I am not sure if it is a trend or just a random coincidence among the recent novels, films and television series that I have been consuming of late, but modern storytellers seem to have developed a penchant for casting heroes out of the realm of idealism and into the realm of realism. Consider the recent reboot of the Batman storyline, or “The Watchmen,” or “The Hurt Locker,” or “The Punisher,” or evenly the disturbingly lovable “Dexter” series. Do we really need or want gritty psychological portraits of our heroes? The end result inevitably reduces these beloved figures to nut jobs and psychopaths. And yes, maybe that’s exactly what they would be in the real world, but they aren’t in the real world. Do we have to conflate and confuse fiction and nonfiction? I know postmodern artists love to blur the lines between heroism and villainy and to deconstruct our traditional values and sensibilities to show us the unseemly side of everything, and granted, there is some value to such enterprises, but is nothing sacred, not even heroes?
Artists have always depicted two distinct types of heroes: epic heroes and tragic heroes. The traditional epic heroes include Gilgamesh, Achilles, Odysseus, Aeneas, Yudihistira & Arjuna, Sundiata, Siegfried, Thor, Charlemagne, Dante, etc. Each of these figures represents the quintessential qualities of his respective culture and civilization. He is the gold standard of his age. We need gold standards. For American civilization, I’ve always thought the closest thing to an epic hero would have to be Superman or Captain America or perhaps even Spiderman.
Alongside the tradition of epic heroes, there is a whole other class of heroes known just as much for their flaws and vices as for their strengths and virtues. The tragic heroes also possess quite a pedigree dating back to antiquity with figures like Oedipus, Theseus, and Hercules. The Renaissance featured quite a few memorable tragic heroes such as Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo & Juliet. Finally, in the present day, tragic figures such as Batman and Wolverine populate the comic book universe alongside their literary counterparts like Gatsby and Prynne. The tragic dimensions of these characters are certainly plumbed to their utmost depths and rightly so, but this is always done with the aim of accenting or contrasting their faults with their heroism. We never used to celebrate their vices as we sometimes do today, but saw them as admonitory in nature. Similarly, we never used to dwell excessively on their peccadilloes to the point of erasing their heroism.
The postmodern attitude wants to destroy the life blood of heroes—idealism. It subtly suggests that such idealism is mere tomfoolery and that this fanciful philosophy has no place or is incoherent in the real world. This is what happens when atheism and materialism meet heroic narratives. Heroes tap into man’s deepest metaphysical yearnings. There is a great well of significance and meaning in man’s soul, a veritable hunger for righteousness and justice and love and community and, yes, even a hunger for unity with God. Contemporary depictions of heroes are really an assault upon metaphysics veiled in a sophistical treatment of idealistic characters. Do not be fooled by the façade of avant-garde artistry. It is a wrecking ball. These sham artists are philosophizing with a hammer and shattering many of our most precious and fragile treasures.
At first I found such characterizations intriguing, but the more I have become exposed to them, the more I feel alienated from heroes I used to value highly and the more I become skeptical of the real motivations behind such storytelling. Heroes are supposed to be beacons of life that the common man rallies around and looks to as a kind of moral compass or pole star. If we allow our compass and northern star to be savaged, what will guide us? It’s true that we should constantly examine our own lives for contradictions, and there’s definitely room in the literary world for such conflict and resolution; that is the soul of every plot after all. I do think, however, that heroes are sacred ground that should not be trampled upon. We should not allow postmodern ideology to poison the groundwater idealism upon which we depend so dearly upon.