker who uses gossip around the office to their advantage, the executive uses his standing and influence to shield himself from the legal and moral repercussions of his immoral acts, or a former spouse who used love as leverage as they had an affair after affair behind you back and blamed it on you. You can even watch the news and see the Littlefinger's and Cersei's working in government. Politicians who pit citizen against citizen so they can stay both enforce an agenda that benefits their benefactors or keeps them seated in their position.
But what makes the show relevant is the opposite of these antagonists; the heroes we wished we had and could become. Tyrion Lannister is a dwarf who was a drunkard who enjoys libraries and brothels. But despite his physical limitations and the cruel treatment from his family, he has proven time after time that intelligence and morality will always win out. Yes, he made bad judgment calls and trusted the wrong people, but we see the good in him. We recognize that his heart has always cared for others, and he will risk it all to protect the lowliest of people. We desire this in our leaders; we desire this cunning, big heart in the people we entrust with power.
Jon Snow is the ultimate good guy. Despite his flawed judgment and his reluctance to accept the Iron Throne, he has proven time and time that he will not bend his integrity even at the risk of his own life. While others, even Tyrion, have asked him to lie and not make moral decisions, Jon holds fast and sticks to his integrity. He does what is right and necessary even if it's unpopular such as uniting the Free-Folk and bending the knee to Daenerys so he can defeat the existential threat of the Night King. The audience is drawn to Jon Snow not only because we want leaders to be like him, but we want to be like him in the darkest of times. We want to be brave and be virtuous in the face of defeat, failure, and death.
Then there is the complicated Queen Daenerys Targaryen. She was supposed to be the liberator, the righteous queen who was supposed to unite and free the seven realms. But with her heartbreaking decision to use her dragon to incinerate everybody in King's Landing has shown the audience the real lesson of obtaining power. It is better to earn the trust and loyalty of people by being a righteous servant than to rule with fear. Because ruling with fear will not only create enemies for yourself (such as Cersei did), but it will transform you into the monster you swore to defeat. Her genocidal act highlighted her choices throughout her story. Every decision she made was to get to the Iron Throne because it was her birthright and not out of altruism. She proclaimed she was doing it because she was the People's true queen and was a liberator, but her obsession with obtaining the throne had slowly turned her into the Mad Queen. The pursuit of power for the sake of having it will always find a way to turn you into what you fear the most.
But, the most significant appeal with Game of Thrones is the idea of redemption. To watch characters like Theon Greyjoy, The Hound and Jorah Mormont; who all committed heinous acts, grow and become heroic. You witness their anguish as they realized the wrong they've done and the torment they harbor; such as Theon's journey from a selfish murderer to the tortured captor, coward, and finally into a good man. It resonates with people because we all want redemption. We all want to forgive ourselves for our own transgressions. We want to forgive those who have brought pain to us, especially the ones we loved. We want to see the bad guy pay for his sins and become a good man. It's the beautiful part of humanity which Game of Thrones portrays with perfection.
The Heroes We Wish for The World
There has never been, nor probably will ever be, a medium of storytelling as grand as what the MCU and Game of Thrones were able to produce. Yes, there was the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises, and shows like The Sopranos and Doctor Who that are similar to popularity and fandom. But the MCU and Game of Thrones were able to produce a remarkable feat of interwoven storylines and characters which appeals to the hearts and minds of the audience.
But the real appeal of both franchises is that they are produced in a time when there are high conflict and uncertainty in the world. Brexit, the Trump Administration, Climate Change; North Korea, lack of job security; social justice warriors, Putin, wealth inequality, and China are just some of the examples which are bringing angst throughout the planet. Yes, these productions are a way to escape from the chaos. A way to take a moment to mentally catch your breath and forget about the things outside your control. But, they are also a way to inspire the individual to become the hero.
Tony Stark, Captain America, and Jon Snow have never existed, but what makes them beloved and inspiring is as real as the paper they live on. Their qualities, their heroism, take inspiration from what is inherent in every human being. Yes, we may never fight the un-dead or wear a mechanical suit of armor, but we can be the person who looks for what is the right thing and does it. We can be a genius inventor. We can be a noble leader. We can be the one that stands against corruption. We can be the heroes that we see on the screen.