If you read only one essay devoted to a supporting character from 1999’s The Mummy this week, be sure it’s this one.
Yes, I’m often walking down the street, as I am wont to do, and random strangers will come up to me and ask, “Is there any character from modern fiction that reflects our perception of ourselves, others, and the duality of our own egotism versus reality?” And I reply, with a good-natured, condescending chuckle, “Why, yes, random stranger. His name is Beni Gabor.” And then I stroll on without offering any further explanation.
But for those who need further explanation, here it is:
It’s probably been a while since you’ve seen The Mummy. Most people have a neutral-ish attitude toward the whole series of films. For my money, they’re all solid action-adventure staples with a solid cast, solid writing, and good direction. They’re engaging and unique and fun, and it’s easy to look down upon them (because grown ups love looking down on fun things), but overall, they all hold up well.
The movie centers around our heroes Rick and Evelyn (along with Evelyn’s shady yet ultimately heroic brother Jonathan) efforts to keep the cursed mummy from rising from the grave to conquer the world. There’s also Ardeth Bay, a mysterious swordsman / guardian of secrets. The sequels introduced Alex, Rick and Evelyn’s precocious son and eventual co-adventurer. And all these characters are cool, but they ultimately speak to who we think we are, not who we actually are. No, we aren’t any of these characters.
You probably don’t think much about Beni, the cowardly, scheming, greedy sidekick of Rick who eventually becomes the Mummy’s sidekick. That makes sense. Beni is not a character we’re designed to empathize or care about. He’s not handsome (with apologies to Kevin J. O’Connor who is by no means an ugly man, but also not within the narrow definition of “handsome” required to be a leading man). He’s not particularly smart (though he does know several languages), nor resourceful, nor capable. He’s a second banana who is there to get swept up on the plot.
The thing about Beni is that he knows he isn’t the hero. In that way, he’s more aware than many of the other supporting characters. The guys who awaken the Mummy by accident are all classically handsome and devil-may-care. They have a lot in common with Rick (our real hero), but this isn’t their story. They think they’re the hero, and they perish for that mistake.
Rick knows he’s the hero. Maybe not consciously, but on an intuitive level, he behaves like a guy who knows he can take chances. He can stand face-to-face with a supernatural monster, and while he doesn’t immediately have the tools to defeat it, he also has enough plot armor to not be immediately killed by it. He rushes headlong into danger with the certainty that somehow he’ll come out on top.
Meanwhile, Beni knows his days are numbered. He actively runs from danger (which isn’t a dumb thing to do), and when confronted by the Mummy, he willingly submits to being a minion because he really doesn’t have a choice. When Rick is cornered by the Mummy, he unloads his rifle into it. When Beni is cornered, he can only pray to whatever indifferent gods (or writers) are listening.
The problem with Beni isn’t that he’s stupid or cowardly. It’s that we have been trained throughout our whole life to see ourselves as Rick when we’re actually Beni. Consequently, we have little empathy for Beni. We don’t care for him, and we don’t see him as a worthwhile person. Quite the opposite, actually. We expect him to be a victim and to suffer, and we have such little empathy for him that his life and death mean almost nothing to us.
It’s ironic that the movie actually does have some sympathy for the poor guy. When he finally does meet his end, Rick is still trying to save him. When Beni dies, Rick even takes a moment to mourn his passing. But that’s because Rick is a good guy. Rick, aside from all his other heroic qualities, has empathy for those less awesome than himself.
So what? you might ask. Why should it matter how we feel about this sort of character archetype?
It matters because it reflects how we view the real world.
We have been taught to see our world in terms of Heroes, Villains, and Victims. Because of that, we tend to view all events through that lens. More importantly, we view ourselves through that lens, and since we know we’re not Villians and we don’t want to be Victims, that means we must be Heroes. And while each of us might be the Hero of our own stories, we are not the awesome, badass, ultracapable version we are taught to empathize with.
It’s that sort of fallacy that leads people to believe they could be Batman, if only they had enough money. Yet to be Batman requires more than money. It requires a genius level intellect, superb athletic potential, good looks, and somehow enough time to master all the skills required to be Batman (which no human actually has enough time to do in the first place). Yet when we view our heroes, we tend to look to these ideals. That’s good. But we tend to also miss the point that these ideals aren’t necessarily realistic.
Beni is reality.
So when we dislike or dismiss Beni, we’re really dismissing ourselves. We’re ignoring who we often are in favor of who we want to be, and while it’s worthwhile to aspire to be like any number of amazing people (both fictional and real), it’s also important to realize that life isn’t always like that. Beni would never make a great protagonist, especially in an action adventure story. He’ll never be the guy to kill the monster or save the day, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve our sympathy. The world would probably be a lot better if we saw ourselves and those around us as Beni, just ordinary people trying to get by in an unpredictable, frustrating world.
Beni isn’t the hero.
But he is us.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,