“Daddy issues” are a cornerstone of fiction. Freud observed this in OEDIPUS REX and HAMLET, the 50’s and 60’s brought about rebels with and without causes and the creed “don’t trust anyone over 30,” DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince posited “parents just don’t understand.” The ultimate conflict in fiction is not good and evil, but rather between parent and child, in particular, the father and the son.

The most well known, or at least most iconic, version of this conflict comes from THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. When Darth Vader reveals to Luke in the final moments of the film that he is his father, the dramatic structure of the entire film series shifts. Vader in German means father (as the film PITCH PERFECT humorously points out), so this reveal recontextualizes the story of STAR WARS to actually be about a pair of siblings rejecting the strict ideals of their father. The most popular piece of science fiction in our culture is centered around the idea of fighting your parents (Freud would lose his damn mind over this). What was once a story of mythical good versus evil becomes a family drama of redemption.

Writer Chuck Klosterman, in his book SEX, DRUGS, AND COCOPUFFS even goes so far as to say that the Darth Vader revelation had such a profound psychological effect on the children seeing that movie for the first time:

“…EMPIRE was the first movie that people born in the early seventies could understand in a way that went outside of its rudimentary plot-line. And that’s why a movie about the good guys losing-both romantically and politically-is so integral to how people my age look at life.”

The people his age would be defined as Gen-X, usually classified by popular media of the time as aimless and lazy. Klostermann goes on to explain that Vader is the traditional “conservative” father figure, while Luke is the young 20-something experiencing an existential crisis over how unfulfilling his future looks.

Good Guys Bad Dads
Pictured above: Oedpial angst on an intergalactic scale.

However, that generation is now the one responsible for creating new media content. While there were certainly artistic works that spoke to Gen X, Klosterman specifically cites Nirvana’s NEVERMIND and Ben Stiller’s REALITY BITES as essential components of the Gen X canon and a thematic extension of EMPIRE’s shocking ending, the artists of that time period have grown-up and must grapple with the Darth Vader reveal on the other side of the conflict: as parents. This brings us to a new phenomenon developing in pop culture: the Good Guy/Bad Dad Archetype. The once disaffected youth of Gen X have now become “the Man.”

They have become parents themselves, and the fears of parenthood, the fears of becoming Darth Vader, have been manifesting themselves in revived franchises like STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS, AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, and HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. Each of these properties confronts the parent-child conflict but in a more complex way. The heroes of old have become the parents, the rebels have become the establishment, and they must confront how their role as a hero conflicts with their role as a parent.

I. “…the only thing I was ever any good at.”

The evolution of Han Solo is one of the keystones to understanding the themes of THE FORCE AWAKENS because his journey is one that leads back to complacency. When the first trailers for THE FORCE AWAKENS came out, the moment that everyone seemed to latch onto was Han, Chewbacca once again by his side, looking around the Millennium Falcon and saying “Chewie, we’re home.” It echoed the sentiments of the audiences watching that trailer beautifully while reinforcing what this film will offer its audiences: comfort and nostalgia.

It’s worth acknowledging that I am a big fan of THE FORCE AWAKENS, but I also find the construction of its story equally fascinating and contradictory. It’s a story that wallows in paying homage to the past and what came before, while being explicitly about characters who detrimentally look to the past for guidance (Kylo Ren seeks solace with the destroyed helmet of his grandfather, Darth Vader) or regress back to their former selves (Han Solo and, to an extent, Leia Organa). It’s a film that uses nostalgia to tell a story about the dangers of not accepting the responsibilities of the present and preparing for the future.

CLICK: What’s the connection to STAR WARS and comic books? Find out here!

When we see Han for the first time in THE FORCE AWAKENS, he has returned to the role of the smuggling scoundrel audiences saw in A NEW HOPE. Leia is nowhere to be found and isn’t even mentioned until the two characters reunite towards the end of the film’s second act. When the pair does reunite, the audience is aware that Kylo Ren is their son, and suddenly Han’s return to old habits clicks into place. In many ways, Han’s shift into the Good Guy/Bad Dad Archetype is the least surprising of the characters in this article, and the one that caused the least amount of fan consternation. As much as we love Han as a character, is it that hard to believe Han wouldn’t have been the greatest dad?

Good Guys Bad Dads
We know what you want from Episode VII: catharsis following years of romantic estrangement!!!

THE FORCE AWAKENS plays this parental estrangement as Solo relapsing to old habits. “I went back to the only thing I was ever any good at,” Solo says. When he reunites with Leia the pregnant silences between them express so much pain about their years apart. What caused Kylo to turn to the dark side is still unclear, but Han’s inability to commit himself to the sedentary nature of domesticity likely made him restless.

Even Leia acknowledges her responsibility in their son’s turn to the Dark Side when she says

“I just never should have sent him away. That’s when I lost him. That’s when I lost you both.”

The film puts Han and Leia into the roles the audience is most accustomed to seeing them in (smuggler and military leader), but in the process, acknowledges how this lack of development can only mean their happy ending in RETURN OF THE JEDI has broken down. The space honeymoon is over, next comes the space divorce papers.

This injection of domestic reality into THE FORCE AWAKENS gives a bittersweetness to Han and Leia’s relationship, but it also gives Han the motivation he needs to finally take responsibility and confront the mistakes that he made with his son. However, this is also the very action that gets him killed. If we step back and look at Good Guy/Bad Dad Archetype as an expression of parental anxiety, Han’s entire arc of the film becomes the fear of a parent failing or disappointing their child. Han abandons the life he had because he cannot face the responsibility and the repercussions of his son’s change to the Dark Side. It’s the Oedipal Complex from the perspective of the father. The awareness that his son wants to destroy him made Han run and regress, but taking on the role of fatherhood again makes his death an inevitability.

This is the choice all parents must eventually face: avoid parental responsibility, or have children and embrace your own mortality. Han Solo was the best character to express this fear; he lived without repercussions and chose to take on a role where he would have more responsibilities than ever before: fatherhood. While his shortcomings as a father certainly don’t justify his death, Han at least died learning, as he did during the battle of Yavin all those years ago, that running away from problems won’t erase them.

II. “I am not a reflection of my father…I am Tenzin”

The AVATAR television series exists in two installments: THE LAST AIRBENDER and THE LEGEND OF KORRA. The former series focuses on the titular airbender Aang who is, as you can guess, the last surviving airbender following a genocidal purge. The airbenders are one of four factions (earth, water, and fire being the other three) with the fantastical ability to control the elements. Every generation, one individual is born with the ability to control all four of these elements rather than just one. That person is declared the Avatar and is expected to act as a guardian of peace.

CLICK: Want more LEGEND OF KORRA? Find out about the new comic series!

When the Avatar dies, the next Avatar is reincarnated into one of the four following the strict pattern of Air to Water to Earth to Fire and back again. In the sequel series, Aang has died, but his children live on, and his son Tenzin has taken on the task of training the new Avatar, Korra, in the ways of airbending. Although Aang could not be a part of this show, his legacy as a parent is explored through the relationship between his three children, Tenzin, Kya, and Bumi, and their perspectives on their father.

Good Guys Bad Dads
A nuanced portrayal of sibling relationships from a show that also features a kid who can control his farts with magic martial arts.

Aang’s three children each hold different subjective views on their father. Tenzin, an Airbender, remembers his father fondly. This is juxtaposed by Bumi and Kya (a non-bender and waterbender) both felt neglected by their father, seeing the imperfections of the great Avatar hero persona. Bumi and Kya felt they lived in the shadow of Tenzin and his air bending. Tenzin and Aang shared a bond through that skill, but Aang was surely not malicious in his favoritism. He saw Tenzin as his final chance to make certain the legacy of his people didn’t die out. It’s an impossible situation to put a father into.

Fans criticized the writers for this choice, but it’s not as though Aang didn’t care about all of his children. He took his responsibilities as Avatar extremely seriously, but without ensuring there would be a new generation of airbenders, the cycle of the Avatar would be broken and there would be no more reincarnations. Fatherhood became more than a personal mission for Aang; ensuring his son could carry on the legacy of his people made fatherhood a duty as vital to the world as actually being the Avatar.

Good Guys Bad Dads

Perhaps none of this is really Aang’s fault. His people were killed when he was only a child, and that childhood was spent training and studying to become the Avatar in the face of overwhelming evil. He had no parental role models to emulate and therefore was not well equipped for fatherhood. The characterization of Aang’s parenting serves two roles: it’s an expression of parental fears of favoritism, but also allows an exploration of how parental relationships affect children when they reach adulthood.

CLICK:  If you liked LEGEND OF KORRA, check out VOLTRON! Read our review of the series here!

In the season two finale of LEGEND OF KORRA “Civil Wars”, the three siblings finally express the resentment towards each other that they have carried for years. Kya and Bumi unload their grief towards Tenzin’s close relationship with their father, while Tenzin expresses his envy in their carefree lifestyles while he had “the future of an entire culture on [his] shoulders.” Following his father’s passing, Tenzin takes on the burden of responsibilities than Aang left behind, but in the process, he also takes on his father’s faults. He puts himself at a distance from his siblings because he is more concerned with the future of the airbenders than his family.

In the finale, the spirit of Aang confronts Tenzin, who is in the midst of a nervous breakdown. The spirit of Aang reassures him that “You are trying to hold on to a false perception of yourself. You are not me, and you should not be me. You are Tenzin.” It is only when Tenzin can separate himself from his father that he can find internal peace. Ironically, Aang’s well-meaning attempt to strengthen the longevity of his heritage gave his son an impossible expectation to live up to. It is through Aang’s mistakes as a father that LEGEND OF KORRA is able to express that what really makes a great parent is having the courage to let children discover who they are for themselves.

III. “I just wish you weren’t my dad”

One of the most recent examples of the Good Guy/Bad Dad archetype comes from HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD. Billed as the official 8th story in the Harry Potter series, THE CURSED CHILD centers around the story of Harry and his friends 19 years later, picking up right where the epilogue of THE DEATHLY HALLOWS ended. Harry Potter, now married to Ginny Weasley, has three kids, including his son Albus Severus Potter who takes the spotlight in this sequel. Potter is interesting because he certainly isn’t a terrible father to all of his kids. Harry, like Aang, never had terrific parental figures. The Durselys were abusive, Dumbledore was withholding, and his own dad was a bully. All things considered, it’s a wonder Harry didn’t turn out to be a worse father.

CLICK: Was HARRY POTTER AND THE CURSED CHILD worth the wait? Click here for our review!

In the play, Albus finds himself dreading returning to Hogwarts year after year. Much like Tenzin, Albus toils and struggles to exist in his father’s shadow. But unlike Tenzin, he chooses to reject his father and his legacy rather than try to embrace it. From day one, he feels inadequate compared to his father when the Sorting Hat places him in Slytherin rather than Gryffindor. He becomes a pariah because he is nothing like his father, leading him to see Hogwarts as shallow and meaningless.

Even the boy who lived had to pick up an office job.

On the opposite end of the divide, Harry can’t connect with Albus because he doesn’t understand his misery. Albus has been able to grow up in an environment that the young Harry never wanted to leave; therefore, he doesn’t see what Albus has to be upset about. This is the center of their conflict: the ideals versus the reality. Harry mistakenly assumes his own experiences will be a reflection of the one his son has, missing his son’s concerns about being sorted. Instead, Harry connects the experience back to his time at Hogwarts, enraging Albus even further. For Albus, his father exists more as a series of myths and legends shared by the people of the wizarding world than a flesh-and-blood parent. Albus’ inability to live up to his father’s legend infuriates him and drives him away from his father.

This may be the most tragic version of the Good Guy/Bad Dad Archetype. Harry Potter becomes estranged from his son simply because they cannot get along. Harry doesn’t do or say anything to Albus (at least not at first) to drive him away. It simply happens. Sometimes parents may try their best to raise their children but still fail them. It is only when Harry shows Albus his humanity, by listing off some of his greatest fears, that he and Albus can begin to have a true bond. THE DEATHLY HALLOWS reveals that the greatest person in the world would be useless as a parent if they lack the vital components of empathy and honesty.

IV. “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.”

The above quote from Oscar Wilde’s classic play THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST may address the relationship between daughters, sons, and mothers; it says something more profound about fathers and how they act as role models for their children. Wilde suggests that men may have imperfect mothers, but even their mothers would carry more character than their fathers. If they don’t become like their mothers, then men, according to Wilde, must become our fathers.

The Good Guy/Bad Dad Archetype springs from this fear of becoming our parents, specifically the tyrannical Vader-like father, and making mistakes in the same way they did. What’s worth noting is that each of these characters may be imperfect fathers, but remain fundamentally good men. It is an acknowledgment that the even the best of people can face difficulties with parenting. The mistakes they make as parents are acknowledged and the heroes work to better themselves because if they don’t, they will never be successful parents.

These characters grew up with multiple generations that now face adulthood and all the anxieties that go with it. While it may be disappointing to see the flaws in heroes, it’s a reminder that one of life’s greatest challenges can even confound our idols. Mothers and fathers are usually the first heroes we have in our lives. And if our parents are flawed, shouldn’t our heroes be flawed too? 

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