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  • Arnest Lim

Treading the Fine Line of Heroism

We celebrate figures like Superman, who constantly overcomes planet-threatening challenges for “truth, justice, and a better tomorrow”. We view legendary warriors like Mulan, who bravely took her father’s place in war, in a positive light. Whether it’s saving their city from being destroyed or fighting courageously against insurmountable odds, we applaud these “heroes”.

Heroic standards seem quite clear, with the noble hero always fighting the good fight. Hurting their opponents, endangering innocent lives just to defeat their enemy, or even killing. These actions are often associated with villainy and certainly not something a hero would do, right?

But in more recent times, the distinction between heroes and villains has started to blur. What happens when supposed villainous acts are carried out by the “hero”? Let’s take a closer look at this question as we tread the fine line of heroism.

Disclaimer: there will be graphic images displayed below that may be upsetting to some readers, so please proceed with caution. If not, let’s get started.

Why are heroes, well, heroes?

Various schools of thought exist as to why heroes behave the way they do. Some readers here, especially our Year 1 students, will be familiar with the philosophical “hero’s journey”, which states that in order to be considered a hero, one must complete a series of trials and tribulations.

Beyond the “hero’s journey” though, the general consensus is that heroes act out of concern for others in need. They defend moral causes that they believe in, with no desire for a reward even at great personal risk. But on top of all that, heroes do all this while maintaining a public image.

Comic book superheroes like the aforementioned Superman or cartoon characters like the Omnitrix-wielding Ben 10 operate in the public eye and are subject to intense scrutiny. Just one mistake, just one step down the wrong path and the public could turn on a hero as fast as they would a villain.

Heroes like Ben 10 operate under intense public scrutiny and must meticulously maintain their positive image.

We see these clear-cut heroes all the time in media and they are always recognisable as the hero. However, it’s becoming increasingly common to see those who walk the tightrope separating heroism and villainy, occasionally leaning towards either side but never really deciding on one. In fact, a perfect example of this perilous dichotomy is currently headlining his own TV show, so there’s no greater time than now to explore the character of:

Moon Knight

If you knew nothing about the character and just saw this, would you say this is a hero or a villain?

The moon’s knight of vengeance, the Fist of Khonshu, Marc Spector goes by many aliases but he’s most commonly known as Moon Knight. Once a mercenary who was betrayed by his partner and left for dead, Spector would be resurrected by the moon god Khonshu and made his warrior.

Though he fights to snuff out crime and stop injustice just like other heroes, let’s just say Moon Knight opts for a far more violent approach. In one of his most iconic moments in the comics, the vigilante kills his archenemy, Bushman, by ripping his face clean off. Yikes.

Talk about overkill.

We’ve established that heroes generally don’t do things like this. Killing is a big no-no unless absolutely necessary and even if they had to, they wouldn’t carry it out in as graphic a fashion as Moon Knight did. Amongst the Marvel Comics superhero community, Moon Knight is often ostracised and treated as a gravely insane nutcase.

The white-clad vigilante might showcase behaviour starkly contrasting to that of a typical hero, even bordering on villainy, but if we recall from our earlier definition of “heroism”, we start to see that Moon Knight actually ticks more of the “hero” boxes than we might think. He selflessly fights for the good of others even in the face of great danger, albeit with a lot more bloodshed by his hand.

In the comic panel above, we see Moon Knight gouging out the eyes of a gangster. It sounds like a blatant act of violence but that gangster had actually been planning on hunting down his own wife and daughter once he got out of prison. Moon Knight may have blinded this man, but he did it to save an innocent woman and a young girl.

Is this not the mark of a hero? At this point, what even is a hero? Well, dear readers, the answer to this question isn’t set in stone because the truth is:

A hero is however we define them.

We can spend forever arguing over what makes someone a hero but at the end of the day, we decide who our own heroes are. From an outsider’s perspective, Moon Knight might be a violent maniac who should be locked up like a criminal but to the mother-daughter pair that he saved, he could very well be their greatest hero.

The same dilemma pops up in real life too. US prison inmate Steven Sandison admitted to murdering his cellmate without a shred of remorse, all because the latter was a child molester. Some people praised Sandison as a hero who ridded the world of one more evil, while others dismissed his actions as just another criminal act. There’s just no confirmed yardstick for heroism, for one person’s hero might be another person’s menace.

Heroism is an everchanging idea with no confirmed yardstick, for one person’s hero might be another person’s menace. This dilemma has led to countless discussions about whether someone can be classified as a hero or not, like the above cases of Moon Knight and Sandison, among others.

So, what does it mean to be a hero? Is it always about fighting for a good cause regardless of personal risk? Is it about having your actions be celebrated by people all over the world? Well, that’s up to you to decide.


Moon Knight and all related characters, settings, and media are property of Marvel Worldwide, Inc.

Superman is the property of DC Comics. A Time Warner Company.

Ben 10 is the property of Cartoon Network Studios.

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