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The hyper-Narcissus and the «Collective Individualism»: X-men and Watchmen Super-Hero conception

Sónia M. Pedro Sebastião ISCSP-CAPP Institute of Social and Political Science - Technical University of Lisbon ssebastiao@iscsp.utl.pt

Abstract In contemporary times, defragmentation, disruption and chaos have allowed the co-existence of several theories, defined by Lyotard (1979) as “petit récits”. One’s paper states the new individualism paradigm, considering mass-culture overcoming, New Media features and entertainment representations of one kind of contemporary hero: the one that needs to be associated with others to belong and accomplish mankind rescue. So we will base our investigation in Giddens, Maffesoli and Lipovetsky social approaches to contemporary times and make analysis content to contemporary film characters, namely: X-men and Watchmen. In this study, one intends to show how the hero imaginary is presented in film characters representation and how these film representations are a reflex of social theorization of the human psychoanalytical referent. So, one conceptualizes the individual perception of risks and the need for individuals association to understand and overcome the problems and risks of contemporary society. Specifically the ones related with the paradoxal approach to human desires and behaviours, the hybridization between man and machine, and the liquid dispositions of feelings and relations.

Key Words: “Collective Individualism”, Hyper-culture, Narcissus, Hero, Film Analysis



In this study, I intend to show how the hero imaginary is represented in film characters and how these film representations are a reflex of social theorization of human behaviour, where the individual can’t act alone to satisfy his interests due to: the perception of the risks (Giddens, 1990); the complexification of problems that now demand more artefacts and skills to be solved for the threats are more destructive; and the need of a “tribe” to feel integrated and to belong (Maffesoli, 1996). With digitalization of information and new technologies, consumer references, habits and representations are changing. Thanks to new media technology, the user leaves his passive, receptive role to a producer, choosing one. Those skills and possibilities allow ones to see them in a new perspective, more suitable to contemporaneous era. The “Pro-Consumer” or “Produser” (producer and consumer of content) has a new psychoanalytic referent: Narcissus or using Lipovetsky (2006) terminology - Hyper-Narcissus. However this portrait does not imply the cancellation of social and communitarian life, paradoxically we identify the transference of individual interest to the social dimension with the emergency of a “collective individualism”: individuals associate themselves in groups because they have similar interests (for example: virtual social networks). In such a way, the narcissist does not consume himself in a hedonistic auto-absorption, but starts to belong to a group with identical narcissists, where he feels useful, integrated and free from the limitations imposed by difference and constraints. Thus, the long ago impersonal and objective activities now become subjective ones (Lipovetsky, 1989:15).

1. Psychoanalytic Man referent: from Oedipus to Narcissus Associated with the explanation processes of the social and individual disposals, the psychology of each time associates men’s life to a psychoanalytical referential. Icaria, Prometheus, Oedipus, Don Juan, Faust and Narcissus, are referent models to simplified analysis of social constraints. Although in Jameson’s opinion, those psychological categories are not enough to reflect the contemporaneous social problems due to the social systems complexification (1991:26). Despite the agreement with Jameson observation, I follow the conceptions of Christopher Lasch (1979), Richard Sennett (1979), and Peter Martin (1975), and I consider that, as a consequence of the individualization process in contemporaneous society, Narcissus (and narcissism) is the psychoanalytical referential of our times. Characterized as a symbol of transition from a partial individualism to a total and totalizing one, centred in the emotional accomplishment of itself, eager of youth, health and rhythm, canalizing energies for the private sphere interests, in detriment of the public sphere and communitarian ones (Lipovetsky, 1989:13-14). But the Hyper-Narcissus is not centred in his shell. The transference of individual interest to the social dimension with the emergency of a “collective individualism”, leads Maffesoli (1996) to defend that we live in a “time of tribes”, small groups distinguished by their members’ shared lifestyles and tastes. The same author supports that we live in an era of “neo-tribalism”. On his conception, masses are dividing in “small masses” empathetic, fluid, temporary, occasional and disperse (1996:76). Their gathering occurs in sport events, spectacle, consuming places (such as shopping malls or city centers) and cyberspace. In these contemporary tribes, each element has his role associated to their involvement and influence, so they are founded in each person role and not in the individual function-purpose as in modern tribes (idem:6).


So when Narcissus overcomes Oedipus, we start to love ourselves, skirting the fatality of falling in love with our mother. Consequently, love is total: because we are the other. The self is subjugated by his body cult and hybridization, and one’s alterity plan is destroyed, thanks to human-machine devices and virtual environments, where the simulation and the representation of the self no longer depends upon a material, existential plan. Hyper-Narcissus is haunted by the freedom angst. He is less passionate by himself than terrified by day to day life. Everything uneases and scares him (Lipovetsky, 2004:63), because he has an individual perception of the risks of modernity, and he tries to prevent himself from its threatening consequences as a result of information availability and digital technologies access. So each society member can individually understand global risks and change his attitudes, behaviour and values (Giddens, 1990). Thus the homo consumericus is also a homo sanitas: medical consultations, examinations and analyses increased, as well as, the consumption of meds and treatments, with the purpose of anticipate and modify risk behaviors (Lipovetsky, 2006:49). The self-conservation cult overcomes the self-contemplation one and Narcissus becomes hypochondriac, changing his behaviour seeking for a longer life quality time (idem:219). And creating the debate around themes such as: euthanasia, suicide, sex change, organs donation, life preservation, the “eternal body youth” (plastic surgeries), life expectancy improvement, anti-drugs, anti-tobacco and antialcohol battle, sports and gymnasium consumption vindication (ego building) (idem, 1992:103161). This situation leads narcissus to the fragmentation of its personality and to the need of pacific yet paradoxal coexistence. Facing objects and messages diversity, sometimes colliding with uses and gratification wishes, the individual is desegregated in patchwork (idem, 1989:104). So we find a contemporary man with the freedom to chose, to change, to improve his and others well-being, but too afraid to do anything by his own. Science and technology may have given man artefacts to help him in his tasks, to make him feel like a hero, but he lacks the courage and the need to act like one, to make the difference. Contemporary man is too afraid to act on his own, and overcome his limitations and expectations.

2. Post-Modern Hero There are several studies on Hero. The first we can identify is the one of Baltasar Gracían in the seventeenth century. Thought and inspired in Hegel’s Geist, we will center our attention on Carlyle’s typologies of the hero as: divinity (Odin), prophet (Maome), poet (Dante and Shakespeare), religious leader (Luther and Knox), intellectual (modern hero), and king (Carlyle, 1898). According with Carlyle’s study, the hero is the motor of social change. So each and everyone should try to give his best and overcome his limitations and expectations. Carlyle’s idea was developed by Joseph Campbell in his oeuvre The hero of a Thousand Faces (1993 [1949]), where Campbell presents the monomyth conception, that is, the universal pattern of hero myths represented by his journey1. The author assumes this monomyth as a universal arquetype (Carl Gustave Jung) and provides evidence of the collective unconscious existence2. As a summary of hero’s theories we can state using Mircea Eliade (1959) affirmation that heroes are connected to myths and those are fixed to societies, because they are the primal


This conception is nowadays widely used in entertainment contents such as: comics, films and literature. 2 Dumézil will see it as evidence of a common past history, shared by Indo-European populations (1989). 3

reason of their existence. So every society needs at least a hero to give it hope and accomplish the most difficult tasks: the threats’ elimination and the enemies’ defeat.

a. Anti-Hero With the actual global societies, the anti-hero is presented as a contradiction. He still is a hero but he doesn’t act as hero did through history, and as those are presented by former theorizations (Carlyle, 1899; Campbell, 1949; Eliade, 1959). There is an anti-hero stereotype that classifies him as bitter, solitary, shallow, alcoholic, and being without remorse or renounce. This stereotype shows the tendency of western societies to defy traditional disposals, opposing the anti-hero, defined by post-modern values, to the logic of the classical hero. Although, this anti-hero inherits some characteristics of the medieval hero, namely: the collective nature, that is, the medieval hero is normally a set of individuals gathered to accomplish a collective purpose (examples: King Arthur and the Round Table Knights, Crusades, and Templar Knights). Hence, the post-modern hero may be a part of a “small tribe” whose members share super-powers or society rejection due to their peculiar characteristics or behavior. On the other hand, the anti-hero can be seen as a mass hero, because he has the same interrogations and doubts of the common individual that lives in a global, alienating culture. The only difference is that he still can save the day, or mankind, from villain’s intent. The super-hero is the character dotted with extraordinary skills or powers that allow him to achieve things not accessible to normal man. This power may have physical or psychological nature, and natural, supernatural or technological origin. The anti-hero is vindicated by cyberpunk literature, comic and super-hero movies. In this study I will consider a super-hero team (X-Men) composed by heroes and an anti-hero character (Wolverine) and a more complex hero team (Watchmen) with anti-hero characters (The Comedian and Rorschach), hero characters (Nit Owl and Spectre) and a super-hero character (Dr. Manhattan). Despite its creation by Stan Lee in the 60’s as super-hero comics, X-Men history encloses several moral lessons and social ethics that can be related with contemporary times. After all, the history of mankind and its social imaginary is marked by the universal (all spaces and all times) need to overcome fears of loneliness, misunderstanding, destruction and death. Besides, our intent is to identify the different personalities of heroes and anti-heroes, and to evidence that we all can be heroes sometimes, with or without super-powers. Nevertheless, we are also humans and as human beings there are some tasks that we cannot accomplish on our own and we need our “small tribe” to help us.

3. Film Analysis: X-men (2000) and Watchmen (2009) According with Vanoye and Goliot Lété (1992), film analysis is composed by two steps: the decomposition of a film individualizing its elements; and the reconstruction of the film gathering its elements and understanding its relations and meanings. So the reconstruction will be a new creation made by the analyst. In my study I will consider the films: X-men and Watchmen; and the elements: super-hero as an independent player and as a member of a group with a defined purpose. So I will try to understand the character, its individual mission and the team mission. I must then highlight that all stories are composed by an ethos, that is, the moral of the story and by one or several pathos (drama / conflict). This conflict is most of the times identified by some kind of dualism,

especially, the constant opposition between the bad (villain) and the good (hero / anti-hero) character.

a. X-men: The movie (2000) X-men are the first team of classified sci-fi super-heroes turned into a blockbuster. X-men are a team of mutants, educated in Charles Xavier’s School according with the principle of respect for mankind. In his school, Xavier teaches young mutants to know and control their special powers, and he integrates them in a community where mutants are understood, respected and treated as equals. Meanwhile, X-men also fight against Eric Magneto, a powerful mutant with no respect for mankind, and whose main purpose is to defeat all obstacles to his world dominance plan, including Xavier and his pupils. So in this movie, we have tree main pathos: 1 – Mankind: scared, hostile and violent, willing to eradicate mutant species that they don’t understand or control, and that they see as a treat; 2 – X-men and Xavier: willing to sponsor the mutant acceptance and integration in society, promoting peace and understanding between men, men and mutants, and amongst mutants; 3 – Magneto and his mutants (Sabretooth, Mystique, Toad): eager to end mankind and all his opponents in the ascension to absolute power and dominance.

These pathos are presented along the film that starts with Wolverine, a special and very powerful mutant that has been modified thanks to a scientist intervention. Although, Wolverine doesn’t know who he is and where does he come from. He only knows that he is alone and has an extraordinary strength allied to an adamantium musculature that allows him to survive earning money in an underground fight club. Wolverine has a bad temper and can be seen as an anti-hero character due to his cigar and alcohol addiction; his bad temper and egoist behavior. Nevertheless, his manners changed when he met Rogue, a mutant child that runs away from home due to her uncontrollable powers. Rogue is able to absorb human vital energy, so everyone is scared of her and she feels lost, unaccepted and scared because no one can love her. When she meets Wolverine she realizes that she wasn’t the only freak on earth and she asks for his help. That is when they are both attacked by Magneto’s soldiers that try to kidnap them, because Magneto needs Rogue for his world dominance plan. However, Rogue and Wolverine are saved by Ciclops and Storm and brought to Xavier’s school. That is when Rogue realizes that the world is full of mutants, who respect each other and that she doesn’t need to be alone anymore. Meanwhile, Wolverine tries to show Rogue this brand new world and opportunities for her, but he remains stubborn regarding his own situation. Only when Rogue is kidnapped by Magneto and in the eminence of a catastrophe, Wolverine realizes that the team needs him, and most of all, Rogue needs him. Together, Xavier’s team is able to defeat Magneto’s team and end up his destructive plan, because each member’s abilities are insufficient to face Magneto’s power and the complex problems humankind has to face up with. They can only defeat evil powers when gathered forming one super-hero: Xavier’s team.


In the following table we may see the difference in the character attributes. As individuals they have a special power and physical mutations that define them and allow them to fulfill their intents. Tough the characters show different psychological and behavioral characteristics, they overcome their individualities in the name of their collective role or social mission: save mankind.

b. Watchmen (2009) Watchmen are a forced hero team gathered for vigilante proposes. Watchmen’s story takes place in a United States alternate history where heroes emerged in the 1940s and 1960s, helping the United States to win the Vietnam War. By the 1980s, however, the Watchmen have been outlawed, and tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union have escalated the Cold War with threats of nuclear attack. The story focuses on the protagonists’ personal lives and struggles, while an investigation into the murder of a government sponsored hero (The Comedian) pulls them out of retirement and eventually leads them to confront a plot to delay nuclear war by killing millions of people. So in this movie, we have several pathos identified with groups (mankind and Watchmen) and with individual characters: 1 – Mankind / political leaders: bad savages; scared; hostile and violent to the vigilantes that they envisage as criminals because they break the law to punish criminals; with a deep fear of a nuclear war. 2 – The Watchmen: government employees willing to defend mankind from selfdestruction and to find the origin of evil and eradicate criminals from society; but facing their individual insecurity and existing problems, such as loneliness and addiction. 3 – The Comedian: one of the vigilantes. Violent and tortuous; he takes life as a joke after understanding the real human nature. He has an anti-hero personality losing himself in vices and cruelty against his own friends (especially Sally Spectre). In his death proximity he seems to show remorse from his acts, crying over Moloch’s – his archenemy – shoulder. 4 – Ozymandias: one of the Watchmen that revealed his identity to the public for marketing purposes. He develops a plot to eliminate his hero fellows, especially Dr. Manhattan, the mankind protector from nuclear war, becoming a global threat to humankind. He believes the world will become a better place after destroying the world's main cities (New York, Los Angels, Moscow, Hong Kong) due to the real nature of human beings. Ozymandias feels that human nature will only change with a fresh start. 5 - Dr. Manhattan: he was a brilliant scientist that gets stuck in one of his experiences. As a result he had achieved super-powers. He is worried with human destruction and with human nature, but paradoxically he is also emotionally detached and only Silk Spectre is capable of bringing him near to humankind. Though, this situation changed when she exchange him over Nit Owl.

Although the costumed crime fighters of Watchmen are commonly called "superheroes", the only character who possesses obvious superhuman powers is Dr. Manhattan, because he was caught in an "intrinsic field subtractor" in 1959. So The Watchmen heroes are human beings that became stronger acting as a team to save the city and mankind from crime and destruction.


When they aged they got replaced by younger players. The former Watchmen became then decadent, wasting their lives in addiction and vices, revealing their true human nature. Their powers were given to them by individual intelligence, anonymity, courage and technological gadgets, as Archie and their suits. But facing and understanding the real human nature: selfish, cruel, self-seeking, unfair, and ungrateful, they got detached from or obsessed with human destruction assuming, respectively, an anti-hero (Rorschach, The Comedian) or a villain (Ozymandias) personality. Once again we have each elements of the team with peculiar personalities and abilities. So Rorschach’s virtue is his willingness to act, Nit Owl’s is his ability to synthesize and analyze information, as well as, the use of gadgets. Silk Spectre uses her influence on Dr. Manhattan to manipulate his power for the good sake of mankind. As a team they try to uncover a destruction scheme without knowing their true opponent. When they discover the villain’s identity, they face Ozymandias’ unnatural strength and intelligence and they try to avoid the accomplishment of his plan. Although, at the end of the story, we realize that Rorschach, Nit Owl, Silk Spectre and Dr. Manhattan were too late: maybe because no one has listened to Rorschach’s appeal in the beginning of the story; or maybe because the retired vigilantes were too focused on their own problems. The fact is, investigating The Comedian death on his own, Rorschach get arrested and he needed to be rescued by Nit Owl and Silk Spectre. And in the end when he tries to reveal the plot, once again he was on his own and gets killed. However, together the Watchmen were able to defeat Ozymandias, and uncover his Machiavellian plan. In the following table we may see the difference in the character attributes. As individuals they have an individual ability and a distinguishing appearance. As all human being each character has its own personality and dilemmas, but in the name of friendship and of the collective surviving they overcome their differences and try to accomplish their social mission: save mankind.

Final Considerations

From one’s paper statement we realize that the hero conception is changing along with human psychoanalytical referent. While we become conscious that society and its problems are getting more complex, we also note that man is not as alienated or isolated like in modern times, on the contrary, he is joining in small tribes with common interests and goals. Man has realized that he cannot live alone; neither can solve his problems or face contemporary risks by his own. So the answer may be in a collective association to understand paradoxal approaches to human desires and behaviours, the hybridization between man and machine, and the liquid dispositions of feelings and relations. In these contemporary tribes, or “small masses” empathetic, fluid, temporary, and disperse, each element has his role and a new meaning is given to communitarian life. In the same way, and because every society needs at least a hero to give it hope and accomplish the most difficult tasks: the threats’ elimination and the enemies’ defeat, the hero conception is also changing. This fact can be observed in the hero imaginary presented in film characters. Its representations are a reflex of social theorization of human behaviour, where the individual can’t act alone to satisfy its interests due to: the complexity of the risks and of the problems that now demand more artefacts and skills to be solved for the threats are more destructive; and the need of a “tribe” to feel integrated and to belong.

So a single super-hero (or hero) is no longer enough to face mankind problems. As a result they get together in a team where they fit because they have similar “abnormalities” (X-Men mutations) or because they were gathered for a vigilante purpose by a political will (The Watchmen). On the other hand, they have abilities that are worthwhile as a set, as a complement. So, in team, they become more able to face higher menaces than individually. Facing this transformation in collective imaginary, film and television heroes are being transformed in teams. Besides the ones we have focused on this study we can also name: Fantastic Four, The Incredibles, Justice League, Heroes, Power Rangers, Mutant-X, and so on.


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