What is the Purpose of the Hero?
Age of Ultron, Dune, Batman, and Nietzsche
By Jeffery L. Nicholas
Age of Ultron asks one of those ultimate meta-questions: what is the purpose of the hero? I suspect that Captain America: Civil War will center on this question, but we get the first glimpse in AoU. Tony Stark/Iron Man claims that the goal is to get to a point where the heroes no longer have to fight—where the world is safe. This attitude was with him from the beginning when he was just a weapons maker. Remember the opening scene in Iron Man, where he makes a speech to US generals about how Jericho, his latest weapon, will make the world safer and make other weapons useless? MCU’s Stark is driven to end the fighting.
Captain America, on the other hand, believes that the fighting will never end and that heroes have to be there constantly on watch. Thus, at the end of AoU, we see Cap with Black Widow assemble the new members of the Avengers to begin training for the next fight. This attitude, too, is tied to Steve Rogers. In an early scene in Captain America: The First Avenger, a weak Rogers goes head to head with some losers in a back alley fight. It doesn’t matter that Rogers is weak and is going to have his butt handed to him. He is ready to fight.
I want to put this difference into a larger question, one eloquently framed by Frank Herbert in Dune and God-Emperor of Dune. In Dune, Paul Atreides is the son of a of a Duke, who is quickly ousted and killed by a long-time family enemy, and Paul is on the run in a desert world inhabited by a people who are skilled fighters. Paul eventually is able to see multiple futures, which gives him great power in helping to overthrow the old family enemy. The point of the book, though, is that, in becoming a hero, Paul loses his humanity in order to save humanity. He can see that his choices will lead to the death of billions, but without those deaths, humanity itself will end. Moreover, a once proud people become subservient to the myth-hero that now walks among them. GEOD picks up on this theme. Paul’s son, Leto II, joins with an indigenous life-form on Dune to become a being with god-like powers, including an enhanced ability to see the future inherited from his father. In his 3000th or so year of reign, he has manipulated the known universe, killing billions in the process, all in the name of saving humanity.
Herbert created these characters in response to Friedrich Nietzsche. Nietzsche longed for the Übermensch, an over-man who creates his own morality and imposes his will upon the world, shaping it to be what he wants. Without over-men, Nietzsche believed that humanity would dwindle and die, and in fact, he believed that humanity was pretty close to such death in his time in the late 1800s.
As a response to Nietzsche’s Übermensch, Paul and Leto II show what happens when we put our trust in heroes, in someone to save us. People suffer. People die. Dune and GEOD are warnings to the world to resist heroes.
In some ways, Stark is also such a warning. In his pursuit to end all fighting, Stark creates what he hopes will be a hero that turns into a monster. At the same time, Stark and Rogers are heroes. Despite their best efforts in AoU, they cannot save everyone. The destruction to New York in Avengers and to Sokovia in AoU is nothing like the destruction in Man of Steel. Yet, all three movies show that heroes bring along destruction and cause havoc. So the movies begin to question the role and value of the hero.
We’ve seen a glimpse of this questioning in Batman Begins. At the end of the movie, Batman is speaking with Gordon. Gordon says something to the effect that Batman’s existence ups the ante in criminals. That is, the hero creates his own nemesis, probably not physically (unlike the earlier Batman starring Michael Keaton), but psychologically and empirically. The existence of concentrated power requires a balance on the other side. Thus, Gordon hands Batman the Joker’s calling card. The best example of this balance, this threat, occurs in Smallville. Lex Luthor believes that the world needs him to make sure that Superman—or someone with superman’s powers, because Clark Kent hasn’t become superman yet—does not become the overpowering dominating force that he could be if no one resisted him. Luthor believes he keeps Superman in check, and that the world needs him to do that.
The superhero universe has become self-conscious of some of its own tropes. Perhaps this self-consciousness is driven, in part, by artistic decisions and artists trying to do something new in their genre. But I believe it also arises as a response to the position of the US as the self-proclaimed lone super power. The Dark Knight’s take on surveillance technology is only the most obvious example of a superhero movie questioning the status quo of the government. Yet, I think that all of these movies and the TV show reflect a growing concern about the role of the US as a dominating superpower. And comic books, movies, and television shows are able to explore the purpose of the US through exploring the meaning of the super hero. In doing so, they take up themes raised by Nietzsche and reflected on by Herbert.
Jeffery Nicholas is a philosopher and associate professor at Providence College. He is the author of Reason, Tradition, and the Good: MacIntyre’s Tradition Constituted Reason and Frankfurt School Critical Theory and the editor of Dune and Philosophy (Open Court 2011) which explored Frank Herbert’s Dune series. He has contributed to Blackwells series in Pop Culture and Philosophy in the volumes Ender’s Game and Philosophy, The Big Lebowski and Philosophy, and Dungeons and Dragons and Philosophy.Currently, Dr. Nicholas is undergoing an existential crisis—he sits in his recliner alternately repeating “I am Batman,” “I am Groot,” “I am the Iron Man.”
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