Pop Culture Villains, Stand-Up Comedians, and Today


I saw Mission Impossible: Fallout last night. Honestly, I haven’t seen all of the MI movies. In fact, I think the last one I watched was at a slumber party when I was in the 7th grade (16? 17 years ago?), and that was it. At the time, I remember thinking, “Well, this is a nice break from the usual Freddie Prinze, Jr. movies we usually watch at these sleepovers,” but the plot quickly became obscured by chatter about Justin Timberlake (still a relevant reference), that thing Becky said, and puberty…or whatever 12-year old girls talk about.

So really, Fallout was my first Mission Impossible movie. I read the synopsis for Ghost Protocol on my phone during the previews so I’d have some idea of what was going on in this one, however vague.

But, wouldn’t you know it, these movies are all the same. I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, and I’m not implying that the movie was boring or unoriginal. I actually really liked it. The 30-ish minute climax at the end was the stuff every woman’s dreams are made of, and Tom Cruise – man. What a beast.

Without spoiling anything, the villain in this movie kind of has a heart. I’ve noticed this theme creeping up pretty often. There’s a bad guy who honestly believes his actions will benefit the greater good in the long run. Yes, his methods are dangerous, destructive, terrifying, and anarchistic, but if you just let it happen, the world will be a better place having endured it all. That’s the hope, at least.

It’s like a volcano, one of the most destructive forces on the planet. It spews fire and rock from beneath the earth’s surface, destroying everything it touches, and polluting the air around it with ash and soot…but then, the ground is made more fertile. Life sprouts from it. Where once it was scourged, it is made green again.

I mean, we’ve all seen Moana, right?

Anyway, I took a class in college one time called “Film and Literature,” not film in literature. “And.” The class examined how film reflects the sentiments of the time, and how you can look at movies to understand the actual feelings behind the people living during that time. The idea was that anyone can crack open a textbook or read a newspaper discussing a time gone past, but facts and figures on a page don’t necessarily reflect the humanity behind them. Art, however, kind of does.

To use an obvious example, the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 are just a thing people talk about now. One day, if not already, they’ll comprise a section in a chapter of an American history textbook that kids read in middle school, and maybe again in high school. But for those of us who lived through it, we remember that day vividly, along with everything leading up to it and the chaos, fear, and uncertainty that followed.

By the way, I have a handsome friend who was then and still is a movie critic. He was in that class with me, and I just want to mention that I got a higher grade on my midterm project than he did. That’s not relevant to anything else in this article.

In the class, we watched Independence Day, a movie that I’m going to call a masterpiece. Any movie starring Will Smith, Jeff Goldblum, and President Bill Pullman is alright by me. For those of you who don’t know, the movie’s about the world being attacked by aliens. Through ingenuity, bravery, global cooperation, sacrifice, a Mac laptop, and one of the most riveting “Gooooo get ‘em” speeches in film, we save our planet.

There’s a scene in the movie, though, where the city of Houston – my city – gets destroyed. The Houston of “Houston, we have a problem,” was gone. The home of the NASA space station…gone. The city that the country looks to for anything space related? GONE.

You get it.

In the class, we talked about how films will often look for moments to connect with the audience. They’ll inflict the most damage in places where it will hurt the most in an effort to get the majority of the audience members to feel something. Destroying the Space City itself when space aliens are attacking did just that, in the case of Independence Day.

After all, unless people are emotionally invested in what they’re consuming, are they really impacted? Shock and awe is a thing, yes, but relatability is far more influential.

In Mission Impossible: Fallout, the villain wasn’t inflicting his evil on the world for the sake of terrorism, world domination, greed, or hate. He was doing it because the system was broken, so he wanted to fix it. His methods were, arguably but mostly agreeably, insane, but the thoughts and feelings that got him to that point were probably not too far off from where a lot of our own thoughts are these days.

A lot of us are frustrated by the things we see in the news. A lot of us just want to live our lives comfortably, not hurting anyone, but we can’t because of one thing or another. A lot of us are angered by the corruption and disregard for civility we see spewing from our government, media, or other national and global organizations. And a lot of us feel helpless. We don’t know what to do about it, or if there even is anything we can do about it. Our efforts feel futile, as if they don’t make a dent on our own friends and family members, let alone on society.

But as Chris D’Elia’s mom said, you’ve got to keep trying. More on that guy later.

Gone are the days of Sauron, the obviously, completely bad antagonist who had no redeeming qualities. He was a regular dude one day, and he was evil and trying to take over Middle Earth the next.

Gone are the days of Aragorn, the obviously perfect protagonist whose biggest character flaw was that he didn’t want to admit how awesome he actually was. He was a guy you could count on – a man who would fight off an entire army of Uruk-Hai for you by himself, while resisting the temptation of the ring, while staying loyal to his main lady despite that triflin’ Eowyn’s best attempts to seduce him, while looking amazing.

It makes sense that both of these people are entirely fictional, though, because even though I’d never dream of hating on Lord of the Rings or Tolkien, people just aren’t that black-and-white.

I think the closest thing we’ve had to a hero lately was Obama (or I guess Trump, depending on your perspective). My friend once mentioned, “I feel like, if they put me in a concentration camp, Obama will come save me.”

We all need someone to believe in.

Now, we have villains like the one in Fallout. They’ve got a problem to solve, and since no one else is doing it, they’ve taken matters into their own hands. Just like Killmonger in Black Panther, or Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, or Ghost in Ant-Man and the Wasp (although, hers was more of a personal problem than a societal one). I realize that these are all Marvel movies, but…whatever.

Desperation leads people to do crazy things. But really, the only difference between these villains and ourselves is access to resources – a skilled and influential team, unheard of amounts money, a black-market insider, a background in nuclear physics, years of Jiu-Jitsu training that happens to come in handy once we turn evil, etc.

There’s that, but there’s also the audacity to make decisions that affect the fate of millions of people without the authority to do so. The world wasn’t exactly in on Thanos’ plan to stretch the earth’s resources by getting rid of half of us. Even if his theory had merit, he was clearly making an executive decision to snap his fingers, rather than a democratic one.

The democratic process, as we have seen, can be problematic, though. There’s this idea of the benevolent dictator, an oxymoron that in some ways could be the solution that we’re all looking for. The driver behind this concept is that there’s a leader who is noble and guided by principle who knows more about the state of things than the rest of us. He’s well-informed, he listens to his trusted advisors, and he makes decisions based on these things. He wants what’s best for his people and he always acts in the interest of the greater good.

He’s a king.

A perfect and beloved king. He’s Aragorn. He doesn’t exist.

The reason why the concept of such a person is appealing is because the democratic process is largely dependent on, and therefore hindered by, the necessity to get people on board with an idea before it can be implemented. As we’ve seen many, many times over, though, people (read: voters) are fickle and oftentimes less informed than we’d like them to be when influencing things like public policy.

Not only that, but people will most likely act in their own personal best interests, and we can’t operate under the assumption that they won’t. They’re not thinking about the greater good. They’re not thinking about tomorrow. They sure as hell aren’t willing to sacrifice anything for the sake of someone else, even if it would mean a societal improvement in the long-run.

Sure, you could argue that this is the point of having a representative government, because your needs and desires should be considered when determining laws and guidelines. That’s true and valid. Now, while I can only speak for myself on this, if I had a ton of money, I’d be willing to give up my tax break for the sake of the national education system. However, I understand that that’s not a decision most people would make, and honestly, we can’t really ask them to.

Side note, I know the issue with taxes also has to do with how well the government utilizes and allocates the money, but that’s another topic for another day.

Thanos is attempting to be the benevolent dictator. He’s saying, “Trust me – it’ll be worth it in the end. I know you can’t see it now, and I know it’s going to suck for a little while, but I promise – the world will be better for it.”

Ok, here’s a story that I promise is relevant.

Last weekend, stand-up comedian and actor Chris D’Elia came to Houston. He did a bunch of shows while he was here, all sold-out, and he endured one of the hottest weekends I think we’ve had all summer.

I’m a huge fan of stand-up comedy, by the way. I like laughing, but without over-intellectualizing it, it’s such a great commentary on the human condition. I think these comedians do more for us than maybe they even realize.

Chris D’Elia’s one of my favorites. He’s interesting, though, because thanks to his Netflix specials, his podcast, and his social media presence, he has an insane cult-like following. My mother says he cusses too much, but you know, he’s not for everyone.

I went to his final show here in Houston and he had a whole bit about how terrible possums are. I laughed so hard throughout the whole thing, because (anyone who knows me the tiniest bit can attest to this) I hate possums. Of all the terrible things I’ve encountered in my life, including my ex-boyfriend, possums are the worst. I wish they would all just go back to Australia with literally every other marsupial.

But that’s why I laughed so hard. Relatability. Maybe it’s an egotistical thing on our parts, but people respond to things that remind them of themselves.

The point is this, though. If people are actively listening to you, you should say something good. However you wield your influence, it’s important to do it. The reason why I like Chris D’Elia is because even though he has a huge following, he doesn’t censor himself. Political correctedness can get in the way of relaying a message sometimes, but comedians are uniquely exempt from that barrier. In this case and in my own personal opinion – it’s kind of a good thing because he’s not an asshole. He has a heart.

He’s a comedian, so you can’t take everything he says completely seriously, but he’s also on the outer edge of millennialism (an “elder millennial,” if you will, a term coined by another stand-up comedian, Eliza Schlesinger). I think that’s a good place to be. It puts you in a fun category where you remember life before social media – hell, before the internet. You watched the generational turnovers that took us from Snow to Eminem to G-Eazy, that took us from Clinton being sloppy with an intern to Trump grabbing women by the…you know.

This weird, in-between space that people like Chris D’Elia are in offers perspective and experience that younger generations might not have on their own – at least not yet. Comedians comment on the world as they see it because it’s their job to do so, just like movies do. They make it funny so people listen. They influence millions of people, whether that’s their goal or not. Hopefully, it’s all for the better. Hopefully, they steers people towards something good, or at least rational and sensible. Hopefully, they provoke thought, introspection, and exploration of life outside of the bubble.

And hopefully, they’re not assholes.

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