Captain America, Luke Skywalker, and Harry Potter are ideal “heroes” for what Nietzsche would call a “democratic” soul. These caricatures of childhood imagination encourage a reversion to puerile notions of unearned self-importance among their devotees. The protagonists of these stories come from common backgrounds but are, within the first quarter of the film, serendipitously granted magical powers and a world-changing mission. To their audience, these heroes proclaim “I’m a geeky kid just like you, and geeky kids are going to change the world for the better.” But their courage is contingent upon the fantasy world in which these characters can have their magical powers. Unearned significance is the greatest fiction these franchises put forth, and adolescent audiences love it.
Unlike heroes of the classical and premodern worlds, today’s protagonists don’t inspire a healthy self-loathing that drives their admirers toward virtue and self-mastery. Suetonius records that Julius Caesar lamented his lack of accomplishment when he stood before a statue of Alexander the Great. The classical hero made his admirer anything but comfortable; the disciple of a classical hero was moved to embark on an existentialist quest of ascent. In the ancient world, men who founded and maintained clans of warrior nobility were seen as heroic.
Yesterday’s heroes are today’s villains and vice versa. Today, screenwriters recycle plotlines based upon tearing down the “First Order,” the “Empire,” or some other symbol of brutality and marshall strength.
Take, for example, the new Star Wars films. The rebel heroes are a diversity-coalition of strange-looking misfits under the leadership of a commissar general with pink hair and a grumpy schoolmarm face. These rebels fight against the powerful military force of the remnant of the galactic empire for vague notions of political freedom. The spiritual struggle also reflects the democratic mission to eliminate pain and hierarchy. The good guys consider the “Force” to be “balanced” only when the egalitarian intergalactic homogenous state eliminates the brutality of the monarchical “First Order.” That is to say, the good guys don’t seek balance at all, they seek a painless life for the mob—Hegel’s “End of History,” but in space.
It seems that the comic-book, sci-fi, and fantasy films of this ilk are written to retell the noble lie of modern democratic society—the myth that the collective efforts of the majority have overthrown the primordial aristocratic order.
Nietzsche accurately predicted the rise of the herd morality of democratic socialism—the morality of the social justice warrior. This herd morality has taken all American institutions (academia, mass media, Hollywood etc.) by storm, and requires that we seek and destroy all artifacts of the West’s hierarchical past. The heroes we see in film today reflect a celebration of the revolution Nietzsche foresaw.
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus presents us with a classical hero possessing pure aristocratic virtue: an absolute refusal of the great and the beautiful to submit to, or even acknowledge, the voice of the low and common. After leading the Romans to victory in their struggle against the Volscians, Coriolanus, the brilliant, young, and beautiful military commander, refuses to humble himself before the many. The citizens demand that the war hero prove he is worthy to rule over them by displaying the wounds he earned in battle, but Coriolanus proclaims that his wounds are for his own glory and not for winning the approval of the hoi polloi. To reveal himself to these “foul-breathed” plebeians would tarnish the nobility of his battle scars. Coriolanus is a hero who refuses to be a hero of the people.
The plebeians, by nature, are unable to grasp the greatness of Coriolanus. They seek to tear down the young, beautiful military commander—to gang up on him and dissolve him into the amebous mass of the people. No one of them possesses courage, but in mob-frenzy they feel powerful enough to topple their natural superior. The plebeians wish to attribute a certain nobility to themselves, but as Coriolanus points out, these commoners are cowards who refuse to serve in his army and instead hide behind the city walls. Only within the walls of the city can the plebeians maintain their contrived sense of equality.
The plebeians of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus want the benefits of a well-protected, peaceful political community but hate the idea that they owe allegiance to the noble class who founded it. In Coriolanus’ view, the basis of Roman political order is the submission of the commoners to the warrior class; mob rule always begins with the overthrow of the virtuous.
The narcissistic sense of entitlement is characteristic of plebeian taste. Notice how the protagonist of the typical superhero, fantasy, or sci fi movie today rarely earns his special powers. He is always the chosen one. He or she is bitten by a spider, injected with a serum, etc. In democratic thought, the mob, the majority, the people, is blessed with a mysterious and arbitrary dignity that is unearned. The heroes democratic peoples make for themselves are the same.
It’s no wonder, then, why the galactic empire in the new Star Wars movies reminds us of traditional European civilization, with its Roman sense of order, British accents, and slicked back tawny-haired officers—this is the exact kind of society in which the archetypical geek is not tolerated, in which being quirky isn’t cool. The victory of “The Resistance” against “The First Order” is just a retelling of the tragic death of Coriolanus, but from the people’s point of view.
The sci-fi thriller Blade Runner 2049 ran against the grain of the Harry Potter change-the-world archetypical mold, which is probably partly why it was a box office failure. Ryan Gosling’s character, Agent K, wasn’t a geek blessed with magical powers and a mission to defeat all evil in the world. He was an atomized individual oppressed by a realistic depiction of the coming dystopia of technocratic society—a reluctant employee of a government bureaucracy that commissioned him to hunt and kill his own people, the “replicants.” Agent K is an enslaved Coriolanus; his strength and courage are subjugated below the needs of the herd. Blade Runner 2049 presents a dystopia in which the masses have made a slave caste out of society’s warriors—a society in which the plebeians have defeated Coriolanus and fulfilled the transvaluation of values. Interestingly, the bureaucrat, Lieutenant Joshi, who orders K to commit fratricide, is the same typecast and phenotype as Vice Admiral Holdo, the leader of the rebel forces in Star Wars, that schoolmarm, play-nice-and-share R.B.F.
These are just two alternatives to the geek-who-overcomes archetype: the undemocratic, historical, military hero, and the unsung hero who pushes helplessly but nobly against the oppression of the dystopian technocratic future. Neither are appealing or exciting for the majority of today’s viewers because they refute the geek notion that technology and teamwork will lead to an egalitarian utopia. If politics is a struggle between the noble and the many, as Coriolanus perceives it and as the capitalist dystopia of Blade Runner 2049 demonstrates, then those among us who are capable of heroic action will be spiritually suffocated by the world for which The Resistance and The Avengers fight.
Brian Freimuth is a senior studying politics.