Some thoughts on the good and the evil of human nature in fiction

According to Dark Helmet, “evil will always triumph because good is dumb.”1 Of course, Dark Helmet himself is bumbling, which results in the eventual triumph of the good guys, led by Lone Starr. Thus, Dark Helmet is wrong. Evil does not triumph, despite the overwhelming numbers and technology of the bad guys (Lone Starr flies a Winnebago!). But therein lies the catch. Evil always has greater numbers and often has better, more powerful technology.2

The reason for this traditional setup is simple: it makes for a more compelling story if the “good guys” are forced to triumph over long odds than if they are put in a position to succeed from the get-go. It is the same reason that so many of these stories involve young or inexperienced heroes. The audience then gets to follow the hero through trials and tribulations on his or her way to eventual triumph.

The Original Star Wars trilogy, for instance, provides a typical tri-partite structure that follows a coming of age story for Luke Skywalker, the chosen hero.3 As Luke’s power grows, so do his opponents. Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) is the primary enemy that the Rebel Alliance is fighting against, so much so that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) described him as “holding Vader’s leash.” Then, in The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones) takes over as the villain and is, if anything, more evil than Tarkin. Finally, in Return of the Jedi, Luke claims to be a Jedi Knight fully coming into his own and is forced to confront Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) who is also Dark Lord of the Sith. In each instance the good guys (Luke and the Rebel Alliance) are more powerful, but they are matched by an increasingly powerful foe such that they are always overmatched. Yet, they always escape or win against the odds.4

But Star Wars is not merely about Luke Skywalker. In fact, many people find Luke to be rather annoying and prefer the roguish and iconic Han Solo (Harrison Ford), while, as Carrie Fisher points out in her one-woman show, any number of men like Princess Leia for reasons other than her character. More importantly, though, Star Wars is the story of a small number of scrappy individuals who fight for liberty and freedom in a galaxy dominated by an evil and ruthless empire. The Empire rules the galaxy with its enormous starfleet and army, while the Rebel alliance fights back with a fraction of the forces. The movies (and, for that matter, most of the books) frame the conflict as good against evil, with the servants of the empire being entirely without mercy (or even friends or family). Some of the books do ease this set-up, demonstrating that many servants of the empire did have family and friends, and were not entirely evil. Likewise, there are shirts with the tagline “I had friends on that Death Star”. Some of the Star Wars books also explore the legitimacy issues in that some of the loyalists to the empire remain loyal because they consider it the legitimate government that provides for a peaceful galaxy. The Empire is not good in these instances, but they do provide some perspective.

What I have been working my way toward is this: the typical action/adventure, sci-fi/fantasy storyline divides people (and aliens) into three general categories. From smallest to largest, those categories are the heroes or good guys, the bad guys and their collaborators, and the oppressed or victims. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy defines humans as “Mostly Harmless,”5 but most other stories posit that there are more people who will join tyranny or stand idly by than will take action. The Boondock Saints, for instance, claims “there is another kind of evil which we must fear most, and that is the indifference of good men.”6 The goodness (or lack thereof) inherent in human nature is a persistent question and there is a wide range of answers and opinions on the issue. I am personally fond of Douglas Adam’s statement, but the answer given in fiction despite the consistent triumph of good over evil is pessimistic. Humans and other humanoid sentient races are fallible and corrupt and easily dominated. Only with the help of an exceptional few can the many be freed from the shackles that bind them, though most of the stories conclude with the moment of triumph and only rarely explore the consequences of the victory of good, whether that is new corruption or enslavement, the removal of essential services, or a sudden exposure to anarchy.

The theme is enduring. Robin Hood, for instance, is an outlaw who fights against Prince John on behalf of the poor and King Richard, and is a story that has been repeatedly retold.7 His merry men are always outnumbered, but due to his skill and ingenuity, and the ineptitude of his opponents, he always triumphs. In super hero movies the villains are usually larger and stronger than the heroes (see, for example, the first Iron Man movie where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Junior) create a sleek Iron Man suit, while Obadiah Stone (Jeff Bridges) creates a comparable suit, mostly notable for being larger and more heavily armed.8). The plot of The Avengers has them fight against otherwordly opponents because mere humans would be unable to provide a sufficient advantage over the heroes. The Die Hard movies are somewhat of an exception to this. The bad guys are the ones who are outnumbered, but the main law enforcement agencies are so inept that it takes the actions of John McClane (Bruce Willis) to defeat the bad guys.9 Then, in Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, the government is again inept and it seems that as many or more people have joined the Decepticons as join the Autobots, the side that lost the war for their home plant, Cybertron, but is somehow able to protect earth from earth.10 The allies of the Decepticons, and particularly Dylan (Patrick Dempsey), are portrayed as realists and opportunists who want to survive at the expense of the rest of humanity.11

Now, some of these movies are good, some are watchable, while others are downright awful, and books in a similar vein have a similar range. Yet they almost universally conform to the same idea about human nature–and the same faith that good will inevitably triumph over evil. Yes, much of this stems from a particular storytelling model, but it is a popular model and generally considered a feel-good one (hooray! the good guys win again!), but it is nonetheless pessimistic about human nature. Most people are self-centered, corruptible, apathetic, greedy and cruel. Most people will side with tyranny (or stand aside) because they fear or are incapable of doing otherwise. The oppressed masses only remain free and safe due to the exertions of a select, special few who are both willing and able to do the right thing. As summed up by Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones), “a person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”12

1Rick Moranis, Spaceballs, 1987.
2This is, admittedly, genre specific.
3Mark Hamill, A New Hope, 1977; The Empire Strikes Back, 1980; Return of the Jedi, 1983.
4It should be noted that this structure only works for the original trilogy. It was pointed out to me by Naomi Graber long ago that when all six movies are taken together, the story ceases to be the same heroic coming of age story and becomes the corruption and redemption of Anakin Skywalker.
5An edit made by Ford Prefect, the earlier entry reading “Harmless.” Douglas Adams, 1979.
6Said during a sermon in the movie, to which Conner (Sean Patrick Flannery) says “I do believe the monsignor’s finally got the point.” The Boondock Saints, 1999.
7To name just a few, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, 1991; Robin Hood, Men in Tights, 1993; Robin Hood (BBC), 2006; and Robin Hood, 2010, the IMDB tagline for which states “In 13th century England, Robin and his band of marauders confront corruption in a local village and lead an uprising against the crown that will forever alter the balance of world power.”
8Iron Man, 2008. Obadiah Stone at one point claims “my suit is more advanced in every way!”
9E.G. Live Free or Die Hard, 2007. As Vicky Krisman put it, the Die Hard movies are decidedly blue collar and do not treat federal law enforcement agencies kindly.
10Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, 2011.
11 Dylan claims: “If you want to survive a war, do business with the side that’s gonna win.” He evidently wants to live for another forty years, but gives no thought to the survival of humanity, or the fact that there will only be a handful of other people left on earth. One wonders what he plans on doing for those forty years. Or how he plans to eat. Or get goods and services he has taken for granted all his life as one of the handful of extremely wealthy individuals who subsists on the back of everyone else’s labor. That said, this is relatively far down on the list of logical fallacies in this film.
12Men in Black, 1997.