Hollywood had portrayed a variety of different categories of heroes in its cinematic history. None has been more important to film than the superhero and the Western. Both superheroes and Western heroes are considered tough and ready to conquer the evils of the world. Any actor playing Superman is able to portray the “Man of Steel” simply by putting on the red cape while John Wayne and Clint Eastwood embody the characteristics of true Western heroes. Male superheroes and Western heroes have dominated the big screen for many decades however; there are contradictory mythologies that these heroes also embody.
These are discussed as they relate to superheroes and Western heroes. The role women play in establishing traits of these heroes is also analyzed. There hasn’t been another actor who has so captivated audiences with his portrayal of Superman as Christopher Reeve did in Superman in 1978. In this movie, Superman is really an alien from Krypton who has been sent to Earth before his home planet explodes. On Earth he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent who raise them as their own son, Clark. Clark works at a newspaper and embodies a certain gentle persona (Donner, 1978; Engle, 744).
The contradictory mythology surrounding Superman is that he is a mild mannered man in the form of Clark Kent but is a “man of steel” with superhuman powers when he takes on the characteristics of Superman (Engle, 744). Superman has dominated Hollywood since Christopher Reeve played him in 1978 because of his undying efforts to save the world from the clutches of evil (Engle, 744). In Superman, Christopher Reeve must save the world from the evil plots devised by Lex Luthor to launch missiles in order to make a fortune in real estate (Donner, 1978).
The audience is counting on Superman to save the day and this is what makes Superman a true superhero. The American people know that they can count of Superman to rid the world of evil and this why Superman has continued to dominate the big screen in several remakes since the 1978 classic. Throughout Superman, Christopher Reeve is pursuing Lois Lane who is pursuing Superman (Donner, 1978). The superhero pursuing a beautiful female gives some human characteristics to hero status. Clark Kent was unable to persuade Lois Lane to go out with him but had she known that he was really Superman she would have loved nothing less.
The beautiful female pursuing the hero gives credibility to his hero status (Seger, 317). Women have allowed male heroes to dominate the big screen because they have secret fantasies of a superhero swooping in and saving them from their troubles. Therefore, superheroes provide something for everyone. Small boys embody hero characteristics through play, men enjoy hero movies because of the action and the overcoming of evil and women enjoy these movies because of the desire to have a big, strong superhero risk life and limb to save them.
Western heroes have also dominated the big screen for decades. The Wild West caused great fear in many civilized people from the East (Engle, 747). The Western hero was able to portray attempts to tame the Wild West through “independence, self-reliance, personal honor, sympathy with nature, and ethical uses of violence” (Engle, 747). John Wayne was one such actor who truly embodied the characteristics of a Western hero. In The Searchers, John Wayne plays a Civil War veteran who is searching for his abducted niece. It takes place during a time when the west was still considered wild.
Wayne internalizes the Western hero characteristic of independence because the movie opens and no one knows where he has been for the past three years (Ford, 1956). In this way he is also showing his own self-reliance. He is a typical Western hero because he is a loner and takes care of himself without needing anyone else along for the ride. Wayne decides to search for his niece but doesn’t call in many people to help in his search (Ford, 1956). Similarly, Wayne was able to show personal honor through his personal quest to find his abducted niece.
Finally, John Wayne is typically associated with cowboy hats and guns blazing in to save the day. He uses violence in an ethical manner in The Searchers because he feels it is his personal duty to track down his niece and he is willing to go to whatever lengths necessary to do so (Ford, 1956). Since characters like John Wayne stood for what good American boys should want to be (Engle, 747) there was no shortage of female pursuers. The contradictory mythology surrounding Western heroes is that they appear rough and tough on the outside but have a gentle nature that isn’t revealed to just anyone (Engle 747).
This is opposite of the superhero characteristics that show an everyday normal person morphing into a rough and tough hero sent to save the day. Western heroes are considered brave men as compared to the more civilized men of the East. Men who were brave enough to saddle up and head West were considered heroes because of their lack of fear of the “wild” west (Engle, 747). Therefore, women longed to attract the attentions of a Western hero because they would feel safe and protected with such a brave, strong man around.
Villains help mold a superhero or Western hero into an American icon. Superheroes avoid their arch enemy because the enemy has discovered their weakness and tries to use to defeat the superhero. Villains in Western films are usually the outlaws or Indians that must be defeated in order to preserve a peaceful and safe place to live. The villain in hero movies represents some sort of adversity that must be overcome (Seger, 317). In the case of Lex Luthor, Superman must overcome the greed that he portrayed in order to save the world and keep it a safe and prosperous place (Donner, 1978).
In the case of John Wayne, the villains he had to defeat were the ones who stood in the way of finding his niece (Ford, 1956). The villains force the heroes to go to whatever length is necessary in order to reach their goal. Superman had to overcome the evil Lex Luthor in order to save Lois Lane and John Wayne had to overcome his adversaries in order to save his abducted niece. Therefore, villains push heroes to change and grow in order to remain true heroes. Superheroes and Western heroes are both considered hyper masculine. They are what embody the true definition of a hero.
They are willing to put their own lives on the line to save the lives of others. Hero stories are myths simply because one person is not capable of ridding the world of evil and saving everyone in trouble. Myths help humans create a vision of where they would like to go and what they would like to do. Myths take the injustices of the world and give humans hope for change (Seger, 317). What makes heroes so heroic is that they live rather simple lives until the call to action is sent out. Superman is really Clark Kent who is a newspaper reporter.
John Wayne is a Civil War veteran just like so many other men during the time of the Wild West. The difference between normal humans and heroes is that heroes take it upon themselves to make the world a better place (Seger, 317). This is why myths are so contradictory. The heroes take on human characteristics but underneath they possess superhuman abilities to fight evil. “Myths bring depth to the hero story” (Seger, 326). Hero myths have the power to dominate the big screen because they allow humans to imagine the contradictory aspects of heroes being incorporated into their own lives.
Small children will play hero games endlessly as they dream of growing up and saving the day. However, this desire to rid the world of evil doesn’t go away as a child gets older. Instead, it grows stronger as adults realize that mythological heroes are unlikely to exist. However, humans return again and again to theaters to see hero movies because they provide hope for the future. They allow humans the ability to hold onto childhood dreams that they can be heroes and superheroes and Western heroes embody those desirable characteristics: bravery and strength.
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