Postmodern subversion of the hero

Postmodern subversion of the hero. By the Saxon Cross.

Here’s my two main distinctions between the classic folk hero and the Marvel-morality superhero.

Classical heroes kill their enemies:

This is really their most essential job. The role of the hero archetype is to slay dragons and evil kings. Their purpose is to root out evil. They may show mercy on occasion, but this is not their primary role. Mercy-giver is the role of the king. The Folk Hero’s job is a violent one for the sake of good.

However, your typical modern era hero story almost always includes a moment where the villain must be offered a chance for “rehabilitation”, or must stand trial, or where the hero does everything in his power to avoid using deadly force out of some moral reluctance. The modern hero is suspiciously full of reluctance to stamp out evil.

This “Marvel morality” is everywhere.

Try paying attention to this next time you watch a modern action movie. There is almost universally a moment in every film where the main character will show some reluctance to kill a truly evil villain (never mind the countless nameless villains the hero kills- this sentiment is reserved only for the main antagonist). This is a truly inexplicable trope.

What it reveals is a reluctance on the part of modern Western culture to define actual evil. Everything must be nuanced. When we knew what evil was, heroes did not have to waste time on these silly moral dilemmas. …

Questions like these would not have even been asked a couple of generations ago, but in modern media a hero that kills evil without hesitation is unheard of. It would offend our modern sensibilities.

Think of Superman, or Batman. One of their defining traits is an unwillingness to kill. Even to kill evil, heinous villains. Its fine for Superman to destroy an entire city and likely countless civilians, but not to actually kill the main antagonist. Why? It is because they are products of a Neo-liberal marvel morality. …

A real folk hero suffers none of these delusions. If Superman were a real hero, he would kill evil men, not let them live to murder another day. …

Classical heroes are born for the job.

They are demigods, or come from a long line of Kings, or are chosen by a higher power, or are a farm boy who is unaware that he actually comes from heroic stock. There is something actually heroic about them.

But in almost every modern superhero movie, the hero gets his powers through random chance. There is no divine call. No real heroic spirit. Just a glut of regular guys who get superpowers. …

Compare these two statements, one from Aragorn in LOTR and one from the Captain America movie.

“’I am Aragorn, son of Arathorn, and am called Elessar, the Elfstone, Dúnadan, the heir of Isildur Elendil’s son of Gondor”

“I’m just a kid from Brooklyn”.

There is nothing actually wrong with the Everyman-hero archetype, it has its place. But modern media does not just use this archetype, but has totally replaced the noble hero with the everyman. …

Very often in modern media, the villain is actually someone with the classic hero archetype. They are often nobility, or wealthy. They have all the makings of a normal folk hero- but they turn evil. You can see the subversion here. Modern media has turned the everyman against the classic hero. In a modern retelling, Sam would still be the hero, but Aragorn would turn out to be a pompous tyrant. …

We are being conditioned:

I want to make it clear that all of these tropes are ok in the correct context. Showing mercy to villains, everyman heroes, reluctance to take life, none of this is inherently bad. But these tropes are being used incorrectly, they are being used subversively. …

The consumers aren’t stupid. They watch the modern movies for the nuggets of real heroism. They do not watch them for the tedious moralizing being forced upon them and their heroes.

No one actually cares if Captain America is reluctant to kill the villain. They just roll their eyes and wait for the monologue to stop and the action to start.


Even as a child, I found it infuriating how Hollywood never permitted a hero to take decisive action, but only allowed him to use lethal force after first defeating, then mercifully sparing, the villain, who would then inexplicably attempt, and fail, to kill the hero, leaving the latter no choice but to finally finish off the villain. The first Lethal Weapon is a particularly egregious example of this cinematic trope.

In fact, at this point Batman should really be regarded as an accomplice and an enabler of the Joker, given how many times he has spared him and thereby permitted him to murder again and again and again. One might not unreasonably suspect Batman of harboring secret sympathies for the Joker’s attitude toward the human race.