The weirdest thing about Argo is also the weirdest thing about Zero Dark Thirty. Both movies are shot with a stylized shaky-cam dramatic realism. Both movies feature gigantic supporting casts who all play their real characters with a nice quiet realism. And yet, both movies also feature lead roles that feel, ultimately, like two-dimensional heroes. They’re a little bit obsessive, but not so much that they aren’t fabulous at their jobs. (Like The Hunger Games, you can maybe argue that Argo — with its Hollywood-satire subplot — knows exactly what it’s doing and is reveling in it. You can’t say the same for Zero Dark Thirty.) Argo throws in a scene at the end where Tony Mendez, having spent the whole movie separated from his wife because his work makes him impossible to live with, makes a crucial decision: “Oh, what the heck, I’ll go be with my wife now.” Everyone wins. Evil loses, or something.
Tony Mendez and Maya are both “real” people, but in adapting their story into a modern American thriller, the filmmakers cherrypicked certain tropes from the defining heroic archetype of the modern age: The Superhero. But this is a very distinct breed of superhero: Call it the Sad Perfect Badass Messiah. It’s an archetype that represents the crossbreeding three very distinct versions of the superhero. The original model, Superman, was the mid-century dream of perfection: A person who did right, because doing right was the right thing to do. The Golden Age heroes all had their weird affectations, and you could argue there was greater subtext hanging over their heads — Superman was a socialist; Wonder Woman was a feminist; everybody was gay. But the characters didn’t suffer from too much interior or exterior turmoil. They were heroes, and people loved them for it.
Then came Spider-Man and the Marvel age. We all know that Stan Lee came up with the basic idea of Superheroes With Problems, superpowered individuals who struggled with family and money and girls. But what really made the characters interesting — what made them more than petty adolescents with super-strength — was the complicated vision of morality. Spider-Man was a good person, despite the fact that everyone hated him. No matter how many people he rescued, the Daily Bugle would call him a menace and the cops would hunt him down. The X-Men were hated and feared by a country that didn’t understand them, but they would still save the world when they were called upon.
Over time, this idea of the Misfit Superhero evolved and calcified — at times in Marvel’s history, basically every story is an X-Men story, with the population of America turning against all superheroes because they’re weird and scary. But while that happened, another key piece of archetypal evolution emerged from the Image comics mini-revolution in the early ’90s. Artists like Rob Liefeld, Todd McFarlane, and Marc Silvestri reinterpreted old heroes and created new ones who all shared certain key characteristics. They were “misfits,” like Spider-Man, but they all talked in the same language of mid-’80s beefcake badassery. Many of them had cyborg arms. Almost all of them hung out with female characters who wore nothing, or nothing’s equivalent. Imagine watching a porno about a Burt Reynolds lookalike who constantly complains that no one loves him right before engaging in a twenty-minute threesome. The most iconic of these characters was probably Spawn, a hero with limitless power who spent half his time in back alleys moaning about how hard his life was. I don’t want to push the Jesus thing too much, but Spawn was literally resurrected — a guy who was sent back from hell. He was a Hero in Name Only, usually fighting people because they attacked him. I stopped reading Spawn years ago, but according to Wikipedia, he eventually became God or something.
The Superhero Cinema of the 2000s ultimately drew on all of these archytpes. It took a little while, of course. The first two Spider-Man movies were rooted in a world straight out of Marvel’s gee-whiz ’60s. The first two X-Men movies went whole-hock for the Civil Rights allegory: The X-Men weren’t safe anywhere except with each other.
And Christopher Nolan’s first two Batman movies were smart enough to treat Bruce Wayne’s pursuit of justice as an unhealthy, all-consuming obsession. There’s a way to read The Dark Knight where Batman doesn’t even look like a hero; or anyhow, there’s a sense that The Dark Knight wants you to understand that the only thing separating a hero from a villain is PR. (Harvey Dent becomes, in death, the inspiration for a better tomorrow; another Christ figure, over and over again.)