The Hero’s Landscape

Hubby and I were watching a ‘How It Should Have Ended ‘ video for ‘Man of Steel’. I have only seen the first half of the movie before I ended up in labour with number 3 (!), so didn’t understand the joke about breaking villains’ necks. To clear this up for me, we proceeded to YouTube and the climactic 10 minutes where Cavill’s Superman fights – and is forced to kill – Zog by breaking his neck.

Whilst watching this, I was struck by the sweeping shots of the cityscape destroyed in their fight: roads and vehicles smashed, tower blocks imploding, window shards slicing outwards, innocent bystanders looking on in fear.

The landscape for a hero’s final showdown, it occurred to me, has changed. In the long stretch of myth and story, the hero will face his peril in the wild – outside of the safety of the city, which emblemises all that is good and unifying about society. The final battle may be in a cave, forest, stronghold – but often away from the city walls. Think Beowulf and Grendel’s mother, Arthur and Mordred, Frodo in Mordor… If not so sleep deprived by baby number 4 (currently 6 weeks old), I would expand. But I think you get the idea.

This got me to thinking: why the shift? Why do modern superhero films – to my mind, the natural descendent of the old tales of epic heroes and knights – so often frame their showdown in the city? The Dark Knight trilogy, Spiderman films, and countless instalments of the MCU all do this.

It seems to me that our relationship to the wilderness has changed. In the long shadow of Romanticism, we view the wild now as a quasi-spiritual realm, one where we reconnect to nature or the divine. It is no longer the space that threatens us, broadly speaking. The threat is from Blake’s ‘dark, Satanic mills’ – the anonymity and dehumanised city scape, whose walls divide us from each other, whose glass keeps us from ourselves, whose technology is the triumph and peril of the human condition.

And so, the superhero must fight his final battle in the most threatening landscape we know – where the wolves wear suits, the dragons smoke cigars, and the monsters lurk in labyrinthine offices. In our post-truth world, the threat to society is not outside the agora, but within.

Having written this post one-handed on a tiny phone screen with a six week old asleep on my front… please forgive any typos! 🙂

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