Hail Caesar! The Age of the Heroic Non Human.
At the end of War for the Planet of the Apes, as I watched Caesar calmly expire from an arrow wound while he looked over his ape promised land, I had to wonder “Wow, why does watching this ape inspire me to be a better man?”
It’s because Caesar is a hero. Despite being an ape, he is the closest thing to the classical “everyman” hero that I can think of in our contemporary cinematic landscape.
An old fashioned, honest to goodness hero who is to be looked up to and whose example should be aspired to. Movies used to be full of these kinds of characters. They used to focus on normal folks who rise above their limitations and accomplish something great. Caesar is a much more human hero in the classical sense than many of the humanoid protagonists in the most popular stories of today, and that’s gotta say something about how we perceive the better natures of our own species.
Let’s talk about Caesar. From the time he was cognizant enough to assume the mantle as leader of the Apes, he has always ruled with temperance and wisdom. His default is honor. Throughout the trilogy of films he always puts others first. In the first film he stops a fellow ape from being beaten by a cruel zoo keeper, in the second, he strives for peace between his tribe and the humans, and in the third movie he takes the flogging of another ape upon himself after which he is strapped to a cross looking structure only to return to action a few days later.
Story sounds really familiar #apejesus
We constantly see Caesar behaving in a noble and almost unimpeachable fashion. These aspects of Caesar’s character are what make him a true hero.
Not all heroes wear clothes
This does not mean he is without conflict. After all, the Jungian Hero’s Journey is marked by struggle. In War for the Planet of the Apes, his conflict lies in his single-minded pursuit of revenge against a Colonel who murdered his family. At the end of the film, as the Ape contingent pulls off a daring escape that would make Steve McQueen jealous, Caesar explains that he has to go back in to finish off the Colonel.
He is not strong enough to forgive and that he can’t let go of his hate. But we see him conquer it when it counts. At the end of the film, when faced with the choice to shoot the Colonel or not, Caesar takes the high road. He is not only able to acknowledge his flaws, but overcome them. Isn’t that the best we can aspire to as humans? We are not perfect, but the best we can do is acknowledge our shortcomings and actively fight against them. In this way, Caesar’s journey is very human. He undergoes the same struggle we all do on a daily basis and is triumphant
Now, there are plenty of other heroes at the box office today. Some would even say too many heroes. I argue that they are nowhere near as human in the “everyman” sense as Caesar is. First of all the other heroes are “Super Heroes.” They are somehow made better than a human. I was wracking my brain trying to come up with a hero with no super powers to speak of and I could not. The closest I came in was Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games series, and even then she is uncannily good with a bow, and later in the series, is elevated to an almost mythic status. The only power that Caesar has is to be a more human ape. The story is trying to make him a better human, not better than human.
There is another issue with these super powered heroes. They maybe greater than your average Joe on the street in ability, but they lack the sort of strong moral fiber that heroes like Caesar have. I’m not saying heroes have to be perfect, but many super heroes don’t battle with their flaws, they are defined by them. Take The Avengers, for example. Most of the series is spent solving problems among themselves that are caused by their own arrogance. They squabble, they destroy property, and they can some times have bad attitudes.
The most classically heroic on among them, Captain America, is mocked incessantly for his boy scout-ish tendencies. He is too much of a classical hero for the rest of them and does not always fit in. He also wears his classical sense of moral superiority on his sleeve and clashes with the Avengers and government because of it. It becomes a flaw at this point. Many of the super heroes at the cinema today are made more than human by powers but highly imperfect people that don’t always inspire emulation.
Many of the “regular” people in the most popular stories today are antiheroes. They are people who we, as the audience, are asked to identify with, but are often terrible people. Characters like Walter White, for instance are indefensible human beings, but we love them and are taken in by their journeys nonetheless.
Think about Game of Thrones for a minute. While Westeros is by no means a regular environment, it’s people are just people. Some of them have dragons, some are back from the dead, but most of the characters we spend time with are just regular old flesh and blood people. This is the part where I warn you that I am about to spoil some Game of Thrones right now. I know how ya’ll feel about this. If you have not watched the show, I would advise that you leave now. This is your last chance
So who are these people that the show asks us to invest in emotionally? We have an incestuous brother and sister who start the series by crippling a child who saw them getting busy, a young woman who, while she frees slaves and all, can’t leave a city without a homicidal barbeque, and a hard drinking dwarf who murdered his own father. These are not great people. The most moral ones we run into are the Starks.
The Starks are the picture of nobility, duty, and honor. Most of them are also dead. In fact, they are dead because the way they see the world is so honorable, that they are taken off guard when others are not up to the same code. Ned Stark is beheaded in season one for trying to do the right thing, Robb Stark and his mother are killed at a wedding for slighting another house and being too noble to not accept their invitation.
This is what happens to heroes in Westeros. Their nobility is a flaw, a tragic one that results in downfall instead of elevation. Our human role models in pop culture are either deeply flawed, or punished for their own nobility.
It wasn’t always like this, our heroes didn’t always have to be either super powered or deeply flawed. The movies used to be full of human characters worthy of emulation. They were regular people who just wanted to do the right thing, like High Noon from 1952. High Noon tells the story of a newly married and retired marshal, played by Gary Cooper, who is set to leave town on the day an outlaw is going to return to cause trouble.
Most of the film is spent with Gary Cooper trying to muster a posse to take these outlaws down. The strange thing is, everyone in town turns craven and does not show up the day of the battle. He has to go it alone. This is the kind of hero he is, an average man with the moral strength and fortitude to do what is right against overwhelming odds. Gary Cooper doesn’t have a super suit or powers of any kind. He is just a man with the strength to do what is right in the world when nobody else will.
So why aren’t heroes like that as common anymore? I argue that it is because our country has gotten very cynical. In 1952, back when High Noon was released, America thought itself a moral beacon of self-reliance on the world’s stage. We had just won World War II and were on an economic up swing. It was the golden age of the American dream. The greatest thing we could aspire to be was a human who behaved in an exemplary and heroic manner. The world has changed a lot since then.
Over the decades, the darkness of the human soul was dredged up in the American psyche. We don’t have the stomach for a perfect human hero because we simply don’t believe that people like that exist anymore. This brings us back to Caesar. He is the old-fashioned “everyman” hero like Gary Cooper in High Noon. Why are we able to watch him and not roll our eyes and get cynical about his heroism? It’s because he is not human. He is an ape.
We are only able to stomach this uncomplicated nobility in our complicated world through the filter of another species. We say to ourselves, “humans aren’t like that, but a hyper intelligent ape, why not?” The character of Caesar allows us to explore the heroism that humanity is capable of through a palatable filter. Also, Andy Serkis is the man. #AndysOscarNow