Great Men

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

I remember the first time my boyfriend told me I was an extra in his life story. We were playing Metal Gear Solid — well, I was operating the controller and he was telling how to get through the mission. (This was nearly a decade ago, and part of a months-long initiative to get me over anxiety about playing video games. To this day I still don’t like dying a video game death in front of people. No one needs to see that.)

He mentioned that he related deeply to Solid Snake, the grizzled genius ex-military protagonist of Metal Gear Solid. He felt the same sense that he was meant for something bigger, and that he was the hero of some grand narrative. It was super weird! Not that he had a sense of self worth (my self esteem isn’t that low) but the sense that he alone was the one who could save the world.

As I’ve gotten to know other people in my life, I learned that the idea of innate destiny — of saving the world — is widely held. My friends who showed promise at an early age or had wealthy and successful parents with legacies to protect believed on some level that they were protagonists and blessed with the burden of greater action.


If you think of yourself as the hero in a game, everyone else in your life is a non-playable character. The people dear to you act in service of your singular destiny or in opposition to it. Do they have any destiny of their own? It’s not as great as yours.

I’m not surprised anymore when folks I know admit or even rejoice at being the protagonist in their own lives. I’m also not surprised when they start treating me like an extension of their will instead of a person. And when I go against their idea of what I’m supposed to be, I’m not surprised when they treat me like a villain in their story.


Fandor put out a great video about bystanders in superhero movies. In superhero movies, the stakes are as big as they can possibly be. The camera cuts to the crowds gaping at the hero in confusion and awe.

A superhero gets his destiny as part of the hero’s quest by means outside of his control. Communities don’t assign superhero status to one of their own. If someone forces you to be a superhero by replacing your bones with adamantine or injecting you with super soldier serum, they’re a villain. It’s a heavy responsibility, after all, being a superhero.

So if you’ve never been assigned a destiny, you’re absolved. You can just watch. You don’t have to protect your community, you don’t have to take care of people whose homes or offices or family members were lost in the epic fight. The battles are too big for you, so you don’t have to do anything; Great Men are here to fight, alone, for the destiny of the world.

As The AV Club pointed out, the bystanders look pretty dumb.

When we put our trust in Great Men we render ourselves spectators and deny ourselves the agency to make change. We’re not Great Men, thank god.


My favorite superhero comics aren’t about heroes imbued with a sense of destiny either. Matt Fraction’s run on Hawkeye is about a guy with an unusual skill and a wide array of novelty arrows. He’s got a drinking problem and a getting-the-shit-kicked-out-of-him problem. He’s not a force unto himself. He’s part of a community. He protects it and they protect him.

In real life, heroes take care of the people around them. They don’t have the luxury of a predetermined destiny and they don’t start by changing the entire world—they change the world by helping their community. They rise to prominence by virtue of their passion and empathy.

The hero’s journey doesn’t cover the times when the enemy is too large and you exhaust yourself before you can defeat it. Or when someone else comes in and soundly defeats your enemy and your whole purpose for living is abruptly taken away from you. Or when evil splits into a million pieces and burrows into the hearts of strangers rather than dying neatly. Actual heroism doesn’t have a fixed ending and doesn’t fit neatly into a three act structure.

You might not feel a sense of destiny propelling you to inevitable greatness. But doesn’t trying in the face of uncertain odds make you even more courageous? Doesn’t that make you heroic, too?

If you have been given extraordinary talents and a sense of what to do with them, look at that hero’s journey quote again:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

We forget that the story is supposed to end with the hero returning home with the lessons they’ve learned, using their responsibility to raise up the people around them. It’s not just slaying the dragon — it’s figuring out what to do with the gold.