Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Mentor Antagonists

Judging by the traffic that comes to this blog, and to one article in particular, there seems to be a good deal of interest in the concept of mentor-antagonists. Many stories contain a relationship between the hero and a mentor. In almost all the hero has a relationship with an antagonist. But in a small handful, these two characters are one and the same person. This creates a dynamic relationship with the protagonist, one where the mentor-antagonist slowly evolves from one role to the other as the story progresses. As the role changes, so do the protagonist’s feelings towards this character and what he or she represents, providing the impetus for growth along the protagonist’s character arc. The shift from trusted parental figure to hated adversary is an extreme one, so stories with mentor-antagonists typically follow a clear structure to facilitate this transition. This article demonstrates this structure as it is found in multiple recent successful films.

But first, we must define our terms. In the cinematic narrative, a mentor character is a major supporting character who at some point takes the (usually young and inexperienced) protagonist under his or her wing to be the protagonist’s teacher, guide, and guardian. The protagonist sees the mentor as a role model, often evolving into a replacement for an absent parent. However, the protagonist must eventually mature past the need for a mentor and learn how to stand on his or her own two feet. In films with classic mentor figures such as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars or Morpheus in The Matrix, this means the mentor either dies or steps aside so the protagonist can succeed through his or her own abilities.

However, in stories with a mentor-antagonist, the severance of this relationship is far more violent. Rather than a “passing of the baton” from mentor to protege, an ideological break splits the pair in two. Unlike a classic mentor, the mentor-antagonist creates this relationship with hidden intentions in mind. The protagonist becomes aware of these intentions and decides he or she no longer wishes to be aligned with the mentor. In response, one side is compelled to take action directly against the other, turning the characters into mortal adversaries. I must note that mentor-antagonists do not include antagonists who were at one time the protagonist’s mentor but have ended the relationship before the narrative begins (such as Bill in Kill Bill) or mentors who conflict with the protagonist over method, but never directly oppose the protagonist’s goal (such as the Clint Eastwood character in Million Dollar Baby).

We will use the character dynamics from three popular films as our guide: the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Henri Ducard (aka Ra’s al Ghul) in Batman Begins, between Jake and Alonzo in Training Day, and between “Jack” and Tyler Durden in Fight Club. (For the sake of clarity, we will ignore the twist that occurs in Fight Club’s third act (it is largely irrelevant anyhow) – I must also note that I refer to the film’s protagonist as “Jack” out of convenience since the protagonist is actually nameless.)

The structure of the protagonist/mentor-antagonist relationship follows four distinct stages:
  1. Seduction.
  2. Adoration.
  3. Doubt.
  4. Antagonism.

1. Seduction

These protagonist begins their stories feeling lost, uprooted, or ideologically adrift. They either have no role model in life or have lost the person who formerly served that role. Deep inside themselves, the protagonist feels a subconscious urge to find someone to show him the way. When he meets the mentor, he feels drawn to this wise, knowledgeable figure. The mentor seems exactly what the protagonist wishes to become. But unknown to protagonist and audience alike, the mentor sees the protagonist as someone he can mold into his own image, ultimately to achieve his hidden objectives. Though the mentor seems very much to act with the same benevolence as a classic mentor, he manages to seduce the protagonist into his or her world by exploiting the protagonist’s greatest weakness. Ducard appeals to Bruce Wayne’s lust for vengeance. Alonzo takes advantage of Jake’s na├»ve ambition. Tyler Durden gives the socially-disillusioned Jack a sermon he has been dying to hear. The mentor-antagonist lures the protagonist into a relationship by promising to turn the protagonist into what he thinks he wishes to be.

2. Adoration

In this stage, the mentor/protege relationship blossoms. The protagonist dotes on the mentor, eating up every word he has to say. The protagonist grows stronger and wiser, climbing an upward trajectory so quickly that neither the protagonist nor audience could possibly doubt that this relationship is anything but beneficial. However, the mentor’s methods are often harsh. To accelerate the protagonist’s growth, the mentor is cruel and bullying. His underlying goal is to indoctrinate the protagonist to think and act exactly as the mentor wishes by mocking or torturing away all the protagonist’s previous ethics or beliefs. Ducard mocks Wayne’s memory of his dead father as a lesson on the folly of compassion. Alonzo berates, humiliates, even pulls his gun on Jake to force him to smoke PCP. Tyler Durden tortures Jack with a chemical burn until Jack gives Tyler his full ideological surrender. Disguised as a series of tests, the mentor does everything possible to prove that all the protagonist’s previous beliefs were stupid or wrong, leaving the protagonist no other option than to adopt the mentor’s system of beliefs. By yielding to these tests, the protagonist becomes superficially stronger, but betrays his ethics and commits himself deeper onto the path the mentor wishes to set him.

3. Doubt

The honeymoon doesn’t last forever. Eventually, the mentor starts to reveal his true intentions. With his protege fully trained, the mentor moves on to the next stage of his plan – one that is not in line with the high-mined ideals the protagonist joined the mentor to serve. Ducard reveals that his secret order was not created to defend the innocent. Instead, he asks Wayne to assist him in wiping out whole societies, eliminating the innocent along with the corrupt. Jake is shocked when Alonzo’s raid turns out to be cold-blooded murder and robbery. Jack thought Fight Club was all about personal liberation, but learns Tyler wishes to create an army for acts of chaos. Though the protagonist has become fully indoctrinated into the mentor’s ideology, he is not yet brainwashed. The mentor’s true intentions affronts the protagonist’s remaining ethics, and causes the protagonist to doubt whether his relationship with the mentor should continue. In response, the mentor offers an ultimatum: Join, or else. This is no easy decision for the protagonist. Turning away from the mentor will bring harsh consequences. Wayne will be hunted down and killed. Alonzo will end Jake’s career. Jack will be cast out of paradise as a pariah. On top of this is the emotional turmoil that will come from rejecting the person the protagonist has grown to love closer than family. But if the protagonist stays, it will come at the price of his soul.

4. Antagonism

The protagonist chooses to follow his heart and break ties with the mentor. The mentor sees this as betrayal.
The two characters who were once as close as family now turn into blood enemies. Depending on the situation, one side makes a move to stop the other. Ducard army invades Wayne’s home and tries to kill him. Alonzo recruits gangbangers to murder Jake. Jack runs the country ragged to unravel Tyler’s conspiracy. This action fails, causing the other side launch a counterattack. This continues back-and-forth until the story climax where the protagonist must destroy his former mentor to resolve the situation and walk out alive. Yet even as the two sides attempt to destroy each other, it does not occur without a sense of regret. The mentor still wishes the protagonist would stop this foolishness and rejoin his side. The protagonist too wishes the mentor would give up on his plans so they could once again be family. But the die has been cast and both sides are set in their paths. Though the mentor is no longer the protagonist’s teacher, this final battle provides the protagonist with the last step of his training. By destroying the mentor, the protagonist not only replaces his teacher, but surpasses him. The protagonist has become greater than the man he once emulated, and is now everything he originally set out to become.

Social Context

Not to get too Freudian (or too Jungian, as the case might be), but I would like to forward a theory on the prevalence of the mentor archetype in feature films and storytelling in general. It is likely that these story patterns feel so natural and satisfying because they mirror the psychological relationships we all had with our own parental figures. In ideal families, the parent relates to the child in the same manner as the classic story mentor. The parent gives the child all the guidance he or she needs, and when the right time comes, steps away to allow the child to stand on his or her own two feet. Classic mentors like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Morpheus, and Gandalf the Grey are idealized stand-ins for our own mothers and fathers.

Unfortunately, not everyone is lucky enough to have such supportive parental figures. Some of us had troubled relationships with our mothers or fathers. In these cases, the child’s development to adulthood is mirrored by the mentor-antagonist archetype. When we were very young, we saw our parents as gods: infallible, omniscient, and omnipotent. Whatever the parent asks, the child does. Whatever the parents tells the child, the child believes. But as the child matures and gains the ability to think for him or herself, a painful moment eventually comes when the child realizes the parents are flawed. Sometimes deeply flawed in ways that hurt or anger the child. Whenever a child engages in “teenage rebellion” what occurs is the same as when a story protagonist breaks away from his or her mentor. The child no longer supports the parental figure’s actions and wishes to sever the relationship. Open antagonism between child and parent is the result. Sometimes this rebellion is just a brief experiment in self-autonomy. In other cases, the rift is far more severe. Parent and child become permanent enemies. This often leads to the child severing all former connections to the parent, thus “destroying” the parent and replacing the parent as the central power in his or her own life, hopefully to become a better person than the parent. Mentor-antagonists stories are universal tales on finding one’s own way in the world should a parent fail.

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