Very apt ...

Very apt …

On the plane back from Italy I watched Ant Man, which my friend told me was better than expected and because I saw Jurassic World on the way over to Italy. Ant Man was an okay movie – the action scenes were okay, the ant-dude got a few decent moments of humour, the ant-control stuff was alright, and by super-hero comic standards the bad guy’s evil scheme was relatively plausible (he developed a super weapon and sold it to some bastards). I absolutely hated the Falcon from the moment I saw him and just thought he was completely naff, and in this case the “good guy”‘s plan was just stupid and dumb and ridiculous and that made enjoying the movie a little difficult, but I was toughing it out okay until I discovered that the central emotional hook in the plot was going to revolve around Hope’s issues with her daddy. At this point I cringed and lost most of my interest in the movie.

Why do so many American action movies have daddy issues as their central human drama? Just off the top of my head I can think of Treasure Planet, the Lego Movie, that execrable Star Trek remake with the completely implausible time travel plot (if you could go back in time to attack the Federation why didn’t you use your time travel powers to stop the meteor you dipshit?) and now Ant Man. In many cases (Star Trek is an obvious exception, because it was unrescuable) these daddy issues just dragged the movie down. The Lego Movie even managed to combine the daddy issues with “it was just a dream” which is like combining the nadir of emotional manipulation with the nadir of story-telling. I was absolutely loving the Lego Movie until that horrible final 10 minutes, which even manages to creep up on you with this horrible, careful forewarning – you don’t just get the end spoiled for you, but you spend a couple of minutes having your perfect fantasy world slowly impinged on by this Sauron-esque level of daddy issues.

Daddy issues in action movies are always a bad emotional hook, for so many reasons. First of all, not all dads are dickheads but you would never get that impression if you turn on netflix. Secondly, the resolution of the daddy issues is always completely implausible: Hope is on the board of directors of a major international company, she’s a kick-arse fighter and a scientist and she’s hot, but her dad has treated her like shit for 30 years because – sorry to break it to you Hope – he’s a complete arsehole, and yet at the end of the movie something she does is going to convince him he should treat her better. Sure, 50 year old men change their opinions of their highly successful, beautiful and super functional daughters just like that … Thirdly, the movies usually reinforce the daddy’s arseholery through techniques the director seems to think are meant to presage this implausible turnaround, which is just dumb. There are several moments in Ant Man where we are led to believe Pops understand he’s being an arsehole – but he keeps it up anyway. We’re meant to take these moments as a sign he’s redeemable but they just really make him seem like an egregious arsehole. Fourthly, they turn one character into a useless waste of space. Hope could have saved the world but her dad won’t let her so she ends up being just a pretty waste of space who exists in the movie to give her dad a chance at redemption. Sorry, director dude, but I like my action movie chicks to be active. Finally, they reduce the density of explosions: every scene devoted to exploring the characters’ daddy issues is a period of time when shit is not being blown up, and I came to this movie to watch shit being blown up. Sure, it’s based on a marvel comic for teenagers but most of the audience are not teenagers – we’re adults, and we’ve come to terms with our own stupid family relationships, we don’t need to have our precious explosion time diluted with time-wasting emotional antics we aren’t engaged with. Sure, I understand that human drama is hard to do well and the best way to do it is to invest it with fighting and explosions: Star Wars, Terminator 1, The Last of the Mohicans and Titanic are examples of movies that improve otherwise ordinary human drama with explosions, fighting and spectacular damage. But it doesn’t work the other way, you can’t make shrinking a man to the size of an ant more interesting by giving his love interest daddy issues. So just drop it from the script, and either shorten your movie (I missed the end of the final battle because the plane landed, and I would have seen it if they hadn’t wasted time on Hope’s angst for a man who is obviously a worthless piece of shit who deserves to pay for all his past unethical behavior) or replace those minutes of worthless sentimental bloat with something worthwhile, like more explosions.

The way daddy issues are handled in modern action movies is also something of a sinister tale for impressionable viewers. To the extent that movies play a normative role – describing what is and how things should be done – these action movies with daddy issues present a universally terrible norm. Obviously we don’t take all our moral cues from movies but they do play a role in establishing and defining norms, just as all cultural products do, and the ubiquity of daddy issues in action movies, combined with the age and vulnerability of their audience (teenagers and young adults, more likely male than female) means we should pay some attention to the messages these movies are putting out. First of all they give viewers the impression that all relations between children and their parents are fraught – i.e that all dads are dickheads – which isn’t true, and furthermore by making these broken relationships central to the emotional tension of the movie they exaggerate the importance of these damaged relationships, or serve to reinforce the insecurities of young people about their relationships with their parents. But worse still, through all of these daddy issues movies there is an implication that the kid can do something to fix their dad’s dickheadness, as if the whole thing is their fault. They always come to a resolution where the kid manages to change the way their dad views them and treats them through either emotional appeal or action or both. Everyone with an actual parent (i.e., pretty much everyone) knows that this isn’t how parents work: most parents don’t accept that their kids have grown up, let alone change long-established patterns of behavior in which they are the boss and their kids are appellants. Unequal power relationships like this where the powerful person is a dickhead do not change through the action of the weaker person, because the powerful person’s behavior has nothing to do with the behavior of the weaker one and is not their responsibility. Dickhead dads are dickheads because they’re dickheads, not because the 8 year old child didn’t try hard enough. These daddy issues movies always send out the opposite message though: something you do can change how your dad treats you. i.e. how your dad treats you is somehow your fault. It’s not, but most people spend a large part of their life working towards this understanding. Perhaps if these movies made that clear it would be easier for young adults to get the hint and start being more realistic about their relationships with their parents.

I wonder why American action movies suffer so badly from this problem? Here I am going to suggest two possible reasons: a cohort effect, and an allegory for the relationship between the citizen and the state. You’ve come this far, gentle reader, so bear with me …

Cohort effects on crappy movies

As someone who grew up in the UK in the 70s and 80s, I can sympathize with the notion that dads are arseholes. All the dads I met when I was growing up were unreconstructed arseholes, the kind of men who hit their kids out of laziness or spite rather than any kind of theory of discipline[1]. Also, watching young adult movies of that time, like Stand By Me and The Breakfast Club, you get the impression that American dads were really cold and stand-offish (all the boys referred to their dad as “sir”!). My guess is that the majority of today’s script writers and storymakers are American men who grew up in that period, probably mostly middle class, and their experience of family life is a powerful, distant father who terrorized them and a weak mother who did nothing to protect them, and that is why they routinely give their female characters power then strip it away (e.g. Hope, Hermione, Captain Ahab in Treasure Planet) and make daddy issues central to the emotional content of the story. The world has changed since then, however, and modern fathers are given much more emotional leeway, and emotional involvement with their children is supported and respected in a way it never was when I grew up. Compared to an era when it was cool to say your kids were annoying and should be “seen not heard” it is now normal for a dad to say he loves his children, to want to spend time with them, and to be engaged in and proud of their personal lives. So while these script writers might be writing about their own experiences, they’re writing a story that is unfamiliar to the majority of both the men and the children watching their shows. So why do they keep doing it? They’re paid a lot of money to recycle this drek, and personally I really don’t care what happened between whatever dude “wrote” Ant Man and his dad. If this is the reason that they’re writing these cheap emotional stories, I think they should do better – try and look outside their own experience for five minutes of their lives, and write someone else’s story for once.

The father as allegory for the state

The problem with the cohort effect explanation, though, is that daddy issues seem to be uniquely a component of American action movies. The Kingsman, for example, involved the (dead) father as a story hook but it was by no means a central part of the story – like most British movies the relationship with the mother was just as important, and even though the mother was a feckless dickhead the kid was immune to her behavior, interested in rescuing her from her situation but not feeling himself to blame for it. Similarly Japanese teen movies don’t focus on broken father-son relationships, often backgrounding parental relationships entirely in favour of the angst of teenagers (Neon Genesis Evangelion is a classic example of this). So unless American dads are uniquely fucked – an unlikely prospect, given the universal fuckedness of parents – there must be some other uniquely American reason for this obsession. My suspicion is that it could be explained by growing uncertainty about the relationship between American citizens and their state (bear with me here). In its classical representation, the state plays a role very much like a distant but essentially loving father. It can be demanding and harsh but ultimately its love is unconditional – if you are a member of its family you will get its support, whether at home or abroad. But recently this relationship between citizen and state has started to unravel, with a whole rash of policies that undermine the unconditional nature of this relationship. The most obvious is the desire of certain states to strip citizenship from people who fight against them – the political equivalent of being disinherited. But there are others: three strikes laws and mandatory sentencing; the excesses of the war on drugs; permanent sex offender registries; targeted killings of citizens in foreign countries; recent revelations of unconstrained spying on the communications of citizens; attacks on social security; the horrible and US-specific practice of civil forfeiture; and some of the more dubious sting operations that American authorities have employed in recent years. To be clear, these extra-judicial extravagancies have always been deployed against black people and certain types of domestic dissident, but in the past the victims of such excesses have typically been those who the state has refused to accept as full citizens (black people and communists). The more recent civil rights violations have expanded their reach to include middle class whites, who have always believed themselves to be the core group that the state will love unconditionally. This slow degrading of the basic rights of ordinary Americans, and this subtle change in the relationship between individual and state, might not be something that these white middle-upper class American screenwriters are directly aware of, but the general change in climate might be affecting the way they feel, and not having directly identified their concerns, it’s possible that they’re being reflected in their cultural product through uncertainties in their depiction of core human relations. If this were the case though one would think that similar allegories could be seen in other types of relations (such as the treacherous lover in Total Recall) – I don’t get the impression that this is the case though. Nonetheless, in a climate of increasing economic, legal and cultural uncertainty, it’s not impossible to imagine that screenwriters would project these uncertainties onto one of the key relationships that defined their own development. It’s also noteworthy that in modern movies at the same time as these daddy issues are being played out we also see the hero or other major characters caught up in some other excess of state power – the Ant dude with his prison issues, for example, or the way that super heroes often find themselves facing off against a shadow government agency that is up to no good.

Of course it could just be that American screenwriters are often shit, and Ant Man was written by a terrible screenwriter, or that this daddy issues thing is just some shallow Hollywood fashion that will fade away. If so, I hope it fades away sooner rather than later. If there’s going to be an emotional involvement in my action movies I want it to be simple, plausible, and positive – like The Last of the Mohicans – not filled with faux depth and unbelievable angst, and I don’t want it to be loaded down with unpleasant moral messages about how your fucked up relationship with your parents is your own fault. Get that drek out of my explosions!

fn1: It’s hilarious now to hear law-makers from that era oppose laws against slapping children on the basis of disciplinary practice. I had a friend called Christian in the UK who threw a snowball at his dad, and his dad didn’t like it and was in a bad mood, so we stood there and watched as he carefully packed a snowball with a stone in the middle, taking his time to really pack that ice tight while he ordered Christian not to run away, preparing that snowball with an intense expression of deep hatred, and then finally when he had it nice and hard, he threw it right in his own son’s face as hard as he could, then slapped him when he started crying. This kind of shit was pretty normal when I grew up – now the men of that generation complain that their child abuse is being outlawed and try to pretend it was done out of a need to instill discipline. They were lying bullies then and they remain lying bullies now.

Advertisements