Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Pointless Hero

In the days of Ancient Greece, the concept of a ‘Hero’ was predominantly unconnected to morality: if you were good at war, you were a hero whether you were Achilles or Hector.

A few thousand years and a few Joseph Campbell works later, civilization put the Hero to work…it wasn’t enough to just murder more and better than your colleagues, a true hero did so to exemplify his culture’s value. That’s not to say he did so intentionally, but Aeneas was heroic not for overcoming obstacles, but for doing so with the Roman values of community-spirit, sacrifice, and pietas…even if Roman culture didn’t exist in Aeneas’ fictional lifetime. Superman’s alien nature gave him superhuman strength and laser vision, but that’s just how he wins, WHY he is that he had the pure heart and crystalline morality of small-town Kansas…well, that is to say the pure heart and crystalline morality of what small-town Kansas likes to pretend it is.

The process isn’t limited to ‘pure’ heroes either. An anti-hero like Sam Spade triumphs through the values of keenly analytical cynicism and predatory amorality, which were values of Dashiell Hammett’s America even if they weren’t the values of Harry Truman’s. Even the nameless journalist protagonist of Citizen Kane, who has no character beyond the bare frame necessary to create a framing device for the explication of Charles Foster Kane, functions as a kind of American avatar, put into the place of an archaeologist of his own civilization, unpacking the mystery of the epic titans of media who loomed over the whole of civilization like a cross between a pharaoh and a living god. Or Batman, who is victorious through the American values of punching guys who are bad.

Of course, at this point I’m really just reiterating points made better in The Hero with A Thousand Faces. Where I’m going with all this is that there’s a new hero type emerging, and if heroes exemplify cultural values, then there are some very interesting implications in the prevalence of the Pointles Hero.

The modern prevalence of anti-heroes has made it possible for heroes to have non-heroic qualities, but there has still traditionally been a general idea in fiction that the hero is capable of succeeding in overcoming the obstacles before him and ultimately defeating the antagonists, even if he did so for less than heroic motives or only as a byproduct of a truly villainous cause. Or, in the case of a lot of anti-heroes, being completely moral and heroic but scowling a lot.

There is a present trend, however, for heroes to not only not exhibit outwardly heroic traits but for them to be physically and mentally incapable of accomplishing anything meaningful; heroes like Rusty Venture, Kick-Ass (Particularly in Millar’s original version) and Woody Allen in the ahead-of-its-time Sleeper who are characterized primarily by their utter inability accomplish do anything meaningful and secondarily by their lack of any desire to.

They are often still protagonists, but if they do save the day it was probably just because they’re getting pushed around by people of actual merit, much in the way that Woody Allen’s nebbish avatar in Sleeper saves the resistance simply because he got pushed by handsome and capable rebels into the middle of a the government’s main base and happened to find out that the fascist leader was already dead, and then just wandered out, heralding victory for the resistance while cynically predicting that the next regime will be just as unpleasant.

One might say that my logic is flawed since I’m just pointing out characters that aren’t heroes and yet saying they’re a subversion of that category, but I think these characters are still heroes even if they don’t do anything heroic. Going back to my original mention, I think these neurotic non-heroes are heroes because they exemplify values of the culture that spawned.

The endlessly fantastic series, The Venture Brothers, derives a huge amount of its stellar comedy from contrasting the gee-whiz optimism of the baby-boomer years and the rebellious anarchism of the 60’s and 70’s with a modern era that seems to have taken those values, determined that neither can fix the world, and quietly resigned itself to cynicism. Its not just that we reject their ideals, its that we reject the very concept of having ideals

There is something incredibly comforting about a heroic figure who doesn’t accomplish anything, and that’s because I think my generation has come to the general belief that sticking to traditions is bad and yet heavy and radical actions are just going to make things worse. Still, though, we’re tormented by our feelings that we’re lazily not doing anything, and so, just as Superman comforted the Golden Generation by convincing them that their single-minded application of the American Way to problems was going to carry the day, we’re now starting to see heroes who carry the day, or at least the narrative arc, by the sheer power of their pointlessness.

It’s all undercut a bit by the fact that these works tend to mock the failures that these heroes are, but I think that all ties to the fact that the shame directed toward these characters is a part of their overall heroism…being mocked is part and parcel of being unheroic because the unheroic kind of deserve to be mocked, but the laughing just goes to further assert that it’s all a big joke.

Even if Pointless Heroes are increasing in number, examples are still relatively rare, partly because most people aren’t quite as cynical as me…still, if you want to hear a prediction from me of future events, it’s that we’re going to be seeing more as time goes by and people finally get sick of Jerry Bruckheimer and continuous efforts to lower the common denominator.

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At May 9, 2010 at 10:04 PM , Blogger brenden said...

This is really good Taylor....I think your onto something


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