Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The "Incredible" Evolution

THE INCREDIBLES is an evolutionary step towards an Objectivist view of superheroes, but there is a vestigial tale of a mixed premise of altruism, and that altruism is inherent in the idea of heroism itself.

The classical hero is homegrown for service to the community. The American superhero archetype is an outsider who imposes his will anti-democratically (well, at least, according to the authors of THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SUPERHERO...). Both are created in the victim's image as a selfless sacrificial redeemer of others. Ayn Rand was a champion of excellence in man, a fervent hero worshipper. She was also a hero in her own right, as a champion of "liberty and justice for all." Rand has created the prototype of the new hero: the hero who saves the world by not saving the world, but by bettering himself.

In rejecting the aristocratic elements of Nietzsche, she created a prototype of the future hero in Howard Roark. His abilities are not supernatural, or cosmic in origin, but of the power of reason. His motivation is not tied to the saving of others, but of his own life, his own betterment, without following or leading. As a consequence, his freedom allows the fruits of his labor, through the possibility of free trade, to make life better for others. Rand's heroes are fighting for their own values, which, to paraphrase Kay Gonda in IDEAL, is the kindest thing they could have done.

If it is true that "the medium is the message," then the problem with the older superhero model is that his creators limit him. A hero is defined by his antagonist, the larger the hero, the larger the threat must be. What happens when the villain is defeated? The hero is left without an outlet for his power. He has no purpose of his own; he was never an end in himself, because he was never intended to have a life outside of his creator's need. That is why the hero is commonly associated with self-sacrifice. In classical hero myths, the hero often reintegrates himself into his home community and lives a quiet life. The modern American "rides off into the sunset." Either way, the hero is no longer needed and he either settles down or disappears. But what happens when the hero won't go away, and actually has the gall to ask for compensation? To be recognized as special, or better yet, superior? A hero is created for war, but to quote Nietzsche , " a warlike man in peacetime makes war with himself. " Or, he makes war with his creators.

If the superhero is motivated to save people, why doesn't he work as a member of the police? The idea is never suggested in the movie that the "Supers" can use their powers as a member of the community. The Hero is a type of golem, a Frankenstein monster who has rejected his creator's control. The hero is a vigilante, who works outside of the current forces, even if they fight on the same side. The sin, according to traditional hero ethics, is that the Superhero is not fighting selflessly, but selfishly. He was created to be the puppet of the victim, not their better.

Here we see the role of the villain as a shadow of the hero's ego. The villain of traditional ethics, besides being an initiator of force, is also an egotist, antisocial, and pursues his own agenda. The hero was a protector of innocence, but also selfless and altruistic, even self-sacrificial. As long as the superhero denied his own needs for the many, as a secular redeemer, the battle lines were neatly drawn. But as the hero came into his own, in the model of the American hero, he became a threat to the social agenda of the Red Decade in which he was created. The ethics of the American hero stories revealed the mixed premises that Rand believed were undermining the American way of life. The line between hero and villain began to blur, and a shift in values had begun, as demonstrated in Rand's fiction, which inverted the role of hero and villain, as a challenge of traditional Christian altruism.

THE INCREDIBLES is a step in the direction of moving heroes away from being self-sacrificing creations of society, serving "the greater good." The older superheroes in the movie are purposely modeled on older heroes, namely Superman, and the Fantastic Four. The influence of Superman is obvious, he is the archetypal superhero, who fights for truth, justice, and the American way. Named after Nietzsche's "ubermensch," the character differs in that he does not impose his will through force on innocent people. There is a relation in that both live in solitude, both are outsiders. But Superman is otherworldly, born of Jewish creators during the time of the Holocaust, and ironically, a Christ symbol; the ubermensch is one of us evolved past his elders. Superman's powers are given to him by his creators to fight for us, because they are too weak themselves, as the Jews looked to America to free them from genocide. But he also represents a shift in the American way, embodied in the "New Deal" of so-called social progress. Superman was the American spirit turned Big Brother. Indeed, some have accused the character of holding back his adopted planet, when he stopped being a role model of humanity's own greatness and instead became a super powered protector of mere mortals. Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow? Those who rejected the status of victim came to outgrow the need for a super powered protector, and as the brute strength of the Man of Steel gave way to the Industrial Age, so to did the need for supernatural protection find its end in the reason and science of the men of the Information age. And thus, the Fantastic Four were born.

The Fantastic Four were a different species of hero. They carried the same cause as Superman, truth justice and the American way. There was the altruistic "let's use our powers for the greater good "mentality. But there was also an element of rugged individualism, as well as the science fiction aesthetic of exploration and progress. They embarked on fantastic adventures, and the villains were the ones who would impede their freedom of discovery. They were the first dysfunctional family of comics, having the same human struggles that we all do. They were descended from us. But they did not wait for a Superman to solve their problems. Though their superpowers were granted by accident, the accident was the results of their own ambitions, and one gets the impression that the Fantastic Four would have been special without them.

The movie draws on these two elements, and suggests a prototype for a new hero in the model of Rand's inversion of traditional heroes: Edna Mode. Like James Bond, she does not hide her identity. She IS Edna Mode. She does not use her diminutive physical stature as an excuse to shrink from life, and as a result is larger than life. And most importantly, she does not define herself by the needs of others, but by her work, her passions, her commitment to be the best she can be. She honors reality, lives by her own mind, and interacts with others with the benevolence made possible by the respect for freedom and the pursuit of mutual interest.

Even the villain is a sign of evolution. He does not rely on the heroes to solve his problems for him, rather, he uses his mind to create fantastic inventions that enable him to do extraordinary things. The movie does not decry technology, rather, the villain remains a villain because he defines himself in the shadow of others. If he can't be special, no one can. He is the shadow of the hero, who is special, and hated for it. Both the hero and villain share the flaw of looking to others as victims to be saved. Without the cry for help, they have no purpose. They are not allowed to be special for their own sake, and they submit their powers to only be used for the sake of others. The tragedy of the villain is that he never as a child the lesson that the children of the heroes learn. And it is in the embodiment of these super powered children that the prototype will evolve.

The children are told by the parents to submit to that germ of altruism that restrains them for using powers for their own good, and find themselves drained of life because they cannot express their abilities. But the parents have a change of heart when their children's lives are threatened, and for once, the heroes have to act for their own sake. In ATLAS SHRUGGED, Henry Reardon reflects on the impossibility of a mother bird that would rip the wings off her brood, and the horror of parents who hobble their children's minds. Rand wrote of the "Comprachicos," child-buyers who distorted children's bodies as a metaphor for the distortion of a child's mind through a poisoned ethic. The parents in THE INCREDIBLES are guilty of such a crime, but they see their error, and eventually teach their children to fly (or run fast and turn invisible, as the case may be…).

Despite any (claims of) elements of authoritarian behavior in Rand's work, her inversion of traditional hero ethics offers us a new kind of hero, when she writes "I swear, by my life and my love of it, that I will never live for sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine ". The super powered children in THE INCREDIBLES are representatives the future of the Objectivist spirit. Though the parents still encourage them to temper their abilities for the sake of others, they have been given the green light to develop. Whether or not they learn the spirit of Galt's oath will be the topic for the sequel of this new heroism.


madmax said...

Interesting post, but I am curious about this:

"Despite any elements of authoritarian behavior in Rand's work, her inversion of traditional hero ethics offers us a new kind of hero..."

What authoritarian elements do you see in Rand's work?

Joe Maurone said...

Hi, Madmax. This should be edited to say "claims of authoritarian behavior." Thank you for catching that.

A bit of history, btw: this article (originally posted on Solohq.com), was written by me partly as a repudiation of two other articles I had written: "The Trickster Archetype and Ayn Rand" and "The Objectivist Hero Cycle." I did make the claim in those pieces that Rand was indeed authoritarian, based on the claims of "The Brandens." After reading James Valliant's THE PASSION OF AYN RAND'S CRITICS, I have since questioned my own assumptions, and this piece was my early "working out" of those assumptions.

( I may post the original essays at some point for archival purposes, to compare and contrast, but I will state now that this site will not focus on the matters of Rand (or the Branden's) personalities or schisms.


Bosch Fawstin said...

Off to a great start guys, and I just noticed the link to my site, thank you, appreciate that.

And Joe, it was great to see the parents in The Incredibles come around and allow their children to embrace their powers and so their heroism. It was as good a film as can come from where our culture is currently at, and I think its success is a great sign of even better things to comes.

Joe Maurone said...

Thanks, Bosch, and you're welcome...can't have you fighting the good fight alone. :)