Bad Guys: Modern and Vintage
As a creative writing student and someone who plans to one day write a Man-Booker prize-winning novel or Oscar-winning screenplay, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about villains. Without Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter is just a kid with scruffy black hair and glasses. Without Dr No, or Spectre, James Bond is just a handsome misogynist in a fancy, well-fitting suit.
Along with about a million other people, I really enjoyed Avengers: Age of Ultron. This wasn’t just due to the ridiculously photogenic cast but also down to the portrayal of the villain, Ultron, who, at times, was actually more charismatic and interesting than the film’s heroes. And then of course came the best part of all; was Ultron really the villain of the film or had Joss Whedon gone and blown all of our minds by making Tony Stark – smooth-talking, charismatic, endearingly self-obsessed, Tony Stark – the film’s ultimate bad-guy? Ultron was a product of Stark’s Promethean ambition. Of course, Stark wanted to protect the world from the aliens he’d encountered at the end of the first Avengers film but wasn’t there also a part of him that just wanted to be singlehandedly responsible for saving planet Earth and all its occupants? Was there a part of him that treasured the prospect of every living human and every future generation owing him, Tony Stark, their lives? Probably.
Of course, Tony Stark doesn’t really exist. Neither does Harry Potter or James Bond. I’m not an idiot. But unfortunately, bad guys do exist and I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of days thinking about them.
The problem is, our society needs bad guys. In our capitalist world, fear is currency. I don’t know who I should be scared of first. I think terrorists are probably a good place to start. ISIS loom over the middle east, committing atrocities, burning sites of cultural heritage, destroying lives. Their leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is indisputably a bad guy. I saw him on the news last night, delivering a sermon from a balcony on a mosque. The only problem with the formidable tableau was the fact that, on the balcony behind him, was an electric fan. Al-Baghdadi was obviously feeling quite hot, so someone had thoughtfully arranged the fan and plugged it in behind him, probably drawing on the assistance of an extension lead. Ultron, a computerised artificial intelligence housed within the body of a robot, wouldn’t get too hot standing on the balcony of a mosque. As a human, Al-Baghdadi would, and did. Unfortunately, the fact that he’s a human also makes him more complicated.
The obvious thing to do, when faced with a regime like ISIS, is to flee: put as much space between your precious body and the brainwashed people with the machine guns as possible. This is why, when I arrive in Calais on the 1st September on the Eurostar in order to begin my year studying abroad, I will probably encounter thousands of young men from all around the world, fleeing despotic regimes like ISIS. I’m allowed to travel from Britain to France and back again as many times as I like because I was born in Britain. They’ll have to strap themselves to the roof of the train, risking electrocution, or try and throw themselves in the back of a truck. I’m free and they’re not, because I’ve haven’t had to flee my birthplace.
I’m not a patriot. Historically, there are too many instances when the English have been bad guys for me to wave the St George’s cross with a clean conscience. However, I’m proud of some of the values the UK now supposedly believes in – equality between the sexes (though I’ve encountered too many examples of the opposite to have complete confidence here), freedom of speech and the emphasis on liberty are ideologies I wholeheartedly believe in. When I walk down the street and people shout at me about God, I find it irritating but I’m glad they have the right to do so. Walking home from my summer job in a restaurant last weekend, I found myself in the middle of an EDL demonstration, protesting against the values of Islamic State. Seeing as their base is currently in the Middle East, and not in Lincoln City town centre, Islamic State didn’t seem particularly bothered. If the English Defence League’s aim that day was to present their argument as considered and well-informed, they might have wanted to rethink their uniform of black facemasks depicting rows of pointed teeth. It sort of made them look like bad guys. Again, however, I believe that the right to freedom of speech is incredibly important, especially as the anti-racism demonstration across the square, in response to the EDL protest, was just as loud and better-dressed.
So why have I been thinking so much about bad guys, freedom of speech and liberty lately? I’ll tell you why; eight hundred years ago, in a field in Runneymede, King John – notorious bad guy of English history – signed the Magna Carta: a document now heralded as initiating a wave of liberty across the country. Whether or not this is strictly true is for you to decide: the newly-refurbished Lincoln Castle houses one of the four remaining copies of the 1215 Magna Carta and, in the accompanying exhibit, asks exactly how effective the Magna Carta was and its tangible impact on the lives of the “common folk”. Regardless, it’s an impressive document and a great story. I spent a long time staring through the glass casing at the cramped Latin script, imagining King John – a sort of Joffery Baratheon figure in my imagination – being forced to slide his quill across the parchment.
In order to mark the occasion, a number of celebrities, comedians, historians and musicians are coming together as part of the Festival 800. Interestingly, one of the acts, Alfie Deyes who will be signing copies of his book The Pointless Book at Lincoln Drill Hall on 1st September, is a professional YouTuber with four million subscribers and general Master of the Internet. His girlfriend, Zoe Sugg or ‘Zoella’ is also a YouTuber, author, entrepreneur, beauty guru and, like Deyes, it is not unreasonable to suggest that she is ‘rolling in the dollar’.
And this got me back to thinking about Ultron.
Not because Alfie and Zoe are bad guys. I’ve never met them. It made me think about Ultron again because the internet is something we’ve created, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, hoping to make something that’s going to make everyone’s lives better when, in some ways, we’ve created a monster. It’s possible to argue that, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the world wide web, is Tony Stark. Alfie Deyes and Zoe Sugg make entertaining videos for young people and have also managed to make a lot of money. YA author John Green, of The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns fame and his brother Hank Green, or the ‘Vlogbrothers’ as they are called on YouTube, have used their popularity on the internet to raise money for charities and made educations videos.
Filmmakers like Hazel Hayes (ChewingSand) and Charlie McDonnell (charlieissocoollike) have used YouTube to launch their careers. Jeremy Jahns uses YouTube to review movies while Christine Riccio (polandbananasBOOKS) reviews books. It is easy to be envious of people that have managed to make of lot of money doing something they love but it’s important to remember that they’d worked very hard to get where they are. However, YouTube, like Ultron, is not without its dark side.
In 2014, a disturbingly high number of YouTubers were accused of sexual misconduct towards their young, sometimes underage, fans. Although a few have been convicted and imprisoned, the vast majority of accusations were left unresolved, with victims choosing to turn to YouTube and Tumblr instead of the police, allowing suspected sex offenders to slink off to the corners of the internet. The YouTube community has survived but, although the issues have been addressed by certain filmmakers, with Dean Dobbs and Jack Howard releasing a song and music video entitled ‘Consent’, the incident remains as a disturbing reminder that YouTube, and indeed the internet, is a creation that it is not yet possible to police. People make stuff and people watch that stuff, but the relationship between creators and consumers on this new kind of platform is never that simple.
In a similar vein, David Cameron has suggested that he may ban messaging apps Snapchat and Whatsapp after terrorists used them to schedule attacks. Both programmes encrypt messages sent by users, meaning that they cannot be read by the security services. Blocking both programmes in the UK would rob terrorists operating in Britain of a vital messaging tool. However, some users are outraged at the government’s disregard of people’s right to privacy. While I agree that the right to privacy is important, I don’t think I ever type anything I would be uncomfortable with David Cameron seeing. My life isn’t that interesting. If it means I’m won’t be blown up or shot, I’m happy with him trawling through all the messages from my mum, asking if I’ll pick up some milk on my way home.
Unfortunately Tony Stark isn’t real. My life isn’t a Marvel film, much to my ongoing disappointment. But that doesn’t mean we can’t try to save the day. With everything we make, whether it’s a treaty like Magna Carta or a YouTube video, it’s going to have an impact on someone else. I don’t have a solution to the Calais immigration crisis, or a way of stopping ISIS killing people, but I know I’m lucky to live where I live. I could one day be in a position to create stuff that could make a difference, one way or another. It’s not going to be easy, but I’m going to do my best to not become a bad guy.
After all, with great power comes great responsibility.
Ellen Lavelle @
Senior Young Journalist