I am a girl. I have one older brother and we have our own dynamic full of complications but I feel that it’s important to say upfront that I am not a brother, nor does my brother have a brother. That said, I find the issue of brotherhood a fascinating one. And it’s been everywhere lately in popular entertainment, or at least in the entertainment I’ve been consuming, even if it’s not all modern. It’s everywhere, this tale of resentment-filled power dynamics and golden boy backlash. I say “this tale”, singular, because all four of the principal narratives I’m about to discuss share fundamental elements. They take place across mediums- from comic book movies to Shakespeare to constructed “reality”- but they’re all somehow the same old story of brothers.
Here’s the story: Brother 1 (not necessarily the oldest though the oldest in most examples) has blond hair. He doesn’t necessarily have blond hair (though he does in most examples) but he, at the very least, has metaphorical blond hair in the sense that the light seems to reflect off him just a little more brightly than most. Brother 2, because the sun can only hit something brightly if it casts something else into shadow, is of a darker breed. When it comes to fiction, this literalization through costuming and colouring is a little much; as it pertains to the one set of real-life humans in my examples, it’s fascinatingly coincidental. Brother 2 is scrawny, tricky, complicated and alone; Brother 1 is powerful, athletic, smart, simple and beloved. The question becomes whether Brother 1’s innate glory robbed his brother of his chance to live up to similar potential; did Brother 2 self-sabotage with comparison-born insecurity? Could it be that Brother 1 learned from Brother 2’s mistakes? Was Brother 1’s success really innate at all? Whatever the answers, resentment and villainy ensue. To varying degrees, of course, but they ensue nevertheless.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about the four examples that got me thinking about this editorial is that in 3 out of 4 cases, the aforementioned resentment and villainy literally lead to war. We’ll talk about these first because, in a twist designed to restore your faith in humanity, the last pair of brothers are also the real ones, the most interesting ones, and the ones trying to find a way to relate to each other again.
My first example is from Shakespeare, because my first example is always from Shakespeare. The tagline for the Stratford Festival’s recently concluded 2014 season was “Madness: Minds Pushed to the Edge”, which got me thinking about the brotherly themes present in the bard’s most famous tales of madness. In a bizarre twist, the season didn’t include Hamlet (that was pushed to 2015), thereby robbing me of my chance to talk at length about Claudius vs. Old Hamlet and even the not-quite-brothers Hamlet vs. Laertes (though, don’t worry, we’ll return to this universe in the next paragraph). But the season did include King Lear and its enthralling subplot about brothers Edmund and Edgar. Crash Course: Edgar is the legitimate son of the Duke of Gloucester; Edmund is a bastard about whom (in front of whom!) pops says such charming things as “this knave came something saucily into the world before he was sent for”. What’s most interesting about the way that this dynamic plays out is that Edmund and Edgar have very little to do with each other in the action of the play until their climactic fight in Act V. Edmund tricks Edgar into fleeing the kingdom in Act I and, from there, they follow their separate paths of the hero and the villain. Edgar disguises himself as a beggar and joins the posse of the destroyed titular king and eventually ends up guiding his blind and tortured father despite his Edmund-imposed idea that his father hates him. He fights with the good guys; he prospers; he even (sometimes) scores the closing lines of the play (an honour usually reserved for Mr. Perfect McHero). Edmund, on the other hand, uses his bastardly hotness to lure multiple women into surrendering their kingdom-ruling power to his will. He kicks off his run with one of those exceptional villain soliloquies wherein he gives a lame “everyone was mean to me” excuse for being a declared bad guy then outlines his plan for world domination. He repents a tiny bit as he lays dying by his brother’s hand (obviously) but mostly he’s just a Super bad egg obsessed with being his father’s second choice. Shakespeare did a fair amount of this (in Much Ado, Don John’s stated motivation is also bastardly inferiority to a golden boy brother) but Edmund’s “base, base, bastardly base” reign of terror is a uniquely brutal retaliation against nothing in particular (his father even admits that Edgar may be legitimate but Edmund “yet is no dearer in my account”) with very little motivation beyond “I want to make them burn, because they hurt my feelings” (not a direct quote).
This stands in contrast to the twisted and varied motivations behind Claudius’ betrayal (read: murder) of his brother Old Hamlet. Young Hamlet (like, actual Hamlet) nicely (read: not so nicely) points out to his mother and the audience just how well these two fell into the dynamic outlined above with the telling line “My father’s brother, but no more like my father than I to Hercules”, but the Gertrude factor throws a lot more layers into that particular brotherly conflict. Its simpler incarnation is actually my second example, coming at you in the memorable form of Disney animation with a great musical assist from Sir Elton John. You did know that The Lion King is based on Hamlet, right? You didn’t? Well then, get out… I’ll wait… Are they gone? Good, then we can continue. Since you all know that The Lion King is based on Hamlet, I can also assume that you all have a working knowledge of how Scar and Mufasa differ from Claudius and Old Hamlet. Essentially, it comes down to Gertrude. Jeremy Irons’ amazing baddie has a profoundly upsetting moment or two on screen with Sarabi but she was not the prize or even half the prize, the prize was the Prideland and the power of controlling it. Also, the swift elimination of Mufasa from Scar’s shoulder. Claudius gets rid of Old Hamlet for lots of reasons, all of which he grapples with before the play begins. The action of The Lion King shows us a lot more of that than Hamlet does (mostly by virtue of Mufasa not already being dead when we tune in). With the romantic rivalry downplayed and more time spent with both brothers alive, there’s a lot more of the resentment playing a part. Yes, Scar wants the kingdom, but more than anything he wants to beat his big brother and make him disappear. Mufasa is literally golden (and James Earl Jones-voiced), his self-assured leadership and big brother know-it-all heroics tear at Scar’s psyche. He just wants to beat the man who has always beaten him in every sense but the literal one (okay, sometimes the literal one; “when it comes to brute strength, I’m at the shallow end of the gene pool” says Scar in this perfect relationship capsule of a clip). Also, he’s evil and equated to Hitler throughout the film. But, come on, growing up with Mufasa would not have been much fun.
Then there’s what I think is the most interesting fictional pair on this list- Thor and Loki. You mostly all know this story so I’m not going to repeat it but I will point out what is my favourite thing about this incarnation of the same story (other than the casting, because a better pair of actors than Hemsworth and Hiddleston could never be found). In most of these other cases, the golden brother has also been smart and a natural-born leader. Even in the cases where the darker brother comes up with fabulous schemes and brilliant manipulations, it’s rarely at the expense of his brother’s intellect (whatever Scar may claim). What’s fun about Thor and Loki is that they stand in far more balanced opposition. Hemsworth’s lightning bolt smile, outrageous body, and unthinkable charm are met with the sly grin, intoxicating eyes, and amazing wit of his darker brother as played by a Shakespeare vet the internet has adopted as their new Gosling. Where Thor is a conqueror, Loki is a thinker and he uses that dangerous cleverness as his principal weapon (along with whatever the film’s McGuffin of Choice) in taking the power he not only believes is his right but he has the intellect to wield. In their most recent appearance, last year’s Thor: The Dark World, our handsome golden hero needs his imprisoned brother’s help in executing an escape plan. Upon hearing the plan outlined, Loki wonders at its complexity and asks “are you sure you wouldn’t rather just punch your way out?”. It’s a small moment, a throwaway joke, but it points to a far more complicated power dynamic than the one that exists between most of these pairs. The wonderfully unexpected ending of that unfairly maligned film also does something that would never happen in the worlds of the other brothers in this argument- it places Loki in power, admitting that the shadowy brother has within him a kingly potential (perhaps even heroic potential) when allowed his place in the sun. The strange episodic reality of the Marvel universe leaves the fallout of this ending a mystery for now but I’d be surprised if the Avengers storyline allows its supervillain to remain the hero he’s become in the Thor storyline very long (Hiddleston is the only decent villain the franchise has seen so far), leading him, instead, straight back to total adherence with the Edmund/Scar/Claudius legacy of villainy through brotherhood.
There is, undoubtedly, some truth to this arc with two fascinating real-life examples showing up on Survivor‘s recent Blood vs. Water experiment. Earlier this week the current mediocre set of castaways voted off a young man named Alec who had entered the game as part of a duo with his big brother Drew. Alec- younger, skinnier, far more awkward, far less self-assured- had outlasted his brother by 22 days in a 39-day game (no fewer than 11 eliminations separated them) but the shadow of his golden boy big brother loomed large over Alec all season, culminating in his amazingly reductive final statement of “at least I beat Drew”. More amazing were Aras and Vytas Baskauskas, the original Blood vs. Water brother duo from season 27 who adhered astonishingly closely to the light brother/dark brother dynamic of all the aforementioned pairs. There was Aras- a former Survivor winner known for competition wins and loyal alliances more than strategy and manipulation. Strong, blond and boyishly handsome, Aras even looked a bit like Thor. His recovering drug addict brunette big brother, on the other hand, was pure Loki (this is the one pair that reverses the age situation, you’ll forgive the imperfection of the analogy). Assigned the disadvantaged tribe from the get-go, Vytas (observe even the beginning of alphabet vs. end of alphabet names, as though Aras was designed to be the Alpha) was scratching and clawing (read: scheming and manipulating) for survival the second he hit the island, facing his little brother’s winning legacy and searching for redemption for a lifetime of screw-ups. The most enthralling moment in recent Survivor history came when the brothers Baskauskas faced each other in an American Gladiators-style physical competition. Because he’s the Mufasa (read: stronger, more advantaged), Aras quickly pinned his smaller brother to the mat but, because he’s the Mufasa (read: kind, heroic), he stepped back and allowed Vytas to reset and try again rather than take the win outright. Because he’s the Loki (yeah, I switched metaphors), Vytas took his brother’s momentary kindness and used it to sideswipe him, fulfilling his role as the “dark one” either because that’s who he truly is or because a lifetime in the shadow of the goldenboy had taught him that the only way he could possibly win (and thus save his tribe from losing another member) was to play smart but dirty. It’s worth noting that Aras still managed to win the matchup.
Aras and Vytas were voted out of the game back to back after the alliance Aras was so loyal to ultimately betrayed them both. From the effects of starvation on muscle mass to the dangers of playing honestly, everything that made Aras the golden brother in the outside world was a hinderance on the island where the sneakier, smarter Vytas might have played a near-perfect game in any season but Blood vs. Water. Perhaps because it was the flaws of the generally less-flawed brother that were to blame for their failure, or because the experience of being edited into such neatly packaged arcs of darkness and light can be revelatory for reality contestants upon their return home, or perhaps for any of a million non-Survivor-related reasons, Aras and Vytas reportedly left the island on a road to rediscovering each other beyond the complicated power dynamics and hyper competition of their sun-and-shadow roles. Meanwhile Alec, I’m sure, has returned to his big brother with just as much of a competitive drive but perhaps a little less of an inferiority complex. Notably, neither Loki has declared war on their Thor. The real Edmunds haven’t driven their Edgars from their homes and, as far as I know, no one has died of either poison or a stampede-related incident. It’s a tale that dates back thousands of years (whatup, Isaac & Ishmael) and it’s been everywhere lately but the tale of two brothers has yet to grow old.