The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1 Is Great, But Katniss Everdeen Almost Ruins Everything
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Pt 1 wildly exceeded my expectations. I was only a casual fan of the previous films, as I thought they pulled their punches when it really counted (and were basically just a watered-down version of Battle Royale), but this was by far the best installment, in my opinion. It was thoughtful, well-acted, and exciting (although in a very different way from the first two films). There was one glaring problem: Katniss Everdeen is a fairly terrible heroine.
Katniss Everdeen - Heroine or Pawn
Ever since the first Hunger Games came out, popular culture has been hailing Katniss as one of the defining female heroines of this generation. And yes, she's definitely a better influence on young girls than Bella Swan, but let's just say that Buffy isn't shaking in her boots. In the very literal sense, Katniss is a passive character in this film, as she is being used as a pawn by the rebellion just as she was once used by the Capitol. But this isn't the problem on its own, as strong characters are often placed in situations that involve a lack of agency. The problem is that she spends the entire film passively reacting to situations without an independent thought process to speak of. The film was at its most fascinating when it depicted the darker, more cynical side of an idealistic rebellion, when it portrayed the concessions that movements have to make in order to achieve their goals. So there were legitimate reasons for her to object to being the Mockingjay. They're exploiting Katniss, they're manipulating the public with emotionally devastating footage, and they're capitalizing on the deaths of innocents in order to achieve their own ends. There are objections that Katniss could raise, as well as arguments to be made against those objections, but the film was unable to explore these issues in as much depth as they could have, mostly because Katniss's attitude is essentially, "I realize that the Capitol is violating people's basic rights and that innocents suffer every day as a result of their evils, but I'm mad at you for leaving Peeta in the arena, so there's that."
We Must Save Peeta
The fact of the matter is, Katniss only displays two actual personality traits in this series thus far. She loves and wants to save her sister, and she loves and wants to save Peeta. (At one point she even says, "All I ever wanted was to save my sister and to save Peeta." Too true, Katniss, too true.) Katniss begins the series making the admirable decision to sacrifice herself for her sister, and then spends the rest of the series trying her best not to help an oppressed people escape their oppression. This theme is more pronounced in this Mockingjay Pt.1 than in either of its predecessors, as the answer to every complex question the movie asks of its protagonist is saving Peeta. District 13 wants her to become a symbol for the revolution and potentially help millions of people? "We have to save Peeta." The Capitol is about to (spoiler!) bomb District 13 and kill thousands of people? "We have to save Peeta." The Capitol (spoiler!) bombs a hospital and kills hundreds of innocent people right in front of Katniss? Two scenes later: "I just want to save Peeta." (Not to mention that she doesn't seem to care about the fact that other people could easily die trying to save Peeta until it very nearly happens.) People around her keep saying that she's so strong and independent, but we see absolutely no evidence of this. When she doesn't want to follow President Coin's wishes, she doesn't have enough of a thought process for it to come off as independent, it just comes across as apathy.
A Fitting Foundation For A Finale
Unsurprisingly, the most emotionally powerful moments of the film had little or nothing to do with Katniss, but portrayed the widespread rebellion of a downtrodden Panem against the truly evil Capitol. I was genuinely shocked when Katniss stepped on a piece of a human skull while quietly walking through the ruins of her home district, and I began to well up when a bunch of people we didn't know rose up against the Capitol, singing the grassroots rebellion song that Katniss sang in a propaganda video. The direction was amazing; even though we had never met any of these characters, the audience truly feels every death when the rebels start getting gunned down by the Capitol's faceless footsoldiers (who look a lot like Stormtroopers, incidentally). Many have been complaining that the split into two films means that it was all build-up and no pay-off, or that there wasn't enough action. There weren't many huge action set pieces, this is true, but I thought this relatively brutal violence was far more compelling than the bloodless, cut-away murders in the first film.
But all of this great writing and direction was wasted on a weak protagonist, as Katniss's superficiality undercut all of these moments. Watching those people die only underscores that hundreds of rebels are dying for Katniss and fighting for trivial things like basic civil rights, while she has more important things to think about, like saving her boyfriend and whining that "she never asked for any of this."
Blastr's Aaron Sagers argues in the above interview that Katniss is not a weak protagonist simply because love is important to her as a character, and I completely agree. The problem is that the romance takes precedent over any of the complex political issues at stake, and that character is too busy thinking about her own interests to care about the people giving their lives for her. I realize that it's overall a positive thing that we have more female protagonists, and again, she's better than Bella Swan, but is that our barometer for creating a strong female character? If Katniss is the modern-day female superhero, if she's the go-to role model for young girls, then the state of affairs for those girls is a sad one indeed.
Shout-Outs and Quibbles
-The above rant is nothing against Jennifer Lawrence, who did the best she could do given what she had to work with. The acting was stellar all around, with Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Natalie Dormer the unsurprising stand-outs.
-The film was actually not particularly antifeminist taken as a whole, considering the impressiveness of the other female characters, particularly President Coin and Cressida. Either one of them would be a better role model for young girls than Katniss.
-Re the love triangle: I enjoy 'shipping' people, but I can't bring myself to like either leg of this triangle. Gale was shown to be more complex and interesting than Peeta in this film, but the writers (probably as a result of the source material) hamfistedly tell you over and over that she's really in love with Peeta. And it doesn't help that she has absolutely no chemistry with either actor, which is remarkable considering that they're all so good-looking and talented.
-I'm not always a fan of cliffhangers, but I firmly believe that the movie should have ended with the black out after Peeta attacks Katniss. It would have been extremely bold, and I was disappointed when the film kept rolling.