As a young person I was deeply interested in what it means for a person to be a hero. And why not? A hero is the opposite of everything a person doesn’t want to be; not a failure, not a disappointment, not a loser. Mothers never tsk and shake their heads when a neighborhood boy turns out to be a hero. Being a hero was all one could aspire to; it was the ideal.
My search for wisdom led me to the medium that conveyed all the truly important knowledge in my culture: action movies. In an era where pre-recorded video was far off, and the idea of streaming belonged to cutting edge sci-fi, my choices mostly fell into two categories: war movies and poorly-dubbed Hong Kong martial arts films.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to recognize this, but the model of heroes presented by the war film (especially the pre-1980’s, pre-Rambo war film) is fundamentally different from the model in the kung fu flick, and it’s not just about whether they can do a split.
The war film hero archetype is an ordinary person (usually a man; those were different times) who does something brave and self-sacrificing when faced with a moment of crisis. They dive on a grenade, saving their comrades; make a suicidal charge at the enemy gun installation; run back into enemy fire to rescue a wounded ally. This trope is so deeply embedded in us that it’s used in the Captain America movie to show us that Steve Rogers was a true hero despite his (pre-serum) scrawny physique.
The martial arts film hero archetype is slightly different. Yes, in the moment of crisis (usually a fight with a big boss) the kung fu hero chooses to fight and not run. But that’s not the crux of what makes them cool. Instead, the kung fu hero is amazing because they have developed abnormal abilities. It’s not that they choose to fight; it’s that they’re just so damn good at fighting. The martial arts hero is heroic by way of competence, not courage.
The war hero triumphs because they happen to be in the right (or wrong) place at the right time and choose to do the right thing. We admire their courage in the moment of crisis.
The martial arts hero triumphs because they’re awesome at fighting. We admire them for their skill; their courage is an afterthought. We never doubt that Bruce Lee will fight; it’s never a moment of crisis. Instead, we are wowed by how cool he looks doing it.
I couldn’t have told you why, but these war films never appealed to me. My love for martial arts movies persisted through college, where I studied philosophy. In existentialist thought I found a framework to explain what I didn’t like about the war hero archetype.
Don’t worry, I’ll be gentle.
Despite the extensive and complex jargon in existentialist thinking, most of it boils down to one key idea: Humans are free. We are faced with concrete situations, but we must always choose our reactions to them.
Anyone can, when they see a live grenade fall to the ground, choose to jump on it to save their friends. Anyone can also choose to jump away and hide. Good people can, seemingly out of the blue, choose to do bad things. Bad people can, just as unexpectedly, choose to do good things.
That is the wonderful and terrible thing about freedom: you can’t escape it, can’t deny it, and can’t give it up. You can’t forge yourself into a thing that no longer has to choose (“I will be a person who no longer eats too much cake or drinks too much beer.”) Whether you like it or not, if you want to drink less tequila, you’re going to have to choose not-tequila for drinking over and over again, day after day, for the rest of your life. The choice to grab that delicious bottle will never disappear.
The classic war story is about a person making a courageous choice. There’s nothing wrong with that as a story. But if you’re a person seeking to become more heroic, more hero-like, it’s kind of useless. You can’t make yourself into the sort of person who falls on the grenade, no matter how much you rehearse the situation in your mind. To do that you’d have to give up your freedom, make yourself into a thing that is no longer free to choose, and that is simply not possible: that’s not how consciousness works.
But—and this is the big point I’m making—you CAN become more heroic in the way the kung fu fighter is heroic. You can take martial arts classes or lift weights or do parkour or box or whatever. You can develop physical capacities. Does that ensure that, faced with your big boss fight, you’ll make the right choice and stand your ground? Of course not. But you develop the abilities that make the martial arts movie hero seem cool. You can become more like a Bruce Lee character in a way that you can never become more like a war hero without actually finding a grenade to jump on.
By the age of ten or so I was introduced to comic books and began a weekly pilgrimage to the comic shop that lasted through three decades and five stores across four hundred miles. Because I am prone to overanalyzing things, I had to figure out where superheroes fit into my little map of heroic archetypes.
Most superheroes superficially resemble the martial arts hero, because (by definition) they have abilities that surpass the ordinary man. But the (good) superhero stories put our heroes in positions where it is their choices that matter. Superman has to risk Lois Lane, Thor has to get over his self-doubt; there has to be a character arc, because if Superman or Thor just beat the bad guys with laser vision or Mjolnir, it’s not very interesting. Their powers are inherited, not earned. There’s nothing particularly cool about either guy winning by accident of birth.
In this way, most superhero stories are more like the war stories than martial arts stories, and this is what I liked about them least. Spider Man is pretty cool, but you can’t try to emulate him in your regular life (trust me, I spent hundreds of hours hanging around labs hoping for SOME kind of accident that would give me something better than third degree burns: no luck).
The heroes I liked most were either the martial artists (I was a Shang Chi fanboy before Kevin Feige had any idea who that was) or the ones with smaller powers who trained. I loved the X-Men and their danger room; Iron Fist with his flashbacks of grueling practice; Daredevil with his obsessive boxing training. Of course I’ll never have actual superpowers, but I can try to be a little more like those guys in a way that, no matter how hard I try, I can never be more like Thor or Spider Man.
My writing falls in line with these preferences. My heroes work hard, every day, to make themselves better. I’m not going to write a narrative where a lifelong villain exercises their freedom and does good in a single moment of opportunity and call that a redemption story (cough, Darth Vader, cough).
One final point, if you don’t mind. I would never say that stories about ordinary people making extraordinary choices are bad, or less important, or unworthy of being written. If you enjoy that kind of story, that’s wonderful! But if you don’t, understanding why you don’t might help you make better choices about the kind of media you’re likely to enjoy, and that’s a win-win for all of us.
Read more of JCM Berne’s opinions at jcmberne.com There’s even a newsletter! You know you want another newsletter!
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For JCM’s novels, start with SPFBO 8 entry Wistful Ascending, found at: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08HLBHV4D/ref=dbs_a_def_rwt_bibl_vppi_i1# It’s a story that knows redemption takes more than a single act of goodness.