I had been wondering about the new superhero show “Jupiter’s Legacy,” so I watched a few episodes last night.
Some grittier-than-usual violence, but my sense was that it only served to underscore one of the major themes that has been increasingly appearing in pop-culture for some time: evildoers are getting more brutal, less restrained, leaving heroes struggling to cope with seriously shocking barbarism, a complete disregard for anything humane.
The main plot point seems to be that the first generation of superheroes hails from 1930, and consist mostly of men and women who believe in objective right and wrong so much that they form a “Code” of behavior to govern their use of power – a Code which is to remain inviolate as the heroes act only as moral guides, not formal leaders, lest by overmastering force they deprive ordinary people of free will.
By contrast, there is no small degree of consternation among this older generation about how today’s villains don’t seem to have even a vestige of moral awareness or restraint, but simply give free reign to destructive passions at every possible moment.
The heroes’ children (born 60-70 years later due to the original heroes’ longevity), however, live in our world of self-aggrandizing “follow your heart” subjectivism, and so the struggle among the heroes is developing as serious questions about whether the Code can survive the new world of increasing demand for merely forceful suppression of evildoers.
(At one point, a policeman nearly begs the son of the main hero to just line up the bad guys en masse and execute them, since both heroes and police are themselves being taken out without remorse. At another point, the main hero upbraids journalists for saying 78% of Americans want forceful action against the new breed of evil – he sharply responds that 78% of Americans need to decide what kind of world they’re prepared to live in should that visceral wish be taken up by the heroes.)
The Code (coming out of that older generation) stipulates that the heroes are never to take a life; the new generation increasingly wonders whether that’s even possible. At one high point, the up-and-coming young leader of the new generation as a last resort kills a supervillain to save his own parents and friends, and is harshly chastised by his father but later defended by his mother, who tells the dad, “If our son had followed the Code, we would be in boxes in the ground, too, like our friends.” The father has no answer.
The show has already been cancelled, so after the first season it will be all left hanging. But what has been most interesting to me so far is, again, the theme I’m seeing in much pop-culture of a resurgent, self-aware conflict between real morality and mere expediency.
Wrapped up in this is the all-too-common these days theme of a father who was so wrapped up in his Duty (saving others) that he wound up losing his childrens’ allegiance – raising the question, what is the value of following Duty if a man loses his own family in the process?
A different show had the hero say numerous times while fighting completely amoral bad guys, “Sometimes you have to do the wrong thing for the right reason.” Still other shows (stretching back into my childhood, in the 80s) were built on the premise that official guardians of justice can’t be trusted, so moral people always have to take the law into their own hands.
I think here of the 1980s TV show Knight Rider (“…a young loner on a crusade to champion the cause of the innocent, the helpless, the powerless, in a world of criminals who operate above the law”). And of course, back of this, even in the 30s, you find Batman, and back of him, Zorro, and way farther back of him, Robin Hood. Bottom line: the Western tradition has always struggled with the sorts of issues highlighted in “Jupiter’s Legacy.”
I find it fascinating to compare the differences between older iterations of the theme and contemporary ones. Robin Hood, Zorro, Batman, Michael Knight, the first generation of heroes in “Jupiter’s Legacy” – all had the equivalent of a real moral code that distinguished them from the bad guys.
Today’s heroes (“heroes”?) live in a world where they themselves are perpetually conflicted at seeing innumerable fine shades of gray, while their opponents increasingly have zero sense of anything but simple black. But at least the questions are still being asked (in how ever a visceral form) – which shows that not everyone, even not every pop-culture maker, has surrendered to relativism and its associated humanity-rotting assumption that nobody could ever be about anything other than amoral quests for mere power.