American movies have forgotten how to portray heroism, while a large part of their disappearing audience still wants to see celluloid heroes. I mean real heroes, unqualified heroes, not those who have dominated American cinema over the past 30 years and who can be classified as one of three types: the whistle-blower hero, the victim hero, and the cartoon or superhero. The heroes of most of last year’s flopperoos belonged to one of the first two types, although, according to Scott, the only one that made any money, “The Kingdom,” starred “a team of superheroes” on the loose in Saudi Arabia. What kind of box office might have been done by a movie that offered up a real hero?
There’s no way of telling, because there haven’t been any real movie heroes for a generation. This fact has been disguised from us partly because of the popularity of the superhero but also because Hollywood has continued to make war movies and Westerns, the biggest generators of movie heroism, that are superficially similar to those of the past but different in ways that are undetectable to their mostly young audiences, who have no memory of anything else. In an otherwise excellent article in Vanity Fair about “chick-flicks,” James Wolcott recently wrote that, like the chick-flick, “the Western is also a genre that’s often pronounced dead and buried only to be dug up again and propped against the barn door—witness 2007’s ‘3:10 to Yuma,’ ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,’ and ‘No Country for Old Men.’
Wolcott is far from being the first to express such an opinion, but neither he nor anyone else appears to have noticed the principal way in which the movies he mentions differ from those of 50 years ago. None of them has anything like a real hero, though all three have charismatic villains, played by Russell Crowe, Brad Pitt, and Javier Bardem, respectively. The title tells us what to think of the would-be hero of “The Assassination of Jesse James,” played by Casey Affleck. He’s a creep, a stalker, and a traitor, as well as a coward. “No Country” has one really sympathetic character, the aging sheriff played by Tommy Lee Jones, who is as helpless against the bad guy as everyone else is. Next to the sexy and invincible serial killer, a kind of inverted superhero played by Bardem, he is reduced to being just another victim hero, maundering on about what a nasty old world it is.
Further on in the piece:
The point of all three of the kinds of hero in which Hollywood has specialized over the last 35 years has been to make sure that heroism can continue to exist only on a plane far removed from the daily lives of the audience. It is hard not to speculate that this is because of a quasi-political aversion on the part of filmmakers to suggesting to the audience that real-life heroism was something to which it, too, could aspire. The subtext of films featuring the whistle-blower hero, the cartoon hero, and the victim hero is that heroism—heroism of the, say, Gary Cooper type—belongs to the public and communal sphere, now universally supposed to be cruel and corrupt, and therefore is really no longer possible or even, perhaps, desirable.
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