[OPINION] Is it time to revamp our heroes in movies and on TV?

There’s this story I read once about Fernando Poe Jr. and a film he starred in, Asedillo.

Based on true events, the film features FPJ playing the titular teacher-turned-rebel Teodoro Asedillo. Originally, the film ends with Asedillo's death—an act of martyrdom that cemented his place as a Filipino folk hero.

It didn't take well with audiences.

The story goes (and this was also retold by National Artist Nick Joaquin) that in early screenings of Asedillo sent crowds berzerk. Some reportedly threw stones; others fired their guns at the screen.

To remedy the film but still ring true to reality, the movie's director Celso Ad Castillo had to shoot an epilogue, a scene that featured the specter of FPJ’s Asedillio standing triumphantly on a hill. It was to send the message that the hero, FPJ, “lives” on.

 Photo from Grace Poe's Twitter

Imagine that, the love for a hero transcending the requisites of a biography. That’s like the film Titanic having a Vietnamese boat save the ship’s passengers after it hit the iceberg.

Around this time last year too, social media went ablaze when Ang Probinsyano’s Cardo Dalisay (a role also popularized by FPJ but now portrayed by Coco Martin), was seemingly gunned down.

Of course, everything turned out to be a dream. 

Kantar Media reported that 44.9%, nearly half of TV viewers nationwide, tuned in the day after the fake-out. “Infinite lives” memes went viral, supercuts of clips showing Cardo’s increasingly impossible ways of cheating death were made.

Instances like this show how clear-cut heroes—those charming, ready with one-liners, pure of heart—continuously appeal to us. We don’t just patronize works about them, we care enough that we make sure our voices are heard if what happens them don’t go our way.

While other forms of media have already cycled through exploring, deconstructing, and reaffirming notions of heroism, we stuck to our guns. Box ticking is applauded while deviations from the hero's journey are rejected. 

A tale of two heroes: Heneral Luna and Goyo

In 2015, the “little film that couldn’t” Heneral Luna, after being pulled out from major theaters less than a week after it was released, bounced back and became the highest grossing Filipino historical film of all time.

How did this happen? After the initial pull-out, the film called for help. Netizens responded, #KeepHeneralLunaInTheaters became a thing (and started a go-to type of social media marketing for independent films in the process), and Filipinos found a new hero they could rally behind.

Heneral Luna is fiery. His nationalism is uncompromising, passionate even to the point of violence. His purview of heroism is also simple: “bayan o sarili? [country or self?]” 

 Screengrab from TBA Studio's YouTube

You had to be as spirited as him if you loved the country. You had to take on arms and fight the good fight. If you were part of the bureaucrats negotiating with the Americans, you were a traitor. He is charming. He displays bravado. He is even rousingly quotable.

He is a clear-cut hero.

Historian Leloy Claudio conveyed his frustration with this simplification, even going as far as to posit that this distilled version of heroism was what enabled the election of the similarly hot-heated strongman Rodrigo Duterte as president in 2016.

Heneral Luna director Jerrold Tarrog was quick to fire back saying that it was never his intent for Filipinos are to identify with Luna’s brand of nationalism. What he wanted to show was that these same traits were the flaws the led to his downfall. “We made the film thinking there are enough people out there who know right from wrong,” Tarog said.

Tarog seemingly took this criticism to heart. In his 2018 follow-up, Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral, Tarog made sure that the nuances of Gregorio del Pilar’s heroism were more overt. Goyo was a government lapdog, their assassin. He was a product of nepotism and was ill-trained for a general. His much-mythicized youth was a flaw rather than a quality worthy of admiration.

(This too made me question how well we knew our national heroes, as school has conditioned us to merely memorize one-liners about our heroes' “claims to fame.”)

Photo from TBA Studios

Goyo: Ang Batang Heneral was a character study on heroism and self-discovery. A “hero” realizing that he may not be a hero after all. He goes on to try and earn the title (which ultimately lead to his untimely death). Albeit the embarrassing loss of Goyo and his troops at Tirad Pass, the film sends an optimistic message. Heroism isn’t absolute. You may have done wrong in the past, you may even be guilty of sins unacceptable, but with remorse and enough sincerity, when the moment calls upon it, you can still be a hero.

But audiences didn’t react as well to film, as they did to Luna. While critics praised this layered storytelling, the acclaim didn’t translate to mass appeal. Some netizens found it slow; others even called it anti-climactic and boring. The bang they were looking for was replaced with a slow burn.

A nation of binaries

After both bingeing HBO’s Chernobyl and being reminded of heroes last Independence Day week, I caught myself stuck in this little quandary. Should we be seeing more of the heroes we "need" or those we "deserve?"

In an interview with The Washington Post about Ang Probinsyano, UP Film Professor Rolando Tolentino said that in the Philippines that action genre requires “clear good and evil.” The masses—to which our mainstream entertainment caters to—use entertainment to escape the hardships of poverty.

They “look for saviors to uplift their condition,” Tolentino said. (We'll get back to this later.)

“Clear good and evil.” To me, this too speaks of how we as a people gravitate towards narratives of binaries. From our religious upbringing (good and evil!) to how we see politics (Ka-DDS! Dilawan!), we crave simplification. The divides must be always made explicit.

However, I feel that if our mainstream media continuously panders to this line of thinking, we take away the opportunity of viewers to think and hinder them from acting on their agency. You instead spoon-feed the idea of what’s right and wrong, of who is the hero and who is the villain.

Maybe our notions of heroism must be challenged. Stories should make us question, make us define ourselves what to us is heroism.

In Chernobyl, the protagonist Legasov does not embody our notions of traditional heroism. He is meek; he is guilty of turning a blind eye at very same design flaws that ultimately led to the Chernobyl disaster, upon orders from the government; and his solutions to problems aren’t as prodigious as we are accustomed to. And yet, we end up seeing him as a hero because when the moment called for him to sacrifice, he did so.

The same can be said about Goyo. The same can even be said of Rizal. (Remember, he wasn’t always for liberation but he evolved along the way.)

Where do we go from here?

Especially in this era of consequences because "simple solutions," we deserve to be exposed to complexities. We must also learn however to see that heroism can still shine amidst murky waters, even in forms we may not expect.

Art is a means. It is transformative. It can spark thoughts in us that help us discover these things.

On one end though, I also believe that entertainment, at its core, is there to entertain (duh-doy). So part of me questions who am I to say that the escapism our mainstream media provides is "wrong"? (And it’s not like we haven’t had attempts at complexity, it’s just that the attempts have not translated into demand. Look at Goyo.)

Maybe I might just be craving some sense of variety, that I get to see more stories that challenge my personally-held notions whenever I look to the TV or check out what’s showing in Philippine theaters every week. (Full disclosure: I still haven’t seen Quezon’s Game, a film with another Philippine hero.)

Furthermore, I feel like this discourse shouldn't be confined to “independent” cinema, “high” local literature, or niche groups either. 

Maybe there is no, and will never be, a simple answer to this.

A friend once told me, that being human is to have layers, and she has yet to meet someone truly one-note (I think she was quoting Shrek). Maybe I just want to be able to say the same thing about our heroes in mainstream media. — Rappler.com

Tristan Zinampan

Tristan is Rappler’s resident pop culture vulture. He leads Rappler’s youth culture section, Hustle.