The Essence of a Superhero, and the Genuine Thing: “A Superhero’s Action: Moral, Personal”

A Superhero’s Action: Moral, Personal

A superhero takes action because it is moral.  In this respect, a superhero is not distinct from a hero, according to the preferable use of the word.  The less an action is moral, the less heroic it can be.  Similarly, the less intentional a moral action, the less heroic it can be.

Museum of Fine Arts in Lyon: Hercules lifts the world from Atlas’ shoulders

There is, I should say, a way to use the word, “hero,” irrespective of morality.  Hercules’ shouldering of the world for Atlas is certainly impressive, and to that extent one can call it heroic.  My definition of a hero allows for this usage, but Hercules’ deed loses much of its impact when compared, for example, to Mr. Darcy’s rather less imposing, but moral, deed, providing for the marriage of Elizabeth Bennet’s troubled sister.

All twelve of Hercules’ Labors, which benefit mortals, would be moral, if he undertook them for that sake, but he performs them under constraint and for the sake of something else, namely, his immortality.  Even if there were something moral about acting for the sake of one’s immortality, Hercules’ own immortality could perhaps be as unintended as the boyhood feat of Cuchulainn, when he liberates the plain of Magh Breagh from the sons of Nechtan who dominate it.

Cuchulainn has little interest in liberating the people of the plain.  He seems simply to be a passion.  Not only does he pursue feats with a sort of madness, to judge by Lady Augusta Gregory’s telling of the myth, but his passion is also cooled by a curious method.  The people of Emain, to whom he returns after the liberation, fear that he will destroy their young men in his anger, and so they send “three fifties” of nude women to greet him.  Cuchulainn becomes abashed, cools, and looks away.

Also, another version of the myth has it that the townspeople furthermore dowse the boy in three barrels of cold water, one of which explodes, another of which boils, and the last of which warms to a pleasant temperature.  So little does Cuchulainn’s deed seem heroic, and so little do Hercules’ deeds seem to surpass them.


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