Hollywood continues to thrill and entertain us with new adventures of people with superpowers. However, many of these new characters are not virtuous heroes but rather anti-heroes such as DC’s Black Adam and Marvel’s Deadpool. With the lines between good and evil portrayed as ever blurrier, distinguishing heroes, villains, and anti-heroes is critical for warriors and our society at large.
What is a hero? A hero is someone who fights against something larger than himself for something larger than himself. The young shepherd and future King of Israel, David, epitomizes heroism. He was morally outraged by the blasphemous insults of pagan Goliath, who mocked the living God. The Bible is full of examples of those who rose to the occasion during crises: Deborah, Ehud, Gideon, and Abram who armed his household to pursue the enemy and rescue Lot. Historical figures such as the Continental Army at Valley Forge and the defenders of the Alamo, as well as fictional figures such Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, and Narnia’s Pevensie are heroes as well. A hero is often made by being in the right place—or rather, the wrong place—at the right time.
Because heroism is the struggle for something larger than oneself against the odds, we often use the term “heroic” or “heroism” for people facing injustice or evil far from the battlefield. Political leaders may be heroic in standing firm during national crises, as Churchill and Lincoln did. Martin Luther King, Jr. was heroic in confronting the violence of institutionalized prejudice. Corrie Ten Boom’s family and all the others who hid Jews from the Nazis were heroic.
The single parent working two jobs, the cancer survivor, the veteran amputee returning to civilian life, the advocate fighting against the odds on behalf of the vulnerable demonstrate heroism as well. Heroism is about the moral quality of the action, not the amount of power at one’s disposal.
Hollywood’s villains use the power at their disposal to deliberately harm others, such as the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz or Superman’s nemesis Lex Luther. Heroes, in contrast, understand that with “great power comes great responsibility.” Some fictional heroes have extra-ordinary powers, “superpowers,” such as Wonder Woman and Spiderman. Others exercise power inherent in their position or office, such as Star Trek’s Captain James T. Kirk with his mighty USS Enterprise. Heroes make the moral choice to use the resources at their disposal on behalf of the common good.
In stark contrast is the anti-hero. This is the individual who has power but does not consistently direct his or her will toward or against the common good, but rather wields power selfishly. The anti-hero acts on self-interest or a moment’s whim. That whim might appear compassionate or vindictive, protective or destructive. Consider the difference between the typical John Wayne Western hero, who protects and defends the weak from predatory criminals, to Wayne’s drunken Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. Anti-heroes on the screen include Tony Soprano, Clint Eastwood’s “man with no name,” Deadpool, Captain Jack Sparrow, DC’s Black Adam and Marvel’s Loki, among many others.
The Bible has its own anti-heroes, such as Samson, who was so often led by his appetites. Our classical literature has anti-heroes, such as the notorious Achilles of the Iliad. Though Achilles was the mightiest warrior of his age, he was seized by his passions — vengeful anger, lust, petulance — and he acted as a law unto himself. The anti-hero may act as the good guy in one situation but is the villain in the next. The anti-hero has power but shuns responsibility. He is untrustworthy, self-seeking, and intemperate.
We live in a society where self-gratification is increasingly glorified. We see this in the angry ranting of social media, where one has a “right” to say whatever one wants. We see this in the ongoing sexual revolution, where public displays are not just a fundamental right but some perverse form of responsibility. And we see it in the anti-hero, who whimsically uses power without a moral center to guide that action.
The problem is that we cannot assume that power and virtue necessarily go together in the latest Hollywood blockbuster. But Christians know that motives matter and that Jesus taught us love of God and love of neighbor. That is a pretty good start for evaluating the moral fabric of people like Captain America and King Arthur: are their exploits motivated by love of neighbor?
Why does this matter? One reason can be found in a concern that military leaders have been voicing for the past twenty years. The concern is that young citizens joining the military at age 18 do not come with a shared moral framework and a consistent set of ethical guide rails. Eric Wester chronicles this in a chapter on character development in my edited volume, Military Chaplains in Iraq, Afghanistan and Beyond. Judeo-Christian norms of honesty, moral courage, and neighbor-love should undergird our services’ core values, such as “Integrity, Service, Excellence” (U.S. Air Force) and “Honor, Courage, Commitment” (U.S. Navy). But, as Wester notes, an ethic of “don’t narc” (do not betray a comrade, even if they have done wrong) and “live and let live” has permeated our culture. In a world where there are no longer absolutes, from high school testing outcomes to one’s imagined identity, the military cannot rely on the citizenry to provide young people with a shared commitment to fundamental moral precepts such as do not lie or cheat.
This is why thinking about heroes is so important. A bridge to our young people is to look for the better myths of our time, such as the last act of Tony Stark’s Ironman character, when he selflessly gave his life to defeat evil. What a contrast to the self-aggrandizement of Captain Jack Sparrow or the destructive hatred of Black Adam! We can point our youth to our military heroes, from George Washington to Sergeant Alvin York, our literary heroes such as Aragorn and King Arthur, and Biblical heroes such as Joshua, David, and Nehemiah. The Bible provides many other heroic acts, such as the Hebrew midwives who deceived Pharaoh to save Jewish babies and the three Hebrew ‘children’ who faced the fiery furnace because they refused to bow to an idol. Thus, we must not glorify the anti-heroes, much less the villains, of our twisted times, but, rather, focus the attention of our young people on the conviction, courage, and toughness of real heroes.