The modern cinema scene is awash with the new breed of legendary heroes. Batman. Superman. Iron Man. Spiderman. (gosh, there really is a regrettably male skew here. Roll on 2017.)
We know what makes a hero. Extraordinary abilities, a sense of goodness, and an appetite for overcoming adversity. But our perceptions of heroes and the ideals they embody are rooted in our social context. It can be a culture shock to look back at the legendary heroes of Greek myth—Achilles, Hektor, Odysseus, and their ilk—and see just how differently they behave.
How heroes are made
Classical heroes are figures of religion. Achilles is the son of the sea-nymph Thetis and the mortal Peleus. Paris, the one who started the whole Trojan–Greek kerfuffle, was favoured by Aphrodite. The family trees of Homer’s Iliad are lousy with divines. This tends to be the source of heroes’ extraordinary qualities—Achilles’ famous heel, Herakles’ powers, Paris’ divine protection.
On the cinema screen, we have abandoned the religious aspect. It seems far too outlandish to our rational modern sensibilities. We prefer our heroes to be grounded in science.
Like The Incredible Hulk, who was exposed to gamma radiation and now transforms into a giant green rage monster when he gets angry.
Or Iron Man, a genius billionaire (you know the rest) who flies and fights terrorism through the power of engineering.
Or Captain America, injected with SCIENCE to make him into a supersoldier, but with heart.
I’m zeroing in on the Marvel movie mythology there, but you take my point. There seems to be more appetite for these ‘heroes of science’ than for the pseudo-mystical trappings of even the established Superman. When there are mystical elements, there’s an effort to contextualise them through science—look at Dr Jane Foster and crew in Thor. When it comes to our legendary heroes, we like to think of ourselves as people of science, not religion, even if the science is total crap.
The heroic ideal
For us, heroism is interwoven with selflessness. A hero is willing to compromise their own life for some greater ideal of goodness—Spiderman juggling jobs and studying because he spends all his time fighting crime (see: Spiderman 2), Bruce Wayne giving up happiness with the girl he loves because ‘Gotham needs him’, Captain America crashing a Hydra megaplane into the ocean (and missing his date).
There are exceptions. The fact that Tony Stark defying his egomania is a notable plot point in The Avengers demonstrates what a subversion of our expectations his typical character represents. He is the exception that proves the rule.
Classical Greek heroes were all about themselves. They offered significant value within society—such as Achilles with his martial prowess—but only did so on the presumption of getting their dues, the trifecta: time (honour), kleos (reputation), and geras (booty). When they don’t get them, they pout, they cry, and they refuse to hero. Like here, when Achilles has his prize-bride Briseis taken by Agamemnon:
The son of Peleus again began railing at the son of Atreus…”Winebibber,” he cried, “with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind…now the sons of the Achaeans bear it as judges and guardians of the decrees of heaven—so surely and solemnly do I swear that hereafter they shall look fondly for Achilles and shall not find him.
Homer, Iliad 1.224-240
To the modern reader, Achilles paints Greek heroes as a bunch of indolent man-children.
A matter of murder
There’s also the killing. For us, killing is the mark of a villain or a bona-fide anti-hero. Raised as we are on Batman’s ‘one rule’, it’s a Big Deal for a hero to cross that line. Even Captain America doesn’t kill in The First Avenger, and he’s fighting in World War II, one of the times we readily accept our on-screen heroes killing people.
The Greeks had no such reservations. Their heroes are martial by definition—the idea of being a warrior was so fundamental to their heroic archetype that heroes were almost always soldiers, and when they weren’t, they were still really good at fighting. Paris is skilled with a bow, but is mocked for his lack of ‘front and centre’ fighting ability; ‘better a bastard than a bowman’ (a joke people still like to make about Hawkeye).
While we’ve become squeamish about our heroes using lethal force, we’ve maintained martial focus. Not many heroes are soldiers, but every mainstream superhero movie revolves around the hero’s capacity to literally fight some force of evil.
It reflects our morals around killing that even in dire circumstances, killing is the Thing that Heroes Do Not Do. Though it does leave us in the odd position of having to believe that no-one died during 120 minutes of the hero’s wanton destruction.
Stories require conflict. Heroes need a framework of adversity in which to fight and triumph—something against which to struggle; otherwise, they’re just people in outlandish costumes. Both ancient and modern superhero stories tend to ground this in physical conflict, but the Greek way feels more honest. We leave ourselves with the dissonance of saying ‘selflessness is good, killing is bad’, while depicting behaviour which says ‘might is right’.
Our myths reflect us. It’s not an astounding revelation that the stories we tell mirror our perceptions of our ideals. Our heroes are mighty and selfless, but they don’t kill. The Greek’s heroes were just as mighty, but fought for more codified rewards—honour and booty. We hold our heroes to a different standard, but the framework is the same. We like to think of ourselves as clean-handed people who prize selflessness, but are unwilling to give up a fascination with violence which is at odds with that. We still cling on to some fundamentals of classical heroism, juxtaposing them with modern ideals: We may hold our heroes to a different standard, but the legends of the classical heroes live on through our stories.