5 Iconic Characters Who Keep Inspiring Shittier Versions of Themselves
* big thank you to Chad Eagleton and J. David Osborne for helping out on this piece. *
Two weeks ago, I wrote an article about bullshit stereotypes I was tired of and it appears you guys have enjoyed it. Choosing only ten stereotypes was difficult, but I was able to leave many off the list because they weren't quite stereotypes at all. Some generic concepts are just derivative versions of great characters. All five characters on this list are tremendous, nuanced and gorgeously crafted, but they're SO awesome that they inspired less talented creators to imitate them and THESE creative type didn't quite understand what made these characters so engaging and special.
Here are 5 iconic characters who created their own archetype and inspired a generation of shittier versions of themselves. If you think of others, please tell me in the comments.
Imitators: supervillains and unfriendly psychopaths
When author Thomas Harris wrote Hannibal Lecter in his 1981 novel Red Dragon, he didn't quite capture the zeitgeist: he kidnapped the damned thing. America has a real problem of crazy people giving into their darkest impulses and slaughtering innocents for their own satisfaction then. People were afraid and Hannibal Lecter was your worst goddamn nightmare. An obscenely well-educated health professional and art enthusiast who's only real passion was to creatively kill people. Lecter was an imaginary boogeyman to a very real problem.
America's serial killer issue dwindled, mass murder became the new thing, but Hannibal Lecter remained in the collective consciousness. He was interpreted with great theatricality by Anthony Hopkins and with stunning psychological precision by Mads Mikkelsen more recently, buy his traits remain the same: detached, clinical, incredibly sophisticated with a PRO-FOUND lack of motivation for killing. He killed just because he felt like it, that's why he was terrifying then and that's why his imitators are not scary at all. It's not scary when there aren't rules and you know people are getting killed because your character has seemingly been put on this Earth to do just that.
What made Hannibal Lecter memorable was his passion for the theater of terror and the philosophy of murder. Somehow, what remained of him was his education, sophistication and his motive-less killing, which reverberated through pop culture for decades and they're just about the most boring aspects of his personality.
Imitators: Every stupid investment banker in every stupid investment banking movie ever. Inspired by true events or not.
Everybody knows that investment bankers are sociopaths who would murder their child's pet if it helped maximize profits. The OG and most interesting sociopathic banker of Hollywood is Gordon Gekko from the movie Wall Street. Gekko is pure, unadulterated ambition. His job is to make money and he lives for his job. He quickly became a symbol of maniacal work ethic among young professionals and quintessential Michael Douglas protagonist, who is both good and bad.
Gordon Gekko came, went, came back again and disappeared one more time, but pop culture is unable to let him go. Every investment banker of every investment banking movie since the turn of the millennium a watered down version of him. They wear expensive suits, say a lot of brash shit, work 120 hours a week, etc. The crucial difference (and the reason why Gekko is still the most interesting Wall Street character in pop culture) is that his life is not hollow. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy. He enjoys MAKING money clearly more than having it. The stereotypical investment banker of Hollywood has a hollow life, but Gordon Gekko doesn't. He's doing what he believes he's supposed to do.
Imitators: Every pre-Homeland secret agent EVER. Seriously, they're all indebted to him.
The most boring entry on this list at first sight. Of course, the espionage thriller genre is indebted to James Bond. What people don't quite get, though, is how much it is indebted to Ian Fleming's iconic secret agent. The idea of Bond is so laughably over the top, it made him immortal: a hypercompetent, mild mannered, sensual and well-dressed secret agent with a gun and his penis for main weapons. He inspired countless knockoffs. He's so influential that when people think about secret agents, they think about him first. Even when writers and directors consciously want to distance themselves from James Bond, they end up ripping him off.
Take Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne, for example. He was written in the early eighties as a direct response to James Bond's over the top manliness. He's a self-loathing amnesiac trying to piece the life the secret services took from him back together. He dresses like shit, he's on the run, on the surface he has nothing of Bond's self-assured ways. Bourne cannot shake the idea that secret agents are world-traveling, fresh-faced, bare handed killing machines, though. He's Bond's gritty, emo little brother. Perhaps my favorite detail about him is that he has a Bond girl with him in every movie adaptation. Bourne is just like Bond, really. Except that he's less interesting. Every pop culture secret agent has been until Carrie Mathison.
Imitators: Angel in Hap & Leonard, Elektra, every male fantasy of women who throw spin kicks in high heels.
Love Selina Kyle. LOVE her. She's a cat burglar in a superhero comic and she can wear a leather catsuit all she wants. She has a reason to wear it. I've included her on that list because she's the oldest and most iconic example of the sexy but deadly woman who wear inconveniently sexy clothes. You know those I'm talking about. I'm calling them progressive male fantasies. Übersexualized female characters who are also strong and self-reliant so that men don't feel guilty fantasizing about them.
Now, Catwoman doesn't quite fit that mold, but she inspired it. She's übersexualized the same way Batman or any superhero is übersexualized in a tight fitting costume. The aforementioned tight fitting costume has lost its purpose along the way. Skin-tight leather started appearing in stories that had little to do with superhero stories and gradually trickled down in every sphere of pop culture. Caroline Heldman found a great name for them: fighting fuck toys. Once again, I want to stress that I don't believe Catwoman is one of them. I do believe, though that she was taken out of context and inspired them because men like nothing more than making one another horny.
Imitators: Every fictional crime lord ever since. Inspired by true events or not.
I have a love/hate relationship with my man Tony Montana. On one hand, I love what he represents: A sociopathic nobody taking the American Dream hostage and finding success out of sheer uncompromising brutality. The more brutal he gets, the more successful he becomes. He's an indictment of a society that will reward anything for as long as you have the power to back it up. Tony Montana is a great antagonist because he finds success where we're all looking for, but he wallows into it, rubs it in our faces and becomes jaded and miserable. The problem with Tony is that people have started falling in love with the idea of becoming a wildly successful outlaw because of him.
There's a theory the world of Scarface is Tony's representation. That it is his how he sees his own success in his mind. I like that idea. It's not a very popular one, though because Tony Montana's life of excess has inspired crime lords both real and fictional ever since. Everybody wants to be Tony and you know what? It wouldn't bother me as much if fictional characters would admit this and admit buying into that false idea of success, but they unfortunately don't. They're just representations of over-the-top brashness and opulence Tony Montana worked his way towards. They are "like" Tony, but they don't have his anger and motivation. What makes Montana is that he's dispossessed. Even when he's rich and coked up, he feels like he doesn't have anything. None of his knockoffs have that quality.