In earlier posts I’ve talked about what I’ve just now decided to call the “heroic hierarchy.” The lowest level is an ordinary person. Under certain circumstances, any ordinary person can be heroic, like bystanders who stand up to a bully or people who run to help someone else who is in trouble. Usually such people downplay their heroism later, saying things like “I just did what anyone would do.” As if being a hero isn’t that big a deal.
However, as I’ve said before, there is one requirement: a heroic person is usually someone who is in charge of their own life, for the most part. By this I mean that they don’t habitually look to someone else to tell them what to do or who they can be; they look to themselves first. They have some degree of independence and self-reliance, and this makes them able to step up to being a hero when they need to. I suspect this is one reason why women in stories have rarely been heroic until the last half-century or so, because it’s only been recently that women have managed to gain some autonomy over their own lives. For a person who’s in a subservient position, it is a big deal to step up to being a hero. We like the ones who manage that, because they are special.
The next step up from the hero is the superhero, the person who can do things that most people simply can’t. It’s not a matter of being willing. Something has been done to the person, either accidentally, like Spiderman and the Flash, or deliberately, like Captain America, that gives the person powers others don’t have. (Superman and Supergirl are in a separate category; they were ordinary on their own planet but gained powers by coming to ours.) Some make use of technology that amplifies their abilities far beyond that of normal humans, like Iron Man or Batman. There’s debate about whether such people are truly superheroes, but it’s a moot point: they act like superheroes, they get things done only superheroes can, so . . . they’re in the club.
Just as we like the unlikely heroes, when it comes to superheroes we like the ones who were kinda wimpy before, like little Steve Rogers or young Peter Parker. But even the former wimps had the quality of heroism first, before they gained power. That quality’s necessary. If they don’t have it and get superpowers, they become the villain.
I suspect that the continuing scarcity of female superheroes in our stories is due to this: most women are still at the stage of finding their own heroism. But we’re getting a lot more female heroes in stories and film nowadays, so I expect we’ll be seeing more superheroines soon.
Then there’s the outright gods. But while a person can step out of being ordinary to being a hero, and then perhaps step up to being a superhero, they can’t level up in power to become a god. Because gods don’t step up, they already are.
The hero gods run toward battle with a grin on their faces, because that’s what they do. It’s their god job–or their goddess job. Diana, the Wonder Woman, knows that fighting evil is her purpose for existing. She was literally made for it. She’s not heroic because she never feels fear, any more than the other god of our current fantasy movies, Thor, does. Her compulsion to fight on behalf of others causes her to be baffled when the humans who are accompanying her on her “mission” to destroy Ares won’t let her stop and fight every wrong she sees along the way. When they tell her “that’s not your problem” it’s incomprehensible gibberish to her ears; for Diana, everything that is wrong is her problem.
Hero gods do step up from their former selves, however; just in a different way than hero humans do. The big danger of being a god is hubris and contempt for others, a trap it’s all too easy to fall into when you are more powerful than anyone else around you. For a god to avoid becoming the villain is much harder than it is for a super-powerful human.
What Thor and Diana have to learn is the hardest thing of all. To avoid the trap of contempt, they have to move past their accurate (they see much more clearly than humans do after all) assessment of humans as flawed, a contradictory mass of good and bad attributes, and—as only gods can—rise above this to see the beauty of the whole. They have to invoke the godlike power of agape, the love of god for man.
This is the superpower we normally assign to parents, particularly to mothers: unconditional love. Indeed, we tend to think that it is a feminine power, innate in women. But Diana has to learn it just as Thor does, moving beyond indifference to romantic love for one flawed human being first, and then extending that love to others. (This path is bittersweet, because humans are mortal and short-lived, and those the god loves will die.)
Hancock is another example. Whoever we knew him as in the past (Ares? Hercules? Krishna?) he is a god born to be a hero. But he has forgotten who he is, and when he obeys his innate urge to help others, he creates chaos and does more damage than good. He already loves, although he has forgotten this too, and he loves a goddess, so his path to agape is a bit different. Instead of romantic love, he experiences philia, brotherly love, for Ray, a human man and do-gooder who befriends him and helps him become the hero he’s meant to be. As he comes to care for Ray, Hancock gets in touch with his own loving nature, which enables him to find his strength at his weakest moment. Likewise, Thor regains his power when he acts out of love, willing to give up his own life for others. Diana comes into her full power when she moves beyond love for one man to love for all people.
“They don’t deserve you,” Diana is told more than once. But she already understands that it’s not about the worth of those she helps; it’s about being the person she is meant to be: not just powerful, but powerfully loving.
And isn’t that what makes a hero in the first place: the willingness to act from a place of pure unselfishness? Heroes are able to act because they have autonomy and physical power, but we focus so much on those qualities (especially the bulging muscles) that we’ve overlooked the real source of heroism, the muscle that powers all the rest: the hero’s heart.
Addendum: my friend Simon pointed out that Leeloo of “The Fifth Element” is very similar to Diana–a goddess made to protect people who is only able to access her power through love.