Contemporary “Heroes”

The new Superman is a “hero” for our times: dark, moody, and full of angst. The Internet is still awash with blog posts and movie reviews that detail the controversy behind the ending of this year’s new Superman movie, Man of Steel. Apparently, Superman defeats his enemy, the renegade Kryptonian General Zod (played by Michael Shannon this time around, and by Terence Stamp in 1980’s Superman II), by snapping his neck. Many longtime fans of the characters and franchise have stressed that Superman would not resort to murder in order to defeat his enemies, and that this treatment of him as a character, along with the movie’s overwhelming amount of visually-driven action sequences, have detracted from what makes him great in the comic books, television adaptations, various animated cartoons, and the film series starring Christopher Reeve.

This has caused me to look more closely at the most recent treatments of our beloved comic book heroes as seen on screen. Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man is an awkward hipster who seems a bit less shy and a lot more angsty than Tobey Maguire’s version. Batman as portrayed in the Christopher Nolan films is a deeply disturbed man who lives in a cage made of his own anger and despair, yet still tries to help others with his heroic actions. The Iron Man of Marvel’s cinematic universe, despite his higher moral aspirations, definitely qualifies as a true narcissist.

So—anger, narcissism, a questionable kind of morality—these are the traits of our heroes that are used to make them more relatable to us. However, I have started to wonder—how much can we “humanize” comic book heroes on film before they just aren’t “heroes” anymore? How long will it be before they are portrayed to be just as “good”—or “bad”—as we are?

As for the people who are supposed to be our real life “heroes”—people like the American president, Barack Obama, who has recently been scrutinized for scandals that have come to light under his administration (like the Benghazi controversy, Edward Snowden’s revelation that the NSA has been keeping tabs on Americans and their activities without their knowledge, or the IRS scandal involving conservative groups), it seems that they are always in the public eye in a way that emphasizes their moral and professional shortcomings.

As someone who has been an avid reader of comic books since the days of his early childhood, and as a reader who regularly enjoys learning about the great leaders of American history like Frederick Douglass or President John F. Kennedy, it troubles me that, as I get older, the “heroes” I see around me are starting to look more like villains. It is often said that the heroes of a culture in the context of a given time period reflect the values possessed by that culture. Maybe our “heroes” are jaded because we are jaded. Those who would stand above us as examples of desirable conduct and behavior may act only slightly “better” than we would in a given situation.

Still, heroes aren’t there to tell us what we are—but rather, what we might be. It stands to reason, then, that for those of us whose decisions aren’t as publicly scrutinized as, say, President Obama, there are still choices to make concerning the way in which we will live. We could be as jaded and Machiavellian as our “heroes,” be they real or imaginary–or we could choose to be our own heroes, making decisions that fit a higher morality by our own volition and for our own personal reasons. As I mature and become steadily more aware of the corruption and contradiction that is so native to human behavior, specifically in the context of American culture and the government that spearheads it, my greatest fear is losing that higher part of myself to the maelstrom of adversity that has defeated so many before me.

My greatest hope, however, is that I will be able to create something positive with the actions of my life that will help those around me to see that they can be “heroes” for themselves, if for no one else.

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About Austin Russell

Young man trying to make his way in the big world.
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74 Responses to Contemporary “Heroes”

  1. liamnolan says:

    One of the reasons I really like Man of Steel is exactly what you have laid out here. I think it has a meta-implication for comic books and comic books movies in their attempts to villainize heroes and make heroes into villains, for example the current merger of Doc Ock and Spiderman. Can Superman be an example if he has to kill his villain? If he is the gold standard for good, is it acceptable for the people he is supposed to lead into the sun to kill villains?

    I mean, it is noteworthy that in Superman II, Superman KILLS Zod. He throws him down a hole when he makes him mortal and he is never seen again. The thing is, none of of the classic Superman movies ever even deal with the fact that Clark Kent just outright murdered someone without any regret, even cracking a joke, and we still consider him a hero.

    • liamnolan says:

      Really great article, by the way! Something I have been thinking on a ton and it was great to see someone articulate it.

  2. llordsauron says:

    Hero’s change with time. Maybe these are the times we need hero’s with narcissism, anger and despair or even a hipster hero who rises to the occasion when he is needed leaving behind all his idiosyncratic emotional attributes. I believe this is the time we need our superheroes to be such.

  3. I hear what you say about Hero’s and the difference between the revamped ones we have nowadays and those some of us grew up with. I myself grew up reading comics and watching some of the TV shows of these enigmatic hero’s. However, as I have grown up and have seen a marked shift in cynicism from the younger generation, they no longer believe that the hero’s that I grew up with are credible as they once were.
    To that end I have seen the rise of the anti-hero. The hero with warts and flaws. In some senses I think this is a good thing as non-realist goals for young people can be crippling sometimes. I think that hero’s are slowly being redefined, to be not necessarily as perfect but more attainable and more everyday. In an age where we have terrorism and global injustice that people can actually do something it makes more sense for a hero to be a little more mundane I think.

  4. madisonmckay says:

    As someone who loves the comic world and an active believer in everyday heroes, I could not agree more with this post. You make excellent points and I will definitely be sharing this, as I think everyone who reads it can benefit from it. I look forward to reading your other posts.

  5. madisonmckay says:

    Reblogged this on Darling, it's a MAD world.

  6. nikkimusingsandthoughts says:

    Reblogged this on Other thoughts and musings and commented:
    interesting this piece – ‘MoS’ 2013 is trying to be a bit realistic – what was Superman suppose to do send Zod back to the Phantom Zone or jail… come on now ‘fanboys & girls’

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