Monday, January 25, 2016

Contemporary Heroes VS Classic Heroes

(So, it's been a while. But here's a new post, where I'm trying to work out some ideas. I'd welcome feedback, as I'm not sure I've got a coherent point yet.)

After recently revisiting the Star Wars universe with The Force Awakens, then going back to the works of Robert E. Howard, and finally watching some of the so-called adaptations of that author’s work, as well as the Edgar Rice Burroughs adaptation John Carter, I was struck again by something I’ve been pondering for some time. Contemporary heroes, those typically in fashion in the literature and film of today, are not like heroes of old. There seem to be two distinct and different types of heroes (I’m sure there are more), the self-driven, self-made, self-motivated hero on the one side, and the externally driven, pawn of fate/the gods hero. And, as I’ve been thinking about this, I’ve noticed that some popular fate-driven heroes of today got their start as self-driven heroes of the past. Batman and Superman are two very well known examples of heroes who were once masters of their own fate, but are now frequently portrayed as slaves to it. And then you have John Carter and Conan the Cimmerian. While Carter is transported to Mars (Barsoom) against his will, he then quickly becomes the master of his own fate, taking up arms and winning the hearts and swords of a kingdom. Conan sets out to experience the world for no other reason than his personal desire to learn and experience new and exciting things. But in film adaptations of both characters, fate seems to have picked each for their appointed task. They have destinies. In the Conan films, this is most egregious, featuring Conan’s family being slain and him being driven/stolen from his home and forced into slavery, then destined to rise up and become king. He does not choose to go, he does not choose to become king. These things are chosen for him by the whims of ...of the gods?

In the cases of Superman and Conan this seems to spit directly in the face of the meaning of the characters. Both are Nietzschean Ubermensch, self-made heroes who stand apart and stand as something for others to aspire to. But in later works, they become more Christ-like, meek servants, who are ultimately slaves to greater forces; pretty much the opposite of the Nietzschean ideal. And Batman now becomes a crime fighter not because he was a man of means who saw that he could do something to help people, but because he was tortured by a crime perpetrated upon him. This seems to say that without the death of his parents, Bruce Wayne would simply have been the care-free playboy he pretends to be. His morality, in this scenario does not come from a personal sense of right and wrong, but from a sense of guilt, shame, and revenge foisted upon him by fickle fate. Much like the argument that without the gods there is no morality. I’ve always been somewhat upset by the idea that some people believe that without religion, they would murder, steal, and rape at will. Without someone forcing their will upon you, you have no will of your own? That idea upsets me. But it seems to be at the root of many contemporary heroes, who are only heroic because fate, god, or someone else forces them to become so. Without an outside force acting upon him or her, he or she would either remain unexceptional. Or worse, would be amoral (ala Bruce Wayne’s persona).

And this brings me to contemporary hero avatar, Luke Skywalker. In a film with self-made heroes like Han Solo and Princess Leia, Luke is the ultimate tool of fate, and this becomes more and more pronounced as the series goes on and we learn more about him and his family. He has nearly no agency, no will of his own. In fact, one of the only things he seems to do on his own, by his own will is go to his room and sulk. Otherwise, he is constantly pushed, directed, prodded, and dragged from hick farm boy to galactic hero. Could there be anyone less like Conan? Could there be anyone more emblematic of the contemporary concept of hero? I recently skimmed (I honestly couldn’t bring myself to read it closely, as I got too annoyed) an article comparing and contrasting Star Trek with Star Wars, which essentially boiled down to Star Wars was about fighting the Man, and Star Trek was about being the Man. But was Star Trek about being the Man? Kirk was constantly standing on his own, his crew was constantly going outside the bounds of law and status quo. To me, Star Trek was less about being the Man, and more about bettering oneself, then giving those below a hand up. Star Wars seemed more about lashing out after allowing cruelty to win for too long; essentially fighting back only after there was literally nothing left to do but die. I mean, they didn’t even give the Empire a real bloody nose until AFTER millions and millions of people had been enslaved and murdered. Fate forced the hand of Luke and the rest of the Rebellion. Only when there was absolutely nothing left to do but something, did they do anything.

So when did the change happen? Why? Am I just off base on all of this? And as a fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan (and other characters), Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter (and other characters), and other self-made heroes (The Shadow, Allan Quatermain, Beowulf, etc.), is there any hope of them being translated to film or TV without first being sifted through the more modern, meak, fate-driven fashion?

-Matthew J. Constantine

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