Author Scott Harvey discusses the undertones of the infamous Batman quote

You either die a hero or become the villain

Batman once said, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain."

That's quite a statement from the caped crusader, and one which has many undertones that are worth examining when we discuss the role of the hero within the arts in context to any act of heroism.


It's Not Only Great Responsibility That Comes With Great Power

Agreeing that a hero is essentially, a person who is admired for their courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities, then it would also be fair to say that in so long as the individual gives him or herself or is recognised for having given him or herself for the greater good of others then one might consider said individual to be a hero. There are of course many layers to underpin such a role, for example, did the individual put his or her life in danger for the good of others and was therefore thoughtless of their own self? Because surely there is nothing more "heroic" than an individual who is willing to risk their own being to help or rescue another?

If such were true, then per definition, one could also say, as example, that every soldier of every nation around the world is a hero. But a solider is simply doing their job are they not? They are trained to be selfless in the field. To sacrifice themselves if needed for the greater good or their comrades in order to achieve their missions and objectives. I think it’s important here for me to remove any possible confusion or misinterpretation of my point. In examining the role of the hero and the act of heroism, I am in no way, shape or means, suggesting that any military or army personnel are not heroes. Merely as example to the pretext of what we agree can define a hero, when applied to the role of a solider must then be seen universally. Not simply under bias of a single nation's belief that their definition of a mission or objective is what makes such men and women heroic.

One could say for example, that every religious leader of every faith throughout human history who also believes or has believed whole-heartedly in their interpretations of religious texts and have sacrificed their way of life for the purpose of others to follow are therefore also heroes? But again, for many just as a solider may find their "calling", could it not be possible to say that for many, a calling that becomes a profession merely becomes a means of living? Or does a soldier or preacher receiving a pay-check make them any less heroic? In other words, does the fact that an occupation carrying with it a certain degree of committment and with that committment, an element of risk, negate the very concept of heroism under such situations?

Well obviously, not, since medals are awards for truly heroic deeds in combat, just as individuals who have lived truly humble lives are often canonised in the Roman Catholic church for example.

So, returning to our definition, a solider or religious leader might well be admired for their courage, much the same as any member of the public who intervenes to prevent a crime might also be, however, the soldier and religious leader accept the need for courage as an occupational hazard. It comes with the territory, so to speak, and this is quite different to the person in the street who quite unexpectedly attempts to stop a crime, despite the fact that they too might well be at great personal risk by doing so, which is perhaps why such acts of heroism are also referred to as "have-a-go-hero."


While it was never my intention to focus on any specific archetype in response to Batman's statement, since we do have three "heroes" at this point, I'll continue with them and see where it leads. Trying then to draw a red thread of commonality through these individuals, perhaps it might be possible to say that a hero is simply someone who refuses to live in a passive manner?

Just as the solider refuses to accept a threat to their country’s ideals, one could say that the religious leader refuses to accept the reduced influence of a force or power greater than we can perceive in our daily lives. The have-a-go-hero certainly refuses to remain passive and simply remain a bystander in the face of injustice.

On then to the idea of outstanding achievements. Perhaps this heroic ideal is best seen through the eyes of the sportsman or woman, admired for the goals they score, opponents they beat, times they record, records they break and so forth. Revered and respected by their peers and the public who follow them, standing atop of the podium while they receive a medal as their national anthem plays, or as they raise a trophy in front of their defeated opponent would appear to have heroic connotations. The ceremonial act of the victor over the vanquished, and certainly such individuals have sacrificed a great deal in order to maintain peak physical fitness and training in order to achieve consistent victory, but surely one could also say that such individuals possess a skill or exceptional talent that has simply been nurtured with the benefits and gain largely for the self? After all, a footballer who wins the Ballon d’Or is not saving a life on the battlefield or curing a previously non curable disease, no more than a racing car driver is truly resolving any actual world problems. My point here is simply that whilst such individuals are often referred to as "heroes", their motivations are often for the self. To be the best at this or the greatest at that, and of course with success comes great financial rewards, especially in the world of sports, so like the soldier and the religious leader they too receive their pay-check, albeit ever so slightly improved. Yes, such individuals are often revered by children and by youth, by they who want to emulate them "when they grow up", but perhaps the term "hero" is not entirely appropriate in such a context. However, let's go back to our soldier. Surely, one could say that a footballer, as example, is on the field, like the solider on the battlefield, and that the footballer is at constant risk of injury as he or she helps his or her teammates towards victory? That would seem a stretch. At least, the perceived "risk of injury" does seem significantly less than say the facing of a gun barrel, mine, or tank. And when a footballer gets injured, it's not like all the other footballers carry the injured player off. On runs a medical team with a stretcher while the game is paused. I've never heard of a battle that stops every time a soldier has been injured or killed.

We often hear of film stars and rock stars being referred to as heroes, quite often through the phrase, "Oh, he was my hero growing up", or "Her music helped me through the most difficult periods of my life". Again, a film star or rock star is generally not sacrificing more than their time, and doing so for personal gain, as a profession, so it would be difficult to truly say such people are heroic per se.


Now, to return to Batman's admission, "You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." Since we have a selection of individuals who we can call "heroes", and a number who we can say generally are not, let us apply his statement.

A soldier who dies in combat is almost always referred to as a hero in some form or another, often presented with a posthumous medal for valour or other form of decoration. Mother Mary Teresa Bojaxhiu, known more commonly as Mother Teresa, dedicated her life to helping the poor and refused to live in a passive manner, recognised for this after her death through the title Saint Teresa of Calcutta. Should the last of our archetypes, the "have-a-go-hero", die as a result of intervening to help protect the well-being of others, well understandably, they can only further cement their title, most specially to those of whom they helped.

I did state that at least in respect to our definition of a hero, neither sportsmen or women, film or rock stars could really be defined as heroes, but I want to apply the second part of Batman's observation to this group....

When Marlon Brando was a young actor, he was widely regarded as the greatest actor of his generation. Winner of multiple Academy awards, Golden Globes, BAFTA's, he was per definition a master of his craft. A master who only crew with years through films such as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. However, in those early years, another actor, James Dean, was also highly revered. Seen as a cultural icon who reflected much of the teenage disillusionment in the decade that followed the second World War where America was arguably at the height of its military power, Dean reflected the views of a majority of the youth through the film, Rebel Without a Cause. His trademark looks, still to this day, are often plastered across posters and bedroom walls, with the bomber jacker over the white t-shirt and jeans. His brooding good looks declaring his rebellion, mischievousness and uncertainty are timeless for any teenager. Sadly, Dean was killed in an accident at the age of twenty-four, and those few films and those publicity shots and photos are all that will ever be seen of the actor: frozen in time. Compare those images with Marlon Brando is his later years. Grossly overweight, in a wheelchair and needing to wear adult diapers. A far cry from the man we saw as Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee Williams', A Streetcar Named Desire. In fact, it would be fair to say that the media along with popular culture mocked Brando for his appearance in his later years and was allegedly despised professionally by his peers. In short, a "hero" that lived to become a "villain". Brando is of course not alone, many actors and actresses have subsequently followed suit. The same can certainly be said for many rock stars. John Lennon, Bob Marley, Freddy Mercury, to name but a few who died tragically early are still often referred to as heroes. This compared to say others who were worshipped as heroes, such as Michael Jackson, only in later years to be referred to by the media using terms far worse than villain. In the field of sports, one need only to think of heroes such as O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson and Lance Armstrong to understand how a hero of yesterday can easily become a villain today.

While I stand my initial application of the hero definition, it does seem that even non-heroes (technically), given time and the ability to live long enough can become the villain. So, what is it about this statement from Batman, that has caused me to write this post? What reason could I possibly have to write a couple of thousand words around a statement made from a fictional comic-book hero? Well, it's simple really. You see, there are many categories of hero. Many explanations and definitions of what defines a hero, what makes a hero, and what elevates a hero? But regardless of assumption, opinion, meaning and belief, Batman was onto something... something that I guess we should give a name to.


No matter our conviction, our beliefs, drive, determination, the side we are on or oppose, we are ultimately human. As humans, we are flawed. Period. We can be young and hot-headed, full of energy and ready to change the world, but are rarely able to do so. Change takes time, and time, as we all know, is no one's friend. It weakens our bodies, tests our resolve, and more often than not, can leave us questioning why we used so much of it on things at the expense of others. That is, if we can even remember what it was we were doing?

Time makes us human and to be human is not to be perfect. Then there is the mind-set. Nothing changes mind-sets more than time. The belief that an invasion or war is right today, is rarely seen that way with time, and history has a way of polarising viewpoints.

Heroic leaders and figures of yesterday can suddenly become villains because of their treatment of social groups, and those who they seemingly once fought for become those who villainise them the most. As a child, my father took us to church every Sunday. At school we had religious education and were only taught Christianity. There was no doubt, not even a question in any of my classmates’ minds about who made us, how we were made, and what his son sacrificed for us. Today, our society is a melting pot of beliefs. Add science to the mix, and those classroom certainties are suddenly not as certain as they once were. Perhaps more importantly, where will society lead us in the future? Will our children’s children be more tolerant, more open and accepting of others? Or will society become increasingly polarised?

The Human Condition is a state not only reserved for heroes who outlive their acts of heroism, it is a state for us all, and it is a state that like any chemical state is in constant flux. After all, how many of us find ourselves doing things today that we once swore we would never do? This failure to live up to our own expectations makes us human. It shows our fickle nature. Our lack of commitment to stand by that which we once so vehemently believed.

Perhaps only true heroes ignore the changing of opinion, the altering of views and backlash often experienced as they drift in and out of the populist touch. They don't seem to care what others think, what they're called. They see the bigger picture, the long game, and stick with what they believe to be true. To be right. To be just. Even when the rest of us are unable to see it.


In 1711, the English poet Alexander Pope wrote the poem, "An Essay on Criticism". In it he tells us, "Good nature and good sense must never join; To err is human; To fogive, divine."

You may have read recently that Superman has decided to change his motto. After more than eighty years he is "evolving" his mantra and will no longer fight for, "Truth, Justice and the American Way." In fact, Superman has decided that it would be better for everyone if he fights for "Truth, Justice and a Better Tomorrow." I guess he can't go wrong with that, and no matter what happens to humanity and any geographic borders we define, I cannot see a time whenever truth and justice are no longer held in high regard. Actually, come to think of it, we all want a better tomorrow as well, even Jackson sung about it. And then of course, from a market perspective, it's better to appeal to the seven and a half billion people of planet earth than the three hundred and thirty-three million who live their lives the American Way. If that's not self-sacrifice, then I don't know what is?

Still, I must admit to finding it slightly ironic that die-hard fans of the comic-book genre often argue over whether Batman is a real superhero or not? After all, he doesn't have any superpowers as such. Yet his observation serves equally well to prove that even superheroes, given enough time, will eventually suffer The Human Condition.

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