The Sons of Apollo – The Aspirational HeroesThe Dark Herald
This is the second of my series on superhero archetypes.
When I look back on the most challenging and difficult events of my life and do so rationally, I know that Marine Corps Bootcamp should not be anywhere on that list. I was never in danger of being killed (in any serious way). I knew where my next meal was coming from. I had no children to worry about. And my money worries were non-existent because there was no pay until the end of Bootcamp. And still, I instinctively think of it as the hardest thing I ever had to go through. The reason for that is simple enough.
It was the first time in my life where I was constantly being held to a standard of perfection. And I was held to that standard for months. Naturally, I couldn’t meet it. None of us did, (although some of us weren’t trying as hard as others). But that standard of being my absolute best was something that I was pushed toward constantly for three months. It deeply affected me for the rest of my life.
What is the aspirational superhero?
At his core, he is the man we all wish in our hearts we could be. The man we know we should be. The man who is the best in all of us. The man who we (in a word) aspire to be.
He is a symbol of what we deem to be the finest in humanity. He is a flawless, faultless paragon of personal character. And one who possesses a power greater than any of the other superheroes of his pantheon. Not physical or mental power, although in truth they almost always have those. No, their greatest power is unassailable moral superiority.
A criminal’s fear of Batman was always a primal animal terror. A prey animal being pursued by a predator. But the criminal’s fear of Superman came from a colder, more remote, and terrible place within him. The criminal knew that somehow, in some way that he could never define, Superman had the right to judge him.
I freely admit, an aspirational hero is challenging to write as a main protagonist. It’s much easier to write as a supporting character. They are great as mentors, councilors or as (duh) the guy your hero aspires to be. They are also a very handy, biggest gun that gets the protagonist conveniently out of his early scrapes with a bad guy he couldn’t win against yet.
In My Hero Acadamia, All Might (a very thinly veiled superman pastiche) is the hero that Midoriya idolizes. He is the hero that acts as a mentor to Midoriya. All Might saves Midoriya several times before he can grant him his powers.
The aspirational hero can also be a rock to cling to when your protagonist is at his lowest.
When the urban fantasy wizard, Harry Dresden was at his lowest point in Skin Game, he drove to Holy Knight of the Cross (ret.) Michael Carpenter’s house. His first words to Michael were a sobbing, “I’m lost.” To which Michael naturally replied, “come in.” Michael dusted Harry off, gave him some wise words of encouragement, and sent him back to battle the forces of darkness secure in the knowledge that if Michael said he was still a good man, then he was.
Additionally, if you kill off the mentor at the height of Act II, your protagonist and your audience both know that he is really up shit creek without a paddle. It’s all on him now to be as good a man as his mentor was if not better.
Our need for the aspirational heroes is like our need for water and air. The need is that aboriginally fundamental to our makeup as human beings. Our reactions to the traits that turn a character into a hero we find aspirational can’t be taught. SJWs claim that these are simply socialized reactions and the only thing we need to do is socialize new traits. They are completely wrong. The traits that make a character an aspirational hero can’t be acquired. Our reactions to those traits come from a place that is too deep to be the product of nurture
So, what are those traits?
First and foremost, the defining trait of the aspirational hero is instinctive prudence. The ability to determine what is the right course of action in any situation and pursue it.
“For as long as I can remember I just wanted to do what was right.” – Steve Rogers
Also, they are pure of heart. Instinctively so. Their inherent goodness is at the core of their characters. It’s also the reason that everyone reacts to these characters the way they do. This is not a Mary Sue being rewarded for living at the center of her universe. This is how people respond to genuine, heartfelt goodness as a baseline human reaction. At least when these heroes are written properly.
This brings us to the next trait, great power under great restriction. The power they are entrusted with does not get handed over to anybody without the fortitude to control their emotions. The most powerful of them could destroy the world, so you don’t hand that power over to someone given to tantrums. When Sir Michael Carpenter had Nicodemus Archleone on his knees (whose 1,500-year existence has been a trail of corpses in the millions, torture and cruelty), he doesn’t swing his sword. He tries to save his soul.
In All Star Superman, Kal-El finally manages the impossible and reforms Lex Luthor
The aspirational hero is destiny-driven more than anything else. Yes, his primary motivation is prudence, but he was born with that prudence. The truth about aspirational heroes is that they did not choose what they were born to be. It is their fate.
Last but not optional, there is absolutely NO REDEMPTION ARC. If you are trying to tell an aspirational hero’s story and it has a redemption arc you got it wrong. You’ve blown it. You done fucked up. No genuine aspirational hero will ever have a redemption arc. The aspirational hero is a paragon. That kind of hero is absolutely pure and has to stay that way or they are no longer aspirational. Any writer who tells you that his aspirational hero has fallen and is rising again is an SJW trying to sell you on his definition of what everyone should think is the good and the true and isn’t. Avoid those like the plague.
Finally, there are the optional extra traits that are purely cultural but expected from that culture.
If you take a look at the myths surrounding Apollo, a modern Westerner wouldn’t find him all that aspirational. Apollo seems to us to be as utterly vain, ruthless, and cruel as the rest of the gods of Olympus. But to the ancient Greeks, those were survival traits. The real aspirational part was being the best and greatest at logic, medicine, healing, music, poetry, archery, the sun itself, and being the lord and leader of all the muses. It says something about him that he is the one Greek god that the Romans didn’t give a different name to.
The three biggest aspirational heroes in American comics all came from poor backgrounds. Steve Rogers came from a poor section of Brooklyn. Billy Batson came from an orphanage in Philadelphia. Clark Kent came from a small family farm in rural America.* All were rather poor, which seems to carry the peculiar emphasis on humble origins that my countrymen are obsessed with. I personally never found poverty all that virtue inspiring myself, but your mileage may vary.
And speaking of origins, there are two basic type of aspirational hero
The first kind of aspirational hero is, The Deliverer.
The Deliverer always comes with some quasi-religious undertones attached. This isn’t really a good or bad thing, it’s a human thing. We will respond to certain story archetypes a certain way. First, the Deliverer is a hero who is always sent by someone.
“They can be a great people Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason, above all, for their capacity for good, I have sent them you, my only son.” -Jor-El
Wonder Woman was an emissary of peace sent by the Amazons as a gift to the world of men, to show the way of a hand that was raised first, in friendship.
The Deliverer also leans heavily towards virgin birth.
Wonder Woman was fashioned out of clay by Queen Hippolyta and was then given life by Zeus.
Superman being found in a rocket by the Kents is admittedly more of a meta-virgin birth. But it is reasonably close when you consider that by the time Superman’s mythos stabilized in the Silver Age of Comics, Jor-El, and Lara had become semi-mythical figures in their own right. They felt like gods who had carefully chosen the destination that they knew their all-powerful son would do the most good in.
The second kind of aspirational hero is the Proven Worthy of the Gift. Truth be said, the Proven Worthy is much, much easier to write.
However, it should first be noted that there are plenty of superheroes that receive a Gift but don’t qualify as aspirational. Doctor Fate isn’t all that worthy of his helmet. The only Green Lantern that ever seems to meet the worthy mark is Tomar-Re. This is to say nothing of various Gamma Male-created superheroes.
In My Hero Academia; Midoriya is one of the very few people in his world that doesn’t have a superpower. Yet, he is desperate to become a hero. Everyone in his life tells him to be realistic about this. When he meets his idol, the greatest hero in the world, All Might, All Might tells him, no, he’s never going to be a hero. And Midoriya shrugs it off! Determined to be a hero even if it isn’t supposed to be possible. Eventually, he tries to save his bully from a monster that is consuming him, despite the fact that Midoriya has no hope of succeeding or even surviving. When he sees this, All Might, (who is secretly dying) knows that he has found the one who is worthy to inherit his unearthly power.
The original Billy Batson as first envisioned was an aspirational hero long before he became Shazam (AKA the real Captain Marvel). He was a boy who had every right to be bitter. He lost his parents leaving him an orphan in the unforgiving world of the Great Depression. He was frequently bullied and beaten by the local toughs. His life at the orphanage was hell and he was left crippled and on a crutch by Polio. Yet, for all of that, he guarded his soul and never let the bitterness creep its way inside of him. Billy remained a sunny and optimistic boy in spite of the fact that he had no business having an ounce of human kindness in him, let alone always having more than enough to go around for everyone around him. He always had time for a kind word, tried to leave smiles in his wake. He was telling the whole world, you think you got it bad, look at me and I think when is all said and done I’m doing great. It was almost anticlimactic when the wizard said to him, “Speak my name and your’s is the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury!”
At least that used to be Billy Batson. That was before the blitheringly incompetent, medium talent known as Geoff Johns got a hold of the character and decided that Billy was super bitter until he got adopted by a Latino foster family.
It used to be unthinkable to deconstruct aspirational heroes. It just wasn’t done. Throughout the seventies, eighties, nineties, and early two-thousands, those very few precious aspirational heroes remained untouched as characters. Even those cesspits of corruption the Hollywood studios wouldn’t go near what made them so special. There were boundaries that were respected and obeyed. There were lines that were not touched.
Then in 2013, the utterly clueless executive leadership at Warner Brothers allowed Zach Snyder to deconstruct Superman. After that it was on.
Throughout the 2010s the aspirational heroes were torn down, corrupted, and destroyed. Superman became a murder-monster, Luke Skywalker turned into a failed hobo, Shazam’s alter-ego was a bitter little boy after all, and Marvel replaced Steve Rogers with Angry Black Man.
Amazon Studio’s The Boys, absolutely revels in the degradation they heap on their pastiche of Superman.
And as naturally as a beaver builds a dam, the aspirational hero is the one that the Critical Race Cultists are always the most anxious to destroy. He’s also the hero that they also can’t write at all. An aspirational hero’s motivations are either completely alien or utterly repugnant to them. Any effort by the race cultists to write a hero as an aspirational hero invariably results in race/gender/Trans bending that hero because that is the closest thing to virtue that they are capable of understanding. An SJW aspirational hero is invariably a social justice Mary Sue that lectures everyone endlessly.
The sad truth is, there is no hope for the old aspirational heroes. They are all owned by multi-billion dollar corporations that are no longer even interested in making a profit in the traditional sense. And who are all controlled by people who think that Barrack Obama was the greatest president in American history.
Sure, they may throw you an occasional bone like the Return of Luke, but those companies are swamped by people who hate everything that Luke used to inspire. There will never be genuine reform from that quarter.
DON’T BE SATISFIED WITH A BONE!
Revitalization movements always fail.
The old aspirational superheroes are beyond our control. Bury them in your hearts with love but create or support the new ones that we need to take their place.
Okay, I’m done here.
* I was extremely pleased when Clark moved his family back to Smallville in Superman and Lois. I recently ran into a podcast that does a thorough job of going into why Superman needed to do this. Absolutely worth a listen. The Dark Herald Recommends with Enthusiasm.
I couldn’t have made this post without the invaluable resource that is Professor Geek’s podcast. The Dark Herald Recommends that with Confidence.