A marshal guns down a bandit with his revolver. A knight’s mace crashes upon a traitor. A captured soldier escapes his wartime prison. You can find these cinematic heroes of old eking out a desperate existence on the maddest edges of Freeview, and on Sundays on Channel 5, as if an unpatched fixture of Westworld, crying out for a new script. Whatever happened to the heroes?
What are your earliest memories like? Surreal, I’d hazard, and vivid, too. I have one like that, of swirling mist collecting on a blood-red floor – pillars all around and beasts threatening to jump out from behind them. A great hulking figure dominates the diorama which has dogged me for years. I wasn’t sure of the place – but the person was clear to me – it was Conan the Barbarian.
I must have watched the 1982 film on the cusp of juvenile amnesia because when I gave into the nagging memory and re-watched Conan, there was no such scene in the film. But the heroic figure at its centre was there – this was the cause of my remembering, the uncompromising figure of the hero.
It was Conan’s great power that had caused the permeation. I don’t mean that he was played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, that’s really beside the point – the barbarian manifested a power that went beyond the physical. He was uncompromising, self-assured, and brave, attributes which served him well dispensing with villains and saving damsels – or as he would put it, crushing enemies and hearing the lamentation of their women.
Unlike a dime-to-the-dozen rom-com protagonist, the patriarchal figure slices through those swirling mists that make up much of life, and most of contemporary Hollywood. The barbarian’s power is in meaning, to manifest destiny, fulfil a purpose, and mete out justice. The Western patriarch’s ultimate conquest is the nihilist, over whom he cuts a triumphant figure. All of my favourite films feature this man. Sometimes he is called Indiana Jones, Harry Callaghan, or Aragorn, and though he goes by a thousand faces, he has one soul.
As Conan struck off the head of Thusla Doom, his aptly named nemesis, and held it aloft for all to behold, I asked, what happened to the heroes – where is Campbell’s man?
2022’s Lightyear is the latest morass to beg this question. As a dutiful uncle, I watched it with my nephew, and for 120 minutes of runtime, I enjoyed no reprieve from moral lectures adumbrated by a gang squad of diverse space rangers. At every turn our alleged hero is overcome by oppositional forces – the filmmakers chide as folly, feats of individualist courage, and privilege the virtue of teamwork.
On the occasion that the recollection of a film juts through the fog, it tends to be, as with Lightyear, because it pathologises its own opposition to the Man with No Name. 2021’s Power of the Dog– a film which won so many industry accolades that there is an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to cataloguing them – metes out the same treatment to the Western genre. And what is it about? A cattle rancher throwing intemperate fits of rage, his impotency exposed by a cracking voice, and us having respite from the melodrama only when he laments the death of his gay lover.
Those masters of the universe, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood or Charles Bronson are relics, there is no country for these old men. At the Dog’s end, its main character is slain with whip by venerated youth – literally and symbolically transferring the whip hand.
These men of old, and they are almost all men, were popular not because they fulfilled the masturbatory fantasies of red meat-eating gunslingers, they were far more important than that. Their stories were allegories which illustrated the potentiality of the human spirit. When these superheroes would fly around the earth, go to infinity and beyond, or tame the wildest edges of the New World, they fed a hunger which is unrequited by those flawed imitators who have supplanted them.
Irrespective of what the Academy thinks, the heroic archetype bags the box office. The bastion of heroism is in the comic plane, where the ticket sales of Avengers Endgame against Ant-Man instantiate our desire for the mightiest heroes and the highest stakes. The harder a film pulls down on these levers, the surer it is to draw an audience. Because comic book characters are rooted in the early 20th century, they are partially insulated from the deconstructionists. Their characters still emanate, at least in part, evidence of that bygone spirit of valour.
Most modern films though, cannot count on a rootedness, they are amorphous jellies into which the anthrax of antifilm can be injected. But not without exception – Top Gun Maverick made $1.3 billion at the box office, because it deals dared to deal with an existential struggle, from the perspective of a character who echoes the heroic pantheon of old. Tom Cruise, the daredevil, the pilot, the cultural outlaw, is as a filmmaker, the last samurai of the non-super hero hero genre.
Audiences demand a hero, which is why The Power of the Dog managed to rake in just $400,000. It’s not about go woke, go broke, it’s a demand for the heroic, and despair at the antifilm. We want for that figure who will slash through the memorial haze and by his deeds establish something of ultimate import, permanence.