The Death of the Hero in Modern Art
By Jeremy Hausotter
Jan. 30, 2022
Heroes are dead, and we do not care. Heroes are dead, and we neither blink nor flinch, we remain unmoved. Heroes are not dead you will say; for after all, we today have many heroes. Do not Marvel and DC present us with hundreds of heroes? These are not merely heroes, but superheroes. The term ‘superhero’ means “beyond hero”, that is, a hero in the extraordinary sense. And yet, all of these examples of heroes are not heroes, except for a few, and even then, the question remains to be raised.
Let us consider the example of Superman. This DC Comic character has been the subject of many films since 1948. While being super, in the meaning of being beyond normal human powers and capacities, superman is human, all too human.
In Superman 1978, Superman’s love dies. Lois Lane, the woman he loves, died in an accident. Instead of accepting death, this all too human reality, Superman reversed time by spinning the globe backwards to the moments before her death so that he could save her. Such an act expresses an emotional immaturity. Superman could not handle the death of the woman he loved, so he does anything to reverse this. There is no confrontation with the reality that death is permanent, that one must ultimately realize that this person before you is now perished, a worm buffet, and that the questions of immortality and afterlife press themselves upon you. Where is the character development in superman? Where is the reckoning with this tragic element of our all too human reality? Nowhere to be seen. It is a childish solution to the problem, to simply turn time back without confronting reality or taking responsibility for one’s actions.
In Superman II 1980, Superman loses his superpowers. He becomes a normal human being. In one scene, Superman as Clark gets into an argument with a truck driver and is severely beaten up before Lois. Once his powers returned, Superman returned as Clark to that same diner and picked on the truck driver. Superman incited a fight and exacted revenge upon him. How cowardly. Superman showed himself to be cowardly and petty. He is petty for seeking revenge, and cowardly, for fighting with his full powers. This is like saying a lion is courageous for fighting a chihuahua.
In Men of Steel 2013 superman is naked after saving an oil rig, so he steals some clothes off a clothes line without giving repayment. Ends seems to justify the means here in cases of petty revenge and public nudity. There is a real need, of course, to be properly clothed, but one should not commit sin in order to correct this problem.
Credit must be given to Superman in Superman III 1983. In this film Superman is exposed to bad kryptonite and becomes evil. He commits several crimes and is an implied fornicator. In one scene the evil version fights the morally upright version and the good one wins over. This represents the battle between oneself, his sins, and his conscience. Here, Superman has that existential battle with himself between vice and conscience, and ultimately decided upon doing what is good; after which he goes out and corrects his crimes.
In general, we have the tendency to say someone is a superhero if they save humanity from an evil villain. As long as the main character beats up the bad guys, who are defined as genocidal maniacs, then we define this person to be a hero or superhero. The term ‘hero’ designates a positive valuation of a person and their character, that there is something good about this individual. We as a society with our fictional characters too easily confuse this attribution of a good person as he who quite physically defends humanity against individuals bent on destroying humanity.
What we routinely fail to be given as an audience is a character who wrestles with the ultimate questions of good and evil. Sure one could attempt to argue that the battles between superheroes and mindless computer generated armies personifies a clash between good and evil, for murder and genocide are intrinsic evils we, thus far, all agree upon as evil. But, what we do not see is the interior battle. These are exterior battles. We do not see the interior battle exemplified, of the characters undergoing the clash between vice and virtue. We are given more Superman I and II versus III.
The thematicity of humanity’s brokenness and its confrontation with vice and virtue is the greatest source for creative inspiration. Anymore, the cinema producers prefer giving us disordered characters who do not wrestle with the most important questions, who do not try and better themselves morally through reforming behaviors, attitudes and actions, but instead are accepted for who they are as broken individuals and are portrayed as decent or good people simply because they save humanity from a dehumanized villain. These characters and their flaws are to be accepted, and even praised. Such a trend is nothing other than propaganda for mediocrity. Superman, in general, is a mediocre character for he does not confront himself as a broken person who needs to reform his life. Our superheroes are only concerned with the material salvation of others, and not with anyone's spiritual salvation.
Batman and most superhero films follow the same premise. These films, and I am speaking generally here, concern themselves with saving humanity but rarely is the question whether one has a noble soul or not is raised. Morality is usually narrowly defined as a clash between those who want to destroy humanity versus those who want to save it, with whatever flavor of woke ideology current for the times.
The first Thor movie is perhaps the best Marvel film. In this film Thor is introduced as an arrogant, hot-headed warrior bent on the genocide of an alien race he hates, the frost giants. Through his disobedience to his father, Thor nearly incited a war between his race and the frost giants. As a result, Thor is stripped of his powers and exiled to Earth. In exile Thor learned humility and willingly offered his life as a sacrifice for others. Through this first conversion he regained his superhero powers and saved Earth.
At the conclusion of the falling action, Thor must make a moral choice: to destroy Bifrost, the rainbow bridge that connects his planet to others, which would result in the saving of the frost giants and eliminate his ability to travel to Earth and see the woman he loves; or to keep the bridge intact so he can maintain access to his loved one. Thor destroyed the bridge, and with it his ability to see the woman he loved ever again, until of course the screenwriters needed a second Thor movie and dropped this aspect entirely from the franchise. In this Marvel film, the audience is given a rare treatment of a disordered character undergoing a path of redemption from vices to virtues resulting in a poignant moral decision. No other Marvel character has undergone such personal transformation as Thor did in this film, at least in phases one through three. Thor however suffered the wrath of the screenwriters and was reduced to becoming another entertainment puppet manufactured by the Disney factory.
This collapse of moral questions into whether one saves humanity from genocidal collapse is reductionistic. It is certainly morally worthy to save human life, and doing such is a heroic action, but this act alone is not what makes an individual a hero. Saving people could simply be a job for some, and if treated as a mere job with its associated bureaucratic pedantry, then such an action is all but stripped of its moral validity. Is this not what is at issue with most superhero films? And if so, then the films themselves suffer the weight of triviality.
The most important questions that we should be asking, such as whether one is good or evil, pursuing virtue or vice, whether one has a noble soul, are all becoming lost in America’s art consciousness. This has resulted in the establishment of several principles accepted by our culture that resulted in the death of the hero.
A first principle we Americans appear to accept as what constitutes as a hero in a movie is whether the character saves a life or not. What makes this principle rather interesting, theologically speaking, is the transposition of Christ with superheroes. Superheroes are attributed Christlike properties and these films play upon Christian imagery and motifs for the sake of drawing parallels between the hero and Jesus Christ. Like Christ, these characters offer their lives as a sacrifice for the many. Like Jesus, they are trying to save the entire world from sin and death. Unlike Christ, they must perform this act repeatedly, for there will always be a new villain out to kill man. These superheroes seek material salvation, and so salvation must be accomplished over and over. Christ, in contrast, died once as the perfect sacrifice for our spiritual salvation. These characters have very little in common with Christ, for they fail to ask the ultimate questions: do I believe in God and have faith? Am I a morally good person? Our supposed superheroes spend so much time seeking the material salvation of the world that they neglect their own souls and the question of whether or not they, themselves, are ready for death and the afterlife. Jesus, in contrast, places the questions of one’s soul and the after life as the primary questions and focus of this life on Earth. He did not care about material salvation. He rejected being a political messiah, no matter how many times the Jews tried. Our superheroes today are the political messiahs of the liberal left.
Our second principle, which is more of a guiding approach for the production and evaluation of aesthetic objects, usually films, television or literature, is whether or not there is a general rebellion against traditional morality, exemplified through the repudiation by the arts of marital and sexual norms. Sexual vice and the pushing of the boundaries are to be interpreted as good according to this principle. Films which accomplish this are hence good films according to the critics. Superman and Batman are more of a hero because they are fornicators. LGBT superheroes are good because they save the world and rebel against sexual norms.
Our second principle can be generalized further as the interpretation of aesthetic objects according to their conformity or nonconformity with “wokeness”. Wokeness today is defined by LGBT, anarchist, and communistic tendencies. Yesterday it was other sexual boundaries. We see the politicization of films in franchises such as the recent Star Wars films which actively promote a triumphalism of communism over capitalism. The antihero trope represents an approving appraisal of anarchy, the concept of ‘chaotic good’. We forgot that good does not come out of chaos unless there is an agent who performs morally good actions, bringing order to chaos.
There is no doubt that it is good that some boundaries were pushed. The Searchers 1956 and The Planet of the Apes 1968, amongst others, pushed back against miscegenation, the view that one should not marry outside one’s race. Miscegenation was a traditional boundary, not a morally sound one but a boundary nevertheless, that films helped erase. The boundaries for depicting nudity, blowjobs, sex, fornication, adultery, orgies, etc., is another matter altogether. Little do we realize that the rebellion of sexual norms is itself an occasion of downfall, a failure of the human spirit. It is antiheroic, that is, plain and simply, pure villainy.
This anarchism leads us to our third principle that has occasioned the death of the hero: the exaltation of the ubermensch, the Nietzschean superman who is beyond good and evil. Here one’s moral compass is defined by force and the domination of the will. Perhaps it is this ubermensch ideology that has given birth to the concept of the antihero. At any rate, the Nietzschean specter has given rise to many antihero characters. Clint Eastwood’s acting career can almost be summarized as this Nietzschean antihero. The salvation of those in need comes through violence, murder, sex and rape. What kind of a hero is this? Antihero he is appropriately named, for he steps outside of morality, law and order for the cause of victims or personal vendettas. Such a character is only at best a whitewashed grave. Not heroic, but antiheroic. The concept of the antihero is nothing other than the acceptance by society of moral mediocrity, an act itself which is vile.
A fourth principle is the use of ambiguity to resolve moral dilemmas, to use the oblivious osmosis of relativism to resolve important moral questions. Captain America: Civil War (2016) is an excellent example of this.
A fifth principle is the castration of heroes. Our heroes today are emasculated. Their masculine virility has been sacrificed upon the editor’s chopping block. The feminist critique has demanded female warriors. Male heroes and attributes now require a conversion therapy into those qualities acceptable to the woke feminist. Where are our muses to sing of the rage of that son of Peleus? No matter how many times Hollywood despises that ancient patriarchal view of women being the weaker sex, there remains a truth to this view once we consider the physical abilities of most women versus most men. It is we who delude ourselves by pretending there is equality in terms of nature’s endowments; no matter how much we push that pathetic ideal of the effeminate soyboy or transvestite drag queen, both of which are two interpretations of emasculation. Men are the targets of by feminist-LGBT conversion therapy.
The emasculation of man has further resulted in his sexual exploitation. Males are depicted no longer as chivalrous who are concerned for the sexual purity of themselves nor importantly of women. Instead, the woman and himself are to sexually exploit each other, and the traditional views on sexuality are to be reviled, dismissed, and the object of comedic mockery. The concept of sexual honor has been eradicated through mockery and exaggerations of uptight, abusive father figures representative of traditional morality. Through shamelessness, we become blind to sexual dishonor, and in doing so, we embrace shamelessness and propagate it further.
Our heroes today include anarchists, criminals, drug users, and whoever supports the aims of the propagandists. These are not noble or virtuous, but the vices of common criminals. We have placed common criminals up on a pedestal.
In these various ways we have produced a culture that fails to distinguish right from wrong, that can determine what constitutes as virtue versus vice. We can no longer perceive who is a hero, and we clap our hands at these supposedly heroic characters when they are nothing other than the scams of cheap entertainers. We have so warped society that when we look upon true heroes, they are viewed with suspicion as bigoted, misogynistic, and as objects to be scorned and cancelled out.
Instead, it is these principles and their resulting products that need canceling. In opposition to our false heroes we need a retrieval of both art and devotion to the saints. We need examples of those who can show us how to order ourselves and be truly heroic. Our superheroes today are pseudo-saints, for their creators pretend that these characters have these Christlike moral attributes and parallels when they do not. Since these characters do not follow the saints in conforming their lives to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, they are pseudo-saints. If we cannot order ourselves, why should we be expected to order the world and bring about good within it? The failure to make ourselves virtuous means that we will likewise be handicapped in our dealings with the world, whatever they may be.
The true heroes of humanity have a poor Jew, Jesus Christ, as their archetype. This is the true measurement that determines heroes, and those who follow this become saints and exemplify the many lived lives of virtue and their particular struggles against evil and sin within this world. Art needs to be infused by the Christian ethos. Whether it is aesthetic works dedicated to examining the lives of saints or inspired by the Christian ethos, we have a pathway forward. The mythological world of Tolkien, so real and compelling, would be nothing if his characters and worldbuilding was not inspired by Christian faith. The type of society we choose to create will be dependent upon the type of hero we choose to celebrate and what virtues or pseudo-virtues to portray. Artists beware.
The Fall of the Rebel Angels by Luca Giordano Wikimedia Commons