Every so often, while watching a show or movie, I’ll think to myself ‘yeah, this character’s a really legit hero.’
The concept seems worth expanding on. Of course, there are a lot of heroes running around in fiction one way or another. But a lot of stories seem to think that ‘hero’ simply means ‘opposes the bad guy.’ I would not call, say, Rey in The Force Awakens a legit heroine; she’s too bland for that. Nor would I necessarily list the average superhero as a ‘legit hero,’ much as I enjoy superhero movies.
A legit hero, to my mind, is one who you can point to and say ‘this character has the heroic mindset; he does the right thing, however difficult and whatever the cost. He’s a self-sacrificing character.’
Now, a character can be admirable and even in a sense heroic without creating this kind of impression. Again, I find this to be the case in a lot of superhero films or action adventures in general. Since I’m about to be citing a few examples from cartoons, I’ll start with Danny Phantom: he’s a heroic character, but I never thought ‘yeah, he’s a legit hero.’ That is, he went through the motions of being a hero without really conveying that sense of selflessness. He was a hero because he helped people and opposed the bad guys, but not so much because it felt like he was simply that kind of person.
As a counter-example, there’s Dakota of Milo Murphy’s Law. Now, he’s kind of a slacker and generally spends his time cracking jokes at his partner’s expense, but there’s a moment in the special two-parter Milo is Missing where he, Cavendish, and Milo are surrounded by plant monsters (just go with it). Dakota’s first move is to order Milo – a preteen boy – to get behind him. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about: Dakota isn’t an especially imposing or skilled fighter, but when faced with a fight the first thing he does is step up to protect the child who has fallen into his care. It’s a very brief moment, but it’s a solid example of what I mean. Slacker though he is, Dakota understands his duty and steps up to the plate when needed.
A more notable example, and the one that really made me take a look at this concept, comes at the end of the first Equestria Girls film. In brief, Twilight Sparkle’s travelled to the human world to try to keep a magical artifact out of the hands of the power-hungry Sunset Shimmer. When Twilight gets ahold of it, Sunset threatens to destroy the portal back to Equestria unless Twilight will hand it over. After a moment’s consideration, Twilight refuses: yes, it would mean losing her home and all her friends, but they could survive without her, while this world might not if she gave Sunset what she wanted. So, to protect as many people as possible, Twilight declares herself willing to give up everything she loves most.
Again, Twilight is willfully and explicitly putting others first, even if it means painful sacrifices for herself. Sacrifice, selflessness, and devotion to duty: these are the marks of the legit hero.
This is, in some ways, a subjective impression: the best I can say is that when I can feel the sacrifice, the putting others first, and when it feels like it’s an essential part of the character, that’s when I say ‘wow, that’s a legit hero.’