The power principle

What we demand from our heroes says as much about us as them.


Actors like playing the villain, the wisdom goes, because the villains get to be bad and the heroes must remain steadfast and dull. The villains enjoy their villainy; the heroes carry on like they’re wearing an uncomfortably itchy suit. Titanically crazed characters like Daniel Plainview and Anton Chigurh mesmerize audiences—and so it is not surprising that much of the focus on the new Batman film, The Dark Knight, centers on the late Heath Ledger’s bravura turn as the Joker.

As the villains move closer toward the state of amoral blank slates—less monsters and more unknowable black holes of pure negativity—they have opened the ground for heroes to step more squarely into the chasm the bad guys have left behind. That shift is why, of late, the heroes actually have the better roles; why, fittingly, Batman remains a more compelling character than the starkly one-dimensional Joker.

Of course, I doubt that we’re seeing a spike in morally conflicted heroes, although it often feels as if Hollywood is giving us fewer unflinching good guys. The doubting, compromised heroes of movies such as Michael Clayton or Syriana are just updated versions of their counterparts in those great seventies paranoia thrillers Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View (Bush warmongering having replaced Nixon deceit, though corporations reliably remain up to no good). And pop culture is full of dark heroes (Mel Gibson’s Mad Max and Martin Riggs, Clint Eastwood, the tough private eyes of noir, to say nothing of Bogie’s ambivalent Rick Blaine in Casablanca, way back in 1942). Even the resolutely old-school good guy Aragorn, the returning king of The Lord of the Rings, is marked by a steadfast reluctance to embrace his own heroic potential.


From the archives
Review: The Dark Knight (7/17/2008)
Review: Michael Clayton (10/11/07)
Review: Live Free or Die Hard (6/29/07)
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Beyond the Weekly
What Bush and Batman have in common (Wall Street Journal, 7/25/08)
Hollywood's hero deficit (The American, July/August 2008)

The need for heroism itself seems relatively stable, as do its essentials: competence (super powers, special talents, smarts), character (will, integrity, courage and moral judgment) and community (commitment to a group, service and sacrifice in its name). But all those terms that define heroism are under continued critique (or assault, depending on where you come at this from). We are questioning our heroes’ abilities and competence (as in Hancock); their character and judgment (Wanted); their connection to community (Rambo), and even how the community is defined and whether it’s worthy of being defended (Hot Fuzz, which despite being a comedy, definitely presents the community from hell).

Out of this chorus of doubt and confusion, a central theme is emerging in today’s batch of hero movies: a concern with power. The questions that reach ever more deeply into the myth of heroism are questions about power.

The real American hero is the reluctant hero—John McClane, who saves the day only because no one else can. “If there’s somebody else to do it,” he explains to his latest sidekick in Live Free or Die Hard, “I would let them do it. There’s not, so [I’m] doing it.” That, as is pointed out, is what makes McClane that guy, the go-to guy.

We like our heroes and heroines to have a baseline respect for power—including a desire not to use it until pushed, until there’s no other way, until the other cheek is black and blue—but we wait for the moment when our heroes decide the stakes are high enough and get in the game. When they do, we enjoy the fireworks.

One of the many dividing lines between the right and left is a fundamental difference in the notion of power. Conservatives (in both their “naïve,” limited-government, salt-of-the-earth camp and their “righteous” good-against-evil camp, but especially the latter) are comfortable with power, the way a mechanic is comfortable with an engine, perhaps because they enjoy wielding it, or because they fear the consequences of it being wielded against us. The right gravitates toward heroes who are decisive about using power and about maintaining a clear line between some “us” (America, the West, the privileged, white people, whatever)—in short, a community that can be trusted with power and on whose behalf power is wielded.

The left, by contrast, is suspicious of power, and is more comfortable with heroes who are conflicted and indecisive about power or else skeptical about whether anyone can be trusted to use it; their sympathies tend to lie with victims of power. Conservative shrieks like Ann Coulter are not all wrong when they say liberals hate America—the left distrusts power, and the United States wields the lion’s share. (This is why candidates on the left must habitually make a show of their “toughness,” to varying degrees of success, while toughness is assumed for those on the right.)

It’s no surprise to find modes of heroes increasingly fanning out along this spectrum of power. To one end, we have John Rambo, the righteous killing machine. Spurred to action when faced with an unambiguous evil (in his last film that would be the vicious Burmese junta, introduced CNN-style committing one atrocity after another), he responds with relentless, unstoppable force, observing no limits other than total destruction.

A couple stops in from that end of the line is the buoyant Tony Stark, the man behind Iron Man’s mask. A Mark Cuban of the military-industrial complex, the unctuous Stark gets his comeuppance when he sees up close the devastation his weaponry has caused. Kidnapped and pressed into service building weapons for terrorists, he devises his Iron Man suit to save his own ass, and then he turns over a new leaf.

Stark’s version of heroics is unencumbered. Wealth is nothing to be ashamed of, but instead to be flaunted and enjoyed—and translated into action. To boot, Iron Man, once he decides to put his power to good use (fighting both domestic villains, like his own business partner, and global terrorists with precision weapons that must be the Pentagon’s wet dream), shows that being a hero can still be, you know, fun. Iron Man is closest to the hero most of us would like to be—successful, teched-out, guilt-free, the kind of hero whom unshackled people around the world would welcome as a liberator.

At the other end of the spectrum is Jason Bourne. He maintains much of the heroic trifecta: He possesses dazzling black-ops skills that leave neither him nor us with any doubts about his competence, and as played by the thoughtful Matt Damon he is fundamentally honorable. But Bourne is disenchanted with his powers and his cause, which he views as monstrous (more monstrous than we view them, actually). While Stark needs only a wakeup call to reorient himself from using power carelessly to using it responsibly, Bourne, once the “sharp stick” of American foreign power, has lost all faith in the rightness of his missions and the integrity of his handlers—all of them techno-speaking bureaucrats vacuum-sealed in “operations rooms” who don’t hesitate to kill innocents, or their own. Bourne is adrift. The only world he belongs to, the spooks who made Bourne, are the bad guys across all three movies.

Past Bourne, at the far end of the line, we might find Tommy Lee Jones’ decent Sheriff Bell from No Country for Old Men, utterly powerless against the magnitude of evil he encounters.

Stumbling through the middle are some of this summer’s screen heroes. For a while, anyway, the surly, drunken superhero Hancock resents heroic action, and he does his good deeds with an indifferent heart for a community that not only doesn’t like but doesn’t trust him, because he’s a screwup who’s careless with his powers. (But he’s Will Smith, so you know he’s going to clean up just fine.) In The Incredible Hulk, meanwhile, Bruce Banner, holed up in a Rio favela looking for a cure for his disease, thinks he is the hero because he is skeptical of his power and trying not to succumb to it; he even studies with a Brazilian martial artist to master his anger. But the real hero of the movie, of course, is the destructive Hulk (if only because watching the green giant tear up half of New York is more fun than watching Ed Norton romancing Liv Tyler). Banner believes in the carrot; the Hulk is a stick man. One of the reasons, noted by many, that the Hulk isn’t that interesting a character is that a wall separates his two incarnations. He’s never both at the same time, so his cautious, analytical side never has to confront his unleashed-power side directly. Banner has limited capacity for action; the Hulk has even less for discernment. At the end, the only hope for a dramatically more satisfying sequel is Banner’s devilish smile as he practices controlling the Hulk.

Standing at the rich and loamy center of this power spectrum is Bruce Wayne and Batman. Like Stark, Wayne benefits unapologetically from wealth—he can throw millions into a fundraiser for crusading district attorney Harvey Dent, the man Wayne hopes will take over as Gotham’s No. 1 crime fighter and allow Batman to slowly fade away. As Batman he’s not only unafraid of action, but eager to mix it up with Gotham’s worst. Batman is like the halfback in football who only feels awake after he’s taken that first good hit.

It’s easy to picture the affiliations of some of these heroes—in his own state Stark would almost certainly vote GOP, perhaps for that larger-than-life ex-action star in the governor’s office, a model of robust heroics if ever there was one. Bourne, if he voted at all, would likely go with the prudent Obama.

But this works the other way: Part of the rhetoric of any presidential election year is how well the politicians play at being heroes, or would-be heroes. The last four contenders for commander-in-chief have essayed a particular niche of the hero theme.

The president, most notably, presents himself as a God-fearing cowboy. On paper it’s a brilliant amalgamation of humility and no-nonsense action; in reality it’s proved a volatile combination of ignorance and arrogance. John Kerry tried to run as a wise war hero—one intimately familiar with power’s real-world use and abuse. Yet he revealed himself as a hero with limited potential for action. Allowing himself to get swift-boated as a wuss by the supporters of a man who spent the Vietnam years in the Texas Air National Guard is an unpardonable folly, as if Superman had walked into a store with a giant sign proclaiming, “Kryptonite sold here.” Hard to feel a lot of sympathy.

John McCain’s whole narrative basically boils down to this: His POW experience frames him as a reliable hero who is tested to use power because he’s been on its receiving end. Barack Obama’s heroism, as of yet, is contained largely in his, ahem, origin story. He’s the unlikely kid who would become a heroic uniter of worlds—witness his speech in Berlin. But Obama’s heroism is still largely untried. The question about him, in these terms, is simple. What is his capacity for action?

In this month’s The American, James Bowman argues that Hollywood has simply “forgotten how to portray heroism” and has substituted over the last 30 years templates of phony heroism based around superheroes, victim heroes and whistle blowers—the latter exist only to expose injustice in a corrupted public realm where “the institutions that support the community have now been abandoned to the villains.” The point of his argument is the supposition that these kinds of heroes have make heroism feel remote for everyday people—that it is no longer something they can aspire to, belonging only to a distant and now debased “public sphere.”

The centerpiece of the argument is an analysis of John Ford’s classic western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The film focuses on a lawless frontier town called Shinbone, terrorized by outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin). Into town comes Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart), a green lawyer who wants to bring education, culture and the rule of law to the West. He finds himself in a life-and-death struggle against Valance, who eventually presses Stoddard to a gun duel. Stoddard believe he managed to kill Valance in the fight, but he learns later that Valance was actually shot by the real hero of the story, the tough-as-nails rancher Doniphon (John Wayne), the only man in town unafraid of Valance.

Bowman realizes that bringing order to Shinbone can only be achieved “outside the law, which remains powerless. This puts Doniphone and Liberty … on the same side. Both are outlaws whose would-be heroic struggle has no place in a civilized community. When Wayne triumphs, a way must be found for the townspeople to pretend that it is the law which has rid them of the depredation of Liberty and his gang, and a way is duly found.” Stoddard is hailed as the hero and becomes a U.S. senator; Doniphon is cast aside. (And to add insult to injury, the woman Doniphon loves marries Stoddard.)

Now, if every movie featured heroes like the ones in Wanted—a cabal of villains, really, with no accountability to anyone—then perhaps Bowman’s point would have more stick. We could bemoan having lost one more bit of our collective national integrity and hope that some flag-bearing John Wayne figure might come along and restore American democracy.

But Bowman’s portrayal of Liberty Valance sounds suspiciously like, well, The Dark Knight—where a true hero becomes an outcast. Batman’s most spirited lines in the whole movie are a celebration of the citizens of Gotham, who, when given a chance to blow each other up to save their own lives, refuse. For the caped crusader it’s proof that the Joker has failed to turn the city to chaos, that the people are basically good. It’s this kind of faith in the moral worth and integrity of the community that Bowman finds lacking in our movies and which The Dark Knight seems so thoroughly to embody.

The ethical challenge of the hero is whether you break your values to uphold the community you represent. Batman comes close. He routinely breaks the law as a matter of course, and performs his own version of rendition by kidnapping a mob accountant out of China, drops a mob boss off an eight-story building, merely to break his legs. Later he locks himself into an interrogation cell with the Joker and flirts at the edge of prisoner abuse. But throughout his transgressions, he never strays too far; this is a Batman noteworthy more for his discipline than his dips into the looney bin.

It’s a point completely missed in a recent Wall Street Journal op-ed by mystery novelist Andrew Klavan, who argues that The Dark Knight is undoubtedly “a paean to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”

What Batman and Bush have in common, says Klavan—besides a cheekily noted resemblance between the shape of the bat signal and the letter “W”—is the courage to stand for what’s right in a world where sometimes “we must be intolerant to defend tolerance,” a recognition that “sometimes men must kill in order to preserve life; that sometimes they must violate their values in order to maintain those values,” that real heroes must often “slink in the shadows.”

The difference, though, is one of degree. Batman is not above bending the rules, but for one he doesn’t kill anyone. While the Bush administration’s actions are open-ended, devoid of checks and balance, stockpiling unilateral executive privilege, The Dark Knight is at pains to portray Batman making limited strikes on the other side of the ethical line. Further, while Bush has remained so locked to his own position that words like “steadfastness” have come to mean obliviousness, at least Batman has the decency to question his own limits and to ponder his use of power.

At the end of the film, Batman devises a way to spy on all of Gotham’s citizens in a bid to find the Joker. He puts his company’s CEO, Lucius Fox, in charge of the system. The latter objects to Batman’s curtailment of the citizens’ civil rights. (Given Batman’s other transgressions, about which Fox is quiet, this bit of moral grandstanding rings hollow.)

But Batman, it turns out, is also uncomfortable about the technology’s power, and he tells Fox how to destroy the system once the Joker has been found. In truth this is less a compliment to the Dark Knight’s ethics and more an example of the filmmakers failing to tighten the moral screws all the way—it’s a far stickier notion if Batman decides he must keep his surveillance system in place for months; the ethical line he patrols becomes far muddier.

What is novel in this Batman (at least among the other films in the franchise) is that the character sees himself as only a temporary fix, a jump start to a creaky justice system. A community’s real hero must come with a public identity, with a face. He must be accountable. Anonymous benefactors bearing gifts to hospitals and libraries may remain in the shadows, but not those who are at the knife’s edge helping to clarify the subtlest gradations of right and wrong. The left and the right may disagree on the stability of the line or its location, but both agree there is a line that must be identified and defended.

Have we lost our bearings, or are we only questioning our bearings in full? Bowman, in talking about the American GIs who fought in World War II, notes that these men “wanted to believe that they had been fighting for ‘a better world’ (as it was so often formulated), by which they meant, among other things, a world that would have no need of heroes.”

Most of the critiques of heroism don’t quite get to this level of challenging heroism itself, or imagining a world where one day we might not need them. It’s hard to imagine what such a world would look like.

In 2006’s disappointing Superman Returns, Lois Lane wins a Pulitzer for arguing that the world doesn’t need Superman, and after watching what amounted to a dispiriting remake of the original, I am inclined to agree.

The problem with Superman, at least as depicted in Bryan Singer’s film, is that he’s less hero and more God. (And I don’t mean another iteration of the Christ-like hero, arms spread in sacrificial good deeds—I mean the Almighty.) Superman’s moral integrity is so high that he not only renders the citizens of Metropolis virtually inert, it makes them, and us, demand too much of him. He may stop a bumbling Lex Luthor, but we want to see him do something worthy of his power. Find Osama bin Laden. Solve global warming. Cure cancer. God’s excuse for his lack of action in those departments is that he’s never seen; Superman lacks that luxury. As a symbol of heroism, Superman will endure; as its flesh-and-blood embodiment, he holds less appeal.

But the Dark Knight, who has to work to stay on the moral straight and narrow, stands at the center of our conversation about power—the need to have it and use it, and our awareness of its limitations, and ours. In other words, for all the “darkness” attributed to Christopher Nolan’s film, the title character emerges as a beacon of hope—a committed, struggling, capable human hero.

In a recent interview the actor Michael Caine reportedly proclaimed that Superman is the hero Americans see themselves as; Batman is how the rest of the world sees us. Perhaps the lines between the two are finally beginning to collapse.


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