The Case for Optimistic Sci-Fi Heroes

Writer’s Note: I originally wrote this a few years ago and some of it is out of date though I’ve tried to update a few part of it but if it feels like I wrote this without taking into consideration some of the new movies and shows that have come out, well yes it did so …just enjoy it. Or don’t whatever.
Second Writer’s Note: SPOILERS for Star Wars, Sorta Flash Gordon, and Star Trek: Picard.
Third Writer’s Note: This got a bit ranty so like… just go with it.

A few months ago I watched Flash (AAHAAAA) Gordon as one does when grinding out levels in WOW and I was shocked. Not at the better then it deserved soundtrack by the amenable Queen, or the oddly high-quality casting of actors who obviously needed a paycheck (Looking at you Max Von Sydow and Timothy Dalton.) No, what was shocking, and quickly became a relief was the absolute positivity of the title character. Here was a guy, in the movie a professional football player, thrown into his descent into a fantastic underworld, otherwise known as Mongo. Mongo, a world of strange sci-fi creatures and duplicitous Game of Thrones esq rivals all looking to stab each other in the back to gain the upper hand even as it tears their own freedom and security apart. Instead of being snide, snarky, or sarcastic, we got someone who believed in optimism, someone who saw a positive way forward, a way to overthrow a despot, by not being a jerk and forcing everyone to go along with him, but by showing the people how to unite, the power of team-work and working towards a common goal.

My focus this edition as the title implies is to talk about something that is often missing in our modern-day sci-fi and fantasy, heroes who believe in a better tomorrow. If I asked you what Flash Gordon, Luke Skywalker, Jean-Luc Picard, Thor, Superman (not Zack Snyder) and The Doctor all have as a common superpower, what would you say? For me the answer is simple: Optimism. Not just optimism to the point of being annoying. But the simple fact that all of these heroes believe in that better tomorrow, believe they can win out the day and make things bright, not on a quest of vengeance, or redemption (well a bit of redemption for the Doctor depending on which regeneration), or doing it to show everyone how great they are, but simply because it’s the right thing to do.

It seems to me there’s a lot of mocking of the optimistic hero of late. People will insist they love the dark and gritty Superman of the Man of Steel movies but by his very nature, this Superman does not inspire Hope as his family crest is telling us to have. By losing that optimizing, by losing his standing as that bright shining light as the man of tomorrow, he loses his greatest power. He loses the ability to inspire us to greatness, to make us believe he is going to help us into the future, and that’s Superman’s greatest strength is his ability to make us believe a man can fly. So where did we lose that?

Often we can point to the start of the Modern Age of comics starting in 1985 with the introduction of a more dark and gritty reality brought to us by writers such as Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Grant Morrison. Not to disparage their storied careers and the notable contributions they made to the medium but it feels like for the past 35 years across all media we’ve seen a darkening of the story telling. Heroes who were once inspirations and portrayed in a manner living up to the ideal of Heroism were now viewed as dark grim avengers, leading crusades nominally labeled as “Justice” that felt more like Vengeance. Though other media we have seen a rise in stories of grim dark futures were facist regimes have taken control and we see plucky rebels fighting back for freedom, but these aren’t the Luke Skywalkers of the Rebel Alliance who inspire us by being good. These are crass heroes who rarely smile, who can no longer tell a joke, where everything has become about the mission with little to no displayed human emotion beyond despair and rage. 

Luke Skywalker (A New Hope) is one of my favorite not just Sci-Fi heroes, but heroes in fiction. Some of you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking “Luke? A New Hope Luke? He’s so whiny and annoying.” Okay first off, he’s not nearly as whiny as I think most people remember him, also let’s look at the fact that in the first movie Luke was a 19 year old kid from an isolated farm on a planet on the far end of the bright point of the galaxy. Now for my readers who don’t remember what it was like to be 19, trust me you were annoying. For my readers who might currently be 19, trust me you are annoying and will realize that fact in a few years. But Luke, ignoring the whine, the ignorance, does something most other heroes fail to do. He steps up without making a big deal about being asked to. The only time he balks is when Obi-Wan first ask to go to Alderaan. It’s a big ask, it would be a big ask of anyone, but for a kid who farms moisture and’s idea of fun is bullseying womp rats in Begger’s Canyon, it’s a big ask.

Luke, as soon as he sees the farm is destroyed, doesn’t hestitate from that moment on. He is clearly sadden by the death of his aunt and uncle, but his he doesn’t set out on a path of vengance, but to try and save Leia and the Galaxy from the Empire that uprooted his life. He goes along with Obi-Wan and on the Death Star shows he’s all in, never spending a moment wishing to be back home or pining for the normal life (something that carries through all three movies), but knowing he has a job to do, he drives Han to save Leia on the Death Star, he volunteers for the Death Star mission even knowing what he is up against, and was given an out by Han to leave before the battle, Luke steps up. He believes in his cause time and time again and never complains that it’s unfair that life dumps so much on him. Yes he is later surprised and shocked by (spoilers?) Vader being his father and Obi- Wan lying to him, but so would anyone.

But the best Luke moment is in The Return of the Jedi. I know most people don’t like it as much as Empire, but we’re not here to talk about movies, but about the character. Return of the Jedi we see a much more mature Luke, from the first time we see him in Jabba’s Palace he is powerful, he is confident, in control, he has a plan. Previous two movies Luke is running on emotions from crisis to crisis relying on his youth and luck to get him through. by RotJ Luke is in control of his emotions and he knows what he has to do. It turns out what he has to do isn’t clear to anyone else. Throughout RotJ we see both Luke and Vader focused on their inevitable showdown, they both know it is coming and everyone but Vader and Luke expects it to be a fight to the death. In the ramp up we see both Obi-Wan and Yodi, the two most influencial and possibly most powerful Jedi of the series, tell Luke he must face Vader and defeat him. One the other side you have the Emperor and Vader who are very much the two more powerful Sith saying Luke must fall to the dark side (this was before that whole rule of 2 nonsense, remember the Emperor agreed Vader should try and turn Luke with no discussion of which one of them gets bumped off). There’s no middle ground offered to Luke.

Yet, Luke, positive, optimistic thinking Luke, the farm boy from nowhere who stepped up to the plate time and time again, his best moment wasn’t blowing up the Death Star, his best moment wasn’t fighting Vader, his best moment wasn’t defying the Emperor, his best moment was on the moon of Endor speaking to Vader for the first time. He insist he can feel the light in Vader, he defies the most powerful force users in existance, possibly ever, and says, “No, I will find a way to save my father despite what you might think.” That’s… that’s guts right there, that’s some next level hope and optimism that we just don’t see in Scifi, out side of maybe comic books and even then less and less. He knows his father can be saved, we see the conflict in Vader, and that’s not just what makes Luke a good character, but what made Vader such a good villian. The first two movies he is the unstoppable dark evil, he kills, he tortures, he maims, he shows no pity. But Luke, through sheer positive optimism and stubberness, redeems Vader, the dark lord of Scifi that all other dark lords wish they could be and are modeled after. Tell me that Luke is just some whiny farmboy again, he is not. (Just for the record the complete deconstruction of Luke in The Last Jedi was awful because for me they took one of the great champions of optimism and hope and just mocked it. UGH, I did not like that movie at all.)

As a direct counterpoint to Luke we have the ever popular, ever so cool Han Solo. When we meet the roguish smuggler he is the exemplar of snark and cynicism, the too cool for this galaxy type. But what’s important about Han’s arc isn’t that he remains a cynical realist but he comes to believe in the bigger picture, that he starts to have hope again, he finds that optimism in the cause. His exposure to the idealism of the Skywalker twins, a bit of prodding from his best pal Chewy, who we learn later is a veteran of the Clone Wars, and has been a slave and still believes in a brighter tomorrow, we see Han become that idealist fighting the good fight. Through A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back he barely believes in the Force, he seems to be more along for the ride and wants to get out and go back to his life of crime. But in Return of the Jedi we see Han not just fighting against the Empire, but volunteering to lead a critical, highly risky, nearly suicidal mission that all the hopes of the Rebellion relies on. Han is a great character because he does evolve and grow, and he becomes the hero we need in his optimism and faith, not the anti-hero we meet at the start.

I started this idea a few years ago but didn’t have a good forum and audience to post it to at the time, but it seems fated that maybe unknowingly that I am posting this now after CBS’ Picard series which has now wrapped up it’s first season and CW is giving us, thus far, a very good version of Superman. Without going into spoilers, Picard is one of the best shows I’ve seen in years. 

Now there are criticisms that I understand. (and just Spoilers) Some people don’t like the plot and some people don’t like a darker Federation, and that’s fine, I have issues with that as a Trek fan myself, but as a Sci-Fi fan I appreciate what they were trying to do, to show us a much fuller picture of a Federation that is stretched too thin with Romulan Refuges, questions about a terrorist attack that hit Mars, a Federation that is going through growth pains. The writers did take the grim dark realities that have become a mainstay of the sci-fi genre. A Star Fleet that is almost alien to long time Star Trek viewers, a paranoid, nearly xenophobic Federation. This isn’t a review of the show but a character article. The show pits this grimmer Federation not against it not some young snarky kid, not some grim avenger who no goals but his mission, but it gives us the Picard we all know and love. This is the same Picard who guided us through the final frontier 30 years ago in a calm rational manner, who for many of us was almost father-like, despite his insistence of disliking children. Picard still believes in the fundamental goal of a brighter tomorrow, who still believes in the foundations of the Federation, who still believes in better angels of humanity, inspite of all that’s happened to him, all the trauma, all the heart ache, all the pain. He believes in his causes without being overbearing, to do the right thing, but believing doing that right thing will have a positive outcome for all parties involved. He still has the optimism to carry us through the story, to explore the new darker landscape wel still giving us hope.

That’s what we need more of in not just sci-fi, but all genres. We need to see our heroes have regrets and rage yes, sometimes we need to see them feel despair like we would. But we need to see our heroes who can have moments of calm, good times, having a drink with a friend, playing a hand of cards, playing with children. We need to see them relaxed and having a good time too. Humans cannot be grim and on mission all the time, they need their downtime, and heroes, if anything, would need that release more than the rest of us. By robbing us of those  human moments in their world we think that we can never live up to their standards or ideals. We cannot have hope in a hero who does the bare minimum of saving someone and then rushing away to the next crisis or brashly ignoring the need of reassurance from the crowds.

 I challenge Sci-Fi writers and directors, heck all fiction and non-fiction writers to show us more of the optimism that we have lost. Because in today’s world things may look bad all the time, but the way to counter that is not with another brooding anti-hero, but with some optimism and hope. Let’s restore that hope and optimism even if it’s set against a grim backdrop.

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