The New “Heroic” Traits
– by David Matthews 2
Remember the song “Holding Out For A Hero” by Bonnie Tyler? She probably gave the best description of what people look for in a traditional hero. Someone who is good, strong, and maybe even larger-than-life. The kinds of traits we think that the people we look up to should have.
Unfortunately quite often it’s an “idealized” vision. The “streetwise Hercules”? A “white knight on a fiery steed?” A “Superman”? Someone who is watching out for you all the time from some mysterious place? I don’t know about the first three, but the last one is often considered to be a stalker.
The problem comes when movie and television producers and creators decide to make these “larger-than-life” figures more “life” than “larger-than”. If they’re human, then they’re flawed, and some are a lot more flawed than others.
As a longtime fan of comic books and as a comic book creator, I’ve begun to notice a few “heroic” traits in recent years that really should be addressed. Keep in mind that a lot of these “traits” are showing up in characters that we’ve known for a long time. These are the “re-imagined” or “revisited” versions of heroes and heroines that we now see on television, movies, and comics. This is the attempt to make these heroes and heroines more “life” instead of “larger-than”.
The D-Bag/A-hole Hero – DC’s Green Lantern used to be a heroic figure. Whether it was “Earth-2’s” Alan Scott, or Hal Jordan, or John Stewart (not to be confused by “that comedian” with a similar name), they were decent guys whom you would see deserving the power and responsibility of being a space enforcer. But then someone decided to bring in the brain-damaged Guy Gardner, and after that everything pretty much went to hell.
Okay, fine, Guy Gardner is a jerk, but then someone decided to make him the rule rather than the exception. So now we have Hal Jordan acting more like “Maverick” from “Top Gun”, cocky, arrogant, and believing himself to be right no matter what. The Guardians strip him of his ring and he treats it like a great injustice and begs to be given a new one. Even the “Green Lantern” motion picture shows Hal as being someone best described by his friends as an “A-hole”.
Speaking of, the Guardians themselves, the supposedly oldest and wisest beings in the universe, became a bunch of Munchkin-sized A-holes themselves. So much so that they had to be overthrown from their place of prominence by the very Corps they created.
How about the world of Marvel Comics? Well there’s Cyclops from the X-Men. Cyclops used to be the “apple-polisher” for the X-Men. He was the poster child of Charles Xavier’s dream. But of late he’s really taken the D-bag and A-hole tendencies to the next level. How much, you ask? How about he turns evil, murders Charles Xavier, and then has the audacity to tell Magento, his long-time arch-enemy, that he’s better at being a villain because he’s “winning”. Yeah, you tell him, Charlie Sheen! I look forward to the day you get your head handed to you and Magneto simply tells you “Welcome to my world.”
The Moody-Brooder – Okay, if we’re talking Batman, I can understand. He’s a moody rich kid with issues. “Lots of issues.” But the idea that a hero needs to be cold and brooding as part of their standard operating procedure is really disturbing, even when it’s their personal life. Seriously, how do you have a personal life if it’s spent being silent and skulking? As someone who suffers from that kind of problem in the real world I can tell you that you really don’t have a “personal life” when you’re that way.
The new incarnation of Superman in the “Man of Steel” movie is a moody-brooder. Captain America in Marvel’s “The Avengers” is a bitter moody-brooder punching exercise bags one right after another.
How bad is this trend? Well they had Wonder Woman brooding at one point! The embodiment of truth and beauty spending her time brooding and alone. And not just in the comics! In the un-aired pilot TV series by David E. Kelley, Wonder Woman actually set up a secret identity just so she could spend her time being a moody-brooder!
You know what made Spider-Man so popular? He seems to be having fun! He’s giving wise-cracks and calling people names, even when he takes things seriously. (By the way, this is also what drives the popularity of Deadpool, although he’s certainly not a hero, even if he associates himself with them.) No matter how miserable his life was at the time, no matter how bad the people of New York treated him, no matter how many insults J. Jonah Jameson dished out, Spider-Man was always seen as cheerful and happy. Maybe it’s a crutch, but it is a crutch that works.
The Neurotic - “Project Alice” in the “Resident Evil” movies collects coins in the post-apocalyptic T-virus zombie world. Elektra in her own self-titled movie suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, so much so that you wonder how she’s able to leave her home. Bruce Wayne in the Tim Burton “Batman” movie cannot sleep in bed like a normal person. He has to sleep upside-down like a bat, which, I understand, can be life-threaening. Seriously, this takes “flawed” to the next level!
The “Clueless” Super-Intelligent - I don’t know how many times I’ve watched the “Iron Man” movies and see Tony Stark, one of the supposedly smartest men in the world, fail to actually explain what he is up to. It’s the pompous “I’m so smart I’ve re-written the Periodic Table before breakfast” mindset, which in “Iron Man 2” is really not an exaggeration.
It is one thing to be super-smart, but it’s another to be too smart for your own mouth. Seriously, how much of “Iron Man 2” could have been shaved off if Tony simply opened his damned mouth and told either the love of his life or his best friend what was really going on with him? So much damned drama could’ve been avoided!
The Hate-Hero – I’ve considered this the standard hero template for all of the heroes seen in the CW Network, previously known as The WB. I consider this the “Hate-Hero” rather than the “Anti-Hero” because an anti-hero is someone that ends up being a hero that doesn’t really want to be. Han Solo in “Star Wars”, for instance, is really an anti-hero. A “Hate-Hero” on the other hand is someone that seems to have a perverse hatred for the “hero” title and doesn’t want to ever be associated with a hero even though that is precisely who they are and how they operate.
The best example of the Hate-Hero idea is the ten-season TV series known as “Smallville” that appeared first on The WB and then on the CW.
The initial idea of “Smallville” was that it was supposed to be about Clark Kent before he became Superman and growing up just outside the little Kansas town that the series is named after. The premise was a good one in the beginning, because they wanted to show the character as he’s growing up and not in the idealized way originally portrayed in the “Superboy” comic series by “Superman” creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster in the 1950’s. Their “Superboy” was, simply put, “Superman as a boy”, with all of the heroic traits and experience and powers already there. “Smallville” wanted a different take, so the producers expressly prohibited their “Clark” from doing anything remotely connected to either “Superman” or “Superboy”. Part of the reason for that was an ongoing lawsuit by the heirs of Siegel and Shuster over the legal rights to “Superboy” and anything associated with it.
This idea was fine for the first four seasons, while Clark Kent was going through high school and just starting to figure out that he’s “not from around here”. But then after the fourth season, at a point when Clark would show up at the Fortress of Solitude for the first time like in the 1978 movie, and it was expected that he would start to become Superman, the producers decided to turn Clark into a super-powered slacker that positively hated the very idea of being a hero. He didn’t want to wear a costume. He even hated capes! And they continued with that for six seasons. A superhero with an absolute hatred of everything about being a superhero and a refusal to accept that he is one! Even one of the seasoned superheroes in a two-part episode made a very blatant note of Clark’s refusal to accept his role.
And it’s not just limited to “Smallville”. During the same time that “Smallville” was starting, there was a series called “The Birds of Prey” that was set in Tim Burton’s Batman world but where the heroes were expressly forbidden to wear their costumes! There was the pilot for “Aquaman” where Aquaman didn’t really call himself that. There’s the current series “Arrow” with Oliver Queen who goes around as “The Hood” and despises the suggestion of calling himself “Green Arrow”. And there’s a planned series called “Amazon” which is supposed to be like “Smallville” but with Diana as a non-Wonder Woman version of Wonder Woman.
Seriously, this hate-hero concept is probably the worst of the “new heroic traits”, partially because it seems to be the easiest to impose by TV executives that want to scrimp on wardrobe and special effects costs.
Let’s get brutally honest here… the reason why traditional heroes are so memorable is because they are larger-than-life! Or, at least, larger than our own lives. When you try to “humanize” them by making them flawed, by making them neurotic, by making them despise their very identity, you tear at one of the core reasons why they are who they are.
Think for a minute about some of the classic heroes. Did anyone ask if Perseus had a fear of snakes when he fought Medusa? Did anyone recall the time when Hercules hated his name and feared showing off his super-strength? Did the Biblical hero Samson hate his hair and wanted to hide it all the time?
Obviously they weren’t. And that’s part of the reason why we still remember them today. We don’t remember the flaws. We only remember who they are and what they did.
Heroes are not just powers and costumes and a catchy code-name. It’s who they are and what they do. Heroes are seen as iconic because they don’t appear to be hindered by the flaws and human failings that the rest of us suffer from. And in doing so, they encourage us to transcend our own flaws and failings and hold ourselves up to a higher standard. They reflect our ideals of who we all could become. While giving them flaws may make for good drama, and as a writer I can certainly appreciate that, writers and producers have to remember that what makes these people heroes goes beyond the failings that limit the rest of us.