Where Are Our Heroes?: An Examination of the Cultural Shift in How We See Heroes
A few nights ago, I was watching 1985’s Predator with some friends out in one of their backyards. Some of them were my age and remembered when it was out in theaters. Others were younger and only knew of it as a cultural footnote, which was fine with. I wasn’t around for The Ten Commandments, The Dirty Dozen, or The Warriors. So it's all fair. I was marking out though over how many of the scenes were so ridiculously over the top; the handshake/flex at the beginning of the movie, the dirty one liners spoken with a true, no-fucks-given attitude, and of course the yelling scene in the jungle towards the end of the movie. So crazy, so funny, yet so epic.
At one point, one of the younger guys was making fun of the movie (like the rest of us) with comments while watching old school Arnold Schwarzenegger flex, “Who do we have who is like this?!”
A week later, I was watching Gladiator, a 2000 movie, but still old compared to 2019. I was watching the scene where Maximus bonds with his fellow slaves/gladiators and fights alongside them in the Colosseum. The bond is so strong that when Maximus is threatened with immediate execution after revealing himself to his enemy, Emperor Commodus, they form a defensive circle around him, ready to die for him. Not as funny as Predator, but still extremely masculine and moving. And my friend’s comment from that night came back to mind about where are the modern generation’s masculine heroes. Who are they?
Lightning in a Bottle
The more I thought about it, the more I thought about how difficult it would be for a new crop of actors and movies to create and carry the same cultural gravitas. The aforementioned movies above all come from different eras, with the one common thread being their male-centered point of view. Everything is being viewed from the male protagonist’s perspective and that could mean different things for different eras.
However, the one thing that stood out most to me about these films is brotherhood; a band of brothers united by struggle and blood to overcome a larger obstacle or goal, to achieve something even greater. This particular aspect has been around since civilization first began, as far back as Hercules and the last stand of the 300 Spartans. For some reason, there is something stirring in the human spirit when we see non-blood brothers come together. Usually this is in combat scenarios, but it can be in others ones too, like social justice movements.
Since I started out with the 80s movies, I’ll use that as the primary source and what I can definitely say is that they reeked of this stuff. Even comedies like Revenge of the Nerds and Ghostbusters had that deeper resonance to their stories that made us invest in those characters so much. Perhaps it's because we were less cynical then, but that still lasted into the ‘00s of the new millennium.
"... there’s comfort in what you know: along with a reluctance to change."
Everybody’s a Critic
Many Millenials and Gen Z’ers may look at this as a trope, while also calling it ‘toxic masculinity’ because of its emphasis on the strong, silent male-type who has to fix everything while looking cool and sexy at the same time. And most importantly, showing no weakness.
There’s little to no room for strong women to share the limelight, or at best, they’re not written properly because the writers aren’t women. While minorities are relegated to the roles of support or side-kicks for the main White actors. Everything is so simple to resolve: punch or kill your way through the problem.
To be fair, much of these criticisms existed back then too, starting about 40 years ago. Yet this perception causes many members of the newer generations to look at these movies and attitudes with skepticism and condemnation. They don’t see people uniting together to struggle and win for a common cause. They see certain characters being railroaded or stereotyped. And this is where the obstacles come in.
I Got Three Problems but Unity Ain't One
There are fewer heroes now who can hold that mantle because one, the times have changed. Different generations are going to see different aspects of the movie that will overshadow everything else. This element of social ignorance also overshadows any context of a band of brothers.
Second is that society has been groomed into the male-protagonist point of view for most of history. While there are notable exceptions that should not be ignored and are icons in their own right, like Ripley from the Alien franchise and Michelle Pfiefer’s Catwoman from Batman Returns, there’s comfort in what you know: along with a reluctance to change.
The model just now is beginning to be flipped in a major way that is trying not to become just a historical footnote, but a wave of real change. Many members from the Boomers and even the Gen X’ers ironically, are suspicious of this because they feel they are being condemned for attitudes they may not have held while watching these films, and that they are about to be preached to about what they ‘should’ be thinking. And this leads into the third point.
That is that the new generations do not know how to properly introduce or communicate change in their film-making that doesn't feel like religious grandstanding. Now to be fair, they are coming from legit points of view. It's a confirmed fact that there were and are many sexist and racist points of view that predominated the industry at that time. And even those people that were not, either didn’t have the power to make any real, effective changes or just thought of those problems as coming with the territory. So calls for change are not without their merit or justice.
The problem is that because it's new, supporters for change are going in full throttle, expecting that the changes will happen over night because they demanded it and that somehow counts as a victory. They don’t seem aware that someone who has an issue with it can just leave the theater and not spend the money, while still maintaining their ‘old’ attitudes. And then using those same attitudes in real world situations that affect everybody. No real change was made beyond an image on a screen. Plus, people are living longer now, so that those particular generations and all the influence they have attained isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The results of this is that the substance of diverse character arcs gets lost, ignored, or watered down for the sake of presenting the image of correcting a morally corrupt system. The 2016 Ghostbusters that was famously female-led was rejected by many old school fans in part because of this. There was no desire for a remake and it felt like it was only done to switch out penises for vaginas. Many other films and franchises suffer from this presumption as well, made even worse if it actually turns out that the story does indeed suck.
Supporters of these modern interpretations often call out these critics as bigoted, sexist, hate-mongers. It's not all bullshit as there are legit prejudiced people on social media doing just that and muddying up the faction that may not like the movies for legit reasons. Equally, the supporters themselves then are at fault as well, because they not only generalized an entire group, but also failed to be receptive to professional criticism that comes with any profession.
It’s because of these factors that Millenials and Gen Z’ers find themselves lacking the heroes that their predecessors had. There are a few like the Rock, Jason Statham, and even Vin Diesel, but none so far that have that cultural mass of the Terminator, Rambo, and Lethal Weapon’s Martin Riggs.
We Don’t Need Another Hero?
The question becomes do the newbies even need heroes like that anymore? Since they’re supposed to be the new vanguard of society and all that, shouldn’t they be over any messianic whims that the Boomers and GenX’ers felt?
Well yes and no. Fact is that all societies seem to share that messiah complex, to look up to a particular person for inspiration and model themselves after: whether fictional or real. So the new generations wanting heroes to be inspired by out isn’t a sign of weakness as many of their critics like to say. It maybe that their heroes are taking different forms. This started in the ‘00’s where the muscular hero and bad boys started falling out of style, replaced by the nerds and sensitive types that previously were bench-warmers.
The remaining, old school heroes still maintained some of the elements of old, but they were no longer as one-dimensional. They had vulnerabilities and feelings, and most of the time their performances were delivered with a less cartoonish approach by today’s standards. The previous models still must include those softer elements in order to be taken seriously. Otherwise, just like my friends watching Predator, they appear kind of silly. An example of this paradigm shift is the Avengers’ Tony Stark and Steve Rogers.
For all intents and purposes, Tony is the classic nerd and represents the cultural shift. He’s a nerd who is successful, gets laid, and all while being vulnerable and not very jacked at the same time. I mean he has to use a suit for any of the physical stuff. Meanwhile, Steve Rogers is the exact opposite and represents the old school action hero. He’s a boy scout (often called one-dimensional by critics), gets physically jacked, and has a very simple and black/white approach to the world. Both are looked up to today, but Stark is considered the poster boy.
The nerd still wins out.
Balancing Out the Modern Hero
What is really needed is common ground through the story of struggle. Avengers didn’t become the biggest franchise ever by simply having superheroes beat the shit out of the bad guys and each other. There was an established depth there, written by people who crafted the story first above everything else, and largely stuck to it when some voices wanted them to be more inclusive to their liking.
The hero won’t need someone on the screen to tell you, ‘hey, he/she’s the hero. Root for them’. There won’t be a need for Predator’s macho handshake/flex to establish whose who. They’ll just do it and the audience will start to follow and invest in them along the way. That may take time, because well...people. But if newer generations want their own Terminator, Ripley, Catwoman, or Iron Man, it's going to need the glue of shared growth. Otherwise they will just be a flash in the pan, to be forgotten over time.
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© 2019 Jamal Smith