So why do I bring it up? Because Greydanus points out something especially troubling that I would like to discuss; the fact that we don’t seem to have any real heroes anymore. At least, we don’t have any shining images of iconic goodness. It’s as though we just don’t want to accept truly good, heroic characters; we need them to have deep flaws, or be swallowed up with angst or self-doubt. A confident, morally-centered, idealistic hero is something we haven’t seen in a long time.
Now, when I say ‘image of iconic goodness,’ I don’t mean a character that never does anything wrong or is hard-pressed or has no flaws. What I mean is, succinctly, a character you could use in one of those ‘what would X do?’ bracelets to help clarify a moral decision. I love the Iron Man movies (well, at least the first two), but no one in their right mind would ask “what would Tony Stark do?”
Take Man of Steel, for instance. There we have a grim, morally-compromised Superman, weighed down with his sense of alienation, willing to let innocent people (including his own foster father) die rather than risk revealing himself to the world. In my review of that movie, I commented that it felt as though the filmmakers didn’t even have an idea of what a figure of exemplary goodness would actually look like.
“Well,” you say. “That’s more realistic than the outgoing, friendly, morally-upright Superman of other works…”
One: No, it’s not!
I wish I could find some way of getting it through people’s heads that making a character more morally ambiguous or darker or whatever you like to call it does not, ipso-facto, make him more ‘realistic;’ it just makes him less enjoyable. Moreover, the fact is that Superman is never going to be realistic. You can make him as gritty as you like, but he’s still an alien from a world light-years removed from Earth who is nevertheless completely human, to the point that he can produce children with his human wife, and whose only biological difference is that, for some reason, sunlight makes him invulnerable, able to defy all known laws of gravity and physics, and gives him the power to shoot lasers from his eyes. Realism is kind of a moot point by now!
Besides which, what kind of sick, cynical mindset says that unless a character has great, obvious flaws he isn’t realistic? Or that, to make sure people understand that he has flaws, they have to be placed front and center and made the most important thing about the character? Is that even our experience in real life? Granted, none of us have ever known a perfect human being on Earth, but surely all of us have encountered people who strike us as particularly good, upright, and noble. If we are unlucky enough to not have run into such people, nothing is easier than to find them in history. Take any saint you like, for instance. Or in the political field, take George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, or Theodore Roosevelt. In the military field, take, say, Joshua Chamberlain, Robert E. Lee, Alvin York, or George C. Marshall. None of them perfect, but all exemplary figures of courage, honor, decency, and so forth. Heroes are as much a part of the human experience as anything else, and always trying to sabotage or hamstring them in fiction is every bit as unrealistic as a flying alien raised in Kansas.
Two: It doesn’t matter!
Superman is not supposed to be realistic, and trying too hard to make him so only cheapens him. The whole point of the character is that he’s as morally upright and decent as he is physically powerful; he’s the champion of the little guy, of truth, justice, and the American Way. He’s wish-fulfillment of the most uplifting kind: someone who actually can do what the rest of us, in our best moments, would wish we could do. Compromise that, and you lose most of what makes him worth watching and are left with only empty spectacle.
For instance, the other day I watched an episode of Lois and Clark: the New Adventures of Superman from the 90’s. In it there was a funny scene where Clark is playing poker with Perry and Lois. He’s losing badly, so he’s sorely tempted to use his x-ray vision to cheat and look at Perry’s cards. But he resists because he knows that “Superman should be above that sort of thing.”
Now, for my money that one scene is more true to life, more applicable, and more interesting than all the angst and alienation stuff in Man of Steel. That’s the sort of thing Superman should be about: a man with the powers of a god who is determined to use them only for good, even in such a minor issue as a card-game. It’s realistic in a way that Man of Steel isn’t; because it asks important questions and offers decent answers. What questions does Man of Steel ask? “How might humanity react to a god-like alien?” Wow, that’s deep, man. And no one has ever asked the ‘how do we respond to the different and/or superhuman’ question before, unless you count nearly every sci-fi or fantasy film of the last decade.
The point of iconic heroes like Superman or the Lone Ranger is that they’re ‘realistic,’ not in the sense of ‘deeply flawed,’ but in the sense that they address real questions about right and wrong. The difference is that heroes react as they ought to react. If you have a hero who just goes along with the shady deal because you think that’s more realistic, then what the Hell was the point of having him in the first place? If you’re going to make Superman an angst-ridden, morally compromised character, then why bother writing a Superman story at all? There are dozens of angsty, morally-grey characters out there; write a story about one of them if that’s what you’re interested in.
Now, the excuse we usually hear is that this kind of iconic goodness is ‘boring.’ Oh, that must be why characters like Superman, Captain America, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, and so on have been so popular for so long: because they’re boring.
The fact is, goodness is not in the least boring, even in fiction. A story is boring if there’s a lack of conflict and a character is boring if he isn’t challenged or if he has no defining features, but a character is no less interesting because he is good and honorable. Actually, I don’t think I’m alone in finding characters like the ones I listed above to be far more interesting than yet-another sort-of hero incessantly plagued with doubts and regrets.
We need characters to look up to and admire at least as much as we need characters to identify with or characters to hate and despise. These days, with so few on the market, we need them even more. We need shining examples of goodness that are not torn down, but elevated and vindicated. Superman was supposed to be that. So was the Lone Ranger. Our children deserve heroes, and it is our job to give them that.
Vive Christus Rex!
Vive Christus Rex!