I was watching Star Wars again recently (a habit that shows no sign of abating), and noticed something odd: Luke Skywalker is an awesome character. He’s just the kid who we get to tag along with while he journeys to find many cooler, more dynamic characters.
After all, most of us leave that movie wanting to be Han Solo. Heck, one of the many, many, many criticisms leveled against the Prequels is their lack of a smuggler analogue. If we don’t have a rogue in the mix, so the thinking goes, who are we going to sit here and be interested by?
This phenomenon is by no means limited to Star Wars. There’s a bajillion folks stuffed into that “boring” drawer, but a pretty solid lineup of them simply don’t belong there.
Let’s define the type of hero we’re talking about here. He’s usually a guy who starts the movie sheltered and static. Not only is he not fulfilling his potential; he has no idea such potential exists. Sure, Luke entertains the concept something better waits out there, but his motivations are still pretty local. In other words, he’s less looking for something “out there” than he is for something “not here.” Like Luke, these heroes usually feel constrained by rules and regulations: Neo buys into the Matrix; Will Turner won’t push back against his own class designation.*
I don’t know about you guys, but I identify with these dudes. Sure, I’d rather say that I most resemble Han Solo or Jack Sparrow or someone cool, but the truth is that Luke’s a better fit. You know, it’s kinda funny how many people want to be Han, because it seems to indicate that they aren’t. Han wouldn’t want to be anybody else. Know who wants to be Han Solo the most, though? Luke Skywalker.
In fairness, Han is COOL. The characters that surround the “boring hero” types usually are. They act more assured, or possess better qualifications, because they’ve already seen the world our hero’s just discovering. Morpheus and Han Solo have been around; they know the ropes. Knowing the ropes is cool. Know what’s not cool? Looking like an idiot in front of Han Solo, which is something Luke does for a solid hour of Star Wars movie. Ditto Neo in The Matrix.
Of course, for a lot of folks this just plays back into the notion that people like Neo and Luke are boring. They aren’t, of course (and we’ll get to that in a second), but we see the world through their eyes. “Why am I sitting here watching this loser, when all these other, more fascinating characters to hang out with?” Which is, of course, the whole point. We’re meant to find those characters fascinating. Jack Sparrow’s just as bizarre and alluring to Will as he is to us — our starting with Will only highlights this. Conversely, our main characters seem so familiar to us that we don’t even notice their peculiarities.**
I realize that, at this point, I’ve essentially just proven that these characters aren’t as cool as everybody else in the movie. But hey, I just said they aren’t boring. So let’s see if we can turn into the storm a little bit and show why their lack of coolness is the exact thing that prevents them from being a dull figure.
For instance, a lot of what makes for compelling characters — or what should make for them, anyway — is the odds they face and their ability (or not) to deal with them.
The people we’ve been talking about tend to be straight arrows to some degree (even the hacker Neo won’t actually buck the system). What ultimately motivates them is not a sense of rebellion, and typically falls outside the realm of personal trophy-chasing. With Luke, we see this most clearly in his admonition to Han: “You’re turning your back on them.” The CAUSE is the cause, not any tangible reward.
Though there are sometimes perks.
Standing resolute in the face of overwhelming odds or ultimate power is just the hardest damn thing in the world, and even harder when the reward is something you have to believe instead of actually grasp. The problem is not that this is inherently boring, but simply that a lot of filmmakers don’t know how to make it terribly cinematic. Intangible truths are devilishly tricky to get on camera. Shadows and guns and scars and cigarettes? Cinematic as hell.
Even more difficult, when these types DO outgrow their sheltered selves, they often turn more mature, and even quieter. Luke obviously does this, but look at Frodo Baggins (and Sam, who’s probably the REAL hero of that story). These are two guys who never wanted to go on an adventure in the first place. They only acquiesced to the charge of destroying the One Ring because… well, because no one else could do it. The true measure of their character is that the journey doesn’t destroy who they used to be; Frodo and Sam achieve the final victory of finding a quiet life for themselves. Sam settles down, has some kids. Hero stuff.
Frodo brings up another relevant point. Characters like this, when written well, are often deeply wounded by the tragedy life brings them. It’s part of naivete; when the illusion of security is shattered it tends to really mess with folks. We see this with Luke’s despair, Frodo’s sadness, and the glum reluctance of Pacific Rim’s Raleigh Becket.
I remember a lot of folks bagging on Charlie Hunnam’s turn in that movie, but I never agreed. He’s not wooden, not in the slightest. He’s just emotionally shattered. It happens to nice guys in bad situations. Even though Hunnam is mainly the simple center of that movie, his arc is nicely observed. He cleanly navigates from youthful cockiness to disillusionment to hope to recovery. This is another unnoticed facet of these types of characters: They often have pretty transformative character journeys.
Like, Mark Hamill’s pretty much off-the-charts brilliant in Return of the Jedi.*** Lots of folks miss this, because it’s a quiet performance, but there’s all kinds of stuff in there. Look at the myriad differences between the Luke who makes demands of Yoda in Empire and the one who watches him die in Jedi (uh… spoiler alert).**** Luke has aged, body and spirit, which is notable not just because it’s a great moment to observe how fine-tuned Hamill is in these movies but because it gets at the larger point I’m trying to make here.
Specifically, that this is the exact opposite of a dull character arc. It’s one of the most dramatic transformations I can think of in a film series…
Um… you guys can all wake up now.
*So this list excludes, for instance, Indiana Jones. Indy may not know how big things are going to get, but he’s certainly motivated. The characters on this list have to be “activated” in some way. That’s why these characters often show up in “hero’s journey” models (unless you prefer the similarly cliche term “coming of age”). Their journey is not inherent; it’s bestowed upon them.
**This might go without saying, but the three guys I’ve mentioned so far (Luke, Will, and Neo), could not be more different from one another.
***I can’t even get into the repeated charges of bad acting leveled against all the actors I’m talking about in this piece. Suffice to say I think it’s BS.
****Also, as this post ably articulates, Luke is actually just straight-up badass in that movie.