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.