Burack: Good Guy-Bad Guy Dynamic Driving Interest in Russia-Ukraine

We knew the moment Vladimir Putin ordered his Russian troops to drive their tanks into Ukraine to slaughter innocent people two weeks ago that it'd lead to an international crisis. That's inherently a significant news story, as all wars are.

So it's not a surprise to see Russia-Ukraine completely overtake the news cycle. Yet a cultural interest in the war here in the US has caught some in the news industry by surprise. For example, MSNBC's Joy Reid made headlines earlier this week for her opinion about why this war has touched Americans young and old, while other wars have not.

Reid blamed the attention on race. She said, "The coverage of Ukraine has revealed a pretty radical disparity in how human Ukrainians look and feel to Western media compared to their browner and blacker counterparts." Of course she said that. She's a racist.

Though her conclusion is grossly inaccurate, she does touch on a deeper issue at play here: this war has drawn the attention of people who do not typically watch the news. These people -- from all different demographics -- are consuming news about the war through Facebook posts, online discussion, TikTock videos, memes and stickers. So Reid and others have begun to wonder why.

People have offered several possible answers. The events are harrowing, children are dying brutally, and the response from President Joe Biden and NATO allies has been controversial. Some Western countries also fear the sanctions against Russia will hurt us all in the pocketbook.

As compelling as some of these ideas are, they are only subplots. They don't explain the worldwide fascination with this otherwise regional conflict.

However, the hero/villain dynamic that this conflict presents does. Russia's Vladimir Putin and Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelensky have been Hollywood-ized into stock characters, which drive the cultural fascination with the war.

The good guy-bad guy trope intrigues those who normally find politics boring. Over the weekend on a business trip in Orlando, I heard Putin and Zelensky's names mentioned frequently in casual conversations:

"Putin is so cruel! He orders the death of civilians and lies to his own people. He tells them neo-Nazis have run amok across their border? How awful." 

"Zelensky was willing to stay with his people, even after the Russian military labeled him their No. 1 target. How dreamy!"

Though these are not direct quotes, they illustrate a larger point: people want to believe the monstrosity of Putin and the selflessness of Zelensky that our politicians have fed to us. It's all so deliciously dramatic. Why binge Netflix when we have a real-life good versus evil narrative playing out in real-time?

The truth, of course, is much more complex. And to illustrate this point, I will make a Game of Thrones analogy just for you:

In a more profound sense, Putin is the Night King, a misanthropic force who wants to recapture a territory the Soviets once lost. We can't decide if Putin is strategic or psychopathic. Probably both, and that's a terrifying kind of evil. So unspeakably evil we can't stop talking about it.

Zelensky, on the other hand, is Jon Snow, the leader of an undersized army who fights along with them on the front lines. Zelensky is a protector of his people in an arena of status-obsessed rulers. Companies now sell shirts that say, "I need ammunition not a ride," in honor of Zelensky refusing to accept the US's offer to evacuate him. Zelensky plays the optics game so well.

These comparisons are not to make light of the significance of the war, but to contrast the differences of interest in Russia-Ukraine and, say, the war in Yemen or Russia's invasion of Crimea in 2014. Zelensky gives us a foil for Putin, a face of hope to offset a look of KGB terror.

We are enamored with an underdog standing up to power. Naturally, we root for Zelensky to pull off the upset and for Putin to crumble in his arrogance and miscalculations. The problem is we're only in chapter 1 or 2. The ending is still unknown, and it looks ominous.

"I just have to turn on the TV every morning and pray that Zelensky is still alive," First Lady Jill Biden said on Sunday.

Jill Biden is not alone in her concern. This distressing uncertainty shows just how easily we become glued to the drama. Zelensky is fighting for his homeland. Putin is ordering mayhem from the Kremlin.

The media learned quickly after Russia's invasion that original reporting and lengthy synopses of Soviet history don't sell. Putin and Zelensky do. As a result, every network is releasing new series about the two leaders to their streaming services: 

ABC hotshot George Stephanopoulos is producing a Hulu doc called Two Men at War.Who is Vladimir Putin is now streaming on Fox Nation. You can watch Putin's Way on PBS. Not to be forgotten, CBS has a new special called Volodymyr Zelensky: From actor and comedian to Ukraine's wartime leader, all of which only further the intrigue.

The intrigue is the draw, not the racial makeup of the participants. The world is not paying attention to the battle because of the white or Christian identity of the Ukrainian people. (Did anyone bother to tell Joy Reid that Zelensky is Jewish?) The world is sucked into a contest between a deranged tyrant and a comedian-turned wartime leader. An ugly, balding authoritarian and a charming Ukrainian cowboy.

Western culture is drawn to characters, not storylines. Vladimir Putin vs. Volodymyr Zelensky is a song of villainy and heroism. Except this time, this dynamic is reality.

Written by
Bobby Burack is a writer for OutKick where he reports and analyzes the latest topics in media, culture, sports, and politics.. Burack has become a prominent voice in media and has been featured on several shows across OutKick and industry related podcasts and radio stations.