Sunday, May 30, 2004

Hollywood heroes share high pedestal

By Bill Muller
The Arizona Republic

The multitude of heroes bursting forth from Hollywood's summer movie lineup - Achilles, Spider-Man, Shrek - are all different. But in a way, they're all the same.

Whether they're from Ancient Greek literature, the pages of a comic book or the fantastic imaginations of artists who conceived a computer-generated ogre, none of the heroes is very real at all. They are, for the most part, larger-than-life, fictional characters who walk taller than mere mortals.

Coincidence? Maybe. But experts suggest that our current brand of hero worship - taking refuge in imaginary characters - is no accident.

"We've seen so many real-life sort of heroes like John Kennedy ... get taken down because they are human and they've made mistakes in the past," says Rebecca Sutherland Borah, a pop-culture scholar at the University of Cincinnati.

"We like to put (heroes) on a pedestal," she says, "and we would like to think they are supermen and perfect. These are people we can look up to and not have to question."

Few are factual

Although most of this summer's hero movies - Spider-Man 2, Shrek 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Catwoman and The Chronicles of Riddick - involve fictional characters, at least one has some basis in fact, however slim.

Achilles, played by Brad Pitt in Troy, was the star of Homer's Iliad, thought to be a semihistorical account of the Trojan War, which occurred more than 400 years before the famous poet wrote about it in 800 B.C.

Achilles has his literary "tragic" flaws, but he lived so long ago that most people are unfamiliar with his exploits. And the chances of a tell-all book are pretty slim, Borah says.

"Nobody is going to interview Paris and ask his opinion on any of the other people," she says, adding, in a reference to The Passion of the Christ, "The apostles are not going to rat out Jesus."

Escapist heroes are also safer because they actually do heroic things, unlike the contemporary figures admired today.

Billy Bob Thornton, who played a courageous Davy Crockett in The Alamo, says some people have more respect for antisocial behavior than admirable acts.

"It's like bad guys get a better crack at being a hero these days," he says. "I think the world's become pretty cynical. And I think we could use people like Davy Crockett. I believe that.

"But now, with athletes and actors, the actor who gets in a fight outside the club and cracks somebody with a whiskey bottle becomes more popular than the one who raises half a million dollars for AIDS."

Thornton's comments are telling, considering The Alamo, which cost $100 million to make and is filled with red-blooded heroes, tanked at the box office.

Reality's role

In looking at the sudden upswing in hero movies, the influence of the 9-11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center can't be discounted, Charles A.Smith says.

"It might have something to do with the contemporary mood in people," says Smith, a professor at Kansas State University and author of the upcoming book Raising Courageous Kids. "In a post-9-11 world, maybe now more than ever before, people hunger for evidence of heroic qualities in human beings, whether they're fictional or real."

Cinematic ideas of what makes a hero continue to change. When people tire of the classic figures like Achilles, they look for Everyman heroes, such as the world-weary policeman played by Benicio Del Toro in Traffic. As the cycle spins, one popular stop is the antihero, who's personified this summer in The Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel to the sci-fi horror film Pitch Black. Vin Diesel stars as a physically imposing escaped con with the ability to see in the dark.

Riddick is no Boy Scout, but he has his own personal code of honor, a common trait of the antihero. The type is so prevalent that even the ultimate all-American actor, John Wayne, played several such characters - in The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

Others have their own criteria for hero worship.

"Shrek's my favorite," Borah says. "Any hero that can have gas - that's a hero."

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