Reviews: The Magic Lantern: Enough with the Endless Yammering About Heroes

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by Adam-Troy Castro

atc-illo

Shakespeare had it right.

This is not a review of Marvel’s Jessica Jones miniseries on Netflix.

It begins there but heads other places.

If you insist, I will establish right away that the comic book it comes from, Alias, is one of my all-time favorites, that I think the miniseries does a more-or-less commendable job of capturing its spirit, that I have nits to pick but don’t see the purpose in detailing them at length. If you want the review, there it is. Party down, be hearty.

But on the way to moving on to more profitable subjects, I will note the show’s one key distinction: although it takes place on a version of New York City where not too long ago in humanity’s shared past, a bunch of gaudily-clad human beings, a thunder god, and a grunting green steroid case leveled twenty square blocks of Manhattan fighting an alien invasion fleet, and though its protagonist, primary antagonist, secondary antagonist and male romantic lead all have super-powers, it’s not supposed to be a super-hero show.

It’s supposed to be a show about an emotionally damaged female private eye. She’s strong enough to punch people through walls, and she can fly (though she denies it and in fact only reveals the knack once), but she’s not a superhero, and she’s quite prickly about that.

Fine. She’s not a superhero. We get it.

And yet: at one point in her past, her best friend Patsy Walker insists that she should be a hero, going so far as to produce a gaudy costume for her that she refuses to wear; the recovering junkie who lives in her building assures another man that she’s a hero; she insists that she’s not; she and her super-powered boyfriend Luke Cage talk about why they’re not heroes.

It’s certainly not the main issue of discussion. It may total twenty lines of dialogue in the whole thirteen-episode arc. Maybe more, maybe less.

But even spread out over thirteen episodes, twenty lines of dialogue about anything is enough to indicate a preoccupation. If on some hypothetical other serial drama you watched, characters emitted twenty lines about the sealed box on Grandpa’s mantelpiece and how, gee, nobody’s ever looked inside, you will sure as hell realize that a theme has been established and you would exist in considerable suspense anticipating the development where somebody finally decides to take a peek.

It’s really a background concern throughout. Is Jessica a hero? Should we consider her a hero? Should her friends consider her a hero? Should her boyfriend Luke concede that she’s a hero?

Thirty feet away from where I type these words, the wife is now indulging herself with a binge re-watch of a past TV treatment of super-powered people in plain clothes, Heroes. All I will say of it is that I enjoyed the bumpy but entertaining first season but grew rapidly disenchanted after that, to the point where I refused to watch the final season, pre-revival, at all. (Please: no attempts to persuade me otherwise in the comments.) But I remember the first season quite well, and I recall that there was a similar amount of discussion over whether this character or that character was a hero, could be a hero, should be a hero, needed to be a hero, and so on. This was particularly pressing in the case of a Japanese protagonist, whose name was indeed actually and somewhat brilliantly Hiro; once he found his super-powers, he declared himself a Hero and became a font of regular pronouncements about what a Hero is and what a Hero does.

You will find plenty of this in mainstream superhero comics. Some character gets superpowers and, with motivation either pressing or weak, declares that he will be a hero now. In ones written by Stan Lee or his direct imitators, this was considered such a critical moment that the declaration even came equipped with its own em-dash pause, in the middle of a sentence; i.e., “I will become — a hero!”

Throughout, there’s much talk of things heroes do and things heroes don’t do, the lines heroes won’t cross except with very powerful motivation, and so on.

You could fill a fairly hefty compendium with the declarations various heroes have made about the hero life, its rules, and its disadvantages, though to this reader’s mind, none of them live up to the one that helped start it all, “With great power, comes great responsibility.”

In the genre, hero is the actual publicly recognized noun for what they are. These characters sit around their meeting rooms and actually use that name for themselves, without irony, while discussing their lot. “How many other heroes will we need on this mission?” That kind of thing.

(This is really only true for Marvel and DC, which last I heard jointly owned the trademark for the word “Super-Hero,” which is why other publishers telling stories in the genre will use variants like “Capes” or “Supers” or “Powers;” so it is at least in part a corporate branding thing. But the nomenclature is now a firm part of the subgenre, and so the characters do spend a lot of time talking about themselves as heroes: specifically, whether they deserve to be heroes, whether they can stop being heroes, whether they should be heroes again, and so on. Witness Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, and its oft-quoted closing monologue by James Gordon over whether Batman is the hero Gotham deserves or needs; again, the actual word “hero,” being manipulated for thematic impact.)

In Marvel’s Jessica Jones, every major character except for the villain Killgrave — and at one point even him — defines him or herself in significant measure by whether they’re a hero or not. Jessica once flirted with the idea but now says she definitely isn’t one. Her foster sister and best friend Patsy Walker would very much like to be one, and indeed operates as Hellcat in the comics. Luke Cage says he’s not going to be one, but in the comics he spent years operating a business called Heroes For Hire. Secondary antagonist Officer Simpson is based on a comics villain called Nuke, a degraded, America-as-evil-empire super-soldier follow-up to Captain America in large part motivated by outrage that our boys in uniform are not properly recognized as, you guessed it, heroes.  He certainly thinks of himself as one.

And here’s where we get to the big question, the one I’ve been setting up for 900 words.

Who the hell really talks that way about themselves, in any genre but this one?

Think of almost any thriller or action-adventure character, outside the superhero genre, no matter how heroically they act, no matter how fervently we thrill to their adventures, and ask yourselves whether they would be able to define their actions that way, with something approaching a straight face.

Indiana Jones? Please. He’s an archeologist. He only fights out of principle, as in Temple of Doom, when the outrages around him are extreme enough to piss him off.

James Bond? He’s an assassin. He saves the world in the line of duty, but he would probably be appalled to hear himself referred to as hero.

John McClane? He’s, serially, a guy in a bad situation, doing what makes sense to him.

Mad Max? He barely considers himself human.

Dirty Harry, Riggs and Murtaugh, Ethan Hunt, Jim Phelps, Laura Croft, Han Solo, Ellen Ripley…what would any of them say if you called them heroes? At best they’d offer an indulgent grin and change the subject. At worst they’d argue. Or get mad at you. 

Marshal Will Kane, from High Noon? One of the most iconic heroes in the history of movies? Is a guy who makes a decision on principle at a time in the story when it doesn’t cost him much, then finds out that none of his supposed friends is going to stand with him, and finds himself trapped in the fight of his life.

Sheriff Brody, from Jaws? He’s a guy afraid of water, who lives in a community renowned for its beaches. He goes out in a boat with two guys who are more at home in an ocean environment than he is, who are really the experts to his neophyte, and even after the shark is dead you’d certainly have a hard time getting him to agree that anything he did in the name of survival during the climax qualified as heroism.

Captain Kirk? Would change the subject. Captain Picard? Would certainly change the subject.

Frodo? Would never say that of himself. Sam? Would never say that of himself.

Jon Snow? Would never say that of himself.

Hawkeye (not the Avenger or the wisecracking surgeon, but the guy from Last Of the Mohicans)? The Daniel Day-Lewis movie stages three of the greatest race-to-the-rescue sequences in the history of cinema. Seriously. If you haven’t seen it you really gotta. Would he worry about whether he was a hero? Of course he wouldn’t.

The protagonists of THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, one of the greatest men-on-a-deadly-serious-mission movies ever made? Really, if you haven’t seen it, you really gotta; they go behind Nazi lines to pull off an impossible mission, and few movies have ever done it better. There are exactly zero, zero lines between them over whether they qualify as heroes. They have a deadly serious job to do and they suck it up and they do it, against terrible opposition. They don’t talk about whether they’re heroes. EVER.

You want exceptions? Fine, I’ll give you exceptions, D’Artagnan, who is the protagonist of The Three Musketeers but not actually one of that trio, aspires to being a hero, of the sort that he’s spent his childhood hearing about; it is indeed what drives him. But he’s also a bit of an ass and the long novel is about the tension between his dreams and the messy reality. Don Quixote also aspires to being a hero. But he’s a demented fool. There are your exceptions.

Look at the precise genre JESSICA JONES is supposed to be in. She’s a private detective. Look at the other iconic detectives of the genre. Would Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe ever describe himself as a hero? Certainly not; he’s just a guy investigating stuff, who sometimes gets in trouble and has to fight his way out of it. Would Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade ever worry about whether he’s a hero? He’s a son of a bitch who would probably wearily deny it. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot? He would probably laugh out loud at the inanity.

Sherlock Holmes? In the short story “The Final Problem,” his most fervent champion, Doctor John Watson, believing his old friend dead, calls him “the best and the wisest man I have ever known.” I can imagine Watson saying that; it’s wholly appropriate that Watson would say that. By that point in the canon he has seen Holmes show great courage in the face of evil; but he does not use the word hero, nor would Holmes ever stand still for it.

For all of them, it’s a job.

They do what they have to do, in any given situation.

This applies to the real world as well.

In all my life I have been involved in exactly one moment of split-second decision-making, with life-or-death consequences, edging toward what others might call heroism, myself. I don’t want another.

Years ago, driving down a busy six-lane commercial highway in Yonkers, New York, I saw a probably confused old man attempting to cross six lanes of heavy traffic stumble off the median and into my lane, two car-lengths ahead of me.

I cut the wheel hard to the right in order to avoid him, expecting my own death any moment as the road behind me grew loud with the sounds of frantic horns and squealing brakes. I hopped my car over a curb a hundred feet further up the road, abandoned it, and ran back along the side of the road, fearing that what I’d find where I left an old man would instead be a bloody corpse, flattened by one of the drivers behind me.

I was fully prepared to race across three lanes of heavy traffic, damning my own safety, to rescue the man. I was aware of the risks to myself but didn’t care. I needed to save that man.

The story doesn’t build to a thrilling climax, as fiction would. By the time I got there, a witness had already gotten to him, and seen to his safety. I ascertained that I wasn’t needed and returned to my car with shaking hands and pounding heart.

It’s because the story ends without a completed act of life-saving action on my part that I can even tell you about it without self-consciousness.

But had my intervention been necessary, would I have been a hero?

I would have been aware that people might have thought so, but I would have felt like a fraud, for accepting the label. I would have said, “No, I just did the only thing I could do.” Which is indeed the answer given by anyone who jumps into a river to save another human being from drowning, or who braves flames to save a child, or who stands between an angry mob and the people they seek to hurt. They did the only thing they could do.

Cops, soldiers, firemen, EMT workers, all have no problem calling others like themselves heroes, for courage above and beyond the line of duty. That’s what medals and commendations are for. But when the words are applied to themselves, the individuals almost always say that they’re uncomfortable with the term, because they were just doing what they had to do, in a tough situation.

People, no matter how heroic, even those who risk their lives daily, don’t call themselves heroes, don’t make the conscious decision to make themselves heroes, don’t tear themselves into rhetorical knots worrying about whether they can be heroes or should be heroes or deserve to be called heroes. They just do what makes sense in the situation.

Only in this particular genre — and Jessica Jones is a superhero character, even if she exists out by the margins — do people worry, at length, over whether they deserve the label.

It’s one of the more annoying tics of a genre with a number of annoying tics, whether the specific iterations are good or bad or anything in between.

Really. These people really do need to get over themselves.

In The Magic Lantern, multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee Adam-Troy Castro reviews and reveals under-appreciated films worth talking about. This column will alternate with The Remake Chronicles, in which A-TC examines the stories that movies keep returning to.

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