Greg, we’ve reviewed the Best Movies of 2014. Now it’s time to review the Best Heroes of the year, too.
We saw some great heroes this year, Scott. Let’s jump in
To evaluate this year’s movie heroes, I examined the features of the classic hero journey, especially whether the hero transforms as a result of encounters with allies, mentors, father figures, villains, and love interests. Here’s my top 10 heroes list:
Scott’s Top 10 Heroes
10: Maleficent (Maleficent)
9: Chris Kyle (American Sniper)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Mason (Boyhood)
6: Vincent and Oliver (St. Vincent)
5: Riggan (Birdman)
4: Cooper (Interstellar)
3: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
2: Triss (Divergent)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)
I also looked to the hero’s journey for guidance as well as transformation – not necessarily for the hero, but transformation in those around the hero.
Greg’s Top 10 Heroes
10: Riggan (Birdman)
9: Cooper (Interstellar)
8: Katniss (The Hunger Games: The Mockingjay – Part I)
7: Neiman (Whiplash)
6: Triss (Divergent)
5: Hazel (The Fault in Our Stars)
4: Bilbo (The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)
3: Maleficent (Maleficent)
2: Alan Turing (The Imitation Game)
1: Martin Luther King, Jr. (Selma)
You’ve generated a good list, Greg — almost as good as mine! Let’s begin with my #5 choice, Riggan, who is the hero of Birdman. One of the most memorable characters in the movies in 2014, Riggan is an actor who uses his craft to mask his inner demons. He is obsessed with restoring a heroic image that is forever lost, and he must learn to “fly” in a different direction — literally. Riggan’s transformative growth rings true to me and his inspiring flight at the end suggests a magical, triumphant conclusion to his epic journey.
Riggan only made the #10 spot on my list. I liked watching Riggan work through his issues and struggle with being an absent father. He was successfully painted as a tortured man, constantly arguing with his inner Birdman. However, I was troubled with his final resolution to his problems. He shoots himself in the “beak.” I have to wonder if he was trying to kill himself and failed – and that somehow led to his revelation? I’d have to watch the film again to decide. Ultimately, he was at peace with who he was, and that’s a heroic transformation.
My #5 pick was Hazel from The Fault in Our Stars. she starts out in this film as being reclusive and afraid to love others. She meets a young man, Gus, who pulls her out of her shell and gets her to live life while she has it. Tragically, Gus dies, leaving Hazel to feel lost without her soulmate. But finally, she realizes that her time with Gus was worth a lifetime of love and emerges full of life and love.
Hazel is my #3 choice, Greg. I enjoy watching her character become transformed from the influence of Augustus and also of Anne Frank, whose recorded voice in Amsterdam opens Hazel’s heart. The hero journey evokes painful emotions but somehow manages to be uplifting, too. Hazel is an unforgettable hero, and Gus is her unforgettable mentor, lover, friend, and symbol of life and hope. The hero and her friends, allies, and companions are all fully present and are quite moving.
My #4 choice is Cooper from Interstellar. When it comes to hero storytelling, you can’t do much better than this film. Cooper follows the classic hero journey almost to the letter. He is sent out into space (the unfamiliar world) and he is enlisted with the task of saving all of humanity. All heroes are missing some quality, and in Cooper’s case he is missing an understanding of what binds the universe together. The answer is not unlike what Dorothy discovers in The Wizard of Oz — the answer is love, home, and gravity.
I picked Cooper as my #9 hero of the year. Cooper has all the qualities you mention, Scott. He has a deep and abiding love for his daughter. So much so that he risks never seeing her again to save her life. Then, when all seems lost, he returns to her through time and space to send her a message that will either save humanity, or doom it to failure. It’s a heartbreaking scene and one that any father can relate to.
My #4 pick was Bilbo Baggins of The Hobbit trilogy. I have to admit that I cheated a bit on this one, as I was rating Bilbo based on his transformation from the beginning of the trilogy, through the end. He starts out as shy, repressed, even fearful of the great beyond. He goes on his journey and takes on the characteristics of the mentor characters he meets. He returns to the shire a confident, strong master of the two worlds. It’s a great Hero’s Journey that people return to again and again.
Bilbo didn’t make my top-10 list for the reason you mention, Greg. I will grant you that Bilbo’s story, in its entirety, follows the classic hero’s journey, but this film only shows us the final leg of that journey. Consequently, I didn’t see him change or evolve much in this particular movie. But there’s no doubt that his character, as a whole, undergoes dramatic growth and is one of the greatest heroes in all of literature.
We already talked about your #3 pick, Scott. So let’s look at my #3 – Maleficent. This was a great story of a character who has traditionally been a villain in the Disney universe. Maleficent is given a full backstory here. She starts out innocent and good – the queen of the fairies. And then is betrayed by the man she loves. She turns evil and casts a spell on the baby princess – but over time learns to love her. She then returns to goodness at the end of the story when she saves the princess. It’s a great “round trip” for our hero, one of the first such stories we’ve reviewed.
Maleficent was my #10 choice. As you point out, her heroic journey follows some non-traditional twists and turns, and underscores the idea that there exists a fine line between heroism and villainy. You and I have had many long discussions about that blurry line and Maleficent shows us that often the same person can occupy the role of both hero and of villain.
Next we turn to my #2 choice, Triss from Divergent. Shailene Woodley is outstanding in her role as Triss, a young woman on a voyage of self-discovery. I found Triss to have far more depth and nuance than Katniss showed in the first two installments of The Hunger Games. Triss spends this movie trying to reconcile others’ expectations of her with her own quest for self-knowledge and self-growth. Divergent has everything one would want in a hero journey here. Triss attracts allies among the Dauntless and is mentored by both her mother and a colleague named Four, who also serves as a love interest. Challenges both physical and intellectual in nature are met and resolved in sometimes surprising ways. The hero journey here is packed to delicious satisfaction.
I liked Triss, too, Scott. Unfortunately I thought her character was a bit of a copy of Katniss, and so she didn’t rise to my top 5. Also, she was a bit too reliant on the men in her life. I did like her transformation from uncertain young girl to a fully realized hero by the end of the story. I’m looking forward to seeing more of her in the coming years.
My #2 slot is occupied by Alan Turing from The Imitation Game. I had some trouble reconciling the events in the movie with actual history. But that doesn’t change my opinion of Turing and his accomplishment. Breaking the Enigma code was quite possibly the event that won the war for the Allies. The whole world owes a debt to Turing that can never be repaid. Turing is a tragic hero because he ultimately takes his own life when the country he saved turns on him for his homosexual lifestyle. It’s a compelling story that I won’t soon forget.
Turing didn’t crack my top 10 but I agree that his hero story is a stirring one. The man has many demons to overcome and makes many enemies. Does his character become transformed the way a good hero should? Perhaps not. Ironically, his refusal to change may be the key to his heroism. Maybe this is a tale about a British society that refuses to transform as much as it is a tale about a hero who shouldn’t need to.
My #1 hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma This film is a powerful portrayal of King’s methods (based on those of Gandhi) of bringing about peaceful social change. The heroic mentorship of Martin Luther King, Jr., is shown in terrific detail here. King was miles ahead of everyone in his moral understanding of the world, and he also had the strength and charisma to move an entire society. The hero story is unique in that it’s less about a hero changing than it is about a hero helping everyone around him change. King guided an entire nation toward moral and spiritual maturity.
We’re in full agreement, here Scott. The thing that impressed me most about King is what he risked. That is something that separates ordinary people from heroes. Martin Luther King, Jr. risked everything to create a more equal status for Blacks in a White-ruled America. He risked his relationship with his wife, time with his children, his standing in the Black community, and even his own life. Selma shows us not only his strength and determination, but also his fears, concerns, and weaknesses. This reminds us that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a person like so many of us. And it was his inability to stand by and watch that made him a hero. And so can we all be heroes.
Well, Scott, that brings us to the end of 2014’s best heroes. I’m looking forward to presenting our findings on what makes a great hero in our upcoming book Reel Heroes: Volume 2: The Villains where we’ll also look at what makes a great villain.
Stay tuned for our list of the Best Villains in the movies in 2014!