In my book review of All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder I hinted at something that’s bothering in me in mainstream comics right now: all the heroes are disappearing. I’m not interested in writing a rant, but I would like to dig a little more deeply into that idea with this post. I think heroes are disappearing in more mediums than just superhero comics, rather they’re disappearing from all popular storytelling mediums. I’m going to use comic books as an informal case study for this article because that’s a medium I have more experience with than others.
What do I mean?
In one sense heroes have not disappeared. We live in a story-based culture and every story has to have a protagonist. Whether you’re watching one of the umpteen superhero movies made each summer, reading the latest best seller by Robert Ludlum, or even watching “Hell’s Kitchen” every form of entertainment has a story and a protagonist involved in it on some level.
But the recent fad in superhero comic books and other forms of storytelling is to make the heroes flawed, deeply flawed.
Weakness vs. Flaw
When Superman first flew into DC Comics pages at the beginning of the 20th century he was given a weakness, kryptonite. Not unlike Achilles’ heel or Samson’s eye for the ladies, kryptonite is the one element that could stop the man of steel. It was his weakness and often exploited by his arch nemesis, Lex Luthor, and other ner-do-wells.
Flaws didn’t really become popular in comic book heroes until Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee and his bullpen of artists started creating “more human” heroes in the 1960’s. For example, The Incredible Hulk was given a terrible anger management problem, Spider-Man could never balance his personal life and his superhero life, and the X-Men all have various minor character issues that get them into trouble. Indeed, these are flaws, and through this new type of hero Marvel Comics creators redefined what a superhero would be for the next 20 to 30 years.
Flawed vs. Deeply Flawed (or non-Heroic?)
Where and when the first “anti-hero” appeared is debatable, but anyone who’s read comics can agree that the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s is an era when many heroes moved from flawed to deeply flawed, and I would argue even non-heroic. In this time period Speedy became an addict, Iron Man developed a serious drinking problem, the Punisher & Ghost Rider rose in popularity (killers as much as heroes), and Batman became portrayed more and more often as a psychologically fractured obsessive genius (luckily he’s a good guy, right?).
Enter All Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder in 2008 and you have the complete deconstruction of a hero. Batman has become a violently egotistical, abusive, ruthless, walking time-bomb. A completely non-heroic hero if I’ve ever heard of one.
So, what happened? Where have all the heroes gone?
Recently, my wife and I watched the movies “Captain America: The First Avenger,” and “Thor.” We were pleasantly surprised by the quality of both of them. I honestly went into each film preparing myself for a B- action flick. Now, I’m not saying these films are going to win any Oscars, but they were each highly entertaining movies with strong stories. And the protagonists weren’t so filled with addictions and morality issues that we felt like we were actually watching stories about heroes. I won’t give any spoilers here, but suffice to say that Thor begins the film as the spoiled son of a king and takes a rough and tumble journey into humility and wisdom. And as for Captain America, the whole reason Steve Rogers is even chosen to become the first Avenger is because of the depth of his character.
My wife and I also recently watched “Iron Man 2”. We both enjoyed the first “Iron Man” film and were intrigued to see where the newly reformed Tony Stark would go. In the first movie he was a playboy who faces death only to rise from the ashes and defeat evil. We were hoping to see some more growth like that in the second film. However, the second movie gave us an Iron Man who was just as much a womanizer, a drunk, and a narcissist as he was in the first film. We didn’t like it. And not just because we’re prudes, but because by the end of the movie we weren’t rooting for Iron Man. We didn’t like him. He wasn’t a hero.
So, what do you think? Are heroes disappearing, or are they as good as ever? Are you interested in heroes that not only save the day but give you something to aspire to? Or do prefer to have deeply flawed heroes?
There are no right or wrong answers here. I’m just asking.
And for the writers among us: What’s the protagonist like in your story? Does he or she have a weakness? Are they flawed? Are they deeply flawed or non-heroic? Have you stopped to consider these things about your characters, or are these ideas not really a concern for you? I’d love to hear, because I think about it all the time!