Heroes and their Discontents
The heroes’ journey is probably one the most well-known ideas in critical theory. A casual survey that I conducted among random strangers left me finding about one person in five to be familiar with the broad outlines of the thing. Our society has continued producing these deeply rooted stories, tapping into the near-limitless vein of the monomyth. But as we have evolved, so has the hero’s narrative. They have become more abrupt perhaps, but our times require a more precise formula for selflessness.
Our contemporary morality tales come to through pages and screens. They offer us examples of shining justice, heroes that come to us more or less fully formed. Their power, whether it be cosmic, creative, or patronymic, allows them to tower above their fellows, held aloft by seemingly naught but their greatness. But when the hero rises, something rushes in to hold them up; something that colors the story they create. Because the selflessness of heroes creates hope. That hope begets trust, and that trust weighs like an anchor on heroes’ hearts.
This arc alone doesn’t explain the enduring fascination though. Heroism resonates with people in part because life so frequently challenges our private sense of fairness—life asks us to choose justice; life asks us to sacrifice for the greater good. I think the empathy we find for the hero begins here, and ends with the hope that their triumph engenders. Heroes do more than offer examples to be followed. They teach us how to feel about our own circumstances, and give us the stories we need to cope. They help us understand the world we live in.
Popular fiction, from Bronte to King, has always attempted to explore and offer reason to social norms. It should not surprise us that the great novels of the 19th century focused heavily on the twin challenges of marriage and money: these were central concerns and were familiar to everyone. Superhero morality plays and heroes-journey science fiction dramas might wear their symbolism on their sleeves, but they’re trying to do the same thing: teach us something about choice.
For the hero in the classical sense, choice is something that is presented. To borrow Joseph Cambell’s phrasing, heroes are called to adventure. They must choose to abandon the familiar and to embrace the adventure to come. In it’s way, choice offers heroes a special kind of agency denied to those around them. When the world asks them to act, they take on a kind of freedom. For axiomatic reason, heroes always aspire to make the best choices—the content of those choices is ultimately cultural, but the hero’s legacy is made by their track record, and remembered by all manner of bystanders. At their best, they show all of us how we know we should behave, but often don’t. We all know that justice is more important than personal gain. We all know that doing the right thing for your fellow humans is the most profound act that a person can undertake. And when the chips are down, heroes remember. They choose selflessness.
But to actually live as such? Well, we have to eat. To make a living, we must be able to compromise these heroic values. Life is more nuanced than our dreams.
Of course, everyone knows this. Adults are much better at compromising their sense of right and wrong than children are. Adults are also far better at rationalizing such choices in others. It’s reasonable to assume then, that most of us don’t view our pasts as particularly heroic. To that end, our more complicated era demands a new approach to heroism—one that allows us some time to get it right.
Antiheroes offer us our salvation. They seldom are offered their call to action—antiheroes are almost universally the product of some personal sin, and it is as a consequence this that the choice is made. This was true for Dostoyevsky’s Raskalnikov, it was true for Marvel’s Deadpool. The antihero’s choice emerges from another axiom: evil inevitably devours itself, and the antihero must learn to turn their talents back at that Evil, lest they be eaten—in this way, theirs are tales of (often temporary) redemption.
Like the hero, the central role of the antihero is to shine a light into the complexities of modern morality. Like the hero, this is a character that is meant to be admired. Unlike their shining cousin, the antihero’s tale is ultimately a promise: a promise that, no matter how dark the choices that the world thrusts upon them, when they choose selflessness, they will succeed. Antiheroes give sinners hope.
The substance of that hope makes for the texture of the story. Most frequently, antiheroes gain absolution and even celebration in exchange for their acts. From the writer’s perspective, this makes them more fun too. Crafting Raskanikov’s joy at his just punishment, or Wolverine’s acceptance into the X-Men are fine creative feats, and deeply consoling. No Country for Old Men denied us any satisfaction at all—real perhaps, but too unsentimental for most.
Yet they have left a deep mark on our culture and our literature. The antihero’s complications make them relatable in a way that more traditional heroes aren’t. They start with their own limitations, and through them learn the cost of their moral weaknesses. Antiheroes are plagued by our doubts; their choice to renounce shows us a new way.