Heroes and anti-heroes: shifting ideals in a shifting cultureWritten by Subby Szterszky
What's inside this article
If popular culture is anything to go by, it would be fair to say that our society is obsessed with heroes. Not ordinary heroes, mind, drawn from realistic stories of everyday life. No, our collective imagination has become enthralled by heroes of a more mythic nature.
As evidence, witness the growing number of successful movies and TV shows dedicated to superheroes. Once confined to the pages of comic books, these iconic characters have risen to conquer the large screens of the summer and the small screens of the fall.
Depending on one’s tastes, that’s either a happy or an unfortunate state of affairs. But in any event, it casts a revelatory light on our values and interests as a culture. After all, with apologies to H.L. Mencken, nobody in the entertainment business ever went broke giving the people what they want.
What we want, it would appear, is larger-than-life heroes who invite us to look above and beyond, to something greater than ourselves. Paradoxically, we prefer these heroes to be deeply flawed, to an extent that calls their very heroism into question.
Why nobody likes Superman anymore
There’s a video on the satirical website Cracked.com with the tagline, “4 bizarre reasons nobody likes Superman anymore.” The tone is light and veers into occasional crudity, but the video offers some insights worth chewing on. It tackles the question of why a purely virtuous character such as Superman, once wildly popular, has lost his appeal in recent years in favour of darker, morally complex figures like Batman.
More to the point, the video tries to make sense of what this shift in taste says about our culture. In brief, the four reasons it cites for Superman’s decline are as follows:
1. “We don’t believe people are good.” According to the video, this is because we hate ourselves as a species, and as a result, we find unabashedly noble heroes to be unrealistic and impossible to relate to.
2. “We believe all powerful people are evil.” Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Thus the only way we can envision a hero who is powerful and good is to make him or her a godlike being (like Wonder Woman) or an alien (like Superman) and thereby remove them from our normal human experience.
3. “We reject Superman to reject our own roots.” More than most generations, we rebel against the tastes and attitudes of our predecessors. Since our parents and grandparents loved Superman, we need to disavow him in order to assert our alleged uniqueness as a culture.
4. “We might be old people all over again.” If we’re unable to distance ourselves from the values of our forebears, we fear we may be just like them and not special at all. In other words, we’re afraid of turning into our parents.
It’s a compelling bit of cultural analysis, but it doesn’t probe deep enough – perhaps not surprising for a five-minute humour video.
The loss of classic heroism
Points one and two, in particular, are off the mark. As a rule, our parents and grandparents were no more naïvely idealistic about human nature than we are. They, too, knew the adage about the corrupting influence of power. They saw the potential for evil as well as for good in people. Furthermore, in a society far more steeped in the Judeo-Christian world view, they were more likely to recognize the basic fallen nature of humanity.
That’s not self-hatred as a species. It’s biblically informed realism. Earlier generations didn’t love Superman because they thought people were all good. They loved him because he represented a standard of goodness worth aspiring to.
Moving on to points three and four, this is where the video makes its most incisive arguments. As a culture, we’ve lost our taste for the purely heroic, for the thrilling grand gesture. In its place, we’ve gorged ourselves on irony and self-referential cynicism. Consequently we tend to view overt expressions of nobility as quaint relics of a simpler time. While there have been recent films that celebrate classic heroism without winking at the audience (Wonder Woman is a notable example) these are exceptions proving the rule.
As the video puts it, we feel that “everyone who came before us liked dumb stuff.” We look at the tastes of our elders with disdain and pat ourselves on the back for our sophistication.
This attitude invariably lures us into a dilemma in our quest for heroes. On the one hand, we yearn for something that will inspire us with a higher standard of humanity. But on the other, if the standard is too high, we dismiss it as old-fashioned and refuse to take it seriously.
It’s not that previous cultures wanted all their heroes to be straightforward paragons of virtue. Classic literature is filled with tragic figures who possess a fatal flaw – pride, anger, ambition – that ultimately proves to be their undoing. Their stories were told as cautionary tales of things to avoid, just as the lives of nobler heroes served as examples to emulate.
Realism or wallowing?
Therein lies the conundrum, however. In modern times, we’re less interested in morality tales than we are in honest portrayals of the human condition, warts and all. And of course there’s nothing wrong with that. It has given us a rich legacy of complex, nuanced heroes, in genres both serious and popular, whose stories can inspire as well as challenge.
But our interest in realism can descend into wallowing in the moral quagmire. We can fail to see the line between appreciating ambiguity and revelling in evil until we’ve crossed it. We begin to idolize anti-heroes who are cynical, cruel, amoral – bereft, in fact, of any trait that might be mistaken for true heroism. In such an atmosphere, it’s easy to dismiss heroes who stand, without irony, for things like truth and justice.
And yet at some level, we recognize that by dismissing them, we’ve lost something vital. That’s why we keep pursuing them in our popular entertainment. It’s why films like Wonder Woman and Black Panther are so successful and well-received. We want real heroes again.
A true and balanced perspective
The good news is that we can have them if we want them. As a few of the more recent superhero films and TV shows have demonstrated, virtuous characters don’t have to be cheesy. They just have to be true to themselves.
When God created the world, he declared it to be very good before it was broken by the fall of humanity. Surely our stories can celebrate that goodness while also being honest about the brokenness. Our hall of heroes can have room for the moral conflict of a Batman or Iron Man alongside the moral certitude of a Superman or Captain America.
Such a blend of heroic types not only makes for successful TV and cinema. It just might offer a small, biblically balanced glimpse at the hope of human redemption through the lens of popular culture.
© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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