Culture

Why must every Hollywood hero have a dead or deadbeat dad?

A feint toward common experience becomes one of the industry’s most boring tropes.

Culture

Why must every Hollywood hero have a dead or deadbeat dad?

A feint toward common experience becomes one of the industry’s most boring tropes.
Culture

Why must every Hollywood hero have a dead or deadbeat dad?

A feint toward common experience becomes one of the industry’s most boring tropes.

You’d think everything you need to know about Han Solo’s relationship with his family is right there in his name. Not according to his stand-alone feature, Solo, released to a tepid reception in mid-May. Midway through the film, the character is stricken by an impulse to explain his affection for the Millennium Falcon, the iconic vessel that is his home throughout the Star Wars franchise. Solo reveals that his father used to work at the shipyards on the hardscrabble planet of Corellia that build that model freighter, and that his old man always wished he could escape on one. Solo’s attachment to a ship that others view as a rickety heap, previously a marker of the character’s irascibility and independence, is now reframed as a sappy fulfilment of his long lost dad’s dream.

It’s a neat narrative loop, but a completely unnecessary character note — and not the first time Lucasfilm’s screenwriters have returned to that particular narrative well. Previous stand-alone feature Rogue One suffered from one of the most tin-eared endings of any film in recent memory. (Not the part where all the heroes die; that’s actually pretty refreshing.) As Rebel spy Cassian Andor and Jyn Erso prepare to be killed by a blast from the Death Star, the superweapon Erso’s father designed, and the plans of which they have just successfully smuggled to the Rebellion, Andor says, “Your father would have been proud of you.”

Leaving aside the question of whether any father could possibly be proud that his daughter was being obliterated by armaments he invented, the sentiment is kind of inexplicable. Andor never even met or spoke with Erso’s father, and actually strongly considered murdering him throughout the first half of the movie. Why should Erso even care what Andor thinks about her dad? Why would she smile gratefully and clutch his hand, as though now at last at peace, instead of frowning and asking him what the hell he’s talking about? The line lays bare the film’s baldly schematic conception of character. Apparently unconvinced that audiences would accept that their film’s heroine might act for moral reasons, writers Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy (who reconceived the troubled project late in production) determined that Erso’s motivations needed to be grounded in daddy issues; her sabotage of the galaxy-threatening war engine simply the fulfilment of her father’s dying wish.

It’s a distractingly common screenwriting strategy. Scanning the landscape of contemporary blockbusters, it begins to seem as though Hollywood writers are almost incapable of drawing out a character’s personality — or principles, or simple preferences — without resorting at some point to the invention of daddy issues. Among the worst culprits is the increasingly interwoven Marvel franchise, which now presents as some kind of bizarre mass Freudian case study. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Spider-Man, Black Panther, Black Widow, Gamora, Peter Quill, Ant-Man, Doctor Strange — all of them have dead dads, absent dads, overweening dads, or bad dads (biological, adoptive, or symbolic), and sometimes a combination of all four. (Hawkeye might be the only Avenger to escape this daddy issue infection, except that his sole distinguishing feature is that he is a daddy).

The notion that adult behaviour can be traced to juvenile development might have a lot of real-world analytical and therapeutic merit, but as a narrative strategy it’s surely just about exhausted, for now.

Plenty of this is comic book canon, but that does not make it inevitable that Marvel’s screenwriters should choose to frame their heroes’ emotional and psychological makeup in this way. Yet this is increasingly the industry’s only choice: When franchise maven J. J. Abrams rebooted Star Trek in 2009, he reconceived Captain Kirk as an angry youth rebelling in the shadow of his dead father, just as when he revived Star Wars in 2015 he gave new villain Kylo Ren a plethora of Oedipal angst, and made new heroine, Rey, a lonely orphan. It’s such an accepted character template that audiences now seem resistant to any deviation. After The Last Jedi declined to make an emotional revelation out of Rey’s mysterious paternity, some fans reacted explosively, as though a golden narrative rule had been broken. (Like it’s not enough that she’s already parentless).

It’s not a new narrative trope — there’s Hamlet, duh. But its present ubiquity feels traceable to the past few decades, and a franchise filmmaking landscape shaped irrevocably by George Lucas, whose two Star Wars trilogies reduced a galaxy-spanning fight of good against evil to the saga of one family, and Steven Spielberg, who turned his own much-discussed resentment over his parent’s divorce into a career long obsession with distant, absent, or otherwise troubled fathers. Pioneers of the modern blockbuster, these filmmakers inspired a legion of imitators who apparently believed that their uniquely narrow interest in filial relations was inseparable from gee-whiz spectacle in their formula for box office success.

In the narrative paradigm that solidified in their wake, daddy issues became accepted screenwriting shorthand — an empty gesture to evoke psychological depth, and, as in Rogue One, a shortcut to emotional closure. Hollywood script writers in the 1940s didn’t assume their audiences needed to care about Barbara Stanwyck’s dad, or Joan Crawford’s. Viewers in the 1960s didn’t watch Clint Eastwood westerns to learn about his abusive, distant Pa. Now, pretty much any film or television product geared for a mass audience can barely depict an adult protagonist without first diagnosing them as a big kid. The notion that adult behaviour can be traced to juvenile development might have a lot of real-world analytical and therapeutic merit, but as a narrative strategy it’s surely just about exhausted, for now.

Thanos, the bad dad to end them all.

Thanos, the bad dad to end them all.

Squint hard enough at this obsession with father figures and you might see the fallout from America’s post-World War II preoccupation with the nuclear family unit, or a struggle in the cultural subconscious over the legitimacy of patriarchy in the wake of successive feminist movements. It’s commonplace to say that blockbusters are made for young boys, but they’re made about young boys, too. Even grown men, like Tony Stark, are developmentally arrested at a moment when fathers and mother are the chief aid and obstacle to self-actualisation. Maybe this is a conceptual circuit the industry can’t figure out how to escape, writers having lost confidence in their ability to develop character through other means. Or maybe, in the present moment, this archetypal concept increasingly feels like the right story to help audiences process a world where national power looks increasingly like a family business.

At its core, the daddy issues trope is a feint toward common experience. Who doesn’t carry the influence of their dad, even if only genetically? But its weirdness becomes apparent through repetition: the retrograde emphasis on the male parent (despite the mothers usually being just as dead or absent); the implication that all interpersonal connections are traceable to filial bonds; the assumption that psychology could be so simple. For all that it appears to be about fathers, it’s not really about family. It’s more about a fantasy of male authority, emptied out of meaning until only its shadow remains.

Solo’s writers seemingly couldn’t help themselves — even the Wookie companion Chewbacca is burdened with a backstory as a little lost orphan searching for his scattered tribe. But cast your eye around the edges of the film and it’s possible to find hints of another way. Donald Glover’s Lando has been hailed as a highlight of the film, probably because he’s the only character that seems to be enjoying himself. In conversation, Lando passes briskly over the question of his father, but waxes fondly about his mother. He’s like a window into another, not long past set of storytelling values, in which money, sex, and fun are sufficient incentives for adventure. As far as motivations go, that might not be as mythically grand as family trauma, but it’s easily just as relatable.

James Douglas is a writer in Melbourne, Australia.
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