|The Fool in The Tarot|
The "man child" trope has a derisive name, but I don't think it's automatically a bad character within the realm of fiction. I go to books and movies because I want a satisfying story and stories usually need a character to learn something. With this trope, we tend to start with someone naive, which could mean anything from emotionally stunted to frighteningly optimistic, who needs to be kinder, better, or more self-aware. While rarer in popular entertainment, this "man child" has shown up as a female character (see: Amy Poehler in Baby Mama , Cameron Diaz in Bad Teacher ). So if we're talking more classic, gender-neutral archetypes, this person would be closely related to The Fool, someone usually more clever than smart and unable to see the big picture.
I'm most interested when this character a) is a fictional entity with whom I don't have to interact with in reality if I choose not to and b) does immature things that have consequences.
Frank (Rainn Wilson) in Super (2010) gets to don a mask, defeat the bad guys, and save the girl, but he has to shed a great deal of blood in the process. Jimmy in James Gunn's first and only novel, "The Toy Collector" (2000), focuses on drugs and his collection of toy robots to the exclusion of family and friends. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) can play Han Solo as long as he wants, but he has to fight to put together a family that resembles the love and support he has before leaving Earth as a child. The through line of all these works is both the celebration and deconstruction of the eternal childhood. Director/writer James Gunn gives us characters who live the power fantasy problematized by real world outcomes.
|Promo image featuring Rainn Wilson in Super (2010)|
The dark side of his decisions are not softened, though. He commits violence that's brutal and ugly in the wake of his un-compromised sense of justice and a hallucination that leads him to believe he's been "chosen by God." His victims are tearful and often horribly mangled, even if they've only cut in line or keyed a car. Even the characters who perpetrate more serious crimes don't seem to deserve this disproportionate sense of justice. Throughout the movie, it's heavily implied Jacques' "minions" (including characters played by Sean Gunn and Michael Rooker) are far more sympathetic than their line of work would suggest. It's a grim tragicomedy.
The roles women play in "Super" don't feel particularly revolutionary to the superhero genre out of context. Libby (Ellen Page) is the excitable sidekick with a tragic, graphic death that further motivates Frank in his crusade for justice and Sarah is the quintessential damsel in distress, up to and including an attempted rape by a crime boss. We've seen these character types before, usually in service to the main character's power fantasy.
|Watchmen (19861987) by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons|
|Super (2010) Blu-Ray cover|
Super is a source of uncomfortable truths and unvarnished violence. The action may pivot around Frank, but everyone around him has an agenda that doesn't involve serving his goals. Even his fry cook buddy, Hamilton (Andre Royo), calls Frank out on his strange behavior. No one is here as a prop for Frank's fantasy regardless of its success.
|The Toy Collector (2000) by James Gunn|
Jimmy, at twenty-five, has opted to fund his growing collection of toys by stealing drugs from the hospital where he works and dealing them with his roommate, Bill. As part of the "power fantasy" aspect of the novel, Jimmy tends to be the cleverest person in any given scene, experiences seemingly effortless luck with women, works a job where he spends most of his time drunk without getting caught, and reminisces about childhood experiences in vignettes where he's the leader of his clique. The consequences of these indulgences, however, include strained relationships with childhood friends and family, soulless conquests that leave him unsatisfied, and a failed relationship with his girlfriend, Evelyn, who rightfully kicks him to the curb.
|The Toy Collector (2000) by James Gunn|
(advanced reader's edition)
Evelyn is not a shrewish girlfriend who misunderstands Jimmy's vision, but a gentle, sheltered young woman who forgives his temper and supports his hobby before realizing she can't "save" him. Even detailed sex scenes reinforce Jimmy's isolation, highlighting his random fantasies. When he's in danger of being too heroic, the novel slips in a moment of black comedy at his expense. Like Super, just because there's some wish fulfillment at play doesn't mean every character is here to service that impulse.
About the only person who survives being alienated by Jimmy's despair is Bill. It's a bond forged through the very thing the main character's used to isolate himself, a shared love of nostalgia and toys. It's this passion that gives Jimmy his only way to connect with other people, an apparently superficial obsession that gives him a real but perhaps narrower life. This mirrors the destiny of Frank at the end of Super, who succeeds not because he repairs his marriage but because he lets his wife go and buys a pet rabbit for companionship.
|Promo image featuring Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)|
|Promo image featuring Melia Kreilingand Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)|
|Promo image featuring Zoe Saldana |
and Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Peter's path to selfless hero is pretty bumpy. His character is a crook and more of a clown than Tony Stark's, joking about sleeping with tentacled women and masturbation. (My sole caveat with the "if you had a black light, this place would look like a Jackson Pollack painting" joke is how a man who had been kidnapped from Earth at eight could remember who the hell Jackson Pollack is. Was he super into art as a kid? And how does Rocket pick up on what Peter's talking about? Maybe he guessed from context? I mean, there being a masturbation joke in the first place makes sense because I don't think the Milano has an FTL [faster-than-light] drive, so there's probably some down time between planets, so yeah. Anyway.)
Peter finally hits that heroism in an inspired speech toward the climax in which he informs the rest of the Guardians that their mission to retrieve the power stone is essentially a suicidal one. He asks them if they're willing to make that sacrifice. They survive and Peter promises he'll take care of his new family, but then asks his cohorts if they're interested in doing "something good, something bad, or a bit of both." He's grown and found respect for those around him, yes, but the extent of that growth is purposely nebulous. He's more of an adult, but he's still "playing."
|Promo image featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in Iron Man 2 (2010)|
The implication is bleak: every time Tony grows up, he eventually regresses. Tony Stark's the Sisyphean man, struggling through the same obstacle only to start over again. He even uses the climax of Avengers, where he agrees to sacrifice himself by going through a wormhole with a missile, to justify the rogue artificial intelligence he creates in Age of Ultron as a "suit around the world." In fact, it doesn't look like the character's goal is to become more selfless at all, just temporarily push aside his ego before it reasserts itself again. He's then rewarded each time with a happy ending.
Film critic Kyle Kallgren describes how the character embodies Ayn Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and "the heroism of selfishness":
All of Iron Man's cinematic rogues' gallery are people who've taken Stark's technology and used it poorly, terrorists and business rivals all using Stark's weaponry against Stark's will and against Stark's beliefs. [...] He constantly fights to keep those inventions from those who would corrupt them to protect the Stark name.Tony walks an uncomfortable line between dictator and savior. It's not a shock he's listed as the antagonist for the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. He lives a purer version of a power fantasy.
|Promo image featuring Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, |
and Zoe Saldana in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Saying that, we haven't had a chance to see Peter's arc in sequels yet. He may fall into the same cycle of transformation and regression as Iron Man. The goal of heroism in Guardians, however, has been combined with Peter's ability to build and maintain a family. Peter need for a support network is actually pretty "immature," in a way; he needs them the way a kid would actually need a family. Illustrator/writer Brian Koschak takes this further in a blog post where he suggests "Guardians is a hopeful epilogue to the James Gunn of The Toy Collector... that he eventually earned his hard fought redemption by making peace with adulthood, but only by keeping one foot firmly in the imagination of his youth." I'll be interested to see how team dynamics play out in the sequels.
|Promo image featuring Robert Downey, Jr. in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang (2005)|
A character doesn't actually need to totally grow up for a narrative to work, of course. "Characters must change or learn something" is actually a pretty fluid rule. Maybe the purpose of a narrative is to have a main character who can act as an agent for actions audiences could never do in real life. I'll happily suffer a fool in fiction where they can be confined to the pages of a book or pixels on a screen.
|"To Die Will Be An Awfully Big Adventure" |
by F.D. Bedford
Peter and Wendy (1911) by J.M. Barrie
The ending to every adaptation of Peter Pan I'm aware of falls into archaic gender roles, but the core feels honest: Wendy Darling, after returning from Neverland, opts to stay in the real world and grow up while Peter Pan decides to be an immortal child. She gives up being with him and he gives up her, family, and creating lasting bonds of friendship. He never grasps what the idea of aging means, forgetting to visit Wendy for years at a time. He can stand still if he wants but everyone else moves forward without him.
Eternal childhood is a valid choice and feels especially true if it has a dark price. Gunn gives us stories in which there isn't one true way to face the future. His characters can get away with a great deal--addiction, slaughter, and selfishness--but they're all grounded in a reality of consequences, an adult world that casts a critical eye on their play.