This is a revised version of something I wrote and posted in 2004.
Years ago I asked myself what the basic ingredients were that made a fictional character qualify as a “hero” in my eyes. Just winning lots and lots of fights with “bad guys” didn’t prove you were a much better person than your opponents, after all. It only proved you were a lean mean fighting machine. I came up with three key factors.
The hero should have a moral code, a set of values that recognizes that some things are far more important than his personal comfort, wealth, reputation, or even his own survival if it comes right down to it.
Of course, this is complicated by the obvious fact that not all heroes share the exact same code — for instance, Superman and Batman generally hate the idea of deliberately killing your enemies on the battlefield, but many “heroes” in comics and other mediums of entertainment take a different attitude (especially the ones who are fighting in regular wars). Still and all, I can respect a character who holds firmly to a core set of values in his behavior, even when it would be much more convenient to quietly look the other way while telling his conscience to take a nap.
I don’t expect to always agree with a fictional hero’s version of morals, but I do want to have him something I can recognize as a moral code, even if its flawed in spots. As a plus, it always helps if, when he violates his own sense of morality, in the long run he ends up recognizing he really shouldn’t have done that even if it felt good at the time. Or else ends up rethinking his previous definition of “morality” as it applies to certain worst-case scenarios that he’s just recently encountered. Anyone has the right to change his opinions, after all!
Does he really have the strength of his convictions?
A character demonstrates courage when he knowingly takes serious risks, and/or makes sacrifices, in order to pursue an agenda based upon his moral code. A bank robber who takes great risks in his efforts to steal a few million dollars so he can subsequently live a wild lifestyle full of “wine, women, and song” just doesn’t cut it as a “hero.” Ditto for a bounty hunter or mercenary whose motivation seems to be: “Hey, I’m only in it for the money! Wave enough cash at me and I’ll go fight anybody!” Even though the thing he was doing for the money might be “legal” and/or “moral” from an outsider’s perspective, it’s his motives that really matter when I’m gauging his “heroism” or lack thereof.
Han Solo seemed to be taking exactly that self-centered attitude when Luke Skywalker was frantically trying to persuade him to help rescue Princess Leia from her captivity on the Death Star in the original “Star Wars” movie. “She’s rich” was the argument that finally won Han’s assistance. Luke obviously didn’t care about the money at all, so his idealistic motives made his participation heroic, but Han wasn’t there yet. (Or at least he claimed he wasn’t.)
On the other hand, in the final battle in that movie, when Han Solo (having already received a cash reward and loudly announced he was scramming as fast as possible so he could go spend it) suddenly came flying in out of nowhere to blindside Darth Vader and buy Luke Skywalker the window of opportunity to complete his bombing run and destroy the Death Star, that was heroic courage.
I don’t mean high IQ. No need for the hero to be a supergenius like Reed Richards. After all, I respect Sue Richards and Ben Grimm at least as much as I do Reed. (I usually don’t feel as much respect for their teammate Johnny Storm, but that’s not because of his IQ, whatever it may be).
But I wanted a one-word summary of the attribute I was referring to and that was the best I could do. Another way to say it might be “common sense” or “the ability to get a clue.” It’s fine with me if the hero probably would get an average score on an IQ test. He doesn’t have to be a master of quantum physics or anything like that.
In other words, if a hero is to impress me in the long run, he must demonstrate the ability to learn from his own mistakes so he doesn’t keep getting caught in the same sort of trap, over and over and over and over again, without the experience ever having any perceptible effect on his brain cells. And if he got caught off-guard by a new villain the first couple of times they fought, the hero should eventually come up with some sort of plan that takes the villain’s specific strengths and weaknesses into account.
To offer a few examples . . .
Stan Lee used to take that kind of “learning curve” concept into account in his plots in the early years of the “Amazing Spider-Man.”
Routinely, Spidey would bump into some colorful new bad guy and would take a poke at him, figuring he could put this latest costumed nutcase on ice in about ten seconds flat — and then he’d call it a night.
Routinely, Spidey would then suffer the humiliation of getting beaten till he was black-and-blue (or suffered a nasty electrical shock that knocked him flat, or whatever the villain’s schtick was) and the villain would sneer and make his getaway. Spidey would be badly shaken by the experience.
But eventually Spidey would start thinking long and hard about the lessons to be learned from this, and would come up with a new gadget or tactic to shift the odds the next time they tangled, usually resulting in a stunning “surprise victory for the underdog” in the rematch!
As one of the earliest examples: In “Amazing Spider-Man #3,” right after his first humiliating clash with Doc Ock, Peter Parker was down in the dumps. He only found the nerve to seek a rematch after the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch visited Peter’s high school and gave a rousing lecture on the value of stubborn perseverance in the face of adversity, et cetera. Since Peter was in plainclothes at the time of the lecture, Johnny didn’t have a clue what was going on when, at the very end of the tale, Spidey (having finally clobbered Doc Ock) dropped in on him just long enough to offer some heartfelt gratitude for all the help Torchy had been to him.
On the other hand! As a kid, I used to be bothered by all the times the Pre-Crisis Superman totally failed to learn from experience regarding the proper way to fight bad guys who might have kryptonite up their sleeves. It seemed to me that it usually worked something like this: Superman would see criminals running away from a bank robbery, and would fly down toward them, moving slowly enough that they had all the time in the world to see him coming and react by pulling out a lead box which they opened to reveal a chunk of kryptonite . . . or some other fancy weapon that could actually knock him for a loop if it scored a direct hit on his body, or whatever.
Logically, if Superman is faster than a speeding bullet, “ordinary” human crooks who only have the reflexes of regular people should be totally unable to see him coming, much less find the time to pull out and aim their Anti-Superman-Weapons, before he has already searched them for such weapons with his X-ray vision; stripped them of mysterious lead boxes, fancy death-ray-pistols, powered armor, or other nasty tricks; handcuffed them; and deposited them at the nearest police station, all of which should have taken the Pre-Crisis, “I-can-fly-faster-than-lightspeed!” Superman about .0001 seconds.
Unless, of course, Superman had a death wish and was deliberately going in slow and dumb to make himself as much of an easy target as possible . . . or was just too clueless to ever learn from painful experience? (The latter seemed to be the case.) I preferred, and still prefer, such heroes as Batman and Spider-Man and others who aren’t naturally bulletproof, can’t move faster than the human eye can see, and thus have an easier time of persuading me that they are bravely doing “their very best” against nasty odds without deliberately handicapping themselves by moving much slower in a fight than they could if they really cared about efficiency!
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