So, a few months ago, I went to see How to Train Your Dragon 2, and I even put up the extra cash to see it in 3D. My verdict? I absolutely loved it. The animation was phenomenal, the villain was hardcore, the story was enthralling, and there were feels to be had by all. I loved the parallel story arcs between Hiccup and Toothless, and if this is going to be the Empire Strikes Back of a three movie saga, then I can’t wait to see the Jedi. That’s not to say the film was perfect, though. I had two problems with it, and they were pretty much the exact same problems I had with the previous movie, albeit on a larger scale.
First of all, the supporting cast was really weak, with personalities that could have been entirely interchangeable. Granted, in the first movie, they actually served a purpose, as Hiccup had contemporaries he need to prove himself to, but they had NOTHING to do in this movie. Except for Ruffnut, but we’ll talk about her later.
The more serious problem with both movies, unfortunately, was with Hiccup’s love interest, Astrid. Yes, I know, she’s smart, capable and cool, like a good role model… But when you look past all that, that’s all there is to her. What we know about her, in general, is that she’s at the top of her class, but gets frustrated when a young upstart competes with her. And that’s really all we know. Now, I know what you’re going to say… Isn’t that enough? Does a love interest really have to be anything more than that?
Well, let me answer that question by pointing you towards another movie… Kick-Ass, from way back in the golden yesteryear of 2010. The main character and alter ego of the titular super-hero is Dave Lizewski, and his love interest is a girl from his school named Katie Deauxma. Now, what can we say about Katie Deauxma? Well, she’s a very nice, kind person… To a fault, even. Her need to help others can get her in trouble, as it does with her on-again-off-again boyfriend, Razul. One can only speculate about what attracted her to him, but she loves him. And yet, when he turned abusive, and she realized the mistake she made by getting emotionally involved with him, she was able to recognize the fact that she had to leave, even though she knew what he might be capable of if she did. At her wit’s end, she asks Kick-Ass for help, and despite being relieved at his lack of contact, she’s still devastated to learn that he’s dead.
There’s a lot of character in there. We know what kind of person she is, we know what kind of things she’d do, and we also know the reasons for a lot of it. She has a really big heart… If you’ll notice, she never has a bad thing to say about anybody throughout the film. And yet, she’s also naive, and attracted to broken, abnormal men. She makes mistakes, but has the good sense to know when it’s time to detach herself from them. She is, to put it bluntly, a very strongly written character.
Now, what do we know about Astrid’s personality? Well, we know she’s brave. We know she’s competitive. We know all it takes for her to like someone is a flight on the back of a dragon. Aside from that? She’s just as much of an obvious prize as that British chick from The Librarian. Hell, when you really think about it, it didn’t really have to be Hiccup, did it? Any boy with a dragon to fly on could have won her. And yes, I’m using the phrase ‘won her’ intentionally.
Ironically enough, having her kiss Hiccup after enjoying an unexpected flight with him is strongly reminiscent of the magic carpet scene from Disney’s Aladdin. And it’s ironic for two reasons. First of all, Jasmine openly rallied against the idea of being some man’s prize. And second of all, while she enjoyed the flight, she didn’t start to fall for him until afterwards, where he finally revealed the truth about himself (as far as she knew, at least) and she found out they had something powerful in common. We know how much she despises royalty, and for her to find a prince who hates it so much that he’d dress as a commoner? It makes sense that feelings would develop.
It’s hard to put Astrid’s feelings for Hiccup into context because, unlike with Jasmine, we know next to nothing about her. We don’t know how she was raised, or what kind of environment she lives in, or any of her hobbies or interests. This is because, in How to Train Your Dragon, the female characters are defined almost entirely by their relationships with male characters, rather than by their personalities. Here, let’s try a ‘make-a-point’ excersize; Imagine Astrid as a boy. And that there’s no romantic interest whatsoever between him and Hiccup. A flight on the dragon convinces him to support his friend. Would this alter the plot of the movie at all? No, it wouldn’t. The only thing that would change is that Hiccup wouldn’t get a kiss at the end. The only reason Astrid exists is because in Hollywood, coupling is the be-all-end-all of completed character arcs.
Hey, want proof of this idea? In the second movie, there are a ton of characters who don’t do anything important. Even poor Gobber, who was a lot more useful in movie 1. The only side character who gets any kind of character arc is Ruffnut, and what kind of arc does she get? You know exactly what kind of arc she gets. She falls for a muscular hunk, and gets shot down. Why? Well, it can’t be because she’s being shallow… After all, Hiccup’s attraction to Astrid was entirely based on aesthetic beauty. Is it because, to some sensibilities, she’s not as attractive as Astrid? She’s not worthy of being the prize at the end of somebody’s character arc? Silly rabbit, romantic fullfilment is for pretty girls! Hiccup’s mother has a backstory, and her relation to the dragons is an interesting element to her personality, but in the end, she’s defined as an estranged wife and mother to two much more developed male characters.
Oddly enough, as grossly and blatantly sexist as Anime can be, this isn’t really a huge problem in that particular area of the medium. Yes, there are a few characters like that, but even the most hated of love interests at least have developed personalities. Naru from Love Hina is probably the best example of this. While she’s pretty much universally despised as the quintessential ‘girl who misunderstands things and gets instantly violent’ type of tsundere… An accurate assessment, I’d say… she’s also a very distinctive character who lives in a house with several other very distinct characters.
Which is not to say that the anime medium doesn’t also suffer from some inescapable love interest formulas, either. The love interests aren’t necessarily bland… Okay, they definitely are in some cases, like in UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie… But they ARE immediately predictable, if you know what you’re looking for. When a male protagonist has a female love interest, it’s normally the first option that he’s presented with. Unless, of course, that option is a childhood friend. There will be plenty of other options, but you’ll never be able to shake the feeling that girl #1 is going to ultimately end up with him, if anybody does. Some examples of this include Love Hina, Sword Art Online, Stein’s Gate, and Girls Bravo.
When a female protagonist has a male love interest, it’s just as predictable, but the rules are very different… And a little more specific. The boy she’ll end up with, if she ends up with anybody, will not be the first option she’s presented with. The first option will be someone who isn’t right for her, either because they’re older and more experienced or because she fell for him based on his looks. Instead, she’ll end up with her second option, who follows these specific rules: He’ll have short hair, he’ll be relatively her age, he’ll be relatively her height, and they’ll fight a lot early on. You’d be surprised how many shows follow this formula, too… For a few examples, there’s Fruits Basket(the manga), Princess Tutu, Vision of Escaflowne, and even Yawara: A Fashionable Judo Girl.
One of these rules… Known primarily as the First Girls Wins trope… Is highly prevalent in American cinema. For a recent example of this, take a look at Captain America, The First Avenger. The love interest in this movie is Peggy Carter, a young, attractive, and of course single female officer who works above The Captain. The word ‘prize’ is written across her face right from her first moment on screen, to the point that even though the two of them have had no actual romantic interactions, Captain still feels ashamed of himself when she catches him flirting with a nurse. And of course they had to have the big kiss at the end, so thank God the sequel killed this cliche. It was really my only complaint about this otherwise excellent movie.
Which I can’t say about Pitch Perfect, which was my least favorite movie of 2012. As much as I’d love to rant on and on about how I found this musical comedy even more unpleasant than that year’s abysmal Silent Hill sequel, that’s a post for another day. What I will talk about is the love interest in that movie, and how he just might be one of the worst I’ve ever seen. His use of the “First girl wins” trope… I guess in this case we’d have to say “first boy wins”… Is established by his initial contact with our heroine. And I swear I am not making this up… He makes a fart noise at her through somebody’s rear window. I really hoped he wouldn’t show up again in a significant way, but sure enough, he winds up doing the same after extra-curricular activity with her, and chasing her like a man on a mission despite the facts that A: There are hundreds of other available girls on campus and B: She is an entirely unpleasant person. The movie even tries to force them to connect with some contrived, arbitrary “She doesn’t watch movies” shtick. I’ve gotta say, Astrid is looking pretty complex to me compared to this guy.
Then again, now that I think about it, don’t both characters follow these rules? Astrid is hiccup’s first choice, and you never really doubt that they’ll wind up together. Hiccup isn’t the first option Astrid is presented with, as she’s hit on early in the film by Snotlout, but he’s the same age and height as her, and she does initially hate him…
I’m not saying I hate Astrid, or really any of HTYD’s female characters. They’re just really weakly written characters. I’d probably know more about them if I watched the Riders of Berk series, but if your viewers have to watch a TV series in order to enjoy your movie, that’s a pretty big problem on it’s own.
The writers for Kick-Ass were able to do a much better job with Katie Deauxma, because they thought of her as a human being first and a love interest second. Yes, she winds up being a prize, but her distinct personality pulls it all together… Why is she single, as most love interests tend to be? Because she just got out of a bad relationship. Why is she still willing to give Dave a chance, even after he lied about his sexuality to get closer to her? That may not be an entirely healthy choice to make, but it’s the kind of choice that SHE would believably make.
Thankfully, Astrid is not the worst love interest I’ve ever seen. Really, neither is Whitey McBlandBland from Pitch Perfect. They’re weak, but I have seen so much worse. And sadly, we have to come back to Kick Ass for that one… Or, rather, the infuriatingly awful Kick-Ass 2.
Lyndsey Fonseca… Who is an incredibly talented actor, by the way… Was unable to reprise her role in the film, so the new director decided to write her out… In the most insulting way he possibly could. She sees Dave argue with Hitgirl, and Hit Girl cries. Katie… Whom we’ve already established to be a kind hearted person… Immediately assumes the worst, slaps him, and dumps him on the spot, telling him she’s been cheating as well. Not only does this completely negate everything we know about her from the first film, but it references the original comic in the worst way possible. Yes, I know things go horribly wrong with her and Dave in the comic, but you know what? The comic and the first movie take drastically different approaches with her character, and both approaches are executed perfectly.
So, who do they replace her with? Night Bitch! And what do we know about her? She’s hot! That’s it! She’s hot! Her role in the story is to have sex with Dave, get raped by a Demico henchman, and then leave the story. Yeah, her entire role in the story is to fuck, get fucked, and fuck off. This is what we lost Katie Deauxma for.
So yes, while I was disappointed by the way Astrid’s character is handled in the How To Train your Dragon movies, I am aware of the fact that it can easily get a lot worse. There are tons of American movies where a bland, attractive love interest will either be A: Miraculously single and waiting with bated breath for some decent looking guy with the words ‘main character’ stamped across his face to come by, or B: dating an asshole and looking to be rescued. At the very least, Astrid is a lot more interesting than most of the love interests we’ve seen this year, like the forgettable little wifey-wives from the Apes sequel. And she has more of an understandable romantic connection with Hiccup than Gamora did with Starlord in the mediocre Guardians of the Galaxy adaptation. But while there’s worse out there, there’s also a lot better out there, and in a franchise that actually puts Dreamworks in a position where it could seriously topple the waning Pixar, I expected a whole lot better out of it.