Despite postmodernism’s meddling influence, the majority of stories still abide by the classic, tried and tested trope of ‘goodies’ versus ‘baddies’. In cinema, because we’re morons who get distracted by the gaudy glow of the silver screen’s lustre, we require visual cues that depict things with all the delicacy of a policeman’s knock.
One such gloriously heavy-handed deployment, the kind that guides our internal investigative reporter and lets us know who to root for is the classic ‘Hero’ shot.
‘Hero’ might be an antiquated phrase, because in the words of the Coen Brothers, ‘what’s a hero?’ these days. Yet these panning shots of a star basking in their glory, no matter how world-changing or trivial, nettlesome or straightforward that glory proves to be, leave an audience absolutely certain about who they should root for.
As a result, it is one of the most ubiquitous shots in cinema. Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue or the grand philosophical overtures of Andrei Tarkovsky might dominate the shared discussion after the film has finished. Still, it’s the distilled grandeur of their heroes that live on in the mind’s stored canon of images forevermore.
Usage of the cinematic technique goes all the way back to the beginnings of the art form. Heroes can be seen depicted in near freeze-frame, hair billowing brilliance in the works of D.W. Griffith and other turn-of-the-century contemporaries that established film in its salad days. It is as intrinsically obvious a shot as establishing a setting before entering into the scene itself. What elevates it to a level worthy enough to explore is the inherent poster-perfect drama that it can imbue a picture with. In short, there is something exquisitely grandiose about freezing a moment of glory foreshadowed.
It is the meta moment that the poster plays out on the screen itself, and it has been used in just about every which way that it can be. Although when you hear the phrase ‘Hero Shot’, the mind might sprint to an image of Wonder Woman backlit by an explosion, Gandalf riding over the hill as the sun rises behind him or Clint Eastwood’s poncho billowing in the wind as he purveys the horizon with his gun holster showing, it can also be used with rather more subtlety.
Take, for instance, the aforementioned Coen Brothers line of ‘what is a hero?’ in The Big Lebowski. During the voiceover, the movie’s antihero, The Dude, can be seen subverting the classic tropes of the shot by sniffing a carton of milk in an entirely underwhelming setting and pose, yet still, the glow of heroism surrounds him from the way in which it is filmed. Similarly, Greta Gerwig uses the shot to embalm the humble struggles of Lady Bird McPherson with an air of profundity in Lady Bird.
Likewise, the obverse of the ‘Hero shot’ coin is the ‘villain shot’. Typically, the airbrushed slow-motion golden-hour perfection of the ‘hero shot’ is flipped on its head for a vein-bulging warts-and-all depiction of a villain in an outward panning close-up. By contrast, the ‘hero shot’ camera stylings are grand, steady and slow, with sweeping movements that depict the “are you not entertained?” underdog heroes as the David in the centre of their Goliath settings.
Heroes demand swathes of space to show that their benevolence is all-conquering, yet the villains of this world fill up a close up with the stinking miasma of degeneracy. It is one of the most straightforward filmmaking techniques, but when it is done right, it holds the simple fist-pumped adulation of reverb riddled power-chord.
In short, it is a shot that speaks of the beauty of cinema and storytelling. It is devoid of all reality in the most euphorically satisfying way. Never in real life could a sports star’s triumph be prognosticated or celebrated with such distilled perfection. There is something uniquely thrilling about cinema’s ability to call the shots of life and punt the fickle workings of fate into the wayside by depicting a hero in a portrait of untold brilliance.
And you can witness this brilliance for yourself in a supercut of some of the greatest hero shots in history below.