Supernatural and different kinds of heroism

Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising cycle and the DCU Batfamily are two reference points I keep coming back to when thinking about Supernatural, in both the major themes and the relationships, so I decided to take a look at the Winchesters in light of the types of heroism shown in those other works.

“Sometimes…in this sort of war, it is not possible to pause, to smooth the way for one human being, because even that one small thing could mean an end to the world for all the rest.”

“It is a cold world you live in, bachgen. I do not think so far ahead, myself. I would take the one human being over all the principle, all the time.”

Will slumped down low in his seat, curling into a ball, pulling up his knees. “So would I,” he said sadly. “So would I, if I could. It would feel a lot better inside me. But it wouldn’t work.”

–The Grey King, by Susan Cooper

John Rowlands is a regular human who questions “the cold white flame at the center of the light,” the heroes’ apparent mercilessness of devotion to the bigger picture. Will Stanton is eleven years old when he finds out he’s an Old One, an immortal being whose job is to protect the world from a chaotic evil force. Throughout the series, Will wrestles with these kinds of questions, between his life as an ordinary kid from Buckinghamshire, and this enormous heroic responsibility he can’t escape. The stakes are high: if the Light can’t defeat the Dark, there won’t be anything left, and the very values that Rowlands holds dear would be lost, with  “no question ever, for anyone, either of warm charity or of cold absolute good, because nothing would exist in the world or in the hearts of men except that bottomless black pit.”

In Batman: Gotham Adventures #44, our team of heroes are racing against a count-down to save the lives of Two-Face’s hostages. Two-Face tazers Nightwing after Nightwing rescues an infant, Nightwing goes down. Batman, just behind, continues after Two-Face. Robin (Tim Drake) who is just behind Nightwing stops and gives Nightwing CPR, saving his life. The hostages get saved in time. In the aftermath, Tim is horrified by Batman’s decision not to stop, and asks Nightwing why he isn’t more upset, and Nightwing tells him:

“Batman had a choice to make and he made it. His choice wasn’t between going after Two-Face or saving me. It was either go after a man who’d kill more people if he wasn’t caught–while I was left in the care of someone perfectly capable–or let Two-Face get away for no reason. What is your problem? Do you think this is some game? I knew what I was doing when I went after that baby and I knew what this price might be. Was my life more important than the baby’s? Is it more important than the other people Batman saved by going after Two-Face? Do you even know why Batman wasn’t there to save the baby himself? He was saving Commissioner Gordon. Is my life more important than the commissioner’s? Are you willing to make that call?”

Cooper has siblings in the fight against evil as well as the Old Ones, Simon, Jane, and Barney Drew, three humans about Will’s age who get drawn into the battle, along with Bran Davies, another boy from the mortal world. The Drews especially are very much part of the ordinary world, able to focus on the small picture and having no special powers (except Barney, the youngest, has some ability to see visions). There’s also a mentor figure guiding and protecting all the children in their quest, who is also torn between the personal and the big picture. The Batfamily has an imposing, seemingly coldly focused crusader as its family anchor, Bruce Wayne/Batman, where the greater good is always in sight, but the cold focus is only part of the mask, and his team saves individuals lives as well as thinking about the big picture. The stakes for the Batfamily is rarely the end of the entire world, although it’s sometimes the well-being of an entire city and hundreds or thousands of lives. Underneath the cowl, Batman is in fact driven by emotion, love, grief, and a need to keep his found family safe. Supernatural centers on two brothers who ostensibly have no special powers, but then both turn out to be hand-picked as part of a greater cosmic battle. But at the basis, Sam and Dean Winchester work on the micro and local level of heroism, “saving people, hunting things, the family business,” and even being such as angels, demons, or vampires get involved, the focus is on personal conflict and emotions. At its most abstract and mythological, even squabbling archangels and God came down to family dynamics, fathers and sons, siblings hurt or lost because of the in-family conflicts.

The Winchesters, like the Drew siblings, also become close with supernatural allies. In particular, the angel Castiel, who like the Old Ones, starts out as a “big picture” warrior figure (although the angels on Supernatural are not as benevolent as the Old Ones). The angels initially seem to be all big picture. Even after Castiel has his awakening about saving humanity from the machinations of the heavenly host, he retains his awareness of the larger consequences, but he also grows more and more personal in his motivations. Castiel’s story echoes the themes played out in Sam’s story and Dean’s. Castiel’s drive, like the Winchesters, encompasses wanting to save humanity for humanity’s sake, saving people, but the greater drive is wanting to protect family, both the one you’re born into, and the one you find.

Over the course of eight seasons, Supernatural has returned again and again to the choice between the greater good and the personal. Even when the major characters appear to be tunnel vision focused on the greater good, the motivation springs from strong personal attachments. The characters draw their inspiration and their courage from those ties. At times it’s been their strength, and at other times led to hurtful decisions with horrific consequences. It’s not something intended to be resolved, but a constant tension and question Supernatural keeps asking.

One of the big appeals of the Winchesters as heroes is that they do focus on the individual–they protect each other, family, friends, imperiled people they encounter on the road, in a way that doesn’t quite fit with either the fantasy or the “superhero” model of the hero, although they have things in common with both genres. We’ve also seen how the Winchesters are screwed either way, how often no choice seems to be the right one and sometimes focusing on the bigger picture has had disastrous results and sometimes focusing on the bigger picture is the right choice and sometimes saving the individual (and each other) is the right choice and sometimes it has disastrous consequences.

Sam and Dean and Castiel would probably agree with Nightwing. Despite choosing to save the individual (personal) over the greater good at times, they don’t view their lives as more valuable than the people they put at risk; they wouldn’t agree that they’re worth more than those who sacrificed themselves along the way.

There’s an appeal to heroes who are selfless and who give up everything for the good of the world, and there’s an appeal to heroes who get to save people on a more personal, nitty gritty level. Supernatural is about many things, and one of them seems to be a long complicated conversation about the two priorities, the nature and costs and defintion of being a “hero.”

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4 thoughts on “Supernatural and different kinds of heroism

  1. Pingback: If You Want To Be Brothers: Sam and Dean in Supernatural 9.12 | Dot's Ramblings

  2. Pingback: Loyalty. Hufflepuffs. And Buffy. | stone soup

  3. I love Susan Cooper’s writing, but I’d never thought about how similar the themes of heroism in The Dark Is Rising and Supernatural are. I like your point about the two different kinds of heroes – the kind that give up everything to save the world, and the kind that save people on a more personal level. Sometimes I think that one of my favorite things about Supernatural is the fact that the show really doesn’t have a firm stance on either side of this heroic divide, because we see Sam and Dean come down on different sides of this choice at different times, and we see that the consequences are not always the same.

    • Thank you! It’s a theme that interests me in general, there’s a long list of other stories that could be drawn into this discussion, but Batfamily and TDIR are two I keep returning to an awful lot. Yes, I think it’s interesting how SPN plays with the question and doesn’t seem to have a definitive answer. The heroes makes a lot of mistakes, but they’re also still heroic, and struggle with these questions because they care both about the greater good and about each other. It’s not meant to be resolved, they struggle on.

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