How much wisdom can Spidey, Batman, and Jason Bourne possibly deliver? Quite a bit, says film critic A.O. Scott.
Every movie genre has special lessons to impart. Serious dramas offer sober reminders about how miserable people were in the olden days. A decent horror flick will teach you not to camp out in the woods with a group of rowdy, sex-crazed teenagers. Romantic comedies helpfully illustrate that the guy (or the girl) who seems perfect is actually a narcissistic jerk, while the friend you took for granted is really your soul mate. Action movies would seem to be the exception. They dominate the summer, when school is out, and specialize in car chases, explosions, and fights. But they are also about heroism. And since we all want to think of ourselves as heroes, it doesn’t hurt to ponder what it might take to be one. It’s not easy. In fact, these lessons distilled from a decade of professional moviegoing are full of paradox and contradiction. Just like life.
1. Heroes don’t always know that they’re heroes. Sometimes a wise old Jedi or a magic owl shows up to inform you of your destiny. Sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time and you have to do the right thing. But sooner or later you will be called, and your life will change forever.
2. Heroism is a lonely, thankless vocation. Poor Spidey. Poor Batman. Poor Harry Potter. Ultimately, each is alone with his powers and responsibilities, burdened with expectations and misunderstood by even his closest friends and allies. Yes, it’s cool to be that special, but the chances to really enjoy it―to turn invisible, to fly through the air, to hang upside down and kiss Kirsten Dunst―are fleeting and few. The reward for being a hero is not fame or adulation but the quiet satisfaction of having done good.
3. When the going gets tough, the usual rules don’t apply. Your editors, commanding officers, supervisors, and teachers and other authority figures will insist on routines and protocols. You will try to explain that flesh-eating zombies, a psychotic super-villain, a global conspiracy, or an extraterrestrial eco-catastrophe (I’m speaking metaphorically here, more or less) calls for extra-ordinary measures, and you’ll most likely be punished for your insubordination. Until, that is, your bosses need rescuing. And then they will take credit for your bold, imaginative thinking.
4. It’s always personal. The bad guys will find a way to get to your spouse, your lover, your children, your mother―the people who matter to you most. And your professional motives will thus be doubled by the more intimate imperatives of rescue and revenge. Your job is never just your job, and you never do it for its own sake, but rather because it’s connected, sometimes painfully, to everything else that’s important to you. Not just money or (if you’re lucky) health insurance, but meaning, passion, conviction―maybe even truth and justice.
5. You can’t trust anyone. Your boss is working for the bad guys. Your best friend harbors secret thoughts of revenge. Even your husband may be in league with the terrorists who are trying to kidnap you. The crew on that trans-atlantic flight Jodie Foster was taking with her young daughter in Flightplan? Not friendly at all! Be vigilant. Keep your ears open for whispers and your eyes open to hidden agendas.
6. There is always someone you can trust. Everyone else in the world may be out to get Jason Bourne, but there’s Joan Allen in her office, whispering into the phone and staring down the malefactors as she tries to bring him home safely. Bruce Wayne has both Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman to soothe his soul and mend his suits. And even if you lack such highly competent, Oscar-winning support, you can at least have a dog, a tagalong child, or an eager sidekick. The job may be lonely, but you don’t have to do it alone.
7. There is always enough time. Just enough. Even when things are most hectic and dangerous, even when the red LED digits on the doomsday timer are zooming toward zero, there are a few moments, at least, for a meaningful kiss, if not for a full night of passion; or for a night of passion, if not for a full-fledged honeymoon. There’s at least enough time to tuck your children into bed and tell them you love them, if not to have the heart- to-heart you’ve been hoping for; to sit down and open a beer, if not to drink the whole thing.
8. You should never get too comfortable. As soon as you’ve had that first sip or that deep kiss, or as soon as the kids are settled down, your cell phone will ring, the alarm will go off, the spaceship will land in your yard, or something will come crashing through the living-room window.
9. Everything will be OK in the end. The planet was very nearly destroyed and a lot of people may have died, but you will find your way back home, having done your job and quieted the demons. The point is not that all of those terrible things didn’t matter, but rather that, even in the wake of mass destruction and near apocalypse, life will find a way of going on.
10. There is always a sequel. Wipe the soot off your face, embrace your family or the love interest who has been eluding you for the last two hours, sail off into the sun- set, or walk slowly up the front steps of your house. Wounds will heal. Time will pass. But within a year or two―maybe even by this time next summer―evil will rear its ugly head and stuff will start blowing up again. But you’re prepared for that. You are a hero. Your work is never done.
About the Author
A. O. Scott is a film critic and a writer for the New York Times; he also writes for the newspaper’s Sunday magazine. The summer he turned 11, he saw Star Wars 11 times. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children, a cat, and a dog.