A Brief History of the Super-hero as Protagonist
In an earlier times we would have no doubt had this discussion solely about anti-heroes. We would have talked Falstaff and Dostoyevsky. There is no avoiding the fact that our current crop of writers [most likely by accident] have taken the concept of Anti-Hero and modified it into something interesting and worthy of study—the Super Hero.
Let’s first define our terms and then compare objects.
1. The Hero: a protagonist who arcs in the way described in Bowdlerizing Kant .
2. The Anti-Hero: a protagonist who does not arc. She completed her arc in the backstory of her story. She does not have the ethical components of a typically good Aristotelian. She is a Machiavellian if she is anything at all.
3. The Super-Hero: a protagonist who does not arc. She also completed her arc in the backstory of her story. However, she DOES have the ethical components of a typically good Aristotelian. She is a wonderfully conflicted Machiavellian because she knows how GREAT her responsibility to be good really is.
A few examples of each type.
1. Will, from Good Will Hunting.
2. Truman, from The Truman Show.
3. Woody, from Toy Story.
4. John Book in Witness.
1. Salieri, from Amadeus.
2. Sebastien, from Dangerous Liasons.
3. Raskalnikov, from Crime and Punishment.
4. Darl, from As I Lay Dying.
1. Batman, from Batman.
2. Iron Man, from Iron Man.
3. David Dunn, from Unbreakable.
4. Neo, from The Matrix.
I like to think about super-heroes because they are a version of protagonist that doesn’t have an arc AND YET still can be interesting. Of the ones who have been done so far, I find Batman the most interesting so I’ll focus on him. Also, of all the Batman manifestations, I find Christopher Nolan’s manifestation the most interesting, so I will narrow in even further on his version of the character. I’ll then go on to note that he adhered to the rules of modern super-hero movies by giving Batman a traditional arc in the first movie, so we WON’T talk about that one at all. The series does not become interesting for our purposes until the second movie.
By this time, Batman’s arc is completed and he is who he will be. A man supremely convinced that his special ability or unique motivation [what we call a SUMA] warrants his absolute belief in the vigilante’s creed [and, importantly, The Antagonists Creed]:
The ends justify the means.
I should take a digressive moment to point out that this is the creed of all super-heroes, not just Batman. The digression is worth making, because I believe that the super-hero exists because we like some characters so much we never want to let them go. Look at how naturally it fits with what I have been saying so far.
A story exists so that a protagonist may learn the truth of a single idea. This idea would fit on a bumpersticker and is likely to concern itself with viewing humans in the aggregate as being superior to, or in some way more powerful than, humans as individuals. The character will experience a series of wins and losses until she moves from skepticism to conviction about a quality or motivation particular to her that will help her defeat the antagonist. When all of these conditions are satisfied, we think of the ensuing character as having “arced”. When we parse that word for all its meaning we find that we were just noticing the protagonist has gone from simply being the main character of her story to being the hero of her story. We might even be tempted to call her the “super” hero of her story. A great question to ask next is: What would the next story about this character be like? What properties would a story like that have?
I think you’d have to admit that it would look a lot like a super-hero story. We’d be discussing a character who believes in her SUMA, has already arced, and carries around some version of an idea that aggregate humanity is more important than individual humanity.
Now we can get back to Nolan’s version of Batman because Nolan, whether subconsciously or on purpose, has recognized that there is an unsolvable ethical problem lying at the bottom of every super hero’s world. The teleological proposition which informs her empirical ethical experience of our world:
The ends justify the means.
Cannot be squared with the proposition that informs her ontological ethical experience of our world:
Individual humans are more important than aggregate humans.
The super-hero has arced TOO much. Her move from skepticism to conviction has not allowed her to ever conceive of doubt about her SUMA again. The super-hero is a character who believes she can defeat ANY antagonist.
There is of course an ethical dilemma hiding in the weeds for anyone who ventures out into the territory of believing she can defeat any antagonist. It is the problem which has faced all teleologies since long before Kant completed his third critique.
The holder of teleological ethical first principles is good if and only if she is also right.
You see how a character with a completed arc is a perfect candidate for an ethical statement wrapped in first principles packaging. She believes in her SUMA with absolute conviction. [And she has good reason to, it helped her defeat her first antagonist.] But what happens, and here we must give credit to Nolan for seeing this possibility lying dormant in the unexamined parts of super-hero psychology: What happens when the super-hero encounters an antagonist who just wants to destroy? Or to corrupt Alfred’s verbal styling:
Some antagonists just want to watch the world burn.
Nolan’s contribution to protagonist archetypes was to realize that you could mine new territory with the super-hero by making it impossible for her to win and still be a “good guy”. You could design a story in which “winning” meant being a bad guy. This was a beautiful conundrum to have devised and I will always tip my philosophical investigations to Nolan or the [unknown to me] graphic novel writer responsible for the stories in the source material that informed Nolan’s Batman trilogy choices.
Algorithm 6 Building a Great Antagonist
1. Your Antagonist ALWAYS believes she can defeat the protagonist.
2. An Antagonist sees no option as a “nuclear option”. Victory is ALWAYS good… no matter the cost.
3. The Antagonist knows that the ends justify the means.
52 Although I will say that I was impressed [in my adolescence] by the first Tim Burton film. I think this speaks to a peculiarity in my character. In other words, there is something in the Batman mystique which I particularly identify with. I’ll lay aside my own psychological musings about myself to wonder if there isn’t something special about this character BECAUSE it has spawned so many adaptations.
I’ll also take this opportunity to note that I HAVE NEVER read a comic book, or graphic novel, or anything remotely similar to a comic book or graphic novel. And if you think I’m noting that fact to emphasize something highbrow in an essentially lowbrow conversation, you might be correct.
Actually, I am noting it because I am about to attribute a bunch of things to Mr. Nolan that might be more properly attributable to the writers of the Batman Comic Books. I apologize for my error [if the attribution is incorrect], but I decline to read a bunch of Comic Books on the off-chance that they are the true source of the parameters of the forthcoming discussion.
53 If I become more daring, I might end up saying that the super-hero PROVES what I’ve been saying up to this point. We’ll see how the writing goes but, either way, I’ll leave this comment in so you can extrapolate my point if I don’t end up making it.
54 I say it this way to point out Kant’s presence in my knowledge of the idea. A case of saying what something is by ruling out what it is not—hmm maybe I owe another debt too? A nominal debt for sure.
55 Or the Comic Book writers from whom he drew.
56 Notice how it was the antagonist that led to this evolution in protagonists. Prior to the latest round of super-hero stories, all antagonists operated under a pretty transparent ethical koan. Steal whatever you can. The twentieth century invented a brand new archetype: the antagonist who just wants to destroy. This is an interesting development because it looks like the only way to defeat such an antagonist is to adopt her rules.