Can We All Be Heroes?

As the world around us becomes more polarized and trust in government sinks to new lows, the fictional realm becomes an attractive place.

It is no secret,” Peter Biskind writes, “that the age of extremism has arrived.” It’s a statement that could be applied to any number of things, from politics to social media to sports. It might be surprising, though, to learn that Biskind is a film historian and critic, and that in his 2018 book The Sky Is Falling! he contends that this age of extremism also applies to movies. Even more surprisingly, he applies the “extremist” label to mainstream productions featuring the sort of popular culture—superheroes, zombies and secret agents—that most of us think of as little more than harmless fun.

A little over half a century ago, Biskind tells us, it was very different. Popular cinema was determinedly nonextreme. And apart from a few exceptions, everything from John Wayne westerns to space-age science-fiction was nonradical and centrist.

Nowadays, however, extremism is in. Fictional heroes frequently use radical measures to save the day; either survivalist-realist (we must survive at all costs, because the world will never change) or techno-optimist (let’s start again on another planet).

Our nonfictional world has also become more extreme. Popular opinion is increasingly comfortable on what used to be the political fringe, from populist sloganeering in the United Kingdom and Hungary to nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric in the United States and other parts of Europe. Political scientists Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin note that “we are now living in a very different situation to that which existed during the ‘classic era’ of mass politics in the mid- to late twentieth century. Unlike then, when people’s loyalty to the traditional parties was much stronger . . . , today our political systems are grappling with major changes” (National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, 2018). The 21st century has witnessed the rise of radical activism, political dealignment, and general disillusionment with traditional structures.

Populism is people taking authority back from institutions they no longer have faith in.”

Richard Edelman, interviewed by Uri Friedman in “Why Trump Is Thriving in an Age of Distrust,” The Atlantic (January 20, 2017)

Real life is imitating art—or is it vice versa? The mutual reflection of cinema and politics is remarkable, and the implications worth considering. Does it matter if Game of Thrones or the Marvel franchise matches our changing politics? Biskind thinks so. If he’s right, what might that mean for the future? Could it impact how we respond to the sort of existential catastrophe that some observers suggest is on the horizon?

With a rare critical eye, Biskind focuses on what some might call trashy entertainment. He argues that even the likes of Iron Man and True Blood have an ideological basis, echoing George Orwell’s view that apolitical art is impossible. (Orwell famously claimed that “the opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”) Biskind says that “not only are Hollywood films and TV full of messages, most often conscious, though sometimes not, but it is those pictures that appear to be totally innocent of politics—sci-fi, westerns, thrillers—that are the most effective delivery vehicles for political ideas, precisely because they don’t seem to purvey them.”

This paradox—that we are more susceptible to ideas when we’re unaware they are being propagated—is complex psychologically, but it operates according to an established and widely used principle. When applied to films, Biskind’s line of investigation becomes critically important to us as viewers; is it possible that the plotlines of X-Men and The Lego Movie influence us more than any political broadcast ever could?

The New “Bad Guys”

It used to be that screen villains operated outside the system, from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) to The Boston Strangler (1968). Nowadays more often the “bad guys” are on the inside, or they are the system. Many films now feature leaders and systems that are in some way deficient—incompetent, corrupt or unabashedly evil. This has struck a chord with audiences. Whether consciously or not, these plotlines reflect the way many see real life: our modern villains are often leaders, governments and large corporations.

It would be difficult to argue that this association is unmerited. From self-aggrandizing political messiahs, to price-gouging pharmaceutical companies, to government-expenses scandals, the list of misdemeanors by modern-day authorities feels never-ending. These failings have been present in leadership for as long as humanity has existed, of course; but in an age of all-access media, we’re now more aware of it. In the years immediately following World War II, governments retained the ability to portray themselves positively, an impression mirrored by the upright and principled leaders often seen in movie theatres. The intervening decades have seen a steady decline in that positive perception; where politicians were once generally portrayed as noble, truth-telling and stable, it would be a challenge to find many fitting that description in today’s entertainment.

Going hand in hand with this trend is a dramatic loss of public trust. Eatwell and Goodwin report that in 1964, 76 percent of Americans trusted their government “just about always” or at least “most of the time.” In 2012, this figure had fallen to 22 percent; and by 2019, according to a Pew study, it was only 17 percent. This disintegration is as evident in entertainment as in real life.

Gallup’s initial analysis reveals that people in countries with recent populist movements tend to have a combination of low trust in government and low or static expectations for their future lives.”

Galina Zapryanova and Anders Christiansen, “Hope, Trust Deficits May Help Fuel Populism” (Gallup, April 7, 2017)

We live in an “era of political fragmentation, volatility and disruption,” say Eatwell and Goodwin. People today are more likely to associate authority with corruption, indolence or incompetence. When agent Jack Bauer, the fictional hero in the long-running television series 24, took it upon himself to fight for America against a multitude of international threats, it was because the organization set up to combat terrorism was corrupt and compromised. He engaged in whatever methods he deemed necessary to get the job done, including torture. Many viewers found his extremes abhorrent, but in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, millions of others considered them completely justifiable.

A Move to the Fringes

With institutions and conventional leaders largely discredited, it’s only natural that people look to nonconventional figures as heroes. The system is broken, as the logic goes, so we must find solutions outside the system. Recent popular phraseology—draining the swamp, thinking outside the box—is symptomatic of this changed outlook. As in cinema, real life political “heroes” are often those who go to extreme lengths, from Greta Thunberg, Edward Snowden and Banksy on the left to Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Nigel Farage on the right.

The circumstances that have encouraged a rise in extremist views have been long in gestation. The elections that brought leaders with nontraditional views to power in the United States and Hungary came about not by fluke or general ignorance (as many suspected), but rather because the conditions were ripe for such reactions. To many, extremism simply makes sense.

Populism, to take a particularly prominent example of this move to the fringes, is the collective response of people who feel their democratic governments are no longer able or willing to act for them. The system has broken, in their view, so they look to alternate measures to fix the situation. The UK Brexit referendum, for example, was a dramatic rejection of the existing system in favor of an unknown future (as well as a nostalgic yearning for a rose-tinted past)—a definitively extremist action. And as we have seen, we cheer on similarly radical tendencies in our fictional heroes.

This mirroring of popular culture and politics seems especially fitting in the 21st century, where presidents communicate via social media, and dramas such as The West Wing (written in part by, or in consultation with, various political aides, speechwriters and former White House staffers) directly inspire political maneuvers.

Government of No One

The overlap of extremism and popular culture is not such a new phenomenon. A little over a hundred years ago, everyone was talking about anarchy. It was extreme, and it was found in both politics and entertainment. While today’s circumstances are clearly different, it’s worth reflecting on anarchism as a response to sociopolitical problems and to consider how it might play out in our 21st century.

As an ideology, anarchy has a lot in common with other extreme forms of thought. Its tenets have had supporters across the centuries, from the French and American Revolutions to Gandhi and Tolstoy. The word derives from the Greek anarkhos, meaning the condition of being without a leader (or, in professor of political theory Ruth Kinna’s words, a “government of no one”).

In essence, anarchism stands against organized and structural authority and argues that the absence of such would be beneficial. It promotes individual freedom and represents an impressive faith in humanity’s ability to direct itself.

Many associate anarchy with violence and chaos, which, as a generalization, is unfair. But there’s reason for such bad press. In the late 19th century, anarchist movements emerged across the world, from Russia to the United States to central Europe, and they both terrified and excited the public. Two particularly newsworthy flashpoints were the assassination of Tsar Aleksandr II in St. Petersburg (1881) and the Haymarket Massacre in Chicago (1886). The first was a protest against autocratic government; the second was part of a battle for workers’ rights. Both exemplified the attempt to resolve injustice with extremist solutions (it was more the goal—dismantling the existing system—than the violent means they employed that characterized both movements as extreme).

It’s no surprise that this dramatic style of anarchism inspired numerous fictional representations, especially in novels. From Edward Douglas Fawcett’s Hartmann the Anarchist (1892) to Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907) to Maxim Gorky’s The Life of a Useless Man (1908), violent anarchy made an excellent subject for thrilling narratives.

What is especially interesting about these portrayals is how they influenced popular opinion. They both represented and fed a widespread paranoia, a tendency to see terrorists in every dark alley. Kinna notes that anarchism was viewed as “a political as well as a social disease.” The nihilist bomb-thrower became a popular bogeyman, a representation of threats facing the society of the time.

In Britain, as the late literary critic Robert Giddings noted, people feared “anarchist conspirators, [who were] usually foreigners” (parallels with today’s anti-immigration feeling are all too clear). “Late Victorians,” Giddings added, “feared the breakdown of society and the eruption of politics into the street.” US president Theodore Roosevelt declared in 1901 that “anarchy is a crime against the whole human race.”

The anarchist is everywhere not merely the enemy of system and of progress, but the deadly foe of liberty. If ever anarchy is triumphant, its triumph will last for but one red moment, to be succeeded for ages by the gloomy night of despotism.”

It’s clear, though, that in many areas the threat to humanity was largely exaggerated. G.K. Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday satirized the phenomenon: a government agent infiltrates an anarchist group only to find that every single member of the group is actually a government agent on the same mission. Chesterton highlighted the fact that anarchy in Britain was greatly overstated and amplified by public fear, but also that that fear was real and had consequences of its own.

Celebrating the Individual

The consequences of that general fear are well worth considering today. We’re in an age of anxiety, we’re told, with loneliness and other mental health issues topping many public agendas. The entertainment we identify with is often symptomatic of that. The fears that feel compelling to us in fiction often do so because they align with how we view real life. What we like to watch reveals much about how we see the world—and how we might react in particular situations.

Biskind says that “values, and therefore politics, are embedded in the very fabric of movies.” How aware of this are you and I? Do we think about what we watch? Are we aware of why we identify with certain characters, or despise others? What does this say about our political and moral leanings?

Anarchism celebrates the individual and implies that we are well capable of directing ourselves, and that broken systems and institutions hold us back. If only we can sweep away all the mess and start again, so the logic goes, then things will be better. The focus is less on the collective and more on the individual: only you can make a difference.

This feels as current today as it did in the 19th century, but there is a difference. Back then, anarchists were outsiders, but they were nobody’s idea of a hero (unless you were an anarchist yourself). American police chief Michael Schaack, writing a history of anarchism after leading the investigation into the Haymarket Massacre, described one such group as “a small crowd of boozy, beery, pot-valiant, squalid, frowsy, sodden Whitechapel outcasts who shrieked and fought” (Anarchy and Anarchists, 1889).

Anarchists were a social disease—akin to a plague of zombies—that needed stamping out. And the fiction of the day reflected that view. Today, however, those who once would have been labeled outsiders—Jack Bauer, Batman, Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games—are popular heroes. In a world where institutions and governments are corrupt, the disease is in the system and the individual feels compelled to fight against it, to fight for what he or she believes is right. In some postapocalyptic stories, the worst has already happened and survival is the only aim; as Biskind notes, in these situations “we are all fugitives.” Only in this context can a song like Frozen’s “Let It Go”—where Queen Elsa isolates herself and lets the world freeze in an eternal winter (in decidedly extremist fashion) while she explores her personal, individual power—become a popular, crowd-pleasing anthem. In another time, Elsa might have been a villain, akin to Ursula from The Little Mermaid or the Evil Queen from Snow White. In fact, in the 1845 Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that inspired Disney’s Frozen, the Snow Queen is a villain.

Let it go, let it go / Turn away and slam the door! / . . . It’s time to see what I can do / To test the limits and break through / No right, no wrong, no rules for me / I’m free!”

From the lyrics of “Let It Go,” Frozen (2013)

Unlike the 19th century, we live in a world where we are more likely to empathize with, and perhaps even desire to emulate, the anarchist. These protagonists take responsibility to decide what is right, and they go to every length to ensure that they get their way.

In a fictional film, where the number of heroes is limited, this is theoretically fine; but what happens if large numbers of people each decide to take on their own heroic mantle? With such a variety of possibilities of “rightness” (from one side of the political spectrum to the other), the potential for conflict and chaos is worryingly high. It’s reminiscent of the French Revolution, where the masses often took matters into their own individual hands, and even of ancient Israel’s premonarchic period, when, according to the Hebrew Scriptures’ book of Judges, “everyone did whatever was right in his own eyes.” It’s perhaps salutary to note that the consequences of such multiplicity of self-direction—such anarchy—were not especially positive.

Anarchy and the Future

The world we live in offers wonderful scope to modern storytellers, but it also presents an unsettling picture of our real-life future. To use the same examples cited above, the anarchy that prevailed through much of the French Revolution eventually gave way to a stable, republican form of government (though not until the consequences of Napoleon’s tumultuous reign had run their course); yet today, a rising discontent in that country is again making headlines as populists make their voices heard. The modern state of Israel, too, has enjoyed a period of relative stability; but political and ideological polarization—the movement toward extreme viewpoints—is a growing threat to that stability.

The general consensus is that late-19th-century anarchism did not prevail. Kinna notes that “the anarchists’ best efforts to highlight the disorder and violence of state systems were largely resisted.” Ultimately, it faltered because institutions—governmental and societal—defied it. Drawing a parallel, we might conclude that today’s period of popular extremism will also, in time, pass.

From a different perspective, however, anarchists changed the world irrevocably. The spark of the First World War—the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914—was a quintessentially anarchist act, and it set major political states on a path toward self-destruction. Within three decades the world’s power complex had changed markedly, though not in the way many anarchists desired.

The potential for similarly dramatic change is present today too. Lack of societal trust and increased political volatility make for a treacherous and uncertain immediate future. Researchers are aware of the kind of X-risks that threaten human existence on earth, which may bring the sort of unprecedented catastrophe that many films and TV series portray. How might we react in that situation? Will we take our cues from the entertainment we watch? What might a postapocalyptic world look like if everyone, operating on either end of the political spectrum, is doing what they think is right (letting everyone else go, à la Frozen’s Elsa)?

Just as the Bible notes the anarchy that marked a period in Israel’s history, so it describes this sort of end-of-world situation in a way that could be seen as anarchist in principle: the latter chapters of the book of Revelation (also known as “The Apocalypse”) promise the destruction of the world’s systems because no good can come from them. But the solution it offers is very different, a future based on a unified system that has never before been broadly implemented. Instead of everyone acting in disconnected bubbles to choose their own morality, it would offer guidelines and structures designed to produce health and peace for all—an equitable government that truly has the well-being of each citizen at heart.

The conclusions suggested by many movies with extremist bases are, in general, uncertain. This, too, reflects our nonfictional world. It’s difficult to form a clear picture of our world in even just a few years’ time, and that’s a source of great anxiety for many. Is any solace to be found in the real-life equivalents of our fictional heroes? Realistically, probably not. But what if the Bible turns out to be right when it promises another outcome for our world, one that few have taken the time to consider? In an age of diminishing viable options, it’s something to think about.