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Despite what the "It's just a movie, it doesn't mean anything!" crowd seems to think, movies are always pro-something, because if we don't believe in what the hero is doing, why would we care what happens on screen? It all comes down to emotional investment: We have to believe that Harry Potter stopping Voldemort is an overall win for the world, otherwise we just watched a cocky teenager murder a disabled old man by turning him into a fetus.

But movies have slyly convinced us to start rooting for some pretty terrible stuff. And I promise that's the last time I'll say the word "fetus," because that word is gross.

A "Balance" Between Good and Evil

20th Century Fox

The biggest mark the Star Wars trilogy left on cinema was the idea that balance is key. I know the philosophy probably predates that, but I'm going with Star Wars, because it's had a way bigger impact on contemporary society than any one religious text. Both the Star Wars prequels and the original trilogy give characters lines about "restoring balance to the Force," because apparently the centuries of peace and prosperity in the Old Republic was really off-kilter.

Maybe "balance" means "we finally get to use our fucking lightsabers."

X-Men: First Class is a way more recent example, where Xavier tells Magneto that the key to using his powers is "finding the space between rage and serenity," which is basically the same thing: Serenity is just dandy, rage is kind of a bummer. Therefore, it makes sense to find a balance between the two.

But Wait a Minute ...

No, it doesn't. Balancing between two ideas is a compromise, and compromise only makes sense when it's two sides that are willing to work together. Political parties compromise. Fighting married couples compromise. How do you compromise between two polar opposites, or with an evil force bent on your destruction? Kill off half your own population? That seems like a loss to me.

X-Men Babies is probably the more stupid of the two options here, because "the space between rage and serenity" is just "being mildly stressed out," as far as I can tell, which isn't nearly as dramatic a thing for Xavier to somberly whisper through a voice-over.

20th Century Fox
"Imagine you're trying to rub one out before work, but the video's taking forever to load,
and you still have to make oatmeal so you're not hungry all morning."

But in Star Wars, "balancing the Force" means that both forces would be equally powerful, right? Yeah, we tried that in real life, with mutually assured destruction during the Cold War, and it was pretty goddamn stressful for everyone involved. Turns out building millions of nuclear weapons and pointing them at everyone, all the time, isn't really the best way to get any peace of mind. The problem is that a "balance" between two ideas that fundamentally can't coexist is never-ending war, which we can all agree is bad -- no matter how cool that one Civilization game is.

Risking Everything for Love or Family


I'm not about to rail against the nuclear family or endorse some nihilistic bullshit here. To be clear, I'd do anything for my family, and I hope most of you would, too. Right? Not all of you have my nunchucks-and-ninja-wolves story to prove it, but don't worry, I believe you anyway.

And love? Man, love is rad -- especially the part where it makes us do dumb shit. I'm pretty sure blowing your savings to impress pretty people who like how your tongue tastes is one of the most important developmental periods you go through.

Michael Blann/Digital Vision/Getty Images
It's hard to make something as awesome as kissing sound gross, but I did it.

But Wait a Minute ...

Movies have kinda gone overboard with this whole thing, and not in the normal way that they go overboard with everything. At the end of Armageddon, after Bruce Willis and his charming band of wacky dumbass rednecks pull off the most complicated procedure ever attempted in space (more on that in a moment), the entire story comes to a stop for a second so Bruce can say goodbye to his daughter -- which would be fine, if he weren't putting the entire world at risk to do it.

But the weirdest example has to be Saving Private Ryan. It's the single highest grossing World War II movie ever made, despite not actually being about the war at all. It uses the Normandy invasion, the biggest and riskiest invasion the world had ever known, as the backdrop for a story about taking care of Matt Damon's mom. And while the movie pays lip service to how controversial it is to sacrifice eight lives to save one, all the characters decide at the end that they're doing the right thing. Tom Hanks says, "Maybe saving Private Ryan is the one decent thing we're able to pull out of this god-awful shitty mess," which totally dismisses the real reason we invaded Europe -- to create a kickass video game subgenre.

id Software
Never forget.

Because at the end of the day, Matt Damon's mom is more important to us than the entire war effort. We care way more about our personal relationships than the rest of the world, mainly because our brains don't work properly.

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Touchstone Pictures

When I was about 11 years old, my aunt Leslie gave me advice that's stuck with me to this day: "You can call someone a fucker, but you can't call them a dumb fucker." Then she drove me into the woods of Montana and left me there to find my way back to civilization alone. It was January, in Montana. Needless to say, I never let my Scattergories trash-talk get out of hand again.

Geoff Kuchera/iStock/Getty Images
Then I befriended this wolf and he led me to safety. Then I snapped this picture, I guess.
I'm having trouble keeping track of my lies.

Despite the fact that you shouldn't take advice from crazy Montanans who live alone in the woods with lots of guns (or from me, now that I think about it), the root of what she said is right: Society places such a high priority on intelligence that calling someone dumb is about the worst thing you can do.

But Wait a Minute ...

If that's true, how come stupid people in movies always default as being alright folks? In the first Rocky, the Italian Stallion seems dumber than a box of pet rocks trying to explain the allure of Pokemon, and that only adds to his appeal. In Armageddon, NASA needs a bunch of roughnecks to pull off the single most complex space expedition in history, because they've got moxie or whatever. The only person we can trust at NASA is Billy Bob Thornton, whom the script tells us is pretty smart, but c'mon, how bright can he really be? He's Billy Bob Thornton.

Touchstone Pictures
"Duhooyyyyyy" -Billy Bob Thornton in this scene, probably.

You also see it in Moonraker (Jaws) and The Princess Bride (Fezzik), and even Mongo in Blazing Saddles references how he's "only [a] pawn in [this twisted, tragicomical] game of life." It gets flipped in Hot Fuzz when Lurch decides not to switch sides in the climactic fight, but of course that's the joke.

Basically, there's a "You must have this much IQ" sign plastered on the outside of Evil University, but the Forces of Good have recruitment booths set up outside all the remedial classes. Smart people are too unpredictable, always one step ahead of us, nowhere near as comforting as ...

Old-Fashioned Stuff

Warner Bros.

We love being told that our heroes are fighting for an older, more idealistic lifestyle, even when they're clearly not doing that. Someone tells Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade that he belongs in a museum, like "being an adventurous archaeologist" was going out of style in the 1950s instead of being something that's timelessly awesome. In The Avengers, Phil Coulson tells Captain America that "people need a little old-fashioned" when things get rough. John McClane got called an "analog timepiece in a digital age," for ... some reason. Gran Torino taught us that even the racist old dickbag next door is actually a good guy deep down.

Warner Bros.
Can I make fun of this guy for being old because I disagree with him politically? I'm not clear on the ethics there.

Bad guys are never old-fashioned. They might be ancient, or mystical, or, like, old, but they're never clinging to an outmoded code of ethics that has failed to acknowledge society's progress ...

But Wait a Minute ...

... even though, in the real world, that's pretty much what all the real evil people in the world are doing. The racist old dickbag next door is, deep down, a racist old dickbag.

Warner Bros.
He's not actually sure if that's a real gun. (I decided that if I'm making fun of the character,
and not the actor, then I'm all clear.)

I'm not saying tradition is bad -- I do a lot of stuff just because it's traditional, like celebrating holidays with my family and riding my bike a lot even though cars exist. But I don't do anything just because it's old, because calling something "traditional" simply to justify it is just banging rusty nails into the wooden water slide of progress.

So why do movies, which increasingly rely on novelty, have such a fucking hard-on for old-fashioned stuff? Because change, like all good things, is scary? Fucking suck it up, movies. God.

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Split-Second Decisions


Ever since Han Solo returned at the last minute to kill the smarter of Darth Vader's two wing men, leaving Luke Skywalker all clear to blow up the Death Star, that moment has been the archetype for getting the hero out of a tight spot at the last minute: Selina Kyle makes a last-minute decision to come back and save Batman, Harry Osborn comes back at the last minute to save Spider-Man in Spider-Man 3, and Butch goes back to save Marcellus Wallace's butthole in Pulp Fiction.

Miramax Films
Tarantino can put as much self-indulgent dialogue in his movies as he wants, as long as he keeps making moments like this.

But Wait a Minute ...

All these moments rely on characters deciding to completely reverse the direction of their life in a matter of seconds. Ever notice that the opposite never happens? If someone we thought was good turns evil at the end, we always learn that he was "evil all along," like Mac in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (wow, what an utterly insane example to randomly spring to mind). Nobody's ever good for a whole movie and then suddenly switches sides at the end on an impulse, even though, logically, that should be just as likely to happen -- especially if the Force is "balanced."

"You know, I read about the Emperor's health care reform plan on the way over, and it actually makes a ton of sense."

I understand that we need to see the hero do the right thing, and split-second decisions allow the screenwriter to delay the drama and tension until the last minute. But has turning your back on everything you believe in half a heartbeat ever actually worked out for you in real life? Because every time I've tried it, I've ended up in a gutter, in a long-term romantic relationship, or owning a MacBook. If you've had better luck, tell me about it, because that sounds like a hell of a story.

Until then, I'm going to assume that movies are endorsing impulsive behavior because they know that's what sells tickets and merchandise (and lizards, apparently).

Nuclear Weapons

Marvel Studios

Nuclear bombs are always good in film.

"What are you talking about, you crazy idiot?" some of you are screaming, because you still haven't learned my name, which is rude because I've been talking for a while at this point, "both The Sum of All Fears and The Peacemaker have nuclear weapons that are huge threats!"

Sure they do -- but those are American nuclear weapons that fell into the wrong hands. Anything can be evil if it falls into the wrong hands. That's why those hands are wrong. But how many movies have, as a threat, nuclear weapons that were designed to kill us? Judgment Day in Terminator is caused by Skynet going wang-shaped. The scary nuke in The Dark Knight Rises was an attempt to do good that, again, fell into the wrong hands.

Warner Bros.
Arguably, the whole movie was "in the wrong hands."

But Wait a Minute ...

Hold on, I'm not ready to go to the next section yet: Sci-fi movies have such a boner for nuclear weapons that they've muscled out every other deus ex machina to be the default problem solver. Armageddon? Nuclear bomb. The Avengers? Nuclear bomb. Sunshine? Starship Troopers? The Core? Nukes all around. Independence Day uses nukes with a healthy helping of hacking, and Paul Reiser in Aliens won't let them nuke it from orbit, so they just blow up a nuclear reactor, which is the same thing (no, it's not). Pacific Rim took this to an insane level: The fact that Gipsy Danger is nuclear-powered not only makes it immune to an EMP blast ("Not Gipsy. She's analog. Nuclear"), but allows her to save the world when she blows up at the end and destroys all the kaiju.

Warner Bros.
Those holographic displays are pretty impressive, being analog and all.

As much as movies (and sci-fi in particular) like to act like they're looking to the future, this is yet another way it's still stuck in the past. Nuclear weapons seem like a great option because we never really got over World War II: It was the last time we declared war for real, the last time we won an unequivocal victory against a clearly evil enemy, and it even ended with a nice mushroom-shaped fireworks display. That's a big hearty meal of self-righteous jingoism, complete with a nuclear dessert. No wonder we're having trouble getting up from that table.

J.F. Sargent has a terrible Twitter that's secretly awesome, and an awesome Facebook that's secretly terrible. He also has a Tumblr, but he keeps forgetting it exists.

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