A hero’s journey is one that ultimately requires sacrifice. The responsibility of doing what’s right takes away the possibility for momentary and long term joy. Peter Parker’s internal monologues constantly remind us that if Spiderman weren’t necessary he could actually enjoy his life. Relationships are pretty much out of the question right from the get go and the phrase, “duty before booty” becomes almost a mantra. Now I’m the first to admit that a lot of these previous and upcoming examples are very lacking in the heroic female variety. As much as I may want chauvinistic pop culture and a sexist society, the truth is that I must apologize for my particular ignorance in thise field but will try to be more inclusive.
Perhaps the main reason why heroes cannot achieve happiness, be it due to choice or a rather vindictive universe, is the fact that it represents an end to conflict. One of the big things in serialization is that there must always be something more. Having your character be content with his/her life ultimately means that there is no more of the story worth telling. Happiness in the long term becomes synonymous with a conclusion to the adventure and thus an end to the narrative. The author then becomes a kind of sadist to his/her literary creation, prolonging suffering and creating new perils for the sake of keeping the story going. The puppetmaster here will then make the hero deliberate whether the struggle is worth it but ultimately will pull the strings in favor of having happiness remain elusive.
Sure there is a lot of glory and prestige in being a hero that should be its own reward (just ask Booster Gold). But a lot of times our heroic protagonist would rather the live an average life and leave the days of adventuring behind, especially once youth has left and the dangers are oficially too much. This particular trope is called the Cincinattus after the eponymous Roman general. Quick history lesson: a long time ago there was this awesome warrior that everyone loved and won many battles. After a good life of being a bad ass, the people wanted him to have more power through politics or something but the guy decides to retire and start a farm. Fast forward twenty years or so and some big army threatens to take down the Empire, Cincinattus comes out of retirement, defeats this new army and immediately gives up that power again. If the name sounds familiar it’s because this how the city of Cincinatti gets its name. If the retirement plan rings a bell it’s because this is what Russell Crowe’s character in Gladiator wants to do after the first big battle and also what George Washington actually did after being general and then after being President. The appeal of a somewhat more domestic and rural life is a big one even in a more contemporary setting. However, this can only be attempted/achieved once the overall mission in life is over. You can’t retire with the enemy at your gates or when the people need you.
In all of these cases, happiness is never truly found or even looked for while the hero still needs to be on the job. The big thing I want to explore is that one moment where one finds everything your heart desires only to give it up to keep being a hero. Yesterday’s post about Star Trek Generations provides some good examples. Picard must leave a quiet life with his wife and kids, which is even more accentuated by the fact that he had lost the remainder of his actual family earlier in the film. After having lost everything he ever had, he gained more than he could have imagined, only to choose to give it up. Picard had the point that he still had something to live for, his crew was doomed if he failed again. Kirk had a very different perspective of happiness once in the Nexus. He was retired and for all intents and purposes dead to the rest of the world. Outside of Picard there was no one who knew he existed. Even after realizing that he was in a gilded cage he planned to go full holodeck and right the wrongs of choosing Star Fleet over his beloved Antonia. In the end, the call to be a hero was too much and he gave up an eternity of simulated happiness (what the bad guy wanted to get and killed millions to try) to fight one last time and ended up sacrificing himself in the process.
However, if you want to see the best example of a hero sacrificing his happiness then you need to check out the Superman story by Alan Moore titled, ” For the Man who Has Everything”. The original comic book is a pretty hard find these days but the animated adaptation does the job pretty well. Synopsis: It’s Superman’s birthday, Batman and Wonderwoman go to the Fortress of Solitude to celebrate with him. However they find the dreaded Mongul tearing the place up and the Man of Steel is mesmerized into a realm of happiness. Wonder Woman gets beat up as Batman tries to liberate his friend but Kal El is living the life he always wanted as a farmer in Krypton with a big beautiful family. Somewhere between Batman’s help and his own deductive reasoning that things were too good, Superman joy begins to crumble as he gives up his heart’s desire. The scene is pretty hard to describe and this video isn’t the best quality but it still brings tears to my eyes. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dG4Yu0-n7vk
Batman has his own idyllic world to detach himself from but this one is momentary as his father fights off Joe Chill only for his alternate world to shatter and returning to the world that made the cowl necessary. However, Superman gained and lost something he never had and the pain he felt was far greater to Batman’s who basically had to relive his most defining trauma. It kind of reminds me of one the tenets of something taught to me long ago. Gikairo Otokatu, which loosely translates to “the origin of truth” is something we all search for, though not necessarily by that name. One of the aspects of it is “a future you don’t think you deserve” and that’s what these characters suffer through. It’s that realization and action to willfully leave what you didn’t even know you always wanted is a sacrifice that Mongul describes best as “having to tear your own arm off”. It is that hero’s sacrifice that makes them tragic but ultimately what we as readers want to see and have on our sides.