I’m gonna do something a little different this week. A few weeks ago I wrote a post as a sounding board for a Research Paper I had to write for a class. Now I figured “hey, why don’t I post that research paper?” So I am. It’s much longer than a usual post (nearly 5 times as long), but I feel like it’s one of the best things I’ve written. So here it is, in all it’s A-, MLA-ish glory:
“Heroes. There’s no such thing.” So says Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin in Iron Man 3 as he threatens the titular hero and, to an extent, the villain is right. Lately, heroes, particularly in adventure narratives, have taken a turn for the unheroic. Where once there were heroes like Luke Skywalker or Frodo Baggins who, through and through, were good to the core, now heroes are of a murkier sort. Even Iron Man is not a clear cut hero. In the past, protagonists were motivated to do their heroics simply because it was good. They were the good guys; the prince saves the princess and slays the dragon because he’s good and the dragon is evil. But time went on and fiction began to explore princes who weren’t so clean cut, heroes who weren’t good for the sake of good. Yet these protagonists remained heroes; they would still ultimately rise up to do the right thing and save the day (even if saving the day had little effect on the outside world). So what is it that motivates these protagonists who aren’t strictly heroes to heroism? Perhaps it would do to examine reluctant heroes from books, movies, video games, and television as diverse as Pi Patel, Tony Stark, Nathan Drake, and Malcolm Reynolds in the hopes of finding some commonality between them. What drives characters who are ordinary teenagers, irresponsible playboys, selfish treasure hunters, or lawless rebels to acts of heroism?
Pi Patel, of Life of Pi, is an ordinary boy for whom the fate of the world does not hang in balance. He has no superpowers and there is no princess in a tower waiting for him to save her. Yet this Indian boy, who survived over two hundred days drifting in a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with an adult Bengal tiger, is a hero nonetheless. Furthermore the narrative of his story falls in step with Joseph Campbell’s analysis of the heroic archetype in the book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Most striking is Pi’s long trials in the lifeboat, which Campbell appropriately describes as The Road Of Trials: “Once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials” (Campbell, 97). That Pi’s conflict is primarily internal makes him no less of a hero in his victory. He spends his days trying desperately to survive and to defeat his enemy. Indeed, Pi has an enemy. It is not the tiger itself but rather fear: “I must say a word about fear. It is life’s only true opponent” (Martel, 161). Pi’s time in the lifeboat is marked by his battle against fear: his fear of the sea and fear of the tiger named Richard Parker. To not give in to his fear and the despair it brings is a heroic task given the hopelessness of his surroundings. Pi, the ordinary boy, is able to defeat his enemy of fear and perform the heroic task of surviving due to being a religious man three times over.
I was giving up. I would have given up—if a voice hadn’t made itself heard in my heart. The voice said, “I will not die. I refuse it. I will make it through this nightmare. I will beat the odds, as great as they are. I have survived so far, miraculously. Now I will turn miracle into routine. The amazing will be seen every day. I will put in all the hard work necessary. Yes, so long as God is with me, I will not die. Amen.” (Martel, 148)
For Pi, an adherent of Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam, that voice within himself would be attributed to God. Pi makes the decision, due in no small part to that voice, to survive day after day. In his situation, just giving up would be the easiest thing to do, but he instead does his best to overcome the odds and defeat his unseen adversary. Not only does Pi choose to not give in to fear, but he is able to maintain his humanity in a place where it would be all too easy to become as feral as Richard Parker. His experience in the lifeboat could have left Pi raving mad and unable to adjust back to ‘normal’ life, yet in the narrative we find out that Pi is able to go on to a career in academia and to start a family of his own despite his ordeal. During those trials the tiger in the lifeboat is a very real enemy that Pi must face: embodying both his fear and the temptation to give in to his animalistic side. Pi’s heroism is his resistance to both pulls and his survival with his humanity intact. Pi’s motivation to survive both physically and spiritually lies in his faith, in his devotion to God.
But if we accept the interpretation that religion is the cause of heroism we then rule out many heroes who are not religious. As writer K. Dale Koontz points out, “it is very possible to be moral without faith and be immoral with all the trappings of faith” (Koontz, 106). So perhaps we must expand our scope beyond a religious motivation. Self-described genius-billionaire-playboy-philanthropist Tony Stark is a man marked more by his hedonism than the remotest trace of religious piety. In the 2008 film, Iron Man, before he takes up the mantle of the titular hero, the arms-dealing Tony Stark is seen sleeping with a reporter, gambling during his award presentation, and displaying an overall negligence towards any form of responsibility. His world appears perfect and he sees no need to want to alter anything. This all changes after he is grievously injured in Afghanistan and taken hostage by terrorists who demand that he build them a new weapon to complement their arsenal of Stark weaponry, weapons which Tony was not aware were being sold to the the enemies of the American soldiers he thought he was supplying. Trapped, Tony decides to start building, only not the weapon his captors desire. Instead he creates a weaponized suit of armor to facilitate his escape. On his way out, Tony is issued a challenge by his dying mentor: “Don’t waste it, don’t waste your life” (Iron Man, 0:38). Tony takes this newfound purpose to heart, using the Iron Man armor to fight terrorists and bring peace: he becomes a hero, albeit a flawed one. Tony is still reckless, disrespectful, and generally irresponsible of anything falling outside his duties as Iron Man. He’s not the cut-and-dried ‘good’ hero; he’s far from perfect and does things that no ‘proper’ hero would do. Yet despite not having the characteristics commonly associated with the hero, for some reason Tony still plays the part. Christopher Robichaud explores this side of Iron Man, looking for a reason for his heroics. He investigates the idea of guilt; whether, for example, Tony Stark is indeed responsible for the crimes committed with weapons he designed. The conclusion is that whether or not he actually is responsible is unimportant in light of Tony’s need to redeem himself: “Tony clearly feels that he must somehow “right the wrongs” Stark Industries has done, and that the best way he can do that is as Iron Man” (Robichaud, 62). It’s a valid motivation, one that not only spurs him to greatness but will plague him so long as he lives. Tony Stark is the atoner. Before the cave in Afghanistan Tony was happy to waste his life cruising by with women and money. Now the electromagnet in his chest is a constant reminder that he must seek redemption for his past and Tony will stop at nothing to achieve it. The driving force in Tony’s life is his relentless need to make things right. In a similar vein, Pi adheres to Christianity and Islam; two religions which preach strongly on man’s need to atone. Like Tony, Pi would seek to do good to make up for his sins. Perhaps this desire for redemption then works as the motivation for heroism.
Not all heroes seek redemption, however; Nathan Drake of the Uncharted video game series seeks treasure and riches. Furthermore, in his adventures seeking El Dorado, Shambhala, and Iram of the Pillars, Nathan Drake makes few references to any deity beyond colloquial interjections. Like Tony Stark, he is a man of neither religion nor God. Yet he consistently ends up being the hero (if a regretful one). Drake’s selfish; he wants treasure, he wants riches, he wants an adventure. He will happily shoot his way through soldiers and mercenaries or break into a museum to steal a treasure if it could yield profit. But in all three games in the Uncharted series he ultimately chooses to forgo treasure in favor of stopping the villain from carrying out their nefarious schemes. In the second game, Among Thieves, Nathan Drake is in a race with war criminal Zoran Lazarevic for the mythical Cintamani stone of Shambhala and the riches and power it contains. At Drake’s side are two women: Chloe Frazer, a fellow treasure hunter posing as part of Lazarevic’s team to find Shambhala; and Elena Fisher, a reporter on the trail of Lazarevic, eager to bring him to justice. Both have a romantic history with Drake and both are fascinating characters in their own right, but Chloe and Elena also bring out Nathan Drake’s inner duality of being a selfish thief and a selfless hero. On the one hand is Chloe. In the game’s early chapters she and Drake plot to scam a member of their group out of the treasure and carry on without him. Her ultimate goal is to save her own skin no matter the cost, even if it means sacrificing an injured ally. On the other hand we have Elena, very nearly the antithesis of Chloe. She’s in Nepal because she wants to help bring Lazarevic to justice. After Drake barely survives a brutal train-wreck he decides it’s time to stop searching for Shambhala and the Cintamani Stone despite the legends of it granting nearly unlimited power. It’s Elena who insists that he continue after it.
Drake: This is crazy.
Elena: It’s got to be what he’s after, Nate.
Drake: Then Lazarevic really is a nut-job. He’s chasing a myth.
Elena: And what if he’s not?
Drake: Elena, c’mon –
Elena: I mean, what if it’s true? We’ve seen what he’s capable of… (Chp. 16: Where Am I?)
In the end, Drake sides with Elena choosing to pursue justice and stop Lazarevic over escaping the recently discovered broken paradise of Shambhala. Chloe protests that it’s suicide, but Drake stumbles down to the Tree of Life to confront Lazarevic anyway. He does what he does not out of some religious fever or even a desire for redemption but simply because it’s the right thing to do:
Drake: Look Chloe, I have to end this.
Chloe: No. You don’t. Don’t you dare take on this stupid crusade.
Drake: Just get her outta here –
Chloe: Not without you.
Drake: Look, if that stuff could really transform Lazarevic and his army…
Chloe: Please don’t do this.
Drake: If it could actually make him invincible, and I didn’t try to stop it…
Chloe: But this is suicide, and you know it.
Drake: Just go. Get as far away from this place as you can. (Chp. 25: Broken Paradise)
Deep down, Nathan Drake has an occasional fiber of moral responsibility within him. He may be selfish but there can be little doubt that Drake acts like a hero. Though Drake is usually content to just not take part in whatever’s going on, to profit off of Lazarevic rather than confront him, for example, on occasion Drake will overcome his selfishness. He has a conscience, one that gets activated when he realizes that it’s the only option left that will allow him to live with himself. Stuck in the lifeboat, Pi knows he will not forgive himself if he gives up. Similarly, Tony Stark’s transformation left him with a need to exact justice to make up for his prior irresponsibilities. For these characters, it’s when the chips are down and this sense of right and wrong becomes overt that they step up to become heroes.
Captain Malcolm Reynolds, of Joss Whedon’s TV show Firefly, is not an irresponsible man, but he lacks Drake’s sense of justice, Tony’s need for redemption, and certainly Pi’s religion. And no wonder; after the crushing defeat of the Independents by the Alliance during the Battle of Serenity Valley, Mal is left faithless and listless. By the time the TV show picks up, “Mal has spent the intervening years attempting to deliberately calcify himself into a dark, bitter husk of a man, unlikely to be touched or moved and therefore, unlikely to be disappointed or hurt” (Koontz 103). But the calloused man sometimes shows signs of decency. He sends the mercenary Jayne away from the dinner table when he insults Kaylee (Firefly 1.01: “Serenity”) and he chooses to return the cargo he was hired to steal when he discovers it to be medicine for impoverished settlers (1.02: “The Train Job”). Clearly the man will step up and be a hero, he has a morality to him. But Mal’s conscious isn’t as clear as Nathan Drake or Pi’s since “Mal’s inner code is further complicated by the fact that his moral compass lacks the true north of a belief in anything larger than himself” (Koontz 107), or, as Mal himself discloses in the film Serenity: “I got no rudder. Wind blows northerly, I go north. That’s who I am.” He’s not a simple character, he’ll shoot a man in cold blood one moment and sacrifice himself for his crew the next. Here, more so than with the others, we have a nuanced character whose heroics are difficult to attribute to any belief system or even a sense of duty. Yet there can be little doubt that somewhere Mal has a shred of goodness; or as Koontz puts it: “it is the conflict between his desire to be an empty, unfeeling crook and his inherent, bone-deep decency that makes Mal so intriguing” (104). Mal doesn’t want to be a hero; he has neither cause nor belief, yet for some reason he still plays the part. The motivation for his heroics is best found in how his decency manifests itself. In the episode “Safe,” fugitive siblings Simon and River Tam are taken captive by a tribe of crazy hill folk. Mal is faced with a choice. He can either leave the siblings behind and fly away, no longer having to worry about the Alliance chasing him in search of the Tams, or he can go back for them. In a move that doesn’t help his desire to be left alone by the Alliance and the law, Mal opts to save River and Simon from being burned at the stake. This is an oddly selfless act for a seeming amoral captain. Simon confronts him afterwards, asking him why he returned for him. Mal’s response is to curtly inform the young doctor that he’s on his crew. But Simon presses further only to receive the same response:
Simon: Yeah, but you don’t even like me. Why’d you come back?
Mal: You’re on my crew. Why we still talking about this? (1.07, “Safe”)
We see the captain’s care for his crew again in the episode “Ariel” when, after crew member Jayne nearly turns Simon and River over to the Alliance, Mal threatens to eject him out the airlock. Why? Because “You turn on any of my crew, you turn on me!” (1.08, “Ariel”). Mal has an intense devotion to his crew that supersedes any other code he might embrace; “Mal has worked very hard to create this family and he will protect it at all costs” (Koontz, 106). The question that must now be asked is why does Mal protect his crew. Is it because they make him feel as if he can control some aspect of his wandering life? Is it because they give him a sense of security he believes he lost years ago in Serenity Valley? Is it because they have become his family? The answer is more than any of that: it is that core of love under all that bitterness and hatred that motivates him to heroism. Koontz agrees: “Love is the force that will galvanize Mal to take action, rather than continuing to mourn his losses by becoming increasingly brittle and bitter” (111). It is love that drives Mal. His love for freedom caused him to join the Independence movement and years later still harbor disdain for any attempt to subjugate people. His love for his ship, Serenity, inspires him to keep her safe and to refuse to leave her behind no matter the cost. His love for his crew will drive him to the ends of the universe if it means he can keep them safe from whatever evils are thrown at them. Mal sticks his neck out for Simon and River not because he thinks it’s the right thing to do but because as much as he is loathe to admit it the two have somehow wormed their way into his care. He returns the medicine to the settlers and risks the wrath of his client not out of some desire to please a deity or a want to redeem himself for prior slights, but because his love for his fellow man outweighs his greed. It appears that love might be the only immaterial thing Malcolm Reynolds truly believes in. This is driven home at the end of the film Serenity, when, after the crew endure hellish trials and the death of their friends, Mal tells River what the first rule of flying is: “Love. You can learn all the math in the ‘Verse, but you take a boat in the air that you don’t love, she’ll shake you off just as sure as the turning of the worlds. Love keeps her in the air when she oughta fall down, tells you she’s hurtin’ ‘fore she keens. Makes her a home” (Serenity). Mal loves, Mal believes in love, and love is the only force in the ‘Verse strong enough to drive an angry calloused man to heroics.
Is it love then, in all its forms, that motivates people to heroism? Adrift in the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with only a tiger for company, Pi admits that keeping his faiths — his love for God — was not easy. The storms would rock him and food would be scarce and Pi would nearly despair. But all was never lost. “The blackness would stir and eventually go away, and God would remain, a shining point of light in my heart. I would go on loving” (Martel, 209). Despite enduring a hellish trial, Pi does not lose sight of his love. He chooses to love Richard Parker rather than hate it, because loving the tiger causes him to seek to understand it and learn to coexist. His love for life encourages him to force himself to stay alive. Most of all, his love for God gives him the motivation to survive his ordeal and come out the stronger for it. Pi loves.
Superhero Tony Stark would adamantly and charismatically deny that he acts out of love. That said, the climax of the film The Avengers has Tony Stark realizing that the only way for him to save Manhattan is to carry a nuclear missile into a portal to space, sacrificing himself in the process. This moment is an act of love that fits the very Biblical description of selfless love: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). He acts because his love for his fellow Avengers, his girlfriend Pepper, and indeed the whole of Manhattan now outweighs his love for himself. There is little doubt that it is the self-sacrificing, altruistic form of love that motivates Tony’s purest single act of heroism. Tony loves.
In the resolution of Among Thieves Nathan Drake shares a kiss with Elena. Not only does he choose the path of justice, but he chooses to be with the woman who represents it too. Drake doesn’t want to let Elena down. Drake’s Deception, the sequel that takes place two years later, depicts them as an ex-couple who’ve drifted apart in the interim. In a moment of quiet when Elena asks an exhausted Drake to rest for a moment he apologizes for letting her down as he strokes the wedding band on her finger (Drake’s Deception, Chp. 15, Sink or Swim). It is his love for her and her love for him that brings out Drake’s own sense of justice. He cares about her opinion and wants to do right by her. Because of this, and because Elena supports and loves him, Drake is able to find in himself the motivation to step out and be a hero. Drake loves.
Love is different from goodness. Whereas goodness tends to be a state of being, love is active and directed at something. The prince who saves the princess is good, but with that goodness comes a love of good that he then acts out. His love of righteousness drives him to overcome the evil dragon. Though it seems to be the material for a very special episode of some Saturday morning cartoon, it is love that serves as the catalyst for even the most unlikely of heroes rise to heroism. Even for characters who are the Chosen One or ones who have been uniquely tasked with thwarting the villain, we find that it is love that will drive them. The core motivation that brings out the best in people goes to the root of religion, atonement, and even morality: the motivation for an act of heroism is love. Perhaps then we no longer have true heroes in modern fiction, merely ordinary people who are driven by love to become heroes.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1968. Print.
Martel, Yann. Life of Pi: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, 2001. Print.
Koontz, K. Dale. Faith and Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2008. Print.
Robichaud, Christopher. “Can Iron Man Atone for Tony Stark’s Wrongs?” Iron Man and Philosophy (2010): 53-63. Print.
Iron Man. Dir. Jon Favreau. Prod. Avi Arad and Kevin Feige. Perf. Robert Downey Jr, et all. Paramount Pictures, 2008. BluRay
Iron Man 3. Dir. Shane Black. By Shane Black. Perf. Robert Downey Jr, et all. Walt Disney Studios, 2013. Film.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves. Dir. Amy Hennig. Perf. Nolan North. Naughty Dog. 2009. Video Game.
Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception. Dir. Amy Hennig. Perf. Nolan North. Naughty Dog. 2011. Video Game.
Whedon, Joss. Firefly. 2002. Television.
Serenity. Dir. Joss Whedon. By Joss Whedon. Perf. Nathan Fillion. Universal Pictures, 2005. BluRay.
The Avengers. Dir. Joss Whedon. By Joss Whedon. Perf. Robert Downey Jr, et all. Universal Pictures, 2012. BluRay.