Americans have always been fascinated by heroes, and skeptical of them. Using films as a guide to this fascination, we can see that in cowboy movies, it is often difficult to tell whether the cowboy is morally superior to the bad guy since the actions he commits for the sake of saving the town are often undertaken violently and without mercy. The townspeople find themselves happy they’re in his good graces but often aren’t sure why that’s so.
Little has changed in recent years—franchises like Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy and movies like Wolverine: Origins are preoccupied with questions of the hero’s genesis and troubled past. These films are driven by a common set of questions: Most broadly, what is a hero?