My earlier post about heroic ethics, combined with Lanny Lathem's post about similarities between Casablanca and Under Siege, got me thinking about the essence of heroes and heroism. (Much credit for what follows is owed to Joseph Campbell, although I don't think all of it comes from Campbell's work... it's probably a synthesis of several other things I've read, combined with my own observations.)
Basically, there are only a few hero archetypes: the hero born, the hero made, the elder hero, the trickster/rogue hero, and the reluctant hero. Some might even argue that the reluctant hero is only another derivation of the hero made. In both Casablanca and Under Siege, viewers find primarily the hero made--a character who has not previously been particularly heroic in his deeds, but whose heroism is brought about by his experiences in the past and his challenges in the presence. In effect, the world at the time of the story is the kiln in which this hero is fired. In that regard, I see the similarities.
One of the things that made Star Wars work so well is that we had basically every hero type in one story. Obi-Wan Kenobi, the elder hero; Luke Skywalker, the hero born; Leia, the hero made; Han Solo, the reluctant hero; Lando Calrissian, the trickster/rogue hero. Each has heroic qualities, but each comes to them from a different set of experiences. Westerns, war stories, historical adventures, science fiction, fantasy--all of them can draw from these hero archetypes. And the differences between the different hero types creates a chemistry and a tension that makes for grand storytelling under the direction of a capable writer.
I think that we, as a culture, are most attracted to the reluctant hero and the hero made. We admire the trickster hero, but we're wary of him at the same time; he concerns us because we're uncomfortable with the division between the two identities. The hero born is more foreign to us because we perceive him as being above us in some ways. The elder hero is separated from us by both experience and age; he has been a hero for so long that we can't envision a time when he wasn't heroic. That's why I think many of us found the fourth, fifth, and sixth Star Wars films (in order made, not in fictional chronology) dissatisfying; our elder hero became something different... and, in some ways, something less.
The lines can blur, of course. Superman is both the hero born and, in some ways, the elder hero; he comes across as an "old soul" regardless of his purported age in the story, and he simply has been a hero forever. Batman is the hero made who also, at times, displays aspects of the trickster hero as well.
Epic heroes are, by and large, heroes born; don't know why that is, but it seems to be true in almost every culture. Contemporary heroes are primarily heroes made or reluctant heroes. We imbue elder heroes with mystical qualities. Trickster heroes almost always need a foil to balance their trickster natures.
If you want to have fun with familiar classics, recast some of your favorite tales with a different sort of hero. Put a trickster hero in Casablanca and you get a story of heroism, but one that probably has virtually no emotional appeal. Put a hero born into Under Siege and you lose much of the drama because you know the outcome from the moment he enters the story. Imagine the story of Moses with a trickster hero instead of an elder hero; and you don't have to imagine the story of Jesus with a reluctant hero, because Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice did it for you in Jesus Christ Superstar.
And of course, the best hero mixes involve disparate characters. Batman and Superman work well together, as do Green Lantern and Green Arrow; Superman and Green Lantern less so, because they have too much in common.
Enough hero contemplation; it's late, and I still want to walk before the rain gets here....