Friday, August 14, 2009

How do you like your heroes?

Whether it is film (Star Trek), television (Battlestar Galactica), or print (Harry Potter), our most recent heroes seem to be made out of the same mold.

1. He is guided by instinct. This isn’t to say the hero is unintelligent. Kirk’s “aptitudes scores are off the charts,” while Starbuck is a flight instructor. Harry does well on his exams, though he only seems to be tested once a year. What is important is that none of them deliberate when they’re in a dilemma. Instead, they instinctively or intuitively react to the situation. Often, they are praised for not thinking. Moreover, they are contrasted with characters who are characterized by their rationality: Spock, Apollo, and Hermione. Notice that none of these other characters are villains. They’re either sidekicks or backups to the heroes. They’re praised for their braininess, but their subordinate status is never in doubt.

2. He has a propensity to break rules. The hero is not a rebel, but he is not an establishment man (e.g. Percy) either. He works within the system-until an emergency arises. This usually annoys the establishment to no end. Spock tells Kirk, “I would cite protocol, but I know you would ignore it.” Starbuck has to be thrown into the brig a few times and Dumbledore actually praises Harry for his rule-breaking. Of course, the rules they break are never moral principles, only legal ones. Legal rules, the product of finite minds, cannot cover all cases. Emergencies reveal the need for practical wisdom or prudence-the ability to judge what solution will work in a unique situation. And it is this ability to think outside of the box which distinguishes the heroes from their supporting cast.

3. He is very young. All of the characters know someone significantly older than them who you would expect to be the actual hero. The cult of youth is at work here, but not in its most pernicious form. Captain Pike, Commander Adama, and Professor Dumbledore are all portrayed as venerable, yet they are never on center stage. Pike’s self-sacrifice is noble, but Kirk has to rescue him. Adama orders others around while Starbuck is in the battle. Dumbledore usually shows up at the end of the final scene to clean things up. They’re never in the thick of it, like the youngsters are. The celebration of youth is clear, although mild.

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