Thursday, October 20, 2016

How I Saw The Hero Change - A Look At Heroes In The Movies

I was raised in a pretty traditional home in rural Vermont. My father was a police officer. My mother a God-fearing woman. So a strong sense of justice and right and wrong was instilled in me.

As a kid, the types of heroes I gravitated to were the heart-of-gold heroes, uncompromising and duty-bound. The heroes who believed in truth and justice. Superman. Batman. Luke Skywalker. He-Man. The Ninja Turtles.

In the early 1980s, there was no question that heroes were good. It didn't matter what made them good, just that they were good, that they fought the bad guys and won in the end. And that's pretty much all I cared about too.

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger in Cactus Jack
Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger in Cactus Jack
When I was around eight years old, my mother introduced me to a movie that changed my perspective on what makes a hero. Cactus Jack, also known as The Villain, was a western comedy that starred Arnold Schwarzenegger as Handsome Stranger, a perfect cowboy who did what was right because, well, it was right. In my little eight-year-old eyes a hero couldn't get any bigger than Schwarzenegger. I mean, come on, he was Commando, Kalidor from Red Sonja, Detective John Kimble from Kindergarten Cop, and Dutch from Predator. He wasn't just a hero, he was the hero!

But the main character of Cactus Jack wasn't Schwarzenegger. It was the bad guy Cactus Jack Slade, played by Kirk Douglas, a thief and a scoundrel and a liar. Heck, he even had his own "Bad Men of the West" handbook. He was rotten to the core, but he was the hero of the story. Sort of. He was the focal point anyway, and it's the first time I remember thinking differently about what makes a character a hero.

Seeing the trend

As I got into my teen years I began to notice a trend in popular culture. Heroes went from being wholesome and good and chivalrous to dark and brooding and even more dangerous.

I didn't know it at the time, but the anti-hero was nothing new. The movement began, I think, in the 70s with films like Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw, Death Wish, and Dirty Harry—in fact, Clint Eastwood became the poster child for the brooding anti-hero for many years.

The Punisher - A look at heroes in film
This wasn't just a film trend either.

In comic books, we saw the emergence of The Punisher and Wolverine in 1974. This ignited a dark and brooding anti-hero trend that exploded in the 80s with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns—a title that redefined Batman as a nightmarish vigilante—and Alan Moore's Watchmen series, which gave a dark new definition to what makes a comic book hero.

In literature, we saw the popularity of the anti-hero rise with books like Steven King's The Dark Tower, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club, and many, many others.

On the political front, Ronald Reagan began appointing conservative judges who cracked down on crime at a time when most of the public perceived crime rates as high. The sexual revolution and the Cold War era helped breed a mindset within American culture that had a lot to do with shrugging off society's standards and government control.

The public perception of what a hero was supposed to be was changing. No more Greek demigods or mortal "chosen ones." Heroes were becoming more human and more imperfect.

My favorite imperfect hero

Bruce Willis - John McClain - Die Hard - Heroes in film
For me, the next big milestone came in the early '90s when Bruce Willis took on his most iconic role, that being the tough-as-nails cop John McClain in Die Hard (1988), Die Hard 2 (1990), and Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995). I might not have been drawn to a character like John McClain with his drinking binges, foul-mouth, and bad attitude had it not been for the fact that my dad was also a cop.

The more I watched John McClain, however, the more I realized that underneath his imperfect exterior was a true hero. Sure, he was a nut, and he screwed up a lot, but you could always count on him in the end. Die Hard remains one of my all-time favorite movies.

Other movies that challenged my perception of what makes a hero included Sean Connery in The Rock, Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys, Wesley Snipes in Blade, and Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon.

The hero becomes the villain

Shortly after the turn of the century, I observed another change in how our heroes were being portrayed. This time dark took an even darker turn.

Sin City (2005), based on the graphic novel by Frank Miller, remains an incredibly grim and hyper-stylized story of bad guys doing the right thing. Its brutal violence pushed the anti-hero to the edge, even going so far as to make the audience root for the bad guys. (Let's face it, everyone was a bad guy in that movie!)

Also in 2006 Showtime presented us with Dexter, a hugely popular series that ran for eight seasons, based on the books by Jeff Lindsay. The hero of this series was a serial killer. Oh, sure, he was a conflicted serial killer, and the show did an amazing job at making him likable, but this kind of programming never would've been produced ten years ago.

The hero had changed again, and he was really, really bad.

How far the hero has fallen

Nowadays you'd be hard-pressed to find a film with a perfect, uncompromising hero. If you do, it's probably made fun of—i.e. Metro Man as voiced by Brad Pitt in Megamind, and Emmet as voiced by Chris Pratt in The Lego Movie.

The closest example would probably be Chris Evan's strong-jawed portrayal of Captain America in Marvel's Avengers franchise, but even he is depicted as being an archaic concept from a bygone era.

Has the concept of the "true hero" become a thing of the past? Why are we, as a culture, so averse to the notion of perfection? Why aren't our heroes wholesome anymore?

As much as we as individuals strive for perfection we know we can't reach it, and we're quick to tear down anyone who appears even slightly perfect. Tabloids hound celebrities for their dirty secrets. Politicians attack one another like rabid dogs to expose the skeletons in their closets. For some reason perfection makes us feel awful about ourselves, so when we meet people who seem to have it all together our impulse is to gossip about them, talk behind their backs, smear them, bring them down so we feel better. We hate perfection, and yet we're obsessed with it.

We want to see our heroes win, but it's like we can't buy the scenario unless we can perceive them as being worse than ourselves.

I guess all of this is to say as much as I've embraced the anti-hero with all of his foibles and problems, I kinda miss the heroes I grew up with.

C.W. Thomas signature

1 comment:

  1. I don't necessarily think the change in the hero is that bad Craig. It's nice to see a hero with some flaws. However; I do know where you are coming from. It would be great if Indiana Jones was out there, or someone that believed in what he did and did not feel bad about it. One thing that did bother me when I was a kid, was the villain. I had a villain that was completely black. Not much history to him at all. Dad read the character and told me his actions didn't hold true. For every hero or villain, there should always be a place where that comes from. I think that was my Dad's point. So I reworked the character, and we found out he had a love of trains. He had been in love with a woman he had hoped to marry, until she betrayed him. The work I did on that villain humanized him a little. I think my favorite episode of the X-files is the story of how the Smoking Man came to be. In that episode we discover that the Smoking Man had always wanted to be a writer. He fancied himself a Tom Clancy type. He would send manuscript after Manuscript off and received rejection letter after rejection letter, till one day, this Magazine wanted to take a novel he wrote and turn it into a short story. He was giddy and sold the piece. The Magazine changed everything he wrote and turned it into something horrible. It was a big blow for the Smoking Man and he reverted back to the same smarmy conniving bastard he'd always been. That one episode you were able to see the layers pulled back and it gave you some insight as to how this character ticked. Do all heroes need to be dark, no, but I think there can be edges. My character Drake is one messed up dude and it's made him a selfish bastard. He's a wild cowboy at times, with no respect for any Governmental authority, even the man that has hired him to work on the corrupt cases. But as the series goes on, I want some of that dark to be softened so that we see his vulnerabilities and he learns lessons from them. Awesome piece Craig, thoroughly enjoyed this.