We used to have heroes. Once upon a time we had characters in movies who were strong and steadfast, who walked on screen with those qualities and walked off screen with them intact. These heroes had moral codes that might be tested by circumstance, but never broken. These heroes were characters built to inspire. You wanted to grow up to be like them.
We used to have heroes. Now we have characters with feet of clay who bungle through danger (The Lone Ranger), characters who are “just starting” so they haven’t figured out how to actually be heroes yet (Man of Steel), characters who are so callow and impetuous and stupid that you eventually root against them (Star Trek Into Darkness). It seems like no accident that three of the biggest movies are rehashes of old characters that attempt at every turn to tear them down.
It feels like a hangover from the 70s, from the way heroes were deconstructed by the great filmmakers of the Golden Age. They were reacting to a Hollywood that had calcified, that had taken great, aspirational heroes and turned them into animatronic figures who could be plugged into any movie. They were reacting to a world that had gone mad around them, that seemed to be no place for heroes. They dragged the righteous violence of Western heroes into the messy violence of Vietnam, and they applied the late 60s’ lessons of moral equivalence to genres that had long stood stiff.
A decade later superheroes got into the deconstruction game. Alan Moore almost single-handedly did it, first with Miracleman and then with Watchmen. Like the filmmakers of the 70s, Moore’s efforts were about examining characters and tropes that we had internalized, making us confront what it was about Superman - an all-powerful god figure dispensing his own justice - that we found so weirdly comforting.
The new movie heroes aren’t in this tradition. Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger doesn’t examine the meaning or appeal of vigilantism. JJ Abrams’ Star Trek reboots don’t pick away at gunboat diplomacy or the idea of big government being our future. And Man of Steel is too busy constructing a hip new Superman that it never takes time to bother with the original one. What these movies do take from the deconstructionist past is a desire to strip things away, to get to the center of the character. Rather than doing it to illuminate, though, these movies do it for the worst possible reason: to make the characters relatable.
Making characters relatable sounds like it’s a good idea, and in many ways it is. But the problem with the three characters under assault this summer - The Lone Ranger, Superman and Captain Kirk - is that they were never meant to be really relatable. These were characters who were built to be icons, to be looked up to with a little bit of wonder. Two of those characters were very specifically created to be role models for kids, to be the sort of figures on whom children could model themselves. Strength, honor, integrity, kindness - these were the hallmarks of Superman and The Lone Ranger, not doubt, crankiness, stupidity or myopia. Captain Kirk, a more fleshed-out human character, was still a paragon of a certain type of manliness. You would walk up to a woman at a bar using Kirk as your guide - you wouldn’t sit at the bar moping and taking comfort that one time Kirk was just this fucking sad.
Why does this keep happening? I imagine part of it is filmmaker laziness; the idea that Superman is a boring character has been repeated so often that it’s become accepted as fact. Taking a square jawed good guy seriously is way harder than poking fun at him and letting the air out of his persona (something The Lone Ranger insists on doing right up to the very last shot of the main character). I tend to wonder if there’s something in the anti-elitist zeitgeist that plays into this; where in the 1950s heroes would be scientists and experts, today they tend to be average joes who just sort of stumbled into a situation without any particular expertise. The new Lone Ranger is a lawyer who has no place wielding a gun, the new Superman is a guy who has spent his life tamping down what makes him special, the new Kirk is a snot-nosed punk who takes two movies to get to a place where he's not completely out of his depth. We live in the Age of the Amateur, when people without college degrees feel secure debunking global warming, and that sort of stooge-on-the-street quality is what they want to see in their heroes. They don’t want to go to a movie, clutching a 64oz soda and a popcorn with extra butter, and be reminded that they can be better. They want to be assured that, should the situation arise, they’d do just as well as Superman.
There is room for relatable heroes. Marvel Comics made its bones by giving kids characters they could understand, avoiding the monolithic heroes of DC - which makes it all the odder that one of the few true heroes on screen lately has been a Marvel character. Captain America: The First Avenger presents a hero who has all of the moral strengths and discipline when he was scrawny Steve Rogers that he would have as brawny Captain America. Steve was a good guy from frame one, and the movie wasn’t about him finding himself or discovering his heroism or growing into the mantle - it was the story of a guy who had what it took and stood up and did the right thing.
That’s powerful. It’s especially powerful today, in a world whose moral grey areas make the late 60s look positively black and white. We already see heroes with feet of clay in the real world, as President Obama’s second term becomes grossly Nixonian and every do-gooder gets a sexpose two weeks later. We don’t need our heroes brought down to our level anymore. We don’t need heroes who make us feel more secure in our own failings. We need heroes who stand tall and lead the way, heroes who inspire us to be better. We need heroes who have already passed through the doorway and are ushering us to up to join them. They can have their Garden of Gethsemane moment, they can be tested and put through the wringer, but they need to be better than us. Our heroes have spent enough time down in the mud with us. We need to tilt our chins up, squint into the sun and follow them to greatness.