People are generally – let’s face it – fickle. We’re always looking for something different, something more. That’s what elderly multi-millionaire John D. Rockefeller revealed when a reporter asked him if there was anything remaining that he still wanted in life. “A little more” was his famous response. And that speaks for all of us to an extent. We want our microwave to cook a little faster. We crave the newest cell phone. We wish for shorter working hours, longer vacations, more rights and fewer responsibilities. We’re a ready audience for the commercials that promise us better teeth, fuller hair, and calmer moods. We’re eternally on the lookout for the figurative greener grass.
This even applies to our heroes. Like the endearing characters of the Toy Story movies, heroes held high today seem destined to be outgrown and moved on from. Our heroes are perishable. There’s an expiration date. Back in the early ‘50’s, President Truman suffered a tsunami-sized blowback when he fired General Douglas MacArthur, America’s most popular soldier, over disagreements about the Korean War. Shrill voices called for impeachment. But MacArthur’s star has faded. And what about George Washington? His picture once adorned a wall or two (or more) in every American school. But he’s since fallen into the not-so-much class. It took a groundbreaking Broadway show to remind people of founding father Alexander Hamilton. (Being on the ten-dollar bill wasn’t enough.)
(General Douglas MacArthur: Once America’s favorite general. Now, America doesn’t even have a favorite general.)
Perhaps our perfidy toward heroes shows itself most strikingly in the realm of fiction. They’re not people; their characters. So they should never get boring because they can become anything. But with our fickle nature, even anything isn’t enough to keep us interested. Consider the Lone Ranger. Remember him? He started as a radio show that required his young fans to imagine what he looked like galloping across the Old West on his mighty horse, Silver. His adventures were tame compared to what modern kids would expect. Bad guys would crumple in the almost holy presence of the Masked Man. But then came TV, and a bigger-better Lone Ranger was required. Kids had to see as well as hear. The TV Lone Ranger was a sensation through the ‘50’s, selling millions of lunch boxes. Finally though, having no super powers, the Ranger was nudged into hero retirement. The actor who played him spent his last decades wearing the costume to cut the opening ribbons for an endless stream of new grocery stores and car washes.
Even Batman and Superman are subject to hero fatigue. These cartoon crime fighters have had to endure ever-increasing demands for bigger and better. The Man of Steel was a successful comic book series until 1940 when the first bigger-better kicked in with a Superman radio show. The next bigger-better was a Superman movie series eight years later. Kids lined up to see their strangely costumed hero on the screen. They thrilled to his corny exploits (like banging crooks’ heads together to knock them out). And they were actually okay when his flying was done in cartoon form. (Yes, when movie Superman took off, he actually turned into a cartoon. Embarrassing). Following the radio model, the Superman movies appeared as episodes with each installment ending in a cliffhanger. Will Superman escape the green Kryptonite cave? By the ‘50’s, fans were ready for the next bigger-better. Superman moved to TV with another actor playing the role. Kids could now watch him in their living rooms. Super flight was simulated by lying stomach down on a table top in front of a wind machine. Cool! When even that wasn’t enough, the shows were filmed in color, even though most kids were still watching in black and white. Then nothing for a couple decades. When Superman returned to the movies in the late ‘70’s, modern special effects were brought in to give him a capital-lettered BIGGER and an equally oversized BETTER. The Superman buzz had never been more wildly enthusiastic. If anything, adults were more thrilled than their kids. Despite initial excitement though, people started yawning after the first sequel. They wanted even MORE. More interesting plots, more engaging action, more memorable characters. It would have taken super powers to meet the increasing expectations.
(It’s hard to believe, but this odd-looking Dynamic Duo kept audiences interested for an entire decade. That’s longer than any Batman and Robin who followed.)
Before the primitive ‘40’s Superman took his first animated flight, the Dynamic Duo had their own series of B grade movies. The episode-cliffhanger approach was used in this series as well. The lumpy costumes resembled poorly done Halloween outfits. The Batmobile looked like Pixar Animation had designed it. But that clumsy Caped Crusader and Boy Wonder actually kept the kids watching with their simple stuff. A bad guy taken to the Bat Cave is so terrified by all the bats (shown only in flickering shadows) that he spills all he knows. Yay!! But after a ten-year ride, the series ran out of gas. Almost twenty years later, revival came in the form of a TV series with a new bigger-better gimmick. Critics called it “camp.” Everybody was suddenly talking about the new Batman. The specially designed Batmobile became an instant cultural icon. The TV Batman followed the old movie model with two half-hour episodes per week, the first always ending with a – yes, that’s right – cliffhanger. Will Batman and Robin be able to defeat the twin terror of the Joker and Catwoman?! Despite the opening raves, ratings tanked after only two seasons. Camp wasn’t enough. Bigger-better survival measures were taken. Batgirl was introduced. New villains appeared. But to no avail. Batman was booted from the air. The next bigger-better for Batman was a return to the movies. Darkness (and a high-tech Bat suit) replaced the ‘60’s camp. Each sequel had to be darker than the one before it. (bigger-better) The villains, originally designed for children, became nightmarishly gruesome. Darker, and darker. The Caped Crusader himself became darker. Even his voice was dark. But how dark can you go before it becomes routine? Current Batman-related entertainment offerings have failed to dispel the growing boredom.
(The first movie Superman entertained audiences with cartoon flying)
007 is another hero who no longer seems heroic. When a sleek, coolly tuxedoed Sean Connery first introduced himself as “Bond, James Bond” back in 1962, the world took immediate notice. There had never been anything quite like this British secret agent who moved like a panther and beat up the baddest bad guys without mussing his perfect suits. His specialized spy car was an espionage version of the Bat mobile. (Remember the ejector passenger seat in Goldfinger?) Bond was young, virile, and undefeatable. But the movie-after-movie-after-movie grind took its toll. Bond lost his raw originality, becoming as unique and intense as cotton candy. It’s over, James.
(When was the last time any boy longed for a James Bond toy attache case? )
There was really nothing any of these faded heroes – or others who faded with them – could have done to stay vibrant. It’s hard to believe that the late General Arnold Schwarzkopf, hero of the Gulf War (1990-91), was once lauded as a presidential possibility. Now it’s General who? Even President Obama seems to inspire lessening media interest. Hero-fade is really about the way we are. Our attention spans are short. We distract easily. We move on. Spiderman seems invincible now, but in the future? And where are Black Widow and Thor going? Will today’s Big Deals become tomorrow’s retro-waste? If you think not, ask Hopalong Cassidy, Zorro, Sky King, Flash Gordon, and Space Ranger. Once big names, they’re all distant dots in our collective rear-view mirror. All victims of our insatiable appetite for whatever’s next.