By Jolene Joan You
Set in a post-apocalyptic world, Michael Matthews’ Love and Monsters (2020) introduces us to a post-apocalyptic world that has come to be after a chemical fallout from an attempt by humanity to destroy an asteroid that was aiming for planet earth. The chemicals released mutate the earth’s animals, turning them into gigantic, terrifying monsters who have become predators and human beings their prey. In their evacuation, humans have grouped together to form colonies, hiding to avoid these monsters. In a colony that is hiding in a bunker underground seven years after the fallout, we are introduced to Joel, the protagonist of the film. Joel initially seems ordinary, with no sense of purpose living underground and with nothing special about him. Driven to find his first love Aimee, who is hiding with her own colony, he decides to leave his colony and starts to explore the surface despite his lack of survival skills. The film then follows Joel on his journey as he slowly gains skills and abilities that not only help him to survive but also save others from danger. At first glance, the film does not seem to convey a convincing narrative of a hero due to its use of comedy in the portrayal of its unconventional protagonist, Joel. However, the film’s integration of comedy in its storytelling aims to tell the story of the unlikely hero’s journey as Joel surprisingly becomes a hero who can save others from danger despite his flaws. As such, this raises the question of how the film’s use of humour conveys the story more effectively. Matthews’ integration of various types of humour, including verbal humour and slapstick humour, serve to emphasise struggles in Joel’s adventure as much of the humour comes from his cowardice and lack of abilities. Joel’s plainness is highlighted using humour, convincing readers that he could not possibly have any heroic qualities. Thus, making the revelation of his unlikely heroism much more convincing. Therefore, I argue that in Love and Monsters, the use of humour does not compromise the plot but instead serves to craft a more persuasive narrative of Joel’s unlikely hero journey. This is because the film intentionally accentuates Joel’s cowardice and ineptness with comedy, these comedic moments magnify his weakness and undermine his heroism, therefore, allowing his heroism to become one that is unlikely and unexpected.
Much of my analysis of comedy and the unlikely hero comes from Aída Díaz Bild’s “The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle: The Wisdom of Comic Heroism”. Díaz Bild argues that comedy benefits the narrative of heroism in literature by positing a hero whose childlikeness and light-heartedness allow him to dedicate himself to life (235). A comic hero thus has a “greater appreciation for the muddiness and ambiguities of human nature” (Díaz Bild 235). Díaz Bild emphasises that the comic element is needed to complement the more tragic element of heroism, which leads to rage, destruction and even death, to produce a hero who is more in tune with his humanity (234-235). Therefore, this emphasises the need for humour in the hero’s journey which is showcased in Love and Monsters.
Unlike traditional definitions of heroism, Joel’s heroism has more of a comic quality. One might expect that heroes typically care more for noble causes and have a general disregard for day-to-day matters since one assumes that a hero is usually only focused on extraordinary causes, such as saving the earth (Díaz Bild 234). Yet, aligning with Díaz Bild’s argument, Matthews seems to subvert this expectation through its protagonist, Joel. In this case, the supposed hero seems to care more for mundane conventional matters (Díaz Bild 235) and does not necessarily have a noble ambition or cause. In the film, Joel is seen to value conventional matters, especially, the norm of first loves as seen in how he never forgets Aimee in the seven years they were apart. Driven by his dedication to his feelings for her, the more conventional affairs of his life become his call to action in his adventure. This comic quality is further emphasised in his childlikeness which is conveyed through verbal humour. Joel is naïve and overly idealistic. When he wants to leave the bunker, his colony fears for his safety yet he claims that he is not just “some little, pathetic, adorable hedgehog” and that he can “take care of himself” because he is “a lot stronger than [they] think”. This statement evokes laughter since it is known that he, in fact, cannot “take care of himself” which I will explore in the next paragraph.
As an ordinary person with no special abilities, Joel’s flaws are emphasised by the film’s use of humour. The use of both verbal and slapstick humour is aptly used by Matthews to portray Joel’s cowardice and ineptness, underscoring his inability to survive on his own and lowering the audience’s expectations of his heroism or the lack thereof. This becomes important later in the plot as according to Marillier, unlikely heroes are unlikely precisely because they do not possess any special skills that allow them to survive. Recalling Díaz Bild’s argument of comic heroes, the film departs from it in that Joel is not necessarily adapted for survival as comic heroes are (235). Instead, Joel is initially unable to adapt. In the next stage of his hero’s journey, his cowardice is portrayed in the use of slapstick humour, he is seen running away when he encounters a monster on the surface for the first time and is then thrown against a wall by the monster’s tongue. This exaggeration of Joel’s attempt to escape the monster evokes laughter while reminding the audience of Joel’s cowardice. It is at this stage of his quest that he meets his helper in the form of Boy, his dog companion and he also eventually meets his mentors, Minnow and Clyde, who teach him important survival skills. Love and Monsters once again demonstrates the power of humour, especially verbal humour, in creating and subsequently sustaining the unlikeliness of Joel’s heroism by convincing the audience that its protagonist cannot seem to fend for himself, much less protect others. This is demonstrated by Minnow who uses cruel jokes to mock Joel’s lack of courage and unskillfulness. Minnow, who is much younger than Joel, comments on his yelling – “you yell like a girl” – comparing his screams to her own. Her jokes, therefore, serve as an acute reminding the audience that Joel is “useless”. Yet, more importantly, the use of humour in portraying Joel’s incapacity is essential to the unlikely hero’s plot because it facilitates the formation of the lack of expectations for Joel’s heroism. Thus, making the subversion of these expectations that much more effective when he eventually evolves and gains the courage to become someone who can save others from danger.
The use of humour, therefore, allows for Joel’s unlikely heroism to be that much more convincing. One would expect that such heroes, both comic and unlikely ones, are not actual heroes because they do not possess the immense strength or extraordinary abilities that a typical hero would have. Instead, these heroes typically possess empathy (Díaz Bild 235) and are arguably, equally, or even more heroic than a traditional hero because they are willing to fight to protect others even though they may be weak or unskilled. Therefore, producing a quality of heroism that is unlikely yet also more admirable. As he reaches the final stages of his journey, Joel’s transformation and evolution into a hero are impactful. This is first made explicit when he manages to overcome his fear, killing a queen sandglobber (a monster) to save Boy. The significance of this part of the film is derived from the subversion of the audience’s expectations of Joel, who believes that Joel is weak. Joel’s evolution is further highlighted when he saves Aimee and her colony from Cap, a thief who has come to steal their supplies. While traditional heroes would typically save Aimee by killing Cap themselves, Joel saves them by freeing the monster crab when he realises that it was “one of the good ones” and it is the crab that kills Cap, saving Aimee’s colony from danger. This is significant as it highlights Joel’s empathy, even for a monster, when traditional heroes would not be able to do so because of their “blind obedience” to their beliefs of what is good and evil which would only lead to “death and destruction” (Díaz Bild 234). Hence, at this point, Joel has completely undermined the assumption that he is a protagonist with no qualities of heroism through his complete transformation, making his heroism unexpected. Additionally, the qualities of his heroism are also surprising in the sense that his heroism stems from his empathy and mundane causes instead of the traditional hero’s noble and extraordinary causes. Therefore, making the narrative of his unlikely heroism much more poignant.
Love and Monsters thus uses humour in various ways to craft the narrative of the unlikely hero that is its protagonist, Joel. The integration of humour aids the film in its attempt to craft a hero that is unconventional, unexpected, and unlikely by creating an expectation of a weak main character who cannot possibly survive in the dangerous post-apocalyptic world and then subverting that expectation to reveal an empathetic and inspiring hero. Díaz Bild’s analysis clarifies how the use of comic elements facilitates the storytelling of a hero and does not compromise or problematise it. While the film’s main character lacks the qualities of a traditional hero, Joel’s heroism is derived from his empathy and affinity for more conventional matters such as love, which compensates for his cowardice and ineptness. Furthermore, his weaknesses are then highlighted using both verbal and slapstick humour, which aims to create an expectation of his unskillfulness. Yet, this is cleverly undermined by Joel’s evolution where he is then revealed as a hero who has both the courage and the abilities to save others, thus becoming an unlikely hero because he is not the hero that one would have expected.
Díaz Bild, Aída. “The Dead Republic, by Roddy Doyle: The Wisdom of Comic Heroism.” ES Review: Spanish Journal of English Studies 39 (2018): 233–254.
Marillier, Juliet. “The Unlikely Hero.” Writer Unboxed 9 March 2022. <https://writerunboxed.com/2022/03/09/the-unlikely-hero/>