Just as the hero is consistently representative of the dominant culture group, so too his enemies tend to have the same characteristics. In the ancient past they were a rationalization of the conquered peoples. The giants among the Norse, the Amazons among the Greeks, and the various little people of the British Isles were all the representations of the conquered in common memory. Tiamat among the Mesopotamians and the Titans of Greek myth were symbols of the religions they had overthrown. In all these cases, creating hero myths was a means of simplifying conquests into a simple equation of good and evil for future generations.
At the dawn of the historical period the role of the hero was adjusted from a means of assuaging guilt into a tool for the development of nationalism. As such, characters such as William Wallace, Yoshitsune, and Roland now fought real people that the culture group already viewed as enemies. So, King Arthur may have fought only Britons in his lifetime, but with the rise of this new form of hero he became a British symbol in their fight against the English. After 1136, the English adopted him as their hero and used him to demonstrate their superiority over all of Britain and the continent.
The newspaper became a powerful instrument in the development of nationalism with the widespread development of reading in the nineteenth century; Bismarck would employ it to unite all of Germany. But it wasn’t long before the hero had transformed again. Here in the United States that change came at the conclusion of the Civil War. At the time, the nation’s pop culture revolved around three types of heroes – Indian fighters, outlaw gunfighters and the lawmen who fought them (and were often not much more legal than the outlaws). These weren’t, in either case, figures of national importance or even individuals whose exploits were being used to foster a sense of nationalism. They were instead indications of American’s state of mind. Years of brainwashing had convinced our forefathers that the Indians were savages and so all activities surrounding them were clouded with that viewpoint. Indian fighters represented our ability to tame America. Likewise with the lawmen, whose purview was U.S. settlements.
And it was easy to associate many outlaws with a continuing rebellion against the north because several individuals, the James brothers among them, had fought for the south during the war. Outlaws could be seen as a rebellion against the civilizing of the west as well in their attacks on the railroads, banks, and stagecoaches that embodied that expanding civilization.
But these types of heroes could only survive in a specific environment, and that environment disappeared with improvements in train travel and law enforcement. And of course the people who had helped to “tame” the west got old.
In a way, the very tools that destroyed the environment became the new concerns. The blatant use of power demonstrated by Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Morgan made the American public aware and fearful of the economically powerful. The very machines that had made life easier were also seen for the first time as taking jobs – and their potential was limitless. The highly intelligent people who were making these technological improvements had abilities beyond the imaginations of most people. Concerns about where their inventions might lead were terrifying; the horrors of World War I (mustard gas, tanks, first major use of a practical machine gun) were a perfect justification for those fears. And they took personified form in the Lex Luthors, the Jokers, and the Brainiacs of the newly forming comic book universe. But what they are at their core is undeniable; our fears being beaten by our heroes.
The intelligent invent things like microelectronics and the Internet right along with bombs and smaller weapons, their contributions vary with the environment. Machines are limited in morality and abilities by their creators. And although the wealthy are capable of great evils in our world, they are not all evil.
Personally, I would love to see a villain representing the real evils in our society; those controlling the progression of recycling and the use of environmentally-friendly fuels. Or the people who pay for our politicians. Someone not necessarily smart or evil, just self-centered and wealthy.
But, I don’t see that happening as long as we need our bad guys to wear all black and twirl their mustaches for us. How about you?