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The final fate of the hero

I recently saw the movie “Unbreakable” starring Bruce Willis and Samuel Jackson, and I think that it raises a number of interesting questions about modern society. I won’t spoil or review the movie here, but I will say that it is an extremely thought-provoking film that examines the role of heroes in today’s world. Bruce Willis’ character discovers that not only is he the lone survivor of a deadly train crash, but also that he possesses an extraordinary ability to escape sickness and injury. This discovery prompts him to question his place in society — and question whether he should follow the advice of Samuel Jackson’s character, Elijah, and become a self-made, modern-day, real-life hero.

About a month ago, I gave a speech as part of my COM class, discussing the media’s portrayal of heroes and how the classical hero has slowly evaporated from much of our popular culture. Today, even as the real world provides fewer visible role models for impressionable children, the media glamorizes characters, both real and fictional, whose trademarks are their bad attitudes and rebelliousness. Not that these traits are always a bad thing, but they do little to sort things out in a world that increasingly blurs the distinctions between right and wrong.

I saw Bruce Willis’ son’s eyes light up in delighted wonder when he realized the truth about his father. In the film, I was reminded of what I had spoken about in my speech and how I was apparently not the only one who felt the same way.

Movies like “Unbreakable” show that we still have a desire for true, larger-than-life heroes. In the film the hero is not defined by his outlandishness, attitude or marketability, but rather he is a hero simply because he willingly does good. This simple motivation is enough to serve as the basis for the almost mythical overtones that develop.

In the movie, the newspapers, baffled by reports of an anonymous hero, portray the mystery man in their mock-ups not as an ordinary man (which he is), but as some kind of otherworldly figure that leapt straight out of the pages of a vintage comic book. This moment of striking imagery, as Willis’ every-man character examines his super-heroic likeness in the newspaper, is one of the high points of “Unbreakable.” He has created a hero, and in doing so has unwittingly filled a void that desperately needed filling. This real-life romanticism is sorely missing from today’s society.

We are in the age of cynicism and disillusionment, a Second Coming of the period after World War I when great minds such as Ernest Hemingway became expatriates, fleeing our country in search of better things. Our presidency, once a source of national pride has instead become a joke. Yet we still think of the president as a heroic figure. We want him to be a hero. Witness the two-fisted heroism displayed by fictional presidents in movies like “Air Force One.” Despite the odds, the traditional hero of old persists in our culture and in our thoughts. But can they cross the bounds from fiction to reality? Can the existence of real heroes spur their renaissance within popular culture?

We no longer live in a society where the traditional sources of heroes — sports figures, military leaders, politicians and others stand out in any great numbers as viable role models for children and adults alike. However, there do exist heroes, within the pages of books and on television as well as in our own communities — we just have to look harder for them.

Fantasy has become big business, and the timeless characters that have long appealed to children are being mined for cash. Witness the film version of “The Grinch,” drawing its inspiration from Dr. Seuss, who was a master at simply conveying deep and provocative ideas so that children of all ages could grasp his underlying, poignant messages. Now, the Grinch has been updated to include the prerequisite attitude, psychological baggage and catch-phrases. No wonder Dr. Seuss’ widow was forced to reject a reported 18 variations of the film’s script — our modern mentality is not what classic characters are about.

The same principle applies even more so to heroes. Things don’t have to be and can’t be as black and white as they once were. Issues are a little more complex now, and we are perhaps a little bit more sophisticated than we once were. Nevertheless, there is still something inside us that yearns for old-fashioned heroes. It is up to us to ensure that the hero remains alive and well in the new millennium.

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