If you’re a regular reader of this blog and my books, you know I write a lot about heroes. I’m not the first one. Heroic literature goes back several thousand years; mankind’s earliest manuscripts frequently tell stories of men and women whose feats of strength, endurance and leadership have transcended time. It might be hard to believe in today’s American society, which idolizes people whose only appreciable talent is self-promotion or shouting profanities on stage, but there was a time when our school children studied the works of ancient writers like Homer’s Iliad or the Epic of Gilgamesh, and learned the legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood, and so were taught about heroes. Perhaps that time is returning; our TV screens and cinemas are packed to the gills with superhero shows these days.
Heroes from the mists of time.
Many of the heroes written about by the ancients were undoubtedly fictional, such as the Greek gods, but some were surely based on actual historical figures and a few truly existed and performed heroic feats every bit as astounding as their fictional counterparts’. Their stories resonate through the centuries to our time now, because their themes are timeless. Two fictional heroes from ancient times stand out from the rest.
The half-man, half-god Herakles, whose name was later Romanized to Hercules, has been celebrated for millennia as the epitome of heroic manhood. Like many of today’s fictional heroes, Hercules was not perfect, by any means. His sexual prowess (with both women and men) and his bloodlust in battle were celebrated along with his traits of kindness toward children and loyalty to his friends. There is some evidence to suggest that Hercules actually did exist as the king of the Greek city-state Argos in the 13th century BC. In the 20th and 21st centuries AD he has been a staple of popular fiction, from novels (he makes a memorable appearance in Steven Pressfield’s The Last Amazon) to comic books to a slew of movies and a 1990s TV series starring Minnesota native Kevin Sorbo. From the late fifties to the mid-sixties there were more than a dozen Hercules movies made in Italy, starring bodybuilders like Steve Reeves, Reg Park and Mickey Hargitay. Those films inspired a lot of young American and European men to get into bodybuilding and a few of them, like an Austrian fellow named Arnold Schwarzenegger, later got into acting as well. Last year Hercules was back on the big screen in two different films, The Legend of Hercules starring Kellan Lutz, and my favorite, Hercules, featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the lead role.
The historical basis for the real Hercules is thin, at best, and even less so for antiquity’s other great hero, Achilles. According to legend, around the 13th century BC, Achilles led the Greeks in their invasion of Troy, a city-state in what is now western Turkey. His feats were celebrated in the Iliad and the fabled city of Troy did exist; there is evidence that it was burned to the ground around that time, possibly as the result of a war. Achilles is perhaps the most famous fictional hero of the ancients and has been portrayed many times on screen, most recently by Brad Pitt in the 2004 movie Troy. The legendary one-on-one battle between Achilles and the Trojan hero Hector, played in the movie by Eric Bana, was depicted brilliantly in the film, which captures the determination of Achilles to avenge the death of his cousin and Hector’s equally strong desire to defend his city.
Legendary heroes of the Middle Ages.
History since the time of Christ has been much more thoroughly documented, but debate still rages about whether some of the Middle Ages’ most celebrated heroes actually existed. The first to come along, at least in Western tradition, was King Arthur. According to legend, Arthur reigned over Britain during the 5th century AD, or maybe the 6th, after the Roman withdrawal. Many of the most famous elements of the legend, including his brave knight Sir Lancelot and the other knights of the Round Table, were added in poems a few hundred years after the first mentions of Arthur in literature. Everything seems to have coalesced into considering Arthur to be a leader of post-Roman Britain who rallied the people against Saxon invaders from mainland Europe, and who may also have benefited from magic, in the form of his advisor, the wizard Merlin.
Victorian-era England of the 19th century revived the Arthur legend as popular writers began celebrating the ideal of chivalry among men, harking back to medieval times. Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, which became a smash-hit best-seller in 1859, really got the Arthur legend rolling again. We saw the legend brought to life on the big screen most recently in the 2004 movie King Arthur. In this film, Arthur (played by Clive Owen) is a Roman cavalry officer in the 5th century AD, assigned to defend Hadrian’s Wall against the dangerous Woads, ancestors of today’s Scots. Arthur himself is of mixed Roman-Celtic heritage, and in the course of the film he discovers that his Celtic mother had been murdered by the Woads during his childhood, and he came into possession of the sword Excalibur by pulling it from his father’s burial mound. The leader of the Woads, Merlin, urges Arthur to accept an alliance between the Woads and Arthur’s remaining knights, led by Lancelot. The knights, as it turns out, are descendants themselves of Central Asian horsemen who over the centuries had gradually migrated westward and allied with Rome. To make matters worse, the Saxons are on the march northward through Britain. Persuaded by Merlin’s argument and somewhat smitten with his daughter, Guinevere (Keira Knightly), Arthur and Merlin lead the fight against the Saxons in the climactic Battle of Badon, south of the wall, which some historical sources suggest actually did take place. The Britons and their Woad allies are triumphant, and Merlin declares Arthur to be king, with Guinevere as his queen.
Historians generally agree that no conclusive evidence for Arthur exists, but you never know what might turn up. In 2012, the remains of King Richard III were discovered in England near the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field, where Richard was killed in 1485, the last British monarch to be slain in combat. Just last month the remains were reinterred in Leicester in a coffin made by his descendant. So, it’s entirely possible that the real Arthur might be dug up someday too.
Medieval England provided us with another legendary hero, Robin Hood. The stories generally indicate he was an outlaw who lived sometime in the late 12th century. By this time the Saxons had long established themselves in England and the natives considered themselves Anglo-Saxons, and the bad guys were the Norman invaders from northern France who had conquered England about a century before and now ruled with an occasional iron hand. The most popular form of the Robin Hood legend has Robin as a nobleman who ran afoul of the Norman ruler Prince John, who was running the country while his brother, Richard I (more popularly remembered as Richard the Lionheart), was off fighting in the Crusades. John is taxing the people within a farthing of their lives and Robin leads what grows into a revolt, which succeeds when Richard reappears and leads the climactic fight against his brother.
There are two cinematic versions of the Robin Hood legend that come to mind, one of them celebrating the legend of the hero and the other focusing on the likely reality of his existence. The 1938 classic The Adventures of Robin Hood starred Errol Flynn, one of early Hollywood’s greatest swashbucklers, in the title role. In fact, the cast was a veritable all-star team: Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian, Claude Rains as Prince John, and Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne in the lead roles. The supporting cast members were no slouches, either: Alan Hale Sr. played Little John (thirty years later, Hale’s son Alan Jr. would star as the skipper on Gilligan’s Island), Eugene Pallette was Friar Tuck (two years before appearing as the padre in another classic, The Mark of Zorro), and Ian Hunter was a memorable King Richard, in a career that spanned forty years and saw him play opposite many of filmdom’s legends, including Shirley Temple and Clark Gable. The archery master who worked with the actors was Howard Hill, a star athlete at Auburn who was known as the world’s greatest archer, having won a record 196 consecutive field events. Hill was given the bit part of Elwen the Welshman, Robin’s rival in the film’s archery tournament.
With a cast like that, the film was a sure bet for success. Throw in a great script, a stirring musical score, brilliant color cinematography and vivid locations (California and Washington standing in for rural England), and the film was a smash hit, the highest-grossing movie of the year and winner of three Oscars, although it lost out to You Can’t Take It With You for Best Picture. The movie was directed by the Hungarian émigré Michael Curtiz, who would win the Best Director Oscar three years later for Casablanca.
As movies are wont to do, the story of Robin Hood was filmed several times after the Flynn classic. (And the 1938 film itself was a remake of the original Robin Hood 1922 silent film starring Douglas Fairbanks.) The most recent version was released in 2010, a British-American production titled Robin Hood and starring Russell Crowe. The film purports to show a reasonably historical Robin in the person of Robin Longstride, an archer in the army of King Richard, who in 1199 is heading home to England after a Crusade. Richard arrests Robin and his men after Robin is critical of the king’s strategy, but when Richard is killed during an assault on a French castle, the prisoners escape. Robin soon discovers a plot by Godfrey, an English knight who is conspiring with the French king, Philip, to invade England and overthrow Richard’s successor, John. Robin and his men take the identities of some slain English knights and return to England to inform John of his brother’s death. Having promised one of the dying knights, Sir Robert Loxley, to return his sword to his father, Robin heads to Nottingham where he is given a cold reception by Marion, Loxley’s widow, played by Cate Blanchett. The father (Max von Sydow) urges Robin to stay with them, under the guise of Loxley. Godfrey is stirring up rebellion among the northern barons, but only to give the French an opening for an invasion from the south. Needless to say, Robin and his merry men come to the rescue and lead the new king’s soldiers in repelling the French on the beach below the cliffs of Dover. John isn’t happy about being upstaged by Robin, however, and declares him an outlaw. And so, “the legend begins.”
The movie was directed by Ridley Scott, who had directed Crowe’s breakout film, Gladiator, a multiple Oscar-winner in 2000. Filmed on location in Britain, the movie did reasonably well at the box office but got middling reviews. Roger Ebert, perhaps thinking of the Flynn classic, said the Crowe version showed how “innocence and joy is being drained out of the movies.” Other critics noted some historical inaccuracies. While this version does show Richard being killed in France, he was not actually returning home directly from the Third Crusade. Richard had left England in 1190; he fought in the Middle East and returned to Europe in late 1192. He was imprisoned for several months at Duernstein Castle, along the Danube in what is now Austria, and then at Trifels Castle in Germany. He was freed in February 1194 after payment of an enormous ransom: 65,000 pounds of silver, nearly three times the annual income of the English crown. Before returning to England, Richard wanted to subdue the Normandy region of northern France, but it would be a long slog. During his siege of the castle of Chalus-Chabrol in March 1199, Richard was shot in the left shoulder near the neck by a crossbow bolt, fired from the castle parapet by a teenage boy who wanted to avenge the deaths of his family at the hands of Richard’s soldiers. The bolt was removed but the wound became infected and Richard died several days later. During his ten-year reign, Richard was actually in England for less than six months.
The legends of King Arthur and Robin Hood have all the trappings of heroism: voluntary service to people or communities in need, done at significant risk and without the need for recompense. From ancient times through the medieval period of history, heroic legends were built upon the lives of real people. Without doubt there was some great Greek warrior of antiquity who inspired the legend of Achilles. There are historical roots in the more modern legends of Arthur and Robin Hood. In the 20th century, though, we decided our heroes needed to be people of even greater abilities. Abilities, you might say, far beyond those of mortal men.
The rise of the superhero.
It was the early 1930s, and in Cleveland, Ohio, two teenage boys came up with an idea for a fictional character. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster originally published their character in a science fiction fanzine. The title of the story was “The Reign of the Superman,” and the title character was a bald villain bent on world domination through mind control. Nothing much happened with that version, so over the next six years the two collaborators reworked the character and eventually sold a story to National Allied Publications, a comic-book publisher, which printed the story in the first issue of Action Comics in April 1938. The hero was a man of immense strength, invulnerable to harm, who battled criminals and saved the innocent in the fictional city of Metropolis. Superman would quickly become the greatest fictional hero of all time.
Over the course of several years, the canonical origin of Superman was established. An orphan from the planet Krypton, the infant is sent to Earth by his scientist father Jor-El just before their home planet explodes. Landing in a farm field in Kansas, the boy is adopted by the childless farm couple Jonathan and Martha Kent, who quickly become aware of his unusual abilities. Given the name of Clark, the story’s early version had the hero emerging as Superboy while still a teenager. Later versions utilized a popular comic-book literary trick, the “retcon,” to change certain elements of the character’s history. Today’s version of Superman allows that the hero did not appear until his early twenties, after a period of solitary wandering and training, during which Clark begins to understand his Kryptonian heritage thanks to the technology found in his spacecraft.
In the nearly 80 years since his introduction, Superman has undergone significant changes in his personal relationships, his costume, even his powers. He has been killed and resurrected, he has been married and then had his marriage retconned out of existence, he has partnered with other heroes like Batman in collaborations that have ranged from warm and friendly to tense and antagonistic. It didn’t take long after his first appearance in the comics for Superman to make the leap to the movie screen with a series of animated shorts in 1941 and the live-action serial Superman in 1948. Starting with Kirk Alyn’s 1948 version of the hero, he’s been played by seven different actors in live-action film and TV. All of them have portrayed the character with his basic, classic traits of nobility, selflessness and altruism. The more modern versions, as one might expect, also make him more realistic. What would it really mean, after all, to have all these amazing powers? How would we handle the pressure of being the only person around who can handle the toughest jobs, the most life-threatening challenges? And would these suspicious, relatively weak humans really trust us?
Superman has always been one of my favorite heroes. When I was five years old, my Christmas gift was a Superman costume, which was eventually passed down to my two younger brothers. Just about every young boy in America dreamed of being Superman, with the ability to fly and bend steel in his bare hands, with X-ray vision that could see through anything (including, we presumed, girls’ clothing; how did Superman ever control himself?), and be admired by people the world over. Yes, there would be bad guys out there to battle, but Superman beat every one of them, even the most villainous and clever of them, like Lex Luthor and Brainiac.
But Superman was often derided as being naïve, square, out of touch. As time went on, other superheroes came along. DC Comics, the successor company to National, was challenged by upstart Marvel in the 1960s with its stable of colorful yet conflicted heroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men. If you followed these characters at all, to be a Marvel fan was considered to be hip, while being a DC guy was, well, not hip.
Even though Marvel’s lineup started outselling DC in the 1970s, DC’s heroes recovered to rule the silver screen with the first Christopher Reeve film, Superman, in 1978. Special effects were now advanced enough so that the movie’s tagline was, “You’ll believe a man can fly.” And we did. Reeve was the definitive Superman: tall, athletic, good-looking, muscular, and possessing the almost-innocence we had come to expect of the hero. He played the role in four movies, and then the character transitioned back to TV. The first Superman series, The Adventures of Superman, starred George Reeves and aired 104 episodes from 1952-58, with reruns airing for years afterward in syndication. Dean Cain took up the cape in Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman from 1993-97, a series that gave equal billing to Lois Lane, Superman’s longtime girlfriend (played by Teri Hatcher). The character of Superboy also appeared in some short-lived series, but that version of the character really took off with Tom Welling’s 2001-11 series Smallville, which focused on the character’s younger days starting with awkward adolescence as his powers develop. Welling never appeared in costume as Superman until the final episode. On the big screen, Brandon Routh’s Superman Returns (2006) was well-done but not well-received, but Henry Cavill’s retconned Superman in 2013’s Man of Steel was a worldwide hit.
Cavill is set to play Superman in at least three more movies, with the next one scheduled to premiere on March 25, 2016, and it is widely anticipated because it will be the first on-screen, live-action team-up of two of the greatest fictional heroes of all time, Superman and Batman.
Just a year after Superman’s first comic-book appearance, we got another superhero from the same company. But this guy wasn’t really super, wasn’t from another planet, had no special powers resulting from a magical ring, radiation, an insect bite or anything else. He was an orphan, like Superman, but instead of being raised on a farm by loving adoptive parents, he witnessed his wealthy parents’ murder in a street mugging at the age of eight and grew up alone in a gloomy mansion, mentored by the family butler. Bruce Wayne vowed to avenge his parents’ deaths by declaring war on all criminals. He trains his mind in the art of the detective and trains his body into the ultimate warrior. When he’s finally ready, he ponders his path forward, seeking an unconventional means to strike at criminals, a means that is technically outside the law. Terrified of bats since childhood, he decides he will take on the guise of a creature of the night. He becomes the Batman.
Batman was the polar opposite of Superman. Instead of a colorful costume, Batman wore a dark, menacing uniform that blended in with the shadows. He was ruthless and showed little mercy to criminals, although, like Superman, he would not kill them, no matter how much they might deserve it. He had no romantic life to speak of, and instead of being celebrated by the people he protected, he was feared. In fact, the character was so dark that in only a year, the powers-that-be decided to lighten him up by giving him a sidekick, a teenage boy in a brightly-colored costume. Thus we were introduced to Robin. As the 1950s arrived, Batman continued to evolve into a hero who was only a little bit darker than Superman. He fought aliens and traveled through time, made public appearances and worked openly with the police. This version of the Caped Crusader reached its zenith (or perhaps its nadir, depending on your point of view) with the campy TV series Batman, which aired from 1966-68.
Batman was relegated to Saturday morning cartoons after that, and the comic-book version slowly regained its original roots. With the success of Superman in the movies, it was only a matter of time until Batman returned to the cinema. There had been a feature-length version of the TV show that played theaters in the mid-sixties, but it took more than 20 years for the character to get a proper treatment in the movies. Spurred on by the huge success of the Frank Miller-penned comic series The Dark Knight Returns in 1986, which gave us an older, much more cynical and ruthless Batman than we were used to, director Tim Burton helmed 1989’s Batman, starring Michael Keaton as the hero and Jack Nicholson as his greatest villain, the Joker.
Unlike the Superman series, the Batman franchise would go through some significant changes in the lead role. Keaton reprised the role in 1992’s Batman Returns, but that was it for him. Val Kilmer took up the cowl in 1995’s Batman Forever, which also gave us our first modern Robin, played by Chris O’Donnell as a young man around age 20. The series took an unfortunate turn in 1997 with the release of Batman and Robin, starring George Clooney as Batman and returning O’Donnell as Robin. Although I thought Clooney actually made a pretty good Batman, the movie devolved back toward the campiness of the Adam West era. But nothing ever keeps Batman down for long, and in 2005 we were rewarded with the first of a truly epic film franchise, as director Christopher Nolan released Batman Begins, starring Christian Bale. The film went back to the basics of the Batman legend, showing us the trauma of young Bruce’s life and how it formed him into the dark vigilante. With a splendid supporting cast, the movie was a huge hit. Its sequel, The Dark Knight (2008), was an even bigger hit, grossing over a billion dollars worldwide and earning an Oscar for Heath Ledger, who played the Joker.
My wife Sue was uncertain about seeing the film, considering the Joker as shown in the trailers to be too disturbing. She relented, though, and we saw it at a small-town theater in Cumberland. She was right about the Joker, that’s for sure. In fact, at one point in the film when the Joker is terrorizing Gotham City, the power went out in the theater. My first thought was, “My God, he’s here!” But it was only a momentary outage due to a thunderstorm, and the film resumed within a couple minutes, much to the relief of the patrons.
The final film of the Nolan trilogy was The Dark Knight Rises in 2012, in which Batman battles Bane, a muscle-bound terrorist who actually defeats Batman in battle and takes the entire city hostage. (Spoiler alert!) Our hero recovers, though, and eventually brings down the villain and saves the city, apparently at the cost of his own life. Although not quite as critically acclaimed as its predecessor, this one was also a big hit. Bale, however, said that was it as far as he was concerned. The next big-screen version of Batman will appear next year in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Cavill reprises the role of Superman and Ben Affleck takes up the Batman cowl. With appearances by other DC heroes like Wonder Woman, the Flash and Aquaman, the movie is expected to be huge indeed.
The golden age of superheroes.
With the success of the Batman films and the equally-successful Marvel films featuring Spider-Man, the X-Men, Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers, superheroes are all over the popular media. Comics are now selling briskly in print but especially in digital format. Although I remain a DC guy, I have enjoyed the Marvel movies as well. Like DC, Marvel has had some clunkers, such as Ben Affleck’s Daredevil (I actually thought Affleck was quite good in the role of the blind superhero) and the two Fantastic Four films. On TV, DC has taken the lead, with superhero shows doing well on niche networks and gradually expanding to the bigger broadcast titans. Smallville started the parade, and in the past couple years we have added DC heroes in shows like Arrow and The Flash. CBS will soon feature a series based on Supergirl, the younger cousin of Superman. Wonder Woman had her own show back in the seventies, starring the beautiful but only mildly athletic Lynda Carter in the lead; the movie version will be played by Israeli model and actress Gal Gadot, who is training hard for the film. Last fall we got the series Gotham, which began with the Waynes’ murders and now focuses on police detective Jim Gordon, the future commissioner, and the young boy Bruce Wayne, but especially on the emergence of the characters who will eventually comprise Batman’s famous rogues’ gallery of adversaries. Marvel has countered with Agents of SHIELD, a spinoff of the earlier Captain America and Thor movies; unlike the DC series, Marvel has its show tie in directly with the movie universe, although we are not likely to see any of the big-name heroes in the series. All in all, though, this is a fun time for fans of superheroes.
Some people still sniff at the mere thought of reading or viewing stories about men and women who dress up in costumes and sometimes fly through the air or have other unbelievable abilities. But I like them, and while I appreciate the insertion of modern-day realism into the stories, I also appreciate the fact that the writers have stuck to the basics. They give us heroes, both men and women, whom we can root for. They’re not perfect, by any means; they struggle with their responsibilities, they make mistakes, they get angry sometimes and say or do some un-heroic things. But they persevere, they strive to get better at what they do, and above all they willingly take on those heroic qualities that our heroes have had since antiquity.
What would our world be like if we had superheroes? Perhaps more dangerous; superheroes need supervillains, after all. But we have always had real heroes, and we still do. They can be everyday people like the guy who runs into a burning building to rescue a child, or the woman who snatches an elderly gent away from an onrushing subway train. They are policemen and firemen who routinely put their lives on the line to protect the rest of us, they are soldiers and sailors, airmen and marines and guardsmen who hold the line against people who are, in many ways, even more dangerous than the villains in the comics. All of us wonder what we might do if the chips were down and we had to act. Could we be like Superman or Captain America, standing fast in the face of danger, holding off the forces of evil? I’d like to think I could; fourteen years of martial arts training has to be useful, doesn’t it? But none of us ever really knows for sure, until that time when someone calls for help, when we witness a crime being committed, when action is called for and there’s no time to get a cop or a fireman or an EMT. Then, we will have to dig down deep, summon our inner hero, and do what must be done.