In my last post, I talked about how frustratingly difficult it is to find modern wide-release movies for adults that embrace mercy as a critical theme. This week, I want to celebrate the positive,  taking a look at a few relatively recent wide-release movies that get mercy right. I'm also going to expand the net to some favorite books and short stories, because . . . well, I'm a short story writer. It'd be silly not to talk about books on a writing blog.

Something I particularly appreciate is that in most of these stories, the recipient of mercy has genuinely done something horrid. Showing mercy and compassion to a dying, destitute Fantine is absolutely laudable, but it's much, much harder to show mercy to the kid who just blew up your entire planet.

Captain America: Civil War (2016). Since this one just came out, I don't want to say too much for fear of spoilers. Suffice it to say that a character embraces forgiveness over vengeance in a way that feels fully earned, without any of the weird macho "I forgive you and the horse you came in on" posturing of a lot of other movies. What's more, because we love both Cap and Iron Man, we genuinely want to see them reconciled rather than watching them pound each other to a bloody pulp. It's a lovely thing when a movie makes you wholeheartedly root for mercy rather than appealing to that nasty bloodthirsty part of your heart that just wants to see the bad guy die in a thousand horrific ways. Even if we think that either Cap or Iron Man is dangerously wrong, we can't help empathizing with them both.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014). On the one hand, I kind of wish this movie  had embraced mercy for its own sake rather than taking the approach of "if we let Mystique assassinate this horrible person, the world will  become a nightmarish dystopia." On the other hand, I get that a multi-million dollar summer blockbuster needs epic stakes, and "prevent the world from becoming a nightmarish dystopia" is easier to sell than  "save Mystique's soul." Even taking the movie on its own terms, it's a far more interesting story to save the word by sparing the life of a truly odious human being than by rescuing a saintly Professor X type (or, heaven forbid, yet another story where they save the world by blowing up a doomsday device). It may not be all the way to loving your enemy and praying for those who persecute you, but it's darn close, and that's a rare thing.

Les Miserables (2012). The list of merciful films that kicked off these blog posts had the 1935 version of Les Miz, but the musical is always going to have a special place in my heart, and this is, after all, about recent movies. (The 2012 adaptation is especially welcome in light of the 1998 abomination that ends with Valjean witnessing Javert's suicide and skipping away with a huge smile on his face.) The Bishop of Digne's mercy toward a Valjean who certainly didn't deserve it at that point, Valjean showing compassion and love to Fantine and Cosette rather than looking the other way, Valjean saving a stranger from imprisonment and condemnation at the expense of the life he's made for himself, an antagonist who is essentially the personification of justice without mercy--they all combine to make one of the most stirring testaments to mercy that I've ever seen.

The Phantom of the Opera (2004). At its  heart, Phantom is Gothic horror, and Gothic horror loves heroines whose mercy can  get through to a monster. (See also Mina Harker; her redemption of Renfield is one of my favorite parts of the novel, and it sadly tends to get passed over in adaptation.) The Phantom doesn't let Christine and Raoul go because Raoul beats him in a duel or because Christine screams at him until he realizes that she will never love  him, but because Christine shows him love and compassion for the first time in his life--and that makes him realize how wrong it is to imprison her. 

Of course, one could point out that Gothic stories should have allowed women to kick butt as well as being merciful saints. This is absolutely true--but it's a two-way street, and I'd like to see more men being merciful saints in addition to kicking butt. 

(Side bar: I'm going with the 2004 version because it meets the criterion of "wide-release movie," not because I'm trying to make a statement  about whether it, the  2011 live version, or the original cast  recording is better.)  

...

I'm casting the net on merciful spec fic stories to include classics as well as recent fare, because otherwise this list is going to be embarrassingly short. Either mercy is rare as a major component  in spec fic (which would surprise me, since literature can take more risks than wide-release movies can) or I've been reading the wrong books.

"The Other Foot" by Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury's fiction runs the gamut from joy to whimsy to melancholia to horror, so it's no surprise that mercy works its way in there, too. His final novel, Farewell Summer, had a reconciliation between the town's rambunctious trouble-making boys and the crotchety old man, but I unfortunately can't remember any details. Everything about the end of that story is eclipsed in my memory by the scene where the old man and the lead boy have heartfelt conversations with their penises (no, really). 

But the theme of mercy comes through most starkly in "The Other Foot," one of the few beams of light in the almost oppressively dark anthology The Illustrated Man. An all-black colony on Mars discovers that white settlers are coming, and the colonists are prepared to get revenge by instituting some reverse Jim Crow laws--until they discover that Earth has been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust and the lynching trees have burned to ash. There are racially problematic elements in this story, to be sure; as this essay points out, there are issues with the feel-good white wish fulfillment stories of black people "transcending" the wrongs done to them and forgiving white people willy-nilly. But Bradbury has also written lesser-known stories that refuse to let white people off  the hook. If you're interested in reading some of these stories, check out his realistic fiction anthology The Cat's Pajamas. In addition a downright vicious revenge story about a white man who rapes and murders a black woman and draws the wrath of some local carnies, it features a story about a cold-hearted white man with no regard for the black housekeeper who essentially raised him; Bradbury admits in the anthology's introduction that this character represents his own worst fears about how he'd treat his housekeeper if he met her again. Taken in light of Bradbury's other stories, "The Other Foot" is a plea for mercy  that he's not entirely certain any white person, including himself, deserves.

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. Up until the last chapter, Ender's Game is a bizarre non-example. It's one of the only works I can think of in any medium that starts out by embracing empathy without compassion--Ender completely loves and understands his enemies so he can crush them into the dust. (Yes, he thinks killing the buggers is a game. That doesn't change what he does to Stilson and Bonso.) Like its opposite, the compassion without empathy that we see in "poverty porn," this has little to do with genuine mercy. In the end, however, we get to see Ender using his love and empathy to save lives rather than end them, and the buggers show mercy and forgiveness to him as well.

Although I'm talking about adult media here, I have to give an honorable mention to Before I Fall by Lauren Oliver. YA books tend to bring in mercy as a major theme, in part because their target audience is in the process of learning that there are few card-carrying villains in the world. Before I Fall, a cross between Mean Girls and Groundhog Day, is my favorite example of this. Popular, bitchy Sam Kingston enters a repeating time loop that causes her to reevaluate the way she treats her family, her teachers, and her peers. Too often, when we see the "mean kid learns not to be mean" character arc, it ends with the protagonist going from one kind of bully to another; instead of taunting and humiliating nerds, she taunts and humiliates her shallow former friends. Before I Fall doesn't shy away  from how unconscionably cruel Sam and her friends can be, but it also constantly reminds us that they're acting out on very real pain of their own. In fact, the loops that make her feel worst about herself are the ones where she lashes out at her catty best friend or jerk boyfriend in ways that would have been played as stand-up-and-cheer moments in lesser books. Sam's growth isn't complete until she learns to show mercy to all her peers, no matter how undeserving.

Am I forgetting any of your favorites? Let me know in the comments!
 
 
This time last week,  I was all ready to do a business-as-usual post about writing, horror, and writing horror. Given how much horror we're all seeing just by turning on the news, though, I'm not in the mood to talk about Black Mirror and you probably aren't, either. I'm still talking stories, but I'm doing a bit of a gear shift this week.

Partly in recognition of Pope Francis declaring 2016 a Jubilee Year of Mercy, and partly just because they love a good themed film list, Arts & Faith and Image magazine have come up with a list of the Top 25 Films on Mercy. I haven't seen many of them--for every Spirited Away that I've seen and loved, there's an Elephant Man that I know I really should get  around to watching and a Hadewijch that I've never heard of. The list makes me want to hunt down these movies and watch them, though, because any list that features Joyeux Noel and The Island is A-OK in my book. (This particular The Island is a 2006 Russian flick, not the one with Ewan MacGregor and Scarlett Johansson having clone adventures.)

The list is heavy on realistic fiction, older movies, and foreign films, and my husband and I were trying to come up with recent and/or spec-fic fare that explored the theme of mercy as thoroughly as these movies do. As we did, two themes emerged. One was that, by and large, Japanese media seems much more interested in solving problems through mercy, empathy, and compassion than we do--there are two Miyazaki films on A&F's 25-movie list, and we were able to rattle off several anime series with climaxes that hinge on mercy before we could think of a single Western counterpart (Trigun, the series ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Madoka Magica, and my all-time favorite anime Revolutionary Girl Utena, to name a  few). I don't know whether this says something damning about the lack of forgiveness in American culture compared to other countries or simply about the differences between what various cultures will and won't accept as a satisfying climax, but it's interesting.

As we finally stumbled on more recent Western examples, though, we noticed something else: nearly all of the shows and movies whose climaxes hinged on mercy were originally intended for children. Whether they were cartoons with large adult audiences (both Last Airbender series, Batman: The Animated Series), family sci-fi adventures  (Return of the Jedi), or shows that were originally intended for children but deliberately broadened their audiences to include adults (Doctor Who), none of them were exclusively adult stories.

On one level,  that's great news--we want our children to learn mercy, and what better way than watching an avatar who learns that she can't punch her way out of every problem, or a Jedi who wins by throwing away his lightsaber and embracing love and forgiveness even against the advice of his masters? It's terrific that there are high-quality sources of children's entertainment that embrace mercy and compassion. But the trouble is when mercy is seen solely as a province of children's entertainment.  I can think of a handful of mainstream movies for teens and adults that embrace mercy over violence--Spider-Man 3 had its issues, but spitting in the face of forgiveness wasn't one of them--but in general, Hollywood loves its cathartic, climactic violence where our plucky heroes kill, maim, or humiliate "them." Mercy is kids' stuff. Adults know that sometimes we have to make the hard choices. And those hard choices always seem to involve getting a blank check to attack whoever is in the outgroup.

Of course, we generally don't want our heroes to be cold-blooded killers (although the  revenge movie, in which the villains are so loathsome that it's totally OK for the hero to kill them and for us to cheer as he does, is an ugly exception; this sort of movie invites us to view everyone who's wronged us with as much mercy and forgiveness as Django or Bryan Mills, which is to say none at all). Hollywood likes to get around this by having the hero refuse to kill or torture his opponent, only to have the opponent die bloodily from the hero's inaction shortly afterward  (see The Revenant, X2, and Batman Begins). This kind of treatment isn't just a cheat that lets us get our titillation from the villain's comeuppance while keeping the hero's hands clean; it actually changes forgiveness into another weapon. The act of sparing the villain's life is rarely motivated by the hero seeing the villain as a human being like himself. Instead, it's an exercise of power and pride, as the hero makes it clear that he could kill the villain any time he wants but is choosing not to. (Compare any given "No! I'm not like you!" scene with Luke's loving refusal to kill his father, or Batman: the Animated Series' vision of a Caped Crusader who genuinely cares about the welfare of his tragically broken rogues' gallery, to see the difference between genuine mercy and this kind of "I'll  spare you and the horse you came in on" attitude.) This may teach us to avoid actively seeking revenge, but it doesn't teach us much in the way of forgiveness or empathy.

Why? Why do we think that our stories should outgrow mercy? It can't be because you can't tell a good story that will appeal to adults that doesn't end with a death-fest; Return of the Jedi is generally regarded as the weakest of the original trilogy (my total disagreement with this is a whole other post), but not because it doesn't end with Luke striking Vader down with all his hate. Plenty of adults watched Avatar and The Legend of Korra and would have been totally satisfied with them if energy-bending had been introduced before the final episode, and for anyone who was a kid in the early '90s, the definitive incarnation of Batman is one who was empathetic and merciful while still kicking villain butt. 

One contributor is that it's hard to pull off a merciful ending that feels earned--but how much of that is a chicken-and-egg problem? As Steven Greydanus points out in his column on the 25 Films on Mercy list, we're living in a particularly ugly and merciless age. We can't even empathize with and forgive someone who votes differently than we do, never mind a criminal mastermind who's trying to destroy the city. As we harden ourselves to the outgroup in our personal lives, it becomes more difficult to believe that our heroes will do any differently. This causes us to take in stories that are sorely lacking in mercy, which subtly directs our thinking away from mercy, which makes merciful stories even harder for us to accept  as believable . . . and so on, and so on. What's more, it conditions audiences to expect violent endings to their entertainment, and conditions writers to assume that this is the way stories are supposed to end. I'm as guilty of this as anyone--the beautiful, merciful finale of Revolutionary Girl Utena may have felt contrived to me if it had happened in a Western series because I expect different endings from my American shows than from my anime.

Another, deeper issue is the very fact that we associate happy endings, including redemptive ones, with childhood. As we grow older, we realize that not all problems can be solved through communication, empathy, and forgiveness--a theme that's entirely true, and worth exploring in fiction. The trouble is when we convince ourselves that the only kind of mature story is one that ends without any form of reconciliation. Find a movie that resolves peacefully even though death and violence are a possibility, and you'll find a hundred people scoffing at how maudlin and Pollyanna-ish the ending is. Like a guy who reads Watchmen and decides that stories without rape, murder, and nihilism are immature,  we may well have taken away the wrong lessons about what constitutes mature storytelling.

And that matters. Stories teach us how to think--we all have some group or another that we believe is underrepresented or unfairly stereotyped in fiction, and we all know that's damaging because it teaches people not to think well of that group. How damaging is it to have stories that show we can't be reconciled with an outgroup at all--planting the idea, subconsciously, that the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is the GLBT community and the people who believe the unfairly stereotyped group is fundamentalist Christians are never going to come to any sort of empathetic accord? If our stories teach us that a Batman for kids can put a hand on sobbing villain to comfort her but a Batman for adults brands bad guys with a mark that'll get them killed in prison because some people aren't worth saving, or that Korra can learn how to solve her problems without violence but the Avengers are just going to keep on punching because, dammit, you just can't reason with some people . . . it's not hard to see how that's going to make our national problem with communicating with those who disagree with us even worse.

So let's take a few hours in one of the most horrible, merciless weeks of a horrible, merciless election season to enjoy some merciful stories, whether it's something from the A&F list or the last season of Avatar. I don't know about you, but I'd rather be Kevin Conroy's Batman than Ben Affleck's any day of the week.