So, if this Honest Trailer has it right, the appeal of Breaking Bad is that it's like an action movie minus the humor. Pass.

There's a great essay to be written about the rise of camp in serious and prestige film and movies, or, rather, the unwillingness to see it. In descending order: Francis Ford Coppola's serious and nuanced investigation of mob culture is adopted as an uncritical adoration of the same, as though Michael Corleone has a life any sensible human being would want. In Scarface, That Guy will overlook Al Pacino chewing the scenery and the film's over-the-top nature and take it all very seriously. Someone, somewhere, thinks of Goodfellas as an appealing portrait of gangsters. All of the complexity is read out.

Now, the last Nolan Batman movie was camp, what with its incomprehensible plots twists and one-liners delivered in all seriousness. When Catwoman busts through the doors to save Batman at the last minute, that's a scene right out of a 90s Batman film, or a particularly poor 80s action movie. The difference between this movie and the 90s Batman movies is that the latter at least had the sense to recognize the ridiculousness of the contrived situations it put its characters in. And yet this lack of self-awareness is considered a virtue, and rewarded. There's little actual complexity, but the po-faced insistence that it Addresses Themes Meaningfully will be honored, since everyone insists on it.

I made it ten minutes through the pilot of Breaking Bad, and feel no regrets over not having pursued it further: I'm through with antiheroes for a long while. But for those who do, it's probably worth thinking over what exactly the difference is between "I am the one who knocks" and "Hasta la vista, baby."


Andrew Stevens said...

Shame on you. Even if everybody else is using the terminology sloppily, Walter White, Tony Soprano, et al. are not antiheroes. An antihero is someone who fights for or with the good guys, even though he himself has less than heroic qualities. Han Solo, Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Severus Snape, Avon from Blake's 7, Thomas Covenant, Scooby-Doo and Shaggy.

Walter White and Tony Soprano and so forth are villain protagonists, which is very different. One should root for antiheroes - their goals, after all, are virtuous, even if they themselves aren't and perhaps they aren't even pursuing those goals for virtuous reasons. But anybody who roots for a villain protagonist needs to reexamine his moral philosophy.

I think part of the reason why we've started calling out-and-out villains "antiheroes" is because the antihero has taken over completely. Most heroes today are classical antiheroes, plagued by self-doubt or cowardice or some other major flaw. Even Superman, a paragon of heroism if ever there was one, has been reinvented as an antihero over the last forty years.

So we stopped calling flawed heroes like Indiana Jones antiheroes, because it was apparent that all heroes were now antiheroes, and applied it only to people who weren't necessarily good at all, like your typical Clint Eastwood character or Batman in his Dark Knight phase. Antihero is still an applicable term for these characters because they are at least acting for a just cause (even if that cause might be simply protecting their own interests from villains). But now we've started calling people antiheroes who just aren't heroes and this is an abuse of the term. There's nothing heroic about Tony Soprano or Walter White or Don Draper or Al Swearengen. They are villains, full stop.

Nicholas said...

It's probably useful to know that I'm a language descriptivist, so if the term is widely in use in critical discourse, it's the term I will also use. In my day job, I'm pretty sure as a historical matter that there's no such thing as a "just war tradition," and that the positive-v-negative rights distinction is not helpful, but that's how it proceeds in the literature and in most instruction, so it's useful (and expected) to be able to speak in those terms even if they're analytically poor.

On the substance of your correction, I gladly cede the point. "Dark = serious" is one of the big flaws in contemporary culture.

Barabbas Gethsemane said...
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