Can Fictional Antagonistic Forces Ever Be “TOO” Bad?

Source:  Eat those bad plots, wolfy!!
Eat those bad plots, wolfy!!

I watched a movie over the weekend which led to my question: can you ever have a situation where antagonist forces are too much for the protagonist(s) to overcome?

This movie made me think yes.

I don’t want to spoil your experience, so I don’t want to tell you which movie it was – and it may have just been my subjective experience of the movie that made me feel this way. But at any rate, the set up is a damaged hero trying to be “good” in a world that seems to reward corruption and selfishness. It’s a pretty lousy place to live, life it hard even for the criminals. And then something happens and the guy has a chance to be a hero – but instead of becoming a “reluctant” hero, he actually becomes MORE anti-heroic, and takes the selfish way out, choosing to become worse than he was at the beginning (and he wasn’t exactly likeable to start with.)

At that point, I turned off the movie. I didn’t believe that a) I wanted to watch something where the bad guys always win, so much so that the “hero” becomes a bad guy, and b) there didn’t seem to be any possible path for the hero to take that could possibly improve this world in the long-run. Corruption, greed, and a bitter class system meant any change would, at best, be temporary before overall revolution which might just bring them back to the beginning.

Which made me wonder: can an antagonistic force be TOO strong for a protagonist to overcome?

On the one hand, you must have some kind of antagonistic force because without it, why should the hero change? Where will conflict rise from? By pitting the hero (and ourselves) against a challenge and striving to better ourselves and our world, we grow and improve, and perhaps, even prove our humanity. A weak antagonist often grows out of a weak hero (or potentially a weak writer), and the end “reward” for the hero — and the reader — is diminished since the hero didn’t have much to overcome, and therefore likely didn’t change much, or was changed but not in a believable fashion.

On the other hand, you have a situation like this movie, where the antagonistic forces are SO strong (ie: the forces pitted against our hero) that there doesn’t seem to be any way he can surmount or overcome them. Perhaps what went wrong here was that the hero wasn’t created / written strong enough to overcome these challenges (nor was he exceptionally sympathetic or likeable). Then you had the added challenge of a weak hero who is then MADE WEAKER around the 1/3 or 1/2 way point (yes, that totally ticked me off), so how on earth is he supposed to succeed now when it didn’t seem likely he’d succeed in the first place?

My husband eventually watched the rest of the movie (without me), and he said the hero eventually conquers and there’s a happily ever after. My problem with this is that I don’t think that this ending was believable; the writer(s) compromised the plausibility of such an ending. And in so doing, they cheated the viewer of an enjoyable and plausible experience. AND out of a more satisfying resolution had they created a hero actually strong enough to achieve such an ending.

Perhaps they could have strengthened the hero in the beginning, made him truly exceptional. But, if they wanted to go for the everyday man making a difference, then I think they still needed to improve the likability of the character, and he needed back-up. Even the strongest heroes are stronger when they know they need help.

What do you think? Does a hero have to be equal to their antagonist – or become equal to their antagonist throughout the course of the book / story? Is it possible for an antagonist to be too strong?

Thanks for reading, and hope you’re all having a great week out there. 🙂