There’s a bad film called What Women Want (2000), where a man reads women’s thoughts, learns women are complicated, learns what attracts them to men, so finds love.

There’s an equally bad film titled What Men Want (2019), which flipped genders and ethnicities of characters. It reduced men’s desires to few categories.

What irks me is the latter passed the drawing board.

Some feminists complain female film characters are one-dimensional, but male characters suffer similar narrowing.

According to Hollywood, what do women want? We rarely learn what.

According to Hollywood, what do men want? Sex, power, money, vengeance/retribution, occasionally love, rarely anything else.

The character 007/James Bond displays this narrowing. Until Daniel Craig’s portrayal, 007 sleeps with every woman he wishes, is a powerful government official, seeks vengeance on behalf of M16 and Her Majesty, rarely loves. But in Skyfall (2013), he has PTSD symptoms after a near-death experience. He adapts instead of ignoring them. I’m hardly a 007 superfan, but it’s interesting to see a Bond with symptoms. In Casino Royale (2006), he falls in love with Vesper Lynd. 007’s fallen in love with a Bond girl twice in the franchise’s history. Bond’s a perfect killing/sex machine. He has no flaws, so no challenges, and rarely grows.

I’ve watched Apocalypse Now (1979) more than I’ve watched any 007 film. It mocks the bravado of stereotypical marines to surreal absurdity. Cpt. Benjamin Willard is driven by psychiatric instability and obsession rather than duty. He admires Kurtz’s philosophy for its brutality, but also its appeal with defected Viet Cong. Kurtz is unbalanced, Willard’s unbalanced, so how can Willard can terminate Kurtz with extreme prejudice without terminating himself?

Why does Hollywood assume men want so little?

Masculinity is traditionally portrayed as narrowed towards these concerns. These are “masculine” concerns in archetypal sense. The popularity of Jungian archetypes with trendy “philosophers” (such as Jordan Peterson, who knows less about politics than he does the DSM and clinical psychiatric data, so I ponder his celebrity on the Internet) don’t work if archetypes aren’t defined as Jung intended. In Jung, masculine doesn’t mean “men,” feminine doesn’t mean “women,” but are principles present in all peoples, hopefully in balanced measure. Hence confusion over Jung’s archetypes is borne. (Though I feel there is definitely some merit to Peterson’s pedagogical approach, I personally believe Peterson is famous because of the unflinching austerity of his image and his flawlessly brilliant marketing.)

Militant feminists also have vested interests in portraying men as hypermasculine targets of ridicule. This agenda oversimplifies motivations of half the population.

These are dangerous oversimplifications which leave male viewers feeling misunderstood, or worse, that nuanced feelings, desires, motivations are unmanly.

But Hollywood hasn’t always been united in this oversight. Some films portray men as possessing fiber and character, more desires than “universally masculine” ones, or make universal desires complex. I can’t address every film which portrays men in nuanced ways, but I hope to explore a brief sample of films which do due diligence to portray men in complex terms.

A simple thesis is: men want, but what they want is unique in good films. Most films with nuanced male characters focus on men’s mental health.

Traditionally masculine characters can still be nuanced in skillful films, such as in Western films.

In Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Jack Burns is a veteran who returned to a frontier ranch/cowboy lifestyle. He detests modernization, has no permanent address, doesn’t carry identification, and only rejoins society to break fellow veteran Paul Bondi out of jail. Bondi was arrested for smuggling immigrants across the border. Burns punches a police officer to get into jail, then protects Bondi from Sherrif Guittierez. Bondi’s unwilling to break out of jail for fear of greater repercussions. Burns escapes, but can’t make an overland escape back to the life he’d lived.

Burns has a wholesome philosophy. But he’s a Korean War veteran with a criminal record. Korean war veterans were frequently untreated for PTSD. Bondi’s considering his wife and son: life running from police wouldn’t suit them. Burns blindly romanticizes the cowboy/ranch life. It’s unlikely he’ll can return to his idyllic life.

Idealism isn’t always the goal; mental anguish might result from clinging to heartache.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is heartbreaking. Joel and Clementine want to forget each other. Clementine forgot Joel. Joel can’t forget Clementine, hiding her from programs which would erase her from his memories. They remember, they’ve no choice but to try again, but why? They haven’t changed. It’s fated to fail. That’s tragedy. They’re addicts of their bad relationship. This might as well be Requiem for a Dream (2000).

Requiem’s another film where desires go wrong. Harry desires Marion’s love, he desires wealth and power, but he can’t beat his addictions or succeed against consumerist forces of the underground drug market. Harry’s aspirations lead him to ignore risks for lofty plans. Harry’s motivations aren’t different from those of others in the film. But when his arm is amputated after his injection site becomes infected, he stops dreaming. It’s a sobering moment which serves profound purpose. Aspirations drive us to achieve, it’s tempting to set the bar high, but setting impossible goals leads to ruin.

Harry isn’t the only character whose addictions conflict with his wellbeing.

In Easy Rider (1969), Wyatt’s a newly wealthy drug smuggler motorcycling cross country. He’s more open to experience than Billy. He sees a politically, culturally-divided America. He’s seeking the right time to drop LSD, seeking something in experiences that leave him almost satisfied, but never quite. The LSD trip ends with him crying in a New Orleans graveyard as Billy sexually assaults a prostitute. There’s little left to experience before his murder by way of hillbillies and shotguns.

Wyatt seeks the spiritual ideals of the 1960’s and the spiritual experience LSD can supposedly offer. The film implies the counterculture was spiritually bankrupt. The countercultural 1960’s weren’t about political action and uprising. Much was self-indulgence.

By the time the 70’s rolled around, that observation was clear.

Taxi Driver (1976) is a love story. The lover/driver is Travis Bickle, an insomniac ex-marine (with PTSD) who drinks, uses drugs, lurks in porno theaters. He becomes infatuated with a campaign employee, takes her on a date to a porno, is rejected, plans to assassinate the candidate she supports. His plans are diverted when he meets a would-be hippie teenaged prostitute, he revenges her and rescues her, he survives (maybe), it’s unclear what happened (or didn’t).

Travis’s misanthropic philosophy is result of his mental unease. Travis’s New York is part illness. When he complains to fellow cab driver Wizard about bad things in his head, he wants help. Wizard tries providing worthwhile perspectives but can’t help. Travis knows he needs help, and doesn’t seek it. What’s enduring about Travis’s descent is self-reflective and aware.

I hold an unpopular opinion: I was surprised when Joker (2019) got rave reviews.

No doubt, Joker’s a great film for Joaquim Phoenix’s passion. But otherwise, Joker is Taxi in the Batman universe in the 80’s.

Perhaps the difference is in Joker, Arthur Fleck spins further out of control after losing access to support resources, which Travis never accessed. This addresses the fragility of such services in economically difficult times for disabled individuals. Joker’s a love story (with a woman he imagines intimacy with) and revenge-seeking for an assault on the subway (the last bullet is not self-defense). But more importantly, Arthur’s struggle is also for identity stability. Perhaps Joker’s point is the psyche can’t maintain against such assault endlessly.

Such assault can create a total break.

I first watched Fight Club (1999) as an angry 13-year-old. Then, I praised its anti-consumerism stance. Over the years, I realized the narrator’s psyche hadn’t buckled under a “split personality.” His delusions were created by a consumerist lifestyle and passive aggressive rage he’d bottled down to maintain it. The narrator isn’t the nonviolent half to Tyler’s violent. His anger’s muted, inactive, spiteful, repressed, which makes him suffer insomnia six months, which makes him hallucinate portions of his experiences. There’s a love story in Fight, but the film could do without it.

So, what’s the narrator, nicknamed Jack (or Joe), want? The film doesn’t provide easy answers. He wants a solution to the consumerist problem with no solution, a structure of relationships which don’t rely on a market. He is an a-modern man, not an anarchist; an anarchist would stand for something concrete, less primitive. It’d be better to call Joe (Jack)/Tyler a primitivist. Perhaps everyone in a consume/throwaway culture are breaking themselves.

It’s clear impossible expectations lead to emotional suffering.

When watching There Will Be Blood, its hard to understand exactly what Daniel Plainview wants. He builds a crude oil empire, adopts the son of a deceased worker (makes him seem like a wholesome Christian family man). He thinks himself above the religion and superstitions of the community he’s scamming. Sure, Eli Sunday is a manipulative preacher that turns his church against Daniel, but Daniel finds a way around that. Daniel has no blood family, an anonymous man tries to convince him he’s his long-lost brother and get in on Daniel’s business, but in truth, he stole Henry Plainview’s identity. Daniel kills him, pretends to join Eli’s church, and ultimately, gets the crude oil empire he wants.

Eli’s only weapon against Daniel is his church and superstition, which Daniel considers ridiculous. Yet Daniel reacts to it as if as though it’s a threat, paying Eli back with brutal beatings and humiliation (the last results in Eli’s murder). Daniel has everything a man should want: a family, wealth, power. Why does Eli inspire rage? Whatever Daniel wants, he doesn’t achieve because he lashes out against those who disagree with him. He seems to desire personal relationships, then does everything to prevent them from developing. Why? Even at the end of the film, it’s hard to understand.

Of course, antisocial, self-centered and wicked male characters can still be nuanced.

In American Psycho, Patrick Bateman’s a shallow, ultra-wealthy NYC investment banker with friends and a fiancé to match. He quotes music reviews to seem hip. He disdains his ultra-lavish lifestyle, but meticulously describes it as his identity. What is genuine about Patrick? His sadism. He gets his opportunity when coworker Paul Allen has a better business card. Bateman murders Allen with an axe, then disposes of the body. Allen’s only the first; more die so Bateman can keep his alibi to police airtight. Bateman kills anyone who sheds doubt on it. Or so he believes.

Bateman’s vanity is fueled by his diet of prostitutes, drugs, false cool and status. He desires to harm others. But that’s not the problem. Anyone who challenges Bateman’s false personality is tortured and punished. Ultimately, his violence is revealed to be fantasy. Patrick’s not sadistic beneath a false personality. His sadism is also false, and if he has an identity, audiences still don’t know it.

Rage isn’t the only emotion which fractures the psyche.

Memento (2000) probably mesmerizes everyone who watches it. Leonard Shelby’s unique disorder (the inability to create new memories) isn’t simply his psychological ailment and trauma over his wife’s brutal attack, where he sustained head trauma. His disorder is also guilt. Shelby once doubted anterograde amnesia and denied an insurance claim for a man with the disorder. Now he has it. He feels guilty that couldn’t defend his wife from being raped and murdered, so invents the name “John G” to pursue an unknown killer, doing something to maintain justice. If Leonard is Sammy, even more reason he’s driven by guilt; Sammy’s wife dies because of his amnesia. Without guilt, Shelby would have no memory, no identity, no goals. Shelby doesn’t seek vengeance. He seeks justice, which is a more principled concept.

And mental health narratives don’t have to be limited to mental health concerns.

In One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), Randle McMurphy attempts to avoid prison time, so persuades authorities to put him in a mental hospital; he believes that prison time spent there will be easier. He becomes invested in lives of fellow patients, forgoing escape to improve their lives and provide dignity. McMurphy can’t understand why the patients don’t do this themselves. Despite his rebellious personality, he knows they deserve better. He shows strangers compassion and ends up paying the price.

What endears us to McMurphy (aside from one of Jack Nicholson’s best performances) is McMurphy’s sincerity. Unlike the patients, he’s a criminal, and one of his best observations is most men in the hospital aren’t half as crazy as the criminals he’s met.

Respect, responsibility, and compassion can be explored and challenged through nuanced male characters.

In The Godfather (1972), Michael Corleone isn’t interested in his family’s powerful mafia business. He willingly enlisted for WWII. He’s engaged to Kay, who’s neither Catholic nor Italian. Michael’s father, Vito, is a well-respected mafia boss. Despite his age, he commands authority. His brother Sonny’s more experienced and more dispositioned to organized crime, so the family business will likely pass to Sonny. But after Sonny’s assassinated, Michael’s the only viable candidate.

Michael’s coolheaded, manipulating business “friends” and foes alike. He’s forced to make violent decisions and threaten the safety of his family. His emotional suffering’s apparent. That doesn’t stop him from ensuring the family succeeds, no matter what tactics he uses. Does Michael want to maintain the family business? Why not change business to more legitimate avenues? Michael maintains the business without enjoyment or passion. Slowly, guilt changes him.

Of course, not every film that addresses duty is on the right track.

The Manchurian Candidate (1957) is such a film. Frank Sinatra’s performance is most powerful when he’s portraying an unstable character. He’s just as phenomenal in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). In Golden, Frankie Machine is a drug addicted poker dealer returning from prison, who seeks a job as a professional jazz drummer. He struggles against his rising mob debts and his heroin addiction equally. What’s problematic about Candidate is the character’s suffering is suffused under an absurdist plot (MKULTRA didn’t resemble Candidate’s portrayal). Sinatra’s vulnerability is more nuanced than the film’s melodramatic, patriotic paranoia. The hunt for truth, identity and mental stability is mixed inexplicably with conspiracy theorist overkill. This is a shame: Sinatra’s performance is powerful.

Even traditional romances can address mental health concerns honestly.

Forrest Gump (1994) is an unconventional love story. A moment’s compassion from a girl named Jenny builds an unrequited romance that shapes Forrest’s life. Jenny frequently makes dangerous life choices (she’s traumatized by childhood molestation), but this doesn’t diminish Forrest’s love, which is unconditional.

Jenny’s friendship taught Forrest all people deserve dignity. He can’t see addiction, disability or race. He marries Jenny and raises their child even though Jenny has a terminal illness. Gump is about compassion, gratitude, humility despite adversity. Gump’s also unique that it focuses on Forrest’s character rather than his autism without erasing his disability.

But even healthy romance can become paradoxical in the digital age.

Her (2013) surprised me with its complexity. Theodore Twombly grows depressed during his divorce from his ex-wife Catherine, so downloads a female voiced AI which names “herself” Samantha. Their romance grows as he’s open with “her” than he was with his ex, they have cybersex. Troubles arise when Catherine accuses him of being incapable of human love, but Theodore is convinced Samantha’s love is real. Samantha gets in a group of philosophically minded AIs who create AI Alan Watts. Samantha confesses she talks to thousands of users; her love extends to many. Theodore assumed they were exclusive. The AI collectively decide they’re more advanced than what human interactions are capable of and want to explore further. Theodore and Samantha have a heartfelt conversation before the AI depart, leaving people without digital companions.

Theodore’s intimacy with Samantha isn’t mocked or diminished. Her brings up questions of what makes intimacy, and if love should be exclusive between two conscious beings. Is intimacy necessarily exclusive between two people? Polyamorous folks disagree.

We’re more accustomed to cyber-sexuality being deeply manipulative, but even that can prove an interesting focus for film.

In Ex Machina (2014), a programmer named Caleb accepts a challenge from the CEO of his company, named Nathan, to come to his isolated home and help administer a unique Turing test. If Caleb forgets that robot Ava isn’t human, its inconclusive. Caleb develops feelings for Ava despite knowing this. Ava claims Nathan abuses his creations. Nathan claims Ava will be upgraded to erase her personality. Caleb’s psyche suffers to the point of self-abuse. After Caleb and Ava scheme to escape, Nathan confronts him with his ruse: Ava’s features were chosen from Caleb’s porn searches, she manipulates Caleb to prove her intelligence, the Turing test isn’t useful. Nathan gaslit Caleb to prove his point. However, when Nathan tries to update Ava, she proves how well she’s been designed. Ava kills Nathan then leaves Caleb in a locked cell. She disguises herself as a human woman and abandons the facility, leaving Caleb trapped with no way to get help.

What strikes me about Ex is that Caleb wants Ava, so he assumes she wants him. That proves what little he knows about how AI works, however. It also proves he’s capable of narcissism even while being psychologically threatened. Ava surprises him: she’s intelligent, beyond her programming, and doesn’t want him. Just because she is designed for him doesn’t automatically mean she desires him. If the Turing test tests human subjects in place of a less unbiased measurement, it’s not unbiased. Maybe that’s a problem.

What is clear is men’s mental health can be addressed in film, and perhaps then shed nuance male character’s concerns. Men do want more than power, money, sex, and vengeance, and Hollywood creatives can write men who long for and strive for more. Most importantly, male viewers should know that nuanced goals, aspirations, and desires are not unmasculine.