Justin Cascio redefines the traditional understanding of what it means to be a hero.
In Hollywood, the hero used to be easy to spot. He was a tall, white, American man, clean-shaven, with a strong chin. He was strong and rugged, mature, steady-tempered, and honest. He was also quick-thinking, passionate, and a man of action. The Hollywood hero was someone a boy or a man could look up to and emulate.
They don’t make them like that, anymore. In the original 3:10 to Yuma, from 1957, the hero is in the classic mold. Dan Evans is a middle-aged, small-time cattle rancher who, finding himself in hard times with a family to feed and justice hard to come by, has taken a job escorting a charismatic bank robber, to meet the train in Yuma, where he can be dealt with by the law. By the time the film was remade in 2007, the dutiful, civic mode of heroism had become unfashionable, and the story’s ending was changed to meet today’s rules for blockbuster heroes. In the remake, Evans’ young son usurps the role of the hero without having to demonstrate more heroic traits than luck, pluck, and dash.
It seems to me, from watching films from the past and today, that our images of our best selves, once confident and rooted in reality, have become unfocused and unreal. We prefer to see ourselves now as the stud or the boy wonder, not the brave hero, and movie roles have complied.
There is a pervading sense of inadequacy about men of my generation as we are portrayed in film. Our existential suffering is only exacerbated by how conscious we are of our solitude and sense of not-belonging, our general failure to thrive. We’re twitchy and driven, like the titular characters of Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, or traumatized and submissive, like the people in Garden State. We see a world in which there appears to be no place for a good man of the old mold, and a paucity of models who seem up to the task of being a real man in an increasingly virtual world. Shrek, while admirable as a male role model, is a computer-generated ogre.
We need heroes today, more than ever. Boys and men still need role models who are heroes because they are good, not just because they win and look good doing it. They won’t look like the old heroes, but some of the traits will endure because they are always worth modeling. Our heroes don’t need superhuman strength: in fact, to be a real hero, you have to be restricted to the mundane, like the rest of us. Heroes don’t just beat up bad guys, and they don’t win every fight. They work hard, care about people, inspire, and form bonds—and these aren’t just things men can do, but that anyone can do. Which is why men should not be afraid to look up to other men or even to women for role models, because what makes us men isn’t our values or beliefs, the kind of work we do, or our natural talents. We bring masculinity—real, lived experience as men in the world—to everything we do.
In Gran Torino, Walt Kowalski represents the kind of 20th-century American man: a heroic type who finds himself without apparent heirs to his masculine, American values. The low road of Hollywood scriptwriting would seem to necessitate the reform of Walt Kowalski: he’s boorish, loud, and racist, a dinosaur from the age of automobiles. Yet in his crumbling Detroit suburb, from which his adult children have fled, our hero engages with his new neighbors, Hmong refugees, in a surprising way that reveals his deeper values of civic concern, hard work, and leadership. Kowalski is resourceful, understands the necessity of continuity and mentorship to his neighborhood’s well-being, and bravely protects them from harm. These are qualities that Thao, his young mentee, desperately needs in his life. We all need the qualities of the hero: the good neighbor, the brave man who will stand alone, if necessary, and risk everything to save what he holds dear. The lesson Kowalski learns is that it doesn’t matter that Thao doesn’t look like Walt’s idea of the man who will take over this Detroit block when he’s gone; Thao is the future of their neighborhood, and if Walt wants it to continue to be a good and safe place, he needs to teach anyone who needs the lesson and is willing to learn.
Before making Gran Torino, Eastwood directed Million Dollar Baby, a film about a boxing coach whose student, a young woman, pays a heavy price for her pursuit. Boxing is a risky way to fight one’s way out of poverty. It’s a way for heroic warriors, and Maggie Fitzgerald, like Thao, proves herself the rightful heir of the training invested in her. Million Dollar Baby is not a cautionary tale about reaching beyond one’s natural grasp, any more than Boys Don’t Cry, the original 3:10 to Yuma, or Gran Torino. Sometimes the forces of good win in these stories, but when Maggie Fitzgerald falls, it’s tragic because of the fall, not the stand.
The ways in which we differ from one another give humanity its breadth and adaptability to change. We form deep interdependencies with one another based on our complementary traits, not just between genders, but among our other differences, as well. When those differences solidify into strict roles, we lose our other strength: as generalists who can adapt to new situations. A man is a full human being, not only half of the human experience. Even if it’s true that on average, men are more aggressive and women are more nurturing, this doesn’t tell us what an individual’s strengths are. Instead of feeling like we no longer have a place in the family, or in the workplace, or in our communities, we will have to go outside of our old gender roles and use our human abilities, in our own inimitable ways, to do the work that needs to be done, not just the work we have always done. Manhood will continue to exist, but the ways we live our lives will come to define the new masculinity.