What is it about heroes? Long before Joseph Campbell’s analysis, before Bulfinch, before The Golden Bough, there were just the stories of heroes and their effect upon the imagination of the listener. Gilgamesh, Krishna, Achilles, Hercules, Anaeus, Beowulf, Arthur, Galahad, Sir Gawain, Pocahontas.
Of course, in the 20th century, comic lore exploded with literally hundreds, perhaps thousands of superheroes being invented along with their stories. Today, superhero movie franchises are some of the most lucrative (Avengers, Batman) and some of the worst stinkers (Fantastic Four). New ones arise from nowhere (Kick Ass, Hit Girl, Hancock, Scott Pilgrim).
What is it about heroes?
I can’t go into Campbell’s Hero with 1000 Faces right now. Too much material. But why are we so charmed by modern day heroes? Here are some possible answers:
- We are dazzled by explosions, flashing lights, and anyone with cool dialog like, “Billy, you and Dolores get back to headquarters. It’s time I paid a little visit to Dr. Vile.”
- They ennoble us and inspire us to our own deeds of valor.
- We secretly hate them and envy them and use them as a prop to our own vanity. We compare ourselves to them and wonder if we are more virtuous. What would we do if WE had superpowers? Or, if they succumb to some temptation and the ‘dark side’ we wonder would we have done the same?
- We sense that the world really IS inhabited by villains, that we are imperiled by them, and a fantasy hero gives us a momentary relief from the admittedly unromantic villains of our real world (Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Ladin, Bashar Al-Assad, the Koch Brothers). A corollary to this is the conviction we all have that there really is good and evil, but they are so confused by the heroes going sour and the villains occasionally making sense that who can really know what to make of it? And we revel in the grayness of the situation, incredulous toward any narrative of a oh-so pure superman of the 60’s, pretty well captured by Christopher Reeve in the 70’s.