What makes a hero?

Today, our heroes are demi-gods with superhuman powers, genius detectives and, painful though it is to admit, activists

Artillery Row

Heroes are ubiquitous – every society has them. But the concept has started to falter. Strange to say when superhero films seem to come out at least once a month. But superheroes are a mark of the failure, not evidence of the opposite. The Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson put it rather well: they represent a return to polytheism. A lack of certainty.

Heroes are the foundation stone of every culture. Formed by their journeys, quests and conquests, they become the incarnation of their culture’s morals and values. Stories of praiseworthy deeds overtime are consolidated into super-stories – a myth – with one protagonist: the hero.

Importantly, they are very much an embodiment of their time. In antiquity and the middle ages, they were princes, warriors and knights – consider Beowulf, Gawain or Henry V.

Beowulf was a warrior beyond compare and his accruing of wealth and a kingdom through brave deeds and monsters slain put him at the pinnacle of Norse culture. Gawain and Henry V’s nobility and sense of Christian duty – or occasional lack thereof – perfectly matched the honour culture of Catholic feudal England.

But cultures change overtime, so too those who represent them. As the age of exploration began, adventurers – men like Christopher Columbus – became the new heroes. Later, as trade took the fore, Robinson Crusoe – a self-made man, embodying the protestant work ethic and enterprise – became the same.

This move away from kings and princes was aided by the invention of the printing press and the industrial revolution, which brought about voting reform, a significant rise in literacy and increased social mobility. Every advance since has moved to universalise cultural authority – film being the perfect example.

With this expansion of culture, stories began to lose focus on the human ideal, preferring to focus on more complex realities. Charles Dickens’s writings consider the difficulties of the real world by examining class, poverty and industrial labour.

Later in the nineteenth century, we find Sherlock Holmes – science made flesh, absolute certainty found through abductive reasoning and observation. We also see this in Bram Stoker’s Dracula: the perfect anti-hero for this period of modernity and progress, beaten by the Crew of Light through the use of the scientific method.

More recently, our growing obsession with realism in film and books is a signpost to the continuation of this trend. We see this in Disney’s live-action reboots of cartoon classics like The Lion King and The Jungle Book, the disturbingly accurate depiction of violence in films like Hacksaw Ridge – a veritable bloodbath – and the recent spate of actors playing characters not of their own race resigning their role or being ousted.

Realism is only part of the trend. As regards meaning, science is a question, not an answer. So the current approach to culture is critical not affirmative. Stories and heroes alike become a battleground of ideas, rather than an investigation of the human condition.

Heroes illustrate the values of their time and give us a sense of our past

Superheroes maintain the attributes of traditional heroes but are grounded in reality. Their stories begin with chemical experiments gone wrong (the Hulk) or wealth that gives them access to gadgetry that makes them godlike (Batman or Ironman). They have become rhetorical devices in political rather than human debates. Batman vs Superman, a film as bad as it sounds, pits Batman’s punitive understanding of justice with Superman’s – supposedly – Socratic conception of it. Both men are moral in their own way but what separates them is an idea.

Heroic archetypes remain. But our faith in them does not. We now criticise the very possibility of heroes. Because as stories are retold, heroes become villains and vice versa. Robinson Crusoe’s self-made relatively decent man is mirrored in the revolting exploits of the self-made but morally bankrupt Wolf of Wall Street. The moral dubiousness surrounding this archetype mirrors the more political doubt of historical figures that have recently come under attack like Churchill and Gandhi.

The politicisation of heroes has made us uncertain and divided

TV shows like Game of Thrones have raised this critique to its greatest height. By imposing the nihilism of modernity onto an age of heroes, it demolishes what would have been the ideal of the fantasy genre – virtue and nobility. The wily and self-serving Lannister family benefit while the virtuous Starks are killed or exiled. In the end, all comes good, but only thanks to a ludicrous leap of the imagination that had its audience reeling – no longer able to suspend its disbelief.

Nothing is true. All we are certain of is the need to question.

But what are we left with? What is our zeitgeist?

The cynical, whisky-soaked poet-cum-journalist Ted Wallace, the protagonist of Stephen Fry’s The Hippopotamus, has the answer ­– different and special. Our culture rewards it, feeds off it, breathes it. Our heroes are demi-gods with superhuman powers, genius detectives and, painful though it is to admit, activists.

Consider the films that make up the Oscar nomination lists – along with the weaselly speeches that each winner invariably has given – over the last ten years – Black Panther, The Danish Girl, Dallas Buyers Club. Every one propagating its own idea of heroism and justice.

Ted Wallace’s description of our society needs an addition – self-reliance. Egocentrism.

Heroes illustrate the values of their time and give us a sense of our past. But a society in a state of uncertainty such as ours can only rely on sectional heroes, defined by self-centred progressivism. The iconoclasm of the recent past is rooted in this self-doubt. The politicisation of heroes has made us uncertain – divided.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5

Subscribe
Critic magazine cover