What is fantasy? Pt. 1: Die Hard and the action hero fantasy

die-hard-2-bruce-willisOnce in college I mentioned to my best friend, not without some embarrassment, that I used to read a lot of fantasy novels as a child. ‘Oh, I hated fantasy novels,’ she groaned. ‘They’re just pure escapism.’ This comment intrigued rather than offended me. What did she mean by ‘pure escapism’, and why was this a bad thing?

To my friend’s credit, she considered the question seriously. Well, she explained, the way she saw it, ‘escapist’ literature allowed the reader/viewer/protagonist to escape their problems, ‘escape’ here meaning ‘to run away from’ as opposed to ‘facing’ or ‘(re)solving’, which is hardly a mature or healthy coping mechanism for children to learn. I thought I understood what she meant. In the standard kid’s fantasy formula, the protagonist/reader-avatar is typically a child who feels out of place, whose relationship with their family (if they have one) is characterized by conflict or neglect, who is friendless or bullied by their peers, and who generally feels marginalized and ignored. Then, an intervention: they find a magic door into another realm where they are actually a long-lost monarch or a prophetic hero. Literal escapism.

What’s happening here is that the original problem—the problem at the outset of the story—is not directly addressed. Instead, circumstances change to reframe the problem so that it’s longer a problem. Often even the protagonist’s flaws and weaknesses become recast as strengths, so ‘spacey-ness’ and ‘weirdness’ become magical aptitude, stubbornness becomes courage in the face of danger, isolation becomes a sign of superiority or self-reliance, and so on. The result is that a person who cannot meet the demands of their environment is moved by the plot into one in which they are already equipped to succeed. Hence, escapism.

This, of course, is a massive oversimplification (not to mention a failure to address the psychological benefits of such stories for children in unhealthy environments). But take it as the introduction to my main point: that this kind of plotline, while we may call it ‘fantasy’ or ‘escapism’ is not necessarily specific to the fantasy genre. In fact, this story, wherein the character trait or handicap that sets the protagonist apart becomes the solution to their problem and/or evidence that they were Special All Along, can be found in almost every genre, including adult genres, with varying degrees of sophistication.

So that being said, let’s look at Die Hard.

A friend showed me this movie for the first time fairly recently, and being something of a killjoy (Is it really being a killjoy if I enjoy doing it, though? Discuss.), I asked my friend why the hell John ‘Endangering Civilians For Kicks’ McLane chose to dramatically escalate a terrorist attack instead of simply allowing Gruber and his thugs to take the money and go. Surely, I argued, compliance and negotiation are the only safe, ethical responses to a hostage situation where corporate money is stacked against human life. My friend very reasonably pointed out that a) Proper Negotiation Procedures isn’t nearly as good a movie title as Die Hard and that b) the villains, unbeknownst to our hero, had secretly planned to kill the hostages all along, so John McLane had really been right to resort to violence in the first place.

Let’s unpack that.

Die Hard and all its glorious moments of suspended disbelief make a lot more sense if we read it as escapism; that is, if we read the hostage situation at Nakatomi Plaza not as its own driving conflict, but as the solution to a different problem. This is the relationship between John McLane and his estranged wife Holly, who is, of course, among the hostages. In an early scene with his driver Argyle (no scene in a well-crafted film is unnecessary, and this scene is very necessary), we find out that Holly left New York to pursue a career opportunity without McLane’s blessing or support. He gives a nobly masculine reason for staying behind (‘I got a backlog of New York scumbags I’m still trying to put behind bars.’), which Argyle shrewdly interprets: ‘You thought she wasn’t gonna make it out here and she’d come crawling back to you, right?’ Replies McLane, ‘You’re very fast, Argyle.’

John McLane’s problem at the outset of the film can be summed up fairly simply: he suffers from a textbook case of Toxic Masculinity. He sees male-female relationships as a zero-sum competition (feeling threatened and emasculated by his wife’s success and the fact that she uses her own last name), he can’t communicate openly with women (even his ultimate heartfelt confession is to a comrade-in-arms, not his wife), and he can’t show emotion apart from anger or admit when he is wrong or in need of help. His explanation for staying in New York suggests that he prioritizes retaliatory violence over healthy emotional relationships. These traits are causing his problems, and he even knows it; ‘Real mature, John!’ he berates himself after picking a pointless fight with his wife. What’s more, the resentment he feels towards his wife’s coke-sniffing, Rolex-wearing, besuited male colleagues indicates that in Los Angeles in 1988 John McClane’s version of masculinity is not only archaic but incompatible with modern life, modern relationships, and the corporate world.

Which of course is the cue for Gruber’s thugs to storm the building. And suddenly the very same traits that make McLane a bad husband and a bit of a jerk in regular life—namely, his rough demeanor, his controlling tendencies, his refusal to admit weakness—make him a good protector in a crisis. He wins his wife back with the very characteristics that drove her away. And this is the real reason Die Hard is the ultimate macho fantasy: Hollywood has dreamt up a scenario where McLane doesn’t really have to change who he is (his apology isn’t even heard by his wife) because outside circumstances really will make Holly ‘come crawling back’. In effect, the hostage situation allows McLane (presumably) to mend his relationship with his wife without weakening his position or admitting he was wrong (at least not to her), something that would have been impossible under any other circumstances. In a weird, twisted way, this crisis is actually the best-case scenario for a man like John McLane.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert complained, ‘As nearly as I can tell, the deputy chief is in the movie for only one purpose: to be consistently wrong at every step of the way and to provide a phony counterpoint to Willis’ progress.’ Ebert hits upon the driving problem of escapist fantasy, and the reason it so often requires wild leaps of the imagination: in order for the hero to be made right without actually changing, the world around him must be twisted to look wrong. Note how every unrealistic aspect of the plot is designed to support the premise that a hostage situation is better resolved by a lone renegade with a machine gun than by responsible negotiation. The villains are unforeseeably ruthless. The authorities are incompetent beyond belief. The only man who tries to negotiate is a dumb, corporate sleazebag who endangers lives before losing his own.

All this is because Die Hard is a fantasy. A highly sophisticated, beautifully crafted fantasy. And while you can bet on seeing the same ‘dude’s douche-y tendencies end up making him invaluable in a crisis’ plot in pretty much whatever second-rate action movie you end up seeing at the cinema this week, you’ll rarely see it done so masterfully. The whole plot adds up to an implausible yet convincing scenario where McLane’s toxic masculinity is an asset rather than a drawback. Of course, in a more realistic scenario, his macho approach would more likely just get people killed.

(In case you think I’m picking on the fellas, What is Fantasy? Pt. 2: Toxic femininity and the ‘perfect guy’ fantasy will be coming soon.)