Everybody Needs a Hero
Every good story has a hero. Those heroes are not perfect, but they are quite often more noble than many of us. And that’s a good thing. Because a literary hero quite often becomes a friend, at least for the time that we read the story and perhaps long after. And friends can pull us in one of two ways, upwards to improve our character, or downwards to debase it. Which is why, whether you realize it or not, the fictional company you keep is important. As Menander wrote:
Bad company corrupts good character
The good news is that there are so many wonderful stories out there and so many great heroes that we need never be wanting for good company. This is one of the wonderful gifts of story, that regardless of our present location or social circumstances we can meet in the pages of a good book a friend to encourage and inspire us along our journey. Of course our truest friends should come from those around us, but in the absence of good company or even as a supplement to it, good stories can add to our lives in this way.
I find that in cinema, because it is a visual medium, it is much harder to make such friends. The reason for this is that firstly, the films themselves so rarely offer up characters of integrity, but the second is more endemic to the art form itself. We can often be drawn to a particular character because of the physical qualities of the person playing them such as appearance and voice. And so we end up loving them for the wrong reasons and chasing after the actor rather than the character. This can happen in fiction as well when an author writes cookie cutter characters or formulaic plots. We are drawn to the outward form and miss the substance which is often non-existent.
Not a perfect soldier, but a good man
But it is not impossible to find in film. One of my favorite examples of this is Peter Parker from Spiderman. He’s not perfect, he makes some mistakes, but, as Henry V might say, “by the mass his heart is in the trim.” In other words, he is a hero not just on the outside only, but he had the heart of a hero long before he was ever bitten by a spider and given his super powers. He wants to protect his Aunt and the girl he loves. He wants to stand up for the little guy because, quite frankly, he knows what it’s like to be the little guy.
There is a scene in the second Spider-Man film that I think brings this whole idea of what it means to be a hero home. And the message is given, fittingly, by Aunt May, who is sort of Peter’s mentor and guide in the film series, especially after the death of his uncle. The scene takes place behind Aunt May’s house when Peter is having second thoughts about his life as Spider-Man and a neighbor boy passes by.
Aunt May: You’ll never guess who he wants to be…Spider-Man.
Aunt May: He knows a hero when he sees one. Too few characters out there, flying around like that… saving old girls like me. And Lord knows, kids like Henry need a hero. Courageous, self-sacrificing people…setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them. Cheer them. Scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us that keeps us honest…gives us strength…makes us noble…and finally allows us to die with pride. Even though sometimes we have to be steady…and give up the thing we want the most, even our dreams. Spider-Man did that for Henry and he wonders where he’s gone. He needs him.
You see, sometimes being a hero is not about getting all the accolades and admiration. Sometimes it’s as simple as doing the right thing whether or not anyone is looking. Sometimes it can mean giving up your personal dreams because there are others who need you. There are millions of mothers and fathers out there today who are heroes to their kids for doing just that. They won’t get written up in the news or have movies made about them for doing things like taking out the trash or changing a diaper or kissing a scraped knee or tucking their son or daughter in at night, but for those kids, they are more of a hero than Spider-Man or Superman will ever be. Their children might not even know it, and if they do they might not say it, but that’s what it means to be a hero, to do the steady thing, the right thing.
And yet, as Aunt May suggests, these fictional heroes can help us when we take their qualities and translate them into our own lives. We all need examples of heroes like that to inspire us, to become better parents or friends or co-workers. It may not be obvious that reading about a hero’s courage when facing down a dragon will help us confront our own fears, but this is precisely what a good story does. Courage, honor, and sacrifice may be hard to come by in the world around us, but the great stories are a deep well to draw from in this regard. I’ve quoted Chesterton on this score elsewhere, but I think it’s worth repeating here again:
Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms [us]…to the idea…that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.
I hope you read stories that inspire you to make sacrifices for the good of those around you, to face the villains you need to face, to be a person of character in a world that desperately needs more heroes.
Sometimes it’s a good thing when life imitates art.