Understanding Our Heroes or Why I Hope to Be a Captain

Pity the hero. Remember the good old days, when a hero’s meteoric rise hinged on rescuing a girl from a set of loosely attached train tracks? That doesn’t cut it anymore – our obsession with the harder, better, faster, stronger has led to a whole new generation of the uniquely gifted and unusually virtuous: the superhero.

Of course, the way to superheroism is not paved just with good intentions; we like to cripple ours with flaws and egos, but the compensation is usually pretty generous – technological savvy, genetic mutation, a handful of sidekicks. This makes, naturally, for great summer of blockbusters. After all, why root for a B-list stranger when you can have your internally conflicted superhero of choice lob 3D cars at your face?

But, aside from the obvious, why superheroes? Given our relentless drive to be all that we can be, it seems strange that we were so quick to give up on the fully human hero, abandoning ourselves for irradiated rage machines and alien Norse Pantene models. Mix the two and enjoy one of the Ghost of Movies Pasts’ ickier demonstrations: robot-aliens. Amidst all of this metal and lightning, though, is a good old-fashioned beacon of (almost) plain-Jane heroism. In fact, as I write this, he’s staring at me from a retro-style poster on my dorm-room wall.

“[Captain America] resonates with me because his pursuit ultimately boils down not to intergalactic war but justice and good.”

I’m talking, of course, about Steve Rogers, better known to a handful of inspired generations as Captain America. In this summer’s first cinematic marvel, (the first in a line of super-movies, if you will) The Avengers, Captain Rogers was a breath of long-bottled, nostalgic fresh air amongst a whirlwind of green ‘roid rage and playboy irreverence. Sure, there were three actual tried-and-true humans on the team, but nobody really magnified and embodied what it meant to be a human hero quite as much as he did. Ultimately, it wasn’t so much his old-fashioned perspective that made him a foil for the rest of the gang, but his sheer humanity. It’s the kind of stuff that made Bucky Barnes, the completely unaltered best friend of the Cap, one of the most compelling characters in recent franchises; I actually feared for the kid, because I knew he couldn’t come blazing out of lava and soar out of ravines. Similarly, despite his superpowers, Captain America is distinctively vulnerable – he gets put into superhero-sized situations, but if you chuck him out of an airplane, he doesn’t have the massive arsenal of traditional superhero lifelines (or, as I call them, loopholes-to-life). Talk about relatable.

With $368.6 million bucks under his red-white-and-blue belt, Steve clearly still strikes a chord with the legions of superhero fans. I may be over-reading what is largely a hype-based trend, but two things stand out to me about the re-ascendance of Captain America to cultural icon.

First is the way Captain America reframes the hero. Since I’m not a wunderkind engineer with money and charisma or an uncontrollably explosive juggernaut or a wandering crown prince with the weather at his disposal, I end up juggling the entirety of a real hero’s humanity. Steve Rogers resonates with me because his pursuit ultimately boils down not to intergalactic war but justice and good. He reminds me of the goals of superheroes and heroes alike. Perfection isn’t the point; no one wants to watch an unassailable hero. That’s why for me Superman is just a bland bucket of ability (when you have to invent a green rock to put a dent in his armor, it might be time to look into cutting some of the laser eyebeams or something). No, heroes aren’t supposed to be devoid of weakness – they’re just supposed to overcome them. I don’t aspire to fly in a metal suit or wield a magical hammer, mostly because it’s impractical and also not terribly applicable. But I do, in a lot of ways, aspire to actually fulfill all of the potential I have as a human. Steve isn’t superhuman, really; he just uses all of what he’s been given. When I say my bedtime prayers, that’s about the best I can ask for. On the other side of the coin is a kind of a sobering reality for kids like me who are stuck perpetually in the pre-serum phase of Steve Rogers’ story. The fact remains that even though superheroes make that inspiring transition from locker-filler to prom king, they usually do so under the power of something that remains distinctly outside of them. This kind of transformation simply doesn’t take place in isolation – no truly superhuman heroes derive their power from sheer willpower.

In my life, I’m wasting my time if I think the answer lies in me, that if only I could muster up the force to fix myself, I will emerge rippling with the unearned muscle of life experience. The fact remains that outside intervention; unrelenting faith and a dose of surrender are necessary ingredients for the metamorphosis of all of us Steve Rogers. The trick there, of course, is to realize that all of this really isn’t about Captain America, but a whole new kind of hero.

Or maybe just the heroes we started with all along – after all, for as long as we’ve been redefining heroes, we’ve been reminding ourselves why we seek them to begin with. In even the most outlandish superhero story arc, there is usually a pivotal moment that elegantly and trickily underscores all that we know about heroism. I call it a baby-in-the-backseat moment, though you might know it as a baby-in-a-burning-house or baby-in-a-river moment. Usually, despite the chaos and insanity of a hero’s problem, a baby ends up in danger – and the audience waits expectantly for the rescue. It’s a distillation of how heroism still boils down not to the crowd but to the individual. It’s about the hero taking a break from his supposed heroic duties to stay in line with the values that made him a hero. He goes the extra mile and the glory comes back to him. At the end of the day, that’s what we hunger for – not the guy that saves the world and closes the portal just because, but the guy that saves a life and changes its course (the super part comes in when he efficiently does that for a ton of people at once). The best hero is the one that does both.

There’s one more Captain that deserves to part of a discussion about heroes. Captain Chesley Burnett “Sully” Sullenberger, a low-key pilot, is an unlikely candidate for “Enduring Icon of Heroism,” but his flawless water landing of US Airways Flight 1549 has vaulted him into a Hall of Fame that the public is meticulous about maintaining. What’s unusual in some ways about Captain Sully is that he didn’t perform some unheard-of, never-before-seen maneuver – Captain Sully did exactly what he was supposed to. What was remarkable about Flight 1549 and its miraculous descent onto the Hudson is that Captain Sully performed, under excruciating pressure, a standard albeit rarely used landing. Captain Sully, in that brief, enduring and glorious moment, used every last ounce of what he had been given. That may not be, to distort the words of another surprisingly human (musculature and vocal cords aside) fan favorite, the kind of hero we think we deserve, but he’s one of a kind that we need.

I dissect all this hero-talk because, for starters, my shot at insect-based capers is skewing towards the low side at the moment – and more importantly, I need to know what I look for when I seek out my heroes. I’m tired, frankly, of fixating on these out-of-reach superheroes that amplify everything I can’t relate to. What sticks, when the credits roll, is the mighty fragility of our real heroes. When we find our heroes comatose, banished or nailed to a cross, we know we’ve discovered something attainably unattainable. That outside source is the transformation I’ve been seeking, and it can empower even the wimpiest kid on the block to save a life and change its course. In the absence of that, at least we don’t have to worry about saving the world.

  • Guest

    Another awesome article, Sam. You continue to deliver. :)