Friday, February 27, 2015

What Makes a Hero a Hero?

My 12 year old has been in major Star Wars mode this month, which means we recently watched the original trilogy in all of its original theatrical release glory. (Tonight we get the special release of the first film, complete with all its extras…longer Death Star run! Greedo shot first! Slithery CGI Jabba! It will be her first time to see Episode IV with all of Lucas’ changes.)

Watching these films has gotten us thinking about heroes and villains. Her fascination with Luke and Darth got me pondering, and I decided to pop over to the American Film Institute’s Hero and Villains list to see where they showed up. AFI, in case you don’t know, presents a list of the top 50 American film heroes and villains (along with lists of many other things connected to American film).

Here’s the interesting thing: Darth Vader shows up at #3 on the all-time villain list. And Luke Skywalker…doesn’t make the cut.

I was not surprised to see Han Solo come in at #14 on the hero list – we love scoundrels-turned-heroes. But Obi-Wan Kenobi at #37? Really? I mean, I love Alec Guinness and the gravitas he brings to the role, which ups the whole tone of the first film especially. I’m not sure anyone else could have brought the weight needed to lines like “You must learn the ways of the Force…”

And yes, of course he sacrifices himself in battle, another mark of heroism. But his role in really more of mentor-to-hero than hero; it’s his exit from the land of the living (though he continues to show up in ghostly form in the next movies) that allows Luke the room he needs to grow and come to grips with his destiny.

Luke is the one who has the classic hero journey. He not only ends up besting the #3 movie villain of all time in battle, but that villain is his father, and his continued reaching out in love and forgiveness to that villainous wreck of a father is what eventually enables Darth to do the right thing and find redemption. And he blew up the Death Star! How much more heroic can Luke be?

Of course, he doesn’t get the girl (primarily since the only girl for miles around in this galaxy turns out to be his twin sister, hidden from their dastardly father at birth) and one wonders if that factors in. Of course, it’s also a teensy bit frustrating to consider that Leia herself does not make it to the hero list (there are women on the list) since she seems to be at least as heroic as Han, both of them in supporting role kind of ways.

So what do you think? Should Luke have made the list?

In case you’re curious, here’s how AFI defines hero:

“For voting purposes, a "hero" was defined as a character(s) who prevails in extreme circumstances and dramatizes a sense of morality, courage and purpose. Though they may be ambiguous or flawed, they often sacrifice themselves to show humanity at its best.”


Erin said...

I love those AFI lists, though reading through them can be frustrating! I definitely think that Luke should have made the list and that in a tale with many heroes, he is the primary one. Though I often find the main hero less interesting than side characters...

In a way, I think they're often written so you can almost insert yourself in the hero's place so that you are taking the journey yourself. The quirky side characters are the ones who tend to really capture my attention.

Though it's interesting to debate whether Frodo or Sam is the main hero in LotR. I always thought of Frodo as the hero but Sam as my favorite character, but Sam goes through some pretty significant changes and overcomes some major challenges; in some ways he seems more actively heroic than Frodo, especially toward the end.

I love that in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and LOST, the heroes all offer mercy to villains. Sometimes it's well-received - Darth Vader the most shining example of all - and sometimes it's thoroughly rejected, as in Voldemort's case, but I think it's so important that the hero is willing to have compassion for his enemies.

Beth said...

Yes, I think you're right...Luke is definitely an "every man" hero. I feel sort of sad for those as I think they often have the deepest journeys but get overshadowed by quirkier, flashier, or funnier sidekicks (the kind of unexpected heroes we often find more interesting)! Maybe that's true to life too though...that sometimes it's the quietest folks, who have to pull on deep reserves of courage, who are the real heroes.

I also like it when heroes are merciful. Not a trait that made it onto AFI's criteria, but nonetheless an important one!