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On Heroes

A random thought has just popped into my head about “heroes” — and specifically, on how rare they are these days in pop culture.

Somebody was tweeting a bunch of nonsense about Cameron being a great director, which in turn led me to the thought, “James Cameron: Master of manipulating cliché. If Republic Films was still making serials, he’d be IN!”

That in turn led me to memories of various serials I’ve watched, and related things such as radio adventure shows like “Jack Armstrong, the All-American Boy” … and the stalwart, strong-jawed hero you just don’t see any more. Even Superman(!) is a deadbeat dad, if you go by the latest movie! The postmodern era really delivered the strong-jawed hero a punch to the vitals that he hasn’t ever recovered from. These days we’ve got the schlub who redeems himself, the brutal badass, or the well-meaning guy who screws it all up.

Thinking about characters who have had a lasting impact, I think Captain Kirk may have been the last great strong-jawed hero, and even he was twisted into something else courtesy of J.J. Abrams (who got Star Trek wrong, wrong SO VERY WRONG). Fortunately, the Abrams version of Trek will wither and die after one more movie and eventually be forgotten, but that doesn’t alter the fact that contemporary storytellers just don’t seem to know what to do with Good Guys.

“Is he strong? Then he must be an arrogant bully! Is he competent? Then he must be distant and cold! Does he have a moral center? Then he must be didactic and intolerant! Is he kind? Then he must be either naive or dull! Is he successful? Then he must have ruthlessly victimized others to get there!”


I don’t like what it says about our culture that we think this way. I don’t want every hero to be Dudley Do-Right, but the strong-jawed hero is a worthy archetype and something we should want to emulate, not tear down. If the ’60s and ’70s were a culture “growing up” and coming to grips with the fact that you can’t always trust your heroes to be infallible, then fine, that’s something that needed to be learned. But it doesn’t also follow that everybody is a crapsack all the time. Let’s retain a little perspective here. There are people who are just plain “good guys” (of either gender, please forgive the inclusive use of “guy” here), and it’s certainly not out of line to imagine that people like that sometimes go on exciting adventures.

And being a good guy also doesn’t inherently make somebody boring. Wit, artistry, originality, these can all coexist perfectly well within a strong, compassionate framework. Here’s hoping that maybe people can start to remember that again.

-The Gneech

Originally published at gneech.com. You can comment here or there.


( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 29th, 2010 04:08 pm (UTC)
"Captain Kirk may have been the last great strong-jawed hero...""

May I then ask your thoughts on one J.L. (or would that be J-L?) Picard, Captain, C.O., U.S.S. Enterprise [NCC-1701E], Starfleet Command?

Dec. 29th, 2010 04:18 pm (UTC)
He was a cool character, but he wasn't a strong-jawed hero. Riker was officially the designated SJH, it was one of the major points of his character ... but he was kind of a nonentity, which is why Picard ended up dominating the show/movies.

Dec. 30th, 2010 02:34 pm (UTC)
To each his own. I personally think Picard had more class than Kirk - either of them. He was a bit of a stick (or, rather, he seemed to have one jammed somewhere) at first, but he loosened up nicely by the end of things.
Dec. 29th, 2010 04:38 pm (UTC)
Personally, I lay the blame firmly at the feet of authors like Howard Zinn. "WHITE PEOPLE ARE EVIL! MEN ARE EVIL! SHAME ON YOU FOR BEING BORN ONE!" The SJHs you mention are all white men, and that is a mark of shame in today's multicultural society. "We" don't want stalwart white men to be our heroes; nay, we must have unlikely women or minority characters, not iconic or stawlart in any way, who overcome against great odds (and fight strong-jawed, evil white men) as our heroes. The crimes of our ancestors past haunts us now, and we pay for it by emasculating our iconic heroes.

I'm all for multiculturalism, and for understanding the great misdeeds that were done by European men in the last few centuries. But I'm sorry, I don't bear their guilt for them, nor will I be held responsible for zeitgeist actions that, through the mirror of history, I strongly disapprove. (And what's so bad about making a Black SJH? Or a Japanese one, like Samurai Jack? Heck, even Wonder Woman falls into the category!)
Dec. 29th, 2010 04:52 pm (UTC)
Hollywood is a firm believer that if something works, then it should be overdone.

Somewhere around the late 60s/early 70s, antiheroes became kind of popular. Eastwood's Man-With-No-Name and Dirty Harry being good examples. Mostly-good guys who aren't all pure and straight laced and such. Characters like that were popular, so we saw more of them.

Unfortunately, as with coffee or cigars or spice in foods, people start thinking that if X is good, then 10X is 10 times as good and we end up with all the moody, brooding good guys who are chock full of personal issues.

Now I do think that's appropriate for some characters like Batman. But usually it's just overdone for no reason.
Dec. 29th, 2010 05:37 pm (UTC)
I hear you. I do kind of wonder what happened to the archetype. You know I've bemoaned the fact that the strong-jawed LOOK barely even exists anymore in media.
Though... thinking about it more, I have to admit I would never have been able to write a comic around one (and very much did not). Also, Optimus Prime (who was the most prominent of that sort of role model when I was growing up) frankly irritated me. Scott Pilgrim was the last movie I saw in theaters that I can I 100% loved, and the lead in that is anything BUT that archetype. So I'm not sure if it's something a lot of people are currently averse to since there's a lot of geeks around now...guys who resent (envy?) Mr. Perfect after, I dunno, encounters with that sort in high school.
Dec. 29th, 2010 06:43 pm (UTC)
Granted, with the exception of Col. Beowulf, I don't have that many SJH's running around in my work either, but it's not from aversion so much as it hasn't come up.

Dec. 29th, 2010 05:38 pm (UTC)
Did you see the anime film "The Cat Returns"? I loved the Baron from it. :)

I think the square-jawed male hero has had an even rougher time of it than heroes in general. You still find heroic protagonists, but they're less likely to fit the pre-60s mold in appearance. And the ones who fit it superficially are more likely to be assigned negative traits.
Dec. 29th, 2010 06:23 pm (UTC)
That was Cary Elwes doing the voice, right? He makes a good SJH, although he tends to do it with his tongue lodged firmly in his cheek. ;)

Dec. 29th, 2010 06:11 pm (UTC)
the tv series "eureka" stars a classic strong-jawed hero type. for that matter, his romantic rival also has a strong jawline.

i'm a big fan of arthur miller's "tragedy and the common man"; i feel like popular media has spent a while exploring a wider range of tragic flaws than the classic, but that may be okay. (in particular, the "schlub who redeems himself" tickles my "tragic hero" button just fine. :) )

did you see "tangled"? the male protagonist there is the classic "charming rogue with a heart of gold," which may be close, anyway. and he winds up playing the role of tragic hero, quite nicely.
Dec. 29th, 2010 06:24 pm (UTC)
The "rogue w/ a heart of gold" archetype is still going strong -- just look at any role Harrison Ford plays. :) In Tangled, the closest analogue to the SJH would be the horse. :)

Dec. 29th, 2010 07:32 pm (UTC)
fair enough. :)

"glee!" has characters even actually talking explicitly about their roles; arguably it has at least one strong-jawed hero type.

you probably want movies, though; and i haven't seen a lot of movies lately. does harry potter count? :)
Dec. 29th, 2010 06:39 pm (UTC)
MMMmmaybe the Captain America movie coming out in 2011 will be a return to that Archetype? If any movie would revive it, that one would.

Although I wouldn't be hopeful...
Dec. 29th, 2010 06:42 pm (UTC)
Depends on if they have him be SJH or embittered former hero ... not to mention how it does at the box office!

Dec. 29th, 2010 09:46 pm (UTC)
This is why I've been rediscovering just what great actors John Wayne and Errol Flynn were
Howard Hawks movies are good too. (The Thing From Another World!)

Things that annoy me are films where the SJH or SJH's are outdone by the 'unlikely team of misfit anti-heroes' (see Armagheddon)

More to your point:
In my opinion, the hero doesn't have to be the big physically imposing guy (or gal) to be a stalwart hero. If I read you right, what the characters you seem to be complaining about really lack is integrity. Heroes are not admirable any more.

Over the past (good grief, going on 13 years) Jack has evolved somewhat through various storylines, but he's about as close to the hero archetype as I can muster. FJH (Fox Jawed Hero?)

Yours in haste,

Dec. 30th, 2010 02:08 am (UTC)
What, you think you're better than me?
This post got me thinking a bit, because I'll admit, I tend to fall into the mindset you discuss in the last paragraph; the strong-jawed hero will often disinterest me, or even sometimes repulse if the hero in question manages to hit some sort of Uncanny Valley of starry-eyed idealism on the presenter's part. It's a little strange that I've developed this bias, really, since on a logical level I see that an obviously fabricated character flaw is no better than a flawless protagonist, and that having strong principles and capabilities really is something that ought to be encouraged in this day and age. Unfortunately, it's something I've been grappling with myself over for a few years, so I don't really have any answers as to how to overcome it.

The archetype has definitely fallen out of favor, I agree. As suggested above, there may be a bit of latent jealousy; the writer/viewer may not see themselves as being as good/capable/moral as the character, and react negatively to that. After all, the only thing people hate more than somebody who's better than them and says as much is somebody who's better than them and is humble about it. :-)

And in this day and age, schadenfraude is a national industry (might be going off the rails with this a bit, forgive me if I am). A lot of the popularity of reality TV comes from watching schlubs self-destruct, thinking “I may be self-absorbed with an eating problem, but at least I'm not a train wreck like that guy!”. A few years ago, the Patriots met the Giants in the Super Bowl, with the Patriots potentially going for a perfect season. I didn't know many people cheering for the Patriots; granted, living in New York, a lot of folks were more likely to be Giants fans than Patriots fans, and the Patriots had pulled a few stunts that year which hadn't exactly ingratiated themselves to anybody outside of Boston, but a non-negligible number of folks I talked to were cheering against the Patriots, solely hoping that they screwed up the perfect season. Again, might not be symptomatic of a backlash against perfection or flawlessness as much as backlash against the team that was aiming for it, but it does fit the trend. And when scandals break, we're currently quick to applaud the celebrity who comes clean, quick to doubt and question those who deny wrongdoing, and quick to ignore anybody who actually maintains a spotless record; I'm pretty sure that this isn't how it's always been. But yeah, probably wouldn't hurt us to have some better role-models in fields of entertainment (with good enough writing, of course).
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