Odysseus is the great hero of literature. Greater than Achilles, greater than Jason, greater than Ajax or Hector or Aeneas. King Arthur pales in comparison to Ulysses. Beowulf nothing but an ignoble brute beside him. The mortal man from Ithaca stands head and shoulders above Gilgamesh or Hercules, despite the latter being demigods. He’s greater than Captain America, and Harry Potter too.
A weird thing happened to Millennials. It wasn’t entirely their fault of course, the media they grew up with reinforced it, as did their parents, and their teachers, and the general zeitgeist of the time. If you look back at movies you can see it. Films from the 70s you know… I guess people were just happy to have something to do. Plot, character development? All that didn’t really matter back then. In the 70s you could put just about anything on the screen and people would go watch it. Netflix didn’t exist back then, they didn’t have video games… what else was there to do? Have sex and do drugs? Fair point. But, so far as the Entertainment Industry was concerned, competition was almost nonexistent. Any garbage you could string together to fill an hour and a half of screen time would make money. And boy did they know it.
My favorite film in that vein is a movie called “Stay Hungry” from 1976. It features Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sally Field, and Jeff Bridges, all in their young and beautiful primes. Won a Golden Globe award and everything. I’m not sure why.
As far as plot goes there isn’t one. It follows the familiar trope of “big company tries to buy out a family farm but the farmer’s simple ways prove endearing and ultimately the CEO learns to have a heart and reject his greed,” only with the farm in this case is a body building gym and the farmer is Arnold Schwarzenegger pretending to be an Alabama hillbilly who plays expert level bluegrass fiddle.
But, at the time, that’s all that was needed. It was the 70s. There was disco, Nixon had unleashed the national credit card, Black guys had afros and couches were made of corduroy. Life was good.
The 80s had higher standards though. High enough that 80s movies are still watched today, and not solely out of nostalgia. Sure, you still had the occasional meandering to nowhere film, like, say, The Breakfast Club, but this was when the Action Movie really got its legs. Indiana Jones. Die Hard. Top Gun. Alien (technically 1979). Big Trouble in Little China. Robocop. The 80s were when Hollywood really started making Heroes. Good guys fighting bad ones. Brave men saving the day.
Saving the day though.
See, the scope was less. The heroes of films from the 80s were generally fighting for much more limited stakes. Sure, there were exceptions, but mostly 80s heroes were fighting to win a particular battle, or to save a particular hostage in a specific building, or to stop a monster terrorizing a single little town.
It was mostly pretty local.
As I say, there were exceptions but by and large most of the fights in 80s films don’t have super high stakes. If Arnold doesn’t kill the Predator the world doesn’t end. He might but the world doesn’t. If Tom Cruise doesn’t shoot down all the MiGs in Top Gun the Soviets might get the better of us, which, isn’t good, but, you know, on the world turns. Bruce Willis has to stop Severus Snape otherwise a lobby full of people will die and Carl Winslow will be sad. Again, this is sub-optimal, but life goes on.
Around the 90s things started to change though. Saving the day wasn’t a big enough dream for people anymore. Being the hometown hero who made the winning play in high school might have been fine for our grandparents but we needed more. Being just a local champion wasn’t going to cut it. In the 90s, we learned to dream about saving the whole world.
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Take Independence Day for example. Sigourney Weaver only had to deal with one alien killing her crew, of like, what? seven to nine people? But now Will Smith has to stop the alien extermination of the entire planet. An impossible task, I think we can all agree, had he not also been given a Jeff Goldblum. Or consider The Mummy, where a significantly thinner Brandon Fraser has to prevent a magically resurrected Egyptian pharaoh from enslaving the world. Or Blade who stopped the Vampires from turning all of humanity into cattle. In Armageddon they literally had to deflect an asteroid to prevent humanity from going the way of the dinosaurs. The stakes had gotten crazy.
Of course, all I’ve just said can be criticized as cherry picking and rightly so. They were making movies where the world was on the line back in the 50s and they still make much-ado-about nothing movies today. Nonetheless, I think the general trend holds. At this point saving The World isn’t even good enough anymore. Now our stories have to be about saving the entire Universe. Every Marvel movie is about that. Heck, if the more recent Doctor Strange films are any indication even the universe has become too small a platform for our hero fantasies. Now we need to make sure The Multiverse doesn’t collapse or… something. Look I admit I wasn’t really paying attention during that one. After they went to the “everyone is made of latex paint” universe I sorta tuned out.
My point is that collectively our ambitions have gotten a lot grander.
We don’t want to be a local hero anymore.
We want to save the world.
That’s Millennial politics in a nutshell. Have you noticed? Honestly, it was better when we were simply into craft beer and unicycles. Influenced as my generation was by countless movies and video games in which the only worthwhile goal was the salvation of the cosmos, Millennials grew up and decided that they were supposed to go and try to do that for real. Every problem, no matter how insignificant, has to be framed as potentially world ending. And why not? If Climate Change isn’t about the end of the species then why even bother? It’s just not good enough to simply like, not pollute so that things look prettier and your local pond has healthier fish. Where’s the heroism in that? No. It’s only worthwhile if you have to go to extremes. If we have to give up everything. Meat. Flying. Using electricity or driving a car. It’s only worthwhile if it’s a life of selfless asceticism and brave opposition to “The Ruling Class” and to “Power". We need something we can storm the barricades to. I mean, I realize that picking up trash on the side of the road is helpful but… there’s nobody to scream “Fuck the police” at while I do that…
Or you know, actually going and making friends with your African-American neighbor. That’s no good. How are you going to Instagram that? What will the Tiktok be about? We prefer to fight our racism by burning shit down. There aren’t specific people who are racist, no, it’s The Whole System. An evil empire. You know, like in Star Wars. And me? I’m one of the few people who can bring it down. Think of the photos. The action shots. Maybe someone will film me in front of an explosion. Joe Biden and I will walk very seriously side-by-side down a hallway. I. Will. Speak. Like. This. And people will applaud.
It’ll be glorious. We’ll save democracy and defeat Fascism. Punch Nazis. Trans lives matter and terraform mars. My life has purpose dammit. I matter.
I saved the world.
Only problem is you didn’t. You know, because you can’t. Because you’re not Thor and you’re not Ms. Marvel. You’re not Master Chief. You’re not part of Dumbledore’s Army. You’re just a normal guy or gal, and, if you’re a Millennial, you’re a normal guy or gal who’s pushing 40.
And that’s okay.
You don’t have to save the world. It’s not in your power to do so and nobody was expecting it of you anyway. Your mother won’t be disappointed I promise. Your Dad won’t love you any less.
Speaking of, have you called them lately?
You know that’s something you actually could do. Something that would make the world better. The local world at any rate. You could call your Mom and then you could go to the animal shelter and adopt a dog. You’d be the dog’s hero. Is that enough? For you? For your greatness? You could call your Mom and adopt a dog and you could give that homeless fella five bucks.
It’s a start.
And maybe after all that you could devote your life to someone and decide to love them. You know make a commitment and get married. Not to save anybody or anything, just to give someone else somebody to come home to. But maybe that is saving them. In a way. And maybe you could have some kids and teach those kids to read. Have some kids and teach them to read and to be kind and to pick up trash on the side of the road and to adopt dogs.
Because Odysseus is the greatest hero because he loved his home. His land. His wife and his dog and his kid. And everything he did. Every battle. Every overcome temptation. Every arrow in his wife’s suitors’ chests and every smoldering spear shoved in a cyclops’s eye.
All of it was just to get home.
To hold his wife and to see his son.
See, you can’t be a hero if you don’t love anything and you can’t love “The World” or “The Universe” or “Humanity”. Those are abstractions. Ideas and generalizations. You can however love James. Or Sarah. Or Aunt Charlotte Ann. You can love a specific town. A specific city. You can love a dog. If you are ever to do anything great in the eyes of the world it will only be because you loved somebody. And, if you do that, you’re already doing something great, even if the world never notices. But Fancies of Galactic Heroism? That’s just narcissism. And you know it’s narcissism because you don’t care about saving the world but instead about The World seeing you save it. You care about being lauded. You care about being liked.
You care about yourself.
That’s why you’re not a hero. Because you have to actually care about something in order to save it and you don’t. Because you claim to care about “The World” even though you long ago stopped caring about your hometown. Because you say you care about “Humanity” when you already stopped caring about your Mom. Because you’re the sort of person who fusses about “Income Inequality” without ever buying a poor man a meal.
You’re lying to yourself. You’ve been taken in by the Siren’s Song.
If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.
— Bible, 1 John 4:20
Go watch Stay Hungry. It’s a fun film.
"Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in
dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly
performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if
only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all
looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is
labour and fortitude, and for some people too, perhaps, a complete
science." -Fr. Zosima, in The Brothers Karamazov
This beautiful site is Matsumoto Castle: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matsumoto_Castle
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