THE EPIC HERO
Author Scott Harvey discusses the decline of the epic hero archetype in literary fiction and cinema
It was 1978, and my father took my brothers and I to see Superman at the local cinema. Before the film had even begun, we were jumping with excitement at the zoom effects used on the titles, and more importantly, bouncing along with John Williams’ brilliant score. Not long after, it was Christmas, and we were at my aunt’s house in Belfast, where my father and uncle were discussing the film. However, at the time, they weren’t really discussing the plot, the effects, or even the impact of Christopher Reeve’s first outing in the infamous red cape. The point of greatest discussion was the fee that Marlon Brando had been paid to play Jor-El, Superman’s father, or rather Kal-El, as Superman was called while he was still a baby on Krypton. At the time, Brando was paid close to $4 million dollars, plus a percentage of the profits from the film which totalled around $19 million dollars compensation for around twenty minutes of screen time created across thirteen days of shooting.
Such a salary for an actor was unprecedented at the time. It was simply unheard of. Especially when one thinks of Reeve being paid just $250,000 for filming both Superman I and Superman II, in the lead role which spanned almost the entire three and a half hours of both movies combined. Even the film’s villain, Lex Luthor, played by the wonderful Gene Hackman, saw Hackman earn $2 million dollars for his part in the first movie alone.
It seemed heroes had their value, at least in terms of financial pulling power and filling seats at the cinema. Villains clearly had theirs too. In the case of Superman, the value of the hero, even in his own movies appeared to be a given, and that value was given to be decidedly small.
I remember at the time there was a lot of discussion, mainly arguments of justification for why Brando and Hackman had been paid so much in comparison to the actual star of Superman. They ranged from the fact that Brando and Hackman were both Hollywood heavyweights without whom, perhaps the movie would never have been made? At least, would never have been distributed internationally, not without recognised international names. That Reeve was in fact not the actual star, something that was reflected by the fact that it was not until Superman III that he actually received top billing. That even in the first movies, Superman himself was never the true star of the films that bore his name.
It seems absurd, doesn’t it? If we flash forward thirty years or so to 2008, and tried to imagine Pepper Pots or Hogan being the stars of Iron Man, then it really doesn’t make any sense at all, does it? Imagine Nick Fury or Peggy Carter being the real heroes of Captain America: The First Avenger. It just wouldn’t work. As an audience, we have a clear expectation that Iron Man is the lead character in a movie called Iron Man and that Captain America is the lead in any movie that starts with Captain America. But then, when it comes to heroes and most specially the depiction of what we might call superheroes, so much has changed in recent years, and the ascendence of these characters from comic books to cultural icons has been nothing short of staggering.
Perhaps the fact that it took Reeve three outings dressed in a cape before he was finally recognised as the main reason for why an audience were willing to pay to see the movie, is more a reflection of the “seriousness” or believability of a superhero than that which was associated with the role of a father or a villain? That a father’s devotion to his son, or an evil man with no special powers, just an obsession with acquiring real-estate, were roles in which it was simply easier for an audience to believe… even on imaginary planets or in the sewers of the criminal underworld. But then again, whenever we read a work of science fiction, or watch a movie based upon a hero who can fly, shoot lasers from his eyes, and see through everything (except lead), then haven’t we already chosen to leave the world of believability behind? In other words, who cares about the devotion of a father whose future is already sealed by a planet about to explode? Or the comical motivations of a man who gives the impression of having more in common with a used car salesman, rather than some criminal genius mastermind? Surely none of that matters and the only thing of any real importance is how the hero will be pressed to breaking point, perhaps even beyond, in order to try and save us all? Yet it would seem that a superhero, even an Epic Hero archetype, still struggles to gain acceptance in the way in which other heroic archetypes, such as the Classical Hero, the Anti-Hero, and even the Everyman Hero does.
I BELIEVE I CAN FLY
Not all superheroes are created equal
If one compared Batman, who many might consider a superhero, had parents who both died (although none have ever received close to top billing in any subsequent film portrayal). It was only after their subsequent deaths (much like the loss of Jonathan Kent), and later in response to the threats upon Gotham, (again, much like those upon Metropolis), that the young Master Wayne finds the courage to transform into the masked man of justice. And yet, Batman’s Gotham, seems decidedly more “real” than the Metropolis Superman inherits, despite so many similarities. Interestingly, as a side note, in Tim Burton`s Batman, (1989), again we see the villain, portrayed in truly exaggerated, ostentatious fashion, by the magnificent Jack Nicholson, receive top billing in addition to a portion of the film`s earnings and merchandise sales. This ahead of Batman himself, played by Michael Keaton. In fact, it is believed that while Keaton was paid $5 million for the role of Batman, in a movie called "Batman," Nicholson earned approximately $90 million for the role of the Joker. That's nineteen times the amount paid to the lead. Now, I say, an interesting side note, because unlike Reeve, Keaton was far from an unknown actor at the time of putting on his suit. In fact, just one year previously he led an all star cast that included Geena Davis, Winona Ryder, and Alex Baldwin, in another Tim Burton movie, Beetlejuice, (1989). So, the discrepency in title role, billing or fame would seem less of an argument, and more perhaps an indication of the roles themselves. By that, I mean, the role of Joker allowed Nicholson to really light up the screen and perform in a way that only Nicholson really can. The same as Brando, in Reeve's Superman had that unique screen presence that distinguishes him so much from very many actors. Perhaps then, the fact that Batman's role is essentially defined. Mainly masked, always serious, in a suit, reliant upon gadgets, and for some inexplanable reason requires mumbling or growling in a low voice, which I expect is meant to disguise who he is, yet at the same time, limits the acting/ expression premise of the character. That the differential in apparent financial value, translated into salary, between the Epic Hero and the Supervillain can be explained. Although Keaton's salary did apparently increase significantly for the sequel, Batman Returns, (1992), at which time he then also received top billing. So, I guess all's well that ends well... for Keaton's Batman at least, who was able to get there one movie ahead of Reeve's Superman. However, enough digression about salaries and billing, Peter Parker, an ordinary, everyday teenager, gets bitten by a spider and following the death of his uncle (who in reality had assumed the role of a father) then decides, like Wayne, to use his powers for good. Parker, again like Wayne, wears a mask to conceal his identity. And whilst Spiderman, much like Superman, can leap from skyscrapers and tall buildings, he prefers to do so swinging from webs, just as Batman requires his “Bat-line”, rather than flying to his next destination. Parker, like Kent, also somehow believes that a life in journalism is the best way to hide any superhumanly powers from the world, yet despite this, the world that Spiderman inhabits (New York City) is again all the more believable over Superman’s Metropolis.
I have often wondered why? Is it the fact that no matter how hard I want to believe, the reality is that I find it impossible to accept that no one can see that Kent is actually Superman simply because of his glasses? Or is it because despite Tony Stark’s Iron Man, I still cannot believe that a “man” can fly? After all, Stark needed a suit in order to achieve that feat. But then, Stark is again more a Classical Hero, more in the vein of a true Anti-Hero in fact, and certainly not or ever an Epic Hero archetype.
For some reason, Epic Heroes, for example Thor, seem to rely greatly on humour, almost as a way to underline the fact that the intention is not to try and create believability, more to provide an escape from it. Portrayals such as Hancock, overly emphasise the humorous nature of superpowers, almost mocking them. Yet the trials and struggles of Superman could never be considered comedic. The deeds of King Arthur, another Epic Hero, ever considered to be a laughing matter. So why then must Kent appear to be somewhat bumbling, almost fool hardy and clumsy? Perhaps even overly and excessively so. Wayne is simply a recluse. Parker, a love-sick teenager. Again, both traits which are believable, even identifiable for many.
TO DREAM THE IMPOSSIBLE DREAM
A lot has happened in the world of heroes over the past forty years. From green screens and CGI to the virtual technology of Stagecraft, used in the production of Disney’s The Mandalorian. Yet still, the extent of believability clearly plays a part in maintaining our illusion that what we see, could imagine might happen, or even is happening (in a galaxy far far away), actually is. Yet despite the emergence of Mr. Stark and his Avengers, which seemed to dominate every form of consumable media for over a decade, surprisingly, when Henry Cavill opted to take over the cape, Kal-El’s father was replaced by Russell Crowe, whilst on earth, he grew up under wings of none other than Kevin Costner, and Superman no longer needed one famous father to help support his re-emergence onto the silver screen, apparently now he needed two.
I’m many ways I often wonder if I’m still that little boy who sat with my brothers and watched Christopher Reeve rip open his shirt as he entered a revolving door to the sound of trumpets, trombones, and upper orchestral strings...? In many ways, I think I am. I still long for the Epic Hero archetype to come save the world, and hope that if he or she should ever come, then he or she could do so without needing to resort to being a parody of the archetype itself. That the business of world saving would be one that was taken seriously and not cause for wisecracks and one-liners. That possession of any superhumanly strengths or powers would not be taken jokingly or for granted, but with reverence.
The HeroPlot Multiverse, is precisely that, a multiverse of worlds and characters that will collide and coexist. In that space, the meeting of heroic archetypes, just as there must be opposing villainous epitomes, is inevitable. There are those in possession of powers, and those in possession of strengths. Those who inherit such gifts and those who are born with them. Those who discover their abilities and those who will try anything to reject them.
In the world of the superhero, albeit Metropolis or even a multiverse, a strength or power, ability or gift, is more often than not extreme and overwhelming, perhaps still impossible to believe. I doubt that in my lifetime, a time will ever come when the discovery of travel will allow me to return to 1978 and be that little boy who not only escaped into the world which he saw, but actually believed in it. That the innocence of that time is lost, and with it, my hope in this age of ever finding a true Epic Hero. However, having said that, in the world in which we live, a strength or power, ability or gift, is rarely so pronounced as it is within the characters between the pages of a book or those projected upon a screen. More often than not, it comes in the form of a simple act of kindness, through a gesture of gratitude, or the ability to raise hope in times of doubt or need. So, while it seems that for the most part, the creative arts seem to favour the heroic archetypes of the Everyman Hero, like the Hobbits and the Classical Heroes of Luke Skywalker and Potter. The Anti-Hero of Captain Jack Sparrow, and the Tragic Heroes of characters such as Don Draper and Anakin. I still live with the hope for an Epic Hero revival. One that will learn from the errors of portrayals in the past. One that will not require Hollywood legends and stars to support the character, or make light of their abilities, because the character and the quest is enough to believe.
If the aim of any heroic archetype is truly to offer belief, then I hope we can move away from Epic Heroes who live under the sea and fight battles with tridents and quick wit. From scientists who turn into angry green men and now somehow are able to control their anger with reason and logic. From Amazonia princesses who after centuries on earth now suddenly discover the ability to fly. And from Nordic gods who are constantly forced to fight evil with sarcasm and their incredibly heavy hammers. Because I want to believe, and I hope that I can believe again. But in order to do so, an Epic Hero doesn’t have to become an example of epic frivolity. Just as it was when Reeves ripped open his shirt to reveal the magical symbol upon his chest, to the sound of his triumphant fanfare, an Epic Hero has the potential to be precisely that.... Epic in every sense.
Ultimately, it is the combined responsibility of the author, the artist, the screenwriter, producer, director, and the actor to ensure that the qualities of the character are those that help us believe. That make us able to. Whilst the advancements in computer generated effects can add greatly to enhancing such belief, they should certainly never be the primary basis upon which it is sought, and most definitely not through humorising the nature of the genre, its characters or archetypes.
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