The archetype of the tragic hero has always existed – one has to look no further than Oedipus to find a very old and straightforward example of this. Recently there has been a shift in the portrayal of the tragic hero, or perhaps it’s a new subcategory, I don’t really have a name for this (since this isn’t a tremendously well thought out theory) but let’s just call them broken heroes. As interesting as discussing the evolution of archetypes potentially is (or isn’t), what has captured my attention is the way in which characters are being retold and redeveloped within this new archetype.
I recently had the pleasure of watching X-Men: Days of Future Past (and in only two sittings, which is an astonishing feat when you have a one year old), and find myself in agreement with the general consensus that it may be the best X-Men movie to date. Aside from my complete and pure nerd joy that Blink was included in the film, the most enjoyable part for me was watching young/past Xavier.
I was an unrelenting X-Men nerd in the nineties, and spent a good deal of that time reading and learning about and drawing X-men stuff when I probably should have been learning how to socialize well with others, how to talk to girls, or mastering something that would be useful in adulthood like math. Throughout all the comic story arcs and cartoon seasons, Professor X was generally a steadfast source of guidance and leadership. Even in the live action films, Xavier’s portrayal has been consistent with this, although to a lesser degree in First Class. In Days of Future Past, however, we are shown a broken man who is going out of his way to hide from his abilities, which was just about the last thing I expected, and precisely why I enjoyed it so much.
Other notable example of this include James Bond in Skyfall, where we are all hopefully relieved to find out that all of his drinking and killing and womanizing is, in fact, somewhat problematic. The main villain in Iron Man 3 as far as I’m concerned was Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Now we have a broken Professor X.
Yes, I watch quite a lot of superhero movies. And yes, I think James Bond (and Jason Bourne, and Liam Neeson) probably fits better in the category of ‘superhero’ than ‘spy.’
The decision to repaint these characters as flawed in some way isn’t an unwelcome one. Even if it is a bit forced or poorly implemented in some cases, it tends to make them more human. We more easily identify and welcome these heroes because we are imperfect as well. Seeing infallible people on screen alienates us, which is kind of an amusing notion when considering that giving these mutants/genius billionaires/probably superhuman spies some sort of character flaw is all all it takes for us to identify with them. We no longer want super-perfection to be on the list of acceptable superpowers. Except for maybe Superman, but I was never really that big on the idea of Clark the Demigod anyhow.
Reintroducing old heroes as semi-broken people is reassuring. They are no longer perfect, so we don’t have to pretend to be either. As children, most of my generation was promised success and perfection within our lives, and the overwhelming majority of us have yet to achieve either in the way we expected. Being able to see the cracks in foundation of old characters helps us to feel a bit better about ourselves. I mean, shit, if Professor X had some difficulty becoming himself, and Tony Stark started having panic attacks after saving the world that one time, then I might be okay, too. Right?