Are fallen heroes the new normal? Or did I just grow up?
It used to be that, when I watched film and television, I could count on the good guys to be good and the bad guys to be bad. The hero of the piece would always do the right thing. Heroes were handsome and (usually) American. Villains were sneering and foreign. You saw one of the bad guys being shot and thought “that’s okay, he’s evil, it’s okay to kill evil people.”
But then we got bored of worshipping ciphers.
Superman was always good… but equally dull. He always did the right thing, never showed any moral weakness. Even his disguise was boring.
Sure, some of our heroes had failings, but you never questioned their character. When I was little, my personal hero was The Greatest American Hero: an everyman who received the gift of an alien suit (complete with toeless boots and a natty red cape) that gave him superpowers, but lost the instruction booklet, leaving him hapless. He was a klutz, but he never did anything immoral.
Even the A-Team, who operated outside the law, only did so because they were “…framed for a crime they did not commit.” In the 80s, even the criminals were helping the innocent.
So what changed? Either our pop culture overlords acted on our requests for characters with more than two dimensions. Or we just grew up.
When I was little, I never imagined that a serial killer would be able to carry a popular prime-time show. But Dexter does it. Each season teased us with multiple near misses, with Dexter almost being found out, but managing to escape at the last moment. And every time, we breathed a sigh of relief that the serial killer had survived to kill again.
Then we had 24, the show that would seem to serve as propaganda for the Bush-era “Enhanced Interrogation,” See? Torture works! Jack Bauer used it to save the world!
And we’ve all seen Homeland right? CIA agent helps admitted terrorist escape the US after he’s killed the VP. But we still like Carrie and Brody (despite, or perhaps because of the cryface).
The show that twitched me to this line of thinking was the recent Kevin Bacon vehicle: The Following. Bacon plays Ryan Hardy, an ex FBI-agent and (barely) functioning alcoholic who gets drawn into the sadistic games of a serial killer that he put in jail. We like Ryan, he’s got problems, but he’s quick with a quip and much smarter than the rest of the FBI. We’ve completely bought into him as a hero… And then he shoots an unarmed man in the head in retaliation for killing an FBI agent. Suddenly, I don’t like Ryan so much, and yet he’s still the hero.
See here’s my thesis (and I’m going to show myself up here as a bit of a geek): Heroes used to be lawful good. Nowadays they’re chaotic good (or even chaotic neutral for the periods in which they can’t be bothered – I’m looking at you Christian Bale reboot Batman)
Either one of two things has happened. Either writers are going out of their way to see how far they can push the definition of hero, or this stuff was there all along, and I’ve been hideously naïve all this time…. I think it’s the prior, but I’m open to being convinced otherwise.