What’s Happened to the Heroes?

I don’t consider myself an old fogy or a prude, but I’m getting fed up with what’s happening to our superheroes.  Last year I eagerly anticipated the Watchmen movie, yet I left it disgusted at the glorification of brutality and the gratuitous violence that all but obscured the story.  Now, we have Kick-Ass, a clever concept gone sour through violence, foul language from young children, and a moral ambiguity worthy of ancient Rome or most college frat parties.  Writers, illustrators, script-writers, and directors defend their “product” by saying they are a more accurate representation of our times.  But why do fantasy/escape movies and comics have to represent the worst in us?  For decades the comic superhero offered a counter-cultural, counter-reality vision for what could be.  Heroes made a commitment not to kill, not to revel in their violence (until Wolverine), and they offered hope (truth, justice and the American way; with great power comes great responsibility, etc.).  Their fundamental goodness counterbalanced the use of violence to solve problems.  Surely there have always been contradictions and ambiguities — for a while in the 1950s, a crusade to wipe out any and all comic violence almost did to Superman what Kryptonite has never been able to accomplish. 

We need heroes.  Ideally, we would learn to focus on real heroes — firemen and paramedics and relief workers — and seek inspiration from real-life examples of heroism, sacrifice and dedication.  Instead, we turn our attention to performers and sports stars who often prove all too human and less-than-stellar role models.  Fiction — even in its base form of “graphic novel” — offers wonderful opportunity to present metaphors for character, positive values, and noble aspirations.  And in comics, such characters aren’t hard to find.

We don’t need to create “Christian” alternatives.  (Please don’t think I want to see some Pollyanna “Spirit Squad” — Love Lass, Joy Boy, Peace Keeper, Professor Patience, Captain Kindness, Generosity Girl, Faithfulness Man, Gentleness Giant and the Control Freak — nine heroes that mix to produce a powerful fruit salad of justice and righteousness!  Let’s not go there…)  But we can turn to these fictional heroes to find out what dedication, perseverance, sacrifice, and championing the underdog look like.  We can ask what values drive such fictional characters.  There are many great discussion starters in a Spider-Man comic, film or cartoon.

But there is virtually nothing redeeming in films that glorify brutal violence or language in the mouth of a ten-year old girl who would make most dock-workers blush.  It’s sad to see the cynicism and hopelessness of disaffected and nihilistic malcontents displace a more positive vision.  I acknowledge there is a market for harder-edged, more “mature” comics, but the lines have now been blurred.  Watchmen was never intended for a young audience when it came out as a graphic novel.  But as a film, it attracted a new, young generation (and many a shocked and surprised parent thought they were heading for another Spider-Man/Batman thrill-ride, not butchery, brutality, and bad language.  Kick-Ass is an even less pleasant surprise, and it casts a shadow over those titles that still attempt to communicate a more positive message.

It’s official.  I am now one of those annoying adults that begin sentences with “when I was a boy…”  When I was a boy, heroes were heroes.  Superman, Batman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, the Flash, and Martian Manhunter actually earned the title “Justice League.”  There was never a concern that Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Ant Man and the Wasp would “go postal” in their quest to avenge.  (Yes, yes, Hulk was a loose cannon, and would smash with glee — and there was no blood and the smashee sat up with stars circling his head wondering what hit him).  Spider-Man was the bane of every form of turpitude.  Superman was the epitome of the good guy.  When I was a boy, it was crystal clear who the good guys were, and who were the villains.

We need metaphors and characters that help us choose to be good.  We need stories that promote what is right and decent, where good does triumph, and where evil is never the right choice.  We have such metaphors and characters in the church, and we have such wonderful opportunities to bridge the behaviors and values of our faith — truth, justice, mercy, grace, self-control, love, sacrifice, generosity and kindness — to the cultural icons of our day.  I hope we can recover a vision for goodness… and let our heroes be heroes once again.

11 replies

  1. @ David

    Glad to see that someone out there appreciates Joe v. Volcano… very overlooked! A fantastic story!

  2. The older and crankier I get the more I’m convinced that reality informs culture rather than the opposite. It’s no accident that the Golden Age of comic book heroes was coincident with the real struggles of recovery from the Great Depression and the Second World War. Pax Americana has come with a heavy price tag – at home and abroad – the highest total documented prison and jail population in the world, extraordinary rendition, secret jails and torture. (and don’t get me started on a venal economic system and environmental degredation) Heroic culture is generated by the people who struggle against the boot on their face, not by the people who have their foot in the boot. Want heroic cultural products? Build a heroic culture.

  3. Dan,

    Thanks for this, and for thinking. (I’m saying you still have your fastball at 52.) Anyway, it was not until we were raising our son that we saw this lack of heroes in the cartoons and stories he watched. There is a strong drive for the anti-hero in our culture so this is what we pick up. The message is subtle: my violence is justified as long as I was hurt. C’mon: go back to your birthing room–who gets to spank the doctor back? From the day we draw breath we are given opportunities to learn this one.

    While we are looking at story media, look at sitcoms and how they present the American male or father. They are presented as irresponsible and clueless–and the show can air for years but they will always suffer from arrested devleopment. Its scary when all you have to do is put on a clean shirt and go to work to look like a hero.

    I was glad for the churches I served where women and men could be a model for leadership and service for both genders. As I write this, let me say thank you to the pantheon of heroes, leaders, and servants out there. The kids are watching.

    • Dan,
      You have a great fast ball too. You are certainly one of the servant heroes in my experience in the District you served as District Super. What a difference gentle patience and wisdom can make.

  4. Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Miley Cyrus, etc…hmmm.

    I think our culture as a whole generates a lot of attention on these and other celebrities. Some of it, a majority of it, is artificial. They are artificial icons propped up by marketeers devising clever strategies to preserve a franchise, a brand, a surface image. It is the plight outlined by Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby…where Nick Carroway discovers that Jay Gatsby represents nothing.

    I’m willing to bet there’s some evidence out there that something else is driving at least some of the people most of the time. I’m thinking about a guy that used to be a kid in our youth group years ago, now on his way to Navy Seals training. He sure wasn’t motivated by bubble gum pop. Or the many people in the tiny community where I live. Many of them choose to come back (after going to college) to a place that offers them few opportunities…or to stay put and eek out a living. They are motivated by something else.

    The point: examples such as this suggest there are true heroes out there influencing our thinking and behavior. Maybe we don’t see the true heroes as much because true heroes don’t draw attention to themselves. If I had the resources, I’d do a survey and find out more about what motivates the above group…

  5. When I was a boy, Nixon lied and avoided impeachment. Bombs were dropped in Cambodia and Vietnam in an attempt by the same president to justify a speedy conclusion to the war. Olympic athletes were taken hostage. Gas prices surged, and factories shut down.

    I love comics, but not for notion of looking for heroes. My heroes are John Dunbar, risking his life and reputation in the prairie as he discovered more than himself, or Jack Lucas, the radio talk show host who found his way out of darkness and cynicism, or Tom Joad, who told his ma where she’d find him, or Holden Caulfield, who was looking for a lot more than just where the ducks went in the winter time. And lets not forget the real life heroes, like my mentor, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, or my scoutmaster, who taught me how to write to my congressman when I was angry, or the parents of my best friend in high school, immigrants from a country that oppressed innocent people.

    We don’t need comic book characters. We need people who are exemplars of saying yes to the heroic quest for the true self, who take big, big risks for the sake of the truth, who take initiative and confront, who navigate the murky waters looking for truth. Perhaps comic book characters accomplish this through hyperbole. But if I’m venturing into fiction, I want real people who confront real problems that other real people face on some level or another. These characters remind me of the real life people that I call heroes.

    • AS I said in the post, I wish we focused more on real life heroes, but I believe we do need fictional heroes as well — as metaphors for the best qualities and characteristics of the human condition. And if a character is presented as “a hero” I simply wish they lived up to the title. Too many of our “real life” heroes are as misplaced as our fictional heroes. Tiger Woods and Kobe Bryant and Miley Cyrus etc., etc., leave lots to be desired. Why don’t we give the same adoration to people who commit their lives to care and mercy and comfort and education and advocacy?

  6. Love Lass, Joy Boy, Peace Keeper, Professor Patience, Captain Kindness, Generosity Girl, Faithfulness Man, Gentleness Giant and the Control Freak

    I don’t know. It sounds like you’ve put an awful lot of thought into this.

    When I was a boy, Tony Stark had a drinking problem that lost him his armor, but I get your point. I’m a sucker for a hero – even a campy one. I love the scene in Princess Bride when Inigo at last confronts the six-fingered man. I love the speech Sam Gamgee gives at the end of the Two Towers about heroes going forward when they had an opportunity to go back. I love the talk Aunt May gives Peter Parker about there being a hero in all of us.

    • Sadly, the fruits of the Spirit Squad rolled right off the top of my head… but I must commend anyone who lifts up Princess Bride. Classic.

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