© Written by Rob Ager July 2014




In a great many movies, even in those considered “realistic”, hero and heroine characters generally have, or come to acquire during the story, a level of control over their own environment that is significantly greater than the power average people have in real life. This manifests in many different ways.

At the most overt level there are superhero movies, in which the hero has magical powers like the ability to fly, super strength or lightning speed. These traits allow them to easily combat and defeat inferior enemies who themselves not only lack super powers, but are often dumbed down to make the hero seem even more superior by comparison. The means by which superhero characters come to have such super traits range from genetic mutations to the creation of gadget aids created through the protagonist’s technical wizardry, which itself is a sort of mental super power (the Iron Man films are good examples of this).

Slightly lower down the scale we have the James Bond films. Rather than having a specific physical super power, Bond has a generalized level of physical and mental ability that always puts him ahead of competitors. So an enemy may have great wealth or great physical strength, such as the henchman Jaws, but Bond’s more versatile abilities always give him the advantage. At the physical level Bond is very capable, though not in a way that overtly defies reality. Rather his super power comes in the form of his vast knowledge, intellect, speed of thought and his ability to perform at maximum mental capacity even in the most stressful and life threatening situations.

This facet of mental super powers is actually very common to movie protagonists. Action heroes usually have a near superhuman level of control over their own fears and anxieties to the point where not only will they win a physical fight, but they’ll do it in a way that is witty and stylized so as to embarrass their defeated opponents.

Even in non-action movies this facet of in-built mental superiority is very common. In court room dramas a lead hero character will often possess a level of moral superiority and intellectual capacity that outshines everyone else in the room (the film 12 Angry Men for example). Through a fist fight equivalent battle of words, others in the room will be subverted gradually to the hero’s world view.

In order to make physically and mentally endowed heroes seem a little more human – as in their superiority over others doesn’t come across as completely silly – instead their opponents in the story will be handicapped in their abilities. The idiot Stormtroopers of Star Wars, who can’t aim a gun to save their lives, are a classic example of a film dumbing down the enemy to give the heroes a natural, yet sort of believable, advantage. I can’t recall a single instance of a StormTrooper turning out to be unusually smart and thus a real challenge to the heroes. One of them might get lucky enough to injure one of the heroes, but he’ll virtually always be slaughtered in the seconds following.

Even romantic comedies and relationship dramas, if you really stop and pay attention, often have protagonists who are subtly endowed with super qualities that make them inherently superior to everybody around them, be it greater sexual attractiveness, being a better love maker, being “cooler” or more popular than others or being almost virginally wholesome and innocent.

The pattern is generally the same across most genres. The hero protagonist must possess inherent qualities that naturally make him or her superior to everybody around them, especially their enemies. Or, at the very least, the enemies of the protagonist must be so handicapped in their own intellect and personality so as to effectively render the hero as naturally superior and thus the inevitable victor in any conflict that ensues. This all taps into the common human desire to have control over our environment and the people who populate it, and especially the power to defeat our enemies.

In video games the same pattern is there, but it’s much more varied in its presentation. In the worlds of video games the player’s organic intelligence itself gives their in-game character a level of versatility and adaptability that is vastly superior to the artificial intelligence of NPCs (non-player characters). The worlds contained even within the largest and most advanced computer games still contain only a tiny fraction of a percentage of the mind-boggling complexity of the real world in which we humans seek to survive and prosper from day to day. The frustrating limitations of the real world, populated by many opponents who are as intellectually capable as we are, drives most people to seek occasional escapist refuge in simplified fantasy worlds that, for a short time, give us a feeling of superiority and control. This has a calming effect psychologically. It allows us to escape everyday anxieties.

This escapist impulse allows even the most intelligent people to engage fantasy worlds that not only give them greater power than in life, but often allow that feeling of power to occur in way that requires minimal effort. And so, retrogaming remains popular. Millions of people are happy to escape into an extremely simplified reality such as Pac Man, where the meaning of existence from one moment to the next amounts to a simple matter of whether to turn left / right / up / down or just keep on moving in the same direction. And in really basic action movies life’s problems are generally solved by who can throw the better punch or more accurately fire a gun. The simplicity holds universal appeal in a way that can almost be compared to meditation.

The types of control fantasy that humans indulge in through video games and movies are quite varied. In pornography, the means by which sexual partners are acquired is reduced to the simple matter of being in the right place at the right time, making a couple of suggestive comments and then fondling the person you’re lusting after. Rejection or claims of sexual harassment never seem to happen and the target for sexual encounter generally drops their pants within fifteen minutes and engages in whatever sexual acts the protagonist wants. Viewers know this is unrealistic in the vast majority of situations, yet they seek it as a simulated experience.

In many instances, such escapist fantasies allow people to even escape from the very limitation of being human. In video games we can switch identity by becoming an alien, a robot, a God in control of an entire army or even something as simple as a bouncing ball.

This may all seem harshly critical of movies and video games but, as I outlined, it does have a positive function of psychologically, and thus neurologically, giving people a spell of escape from states of anxiety and frustration. It's also just one side of the motivational coin. The flip-side is much more overtly positive ...