Last night, my wife and I watched Independence Day, the 1996 movie with Will Smith, in which hostile aliens from outer space start destroying major cities. It was one of my son’s favorite movies when it came out years ago, and was a huge commercial success. But my wife hadn’t seen it before.
She was impressed, and thought it was a very well-made movie. As I watched it with her, I wondered why it seemed so wonderful.
“You don’t watch action movies anymore,” my son often says to me, and it’s true. And it’s not just that I’m busier now, or that I more often see movies with my wife than with my son: the latest crop of action movies no longer appeals. I couldn’t care less about the exploits of Spider-Man, Ironman, the Fantastic Four, Hellboy, or any of the comic-book superheroes prowling the screens today.
And when I watched Independence Day last night, I understood why. Independence Day told the story of ordinary mortals who were pressed to become heroes. And so it was with the James Bond movies, The Peacemaker, Armageddon, and the other action movies that my son and I enjoyed in the 1990s. While sometimes it was the hero’s job to be a hero, in every case the hero was still an ordinary person.
I am starved for the sight of such a hero in the movies or television: an otherwise ordinary person who rises to a challenge, faces it with grace and skill, and prevails.
Last week, I went to see Get Smart with my son. Maxwell Smart was never a hero: he was an amiable buffoon who happened to solve the problems at hand. And while the movie tends more to action than the 1960s TV series did, it’s still more of a comedy. So while it was fun, it didn’t hit my hero spot.
And then there’s Hancock, this year’s Will Smith movie. Hancock is an otherwise ordinary guy with superhero skills. But since he apparently doesn’t know what to do with them, he begins the movie as a drunken bum.
It was a truism where I used to work (a very large organization) that there are ‘no more heroes.’ In some quarters ‘heroics’ is almost a dirty word: it’s the way unsophisticated, immature organizations accomplish things. The Disney animated movie The Incredibles took a tongue-in-cheek view, positing a world in which the superheroes were forced to retire under the threat of lawsuits.
Over 400 years ago, Sheakespeare wrote in ‘King Henry v’:
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favour’d rage;
In other words, the hero is there inside of us, waiting to be unleashed should the circumstances present themselves.
But if we’re told all our lives that there are no such things as heroes, what will we do?