The tagline for Rambo, released in 2008, was plastered across the movie poster in heavy, bloodred lettering HEROES NEVER DIE… THEY JUST RELOAD Sly Stallone’s vein-popping biceps and pectorals pushed the words outward to the passerby, suggesting that the statement was not up for semantic discourse analysis, just a fact of manhood in America. A slogan like this claims its cultural cachet from boys who became men under the tutelage of Stallone: boys like me, now in our thirties, who recall Rambo as the undefeated war vet, who recall the rites of passage we underwent and the images of courage we imbibed, though our own biceps never looked quite like his. If we lift the words away from his veins, though, and examine them against a whitewashed wall, we discover an eerie stare of consternation, subterfuge, and denial looking back at us: we discover words that struggle to find themselves in a world beyond two dimensions.
HEROES NEVER DIE. Possibility number one: Heroes are not human. Human beings have a finite capacity for blood to pump, for oxygen to circulate, for body parts to function. If heroes are unable to experience death, they must be of a species evolutionary scientists have yet to discover, or have discovered but have kept hidden due to governmental restriction. Possibility number two: Heroes are human, but they never experience death in its metaphorical rendition; they continue to live forever because of their innate heroism. Nothing can kill what they have come to represent. See: Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Socrates, Sojourner Truth, John Rambo. Possibility number three: Heroes die physically and metaphorically, but they choose to accept neither. They somehow deny the very possibility, living in such a way as to assume that their every action reverberates for eternity, their every word leaks from a perpetually dripping faucet. They are everywhere. They are everything. When they do die, physically and metaphorically, their brain waves cease, so they are never forced to cognitively reconcile with the fact of their own death.
THEY JUST RELOAD. Possibility number one: Heroes, when close to death, are able to hold the reaper at bay by reloading their firearms, the act of which enables them to, in effect, shoot Death itself and remain fully alive. Possibility number two: Given the flippant addition of the word just, becoming a true hero is actually a simple process, and therefore not-dying is also easy: one just reloads. One merely adds ammunition when the firearm is empty. One only needs to say, “Ah, my gun is barren, like a barren womb, like an empty box of cereal, like a depleted gas tank. If I add more bullets, all will be well. The act of doing this is easy.” Possibility number three: The word reload does not even refer to a gun—real heroes live forever by reloading something else altogether: a PEZ dispenser, a vacuum bag after its contents have been emptied, a DVD that has stubbornly refused to play correctly the first time it’s inserted. Normal people might not reload these things; the faint of heart may say, with despair, “Forget it. I am exhausted. I can’t take it anymore.” But the true article will rise up again—definitely sweating, possibly bleeding—and manage to reload whatever it is that needs to be reloaded, accomplishing two things: (1) becoming a true hero; (2) never dying.
One distinct denouement emerges when the three possibilities for both definitive statements of the Rambo tagline are synthesized: Atticus Finch and Raskolnikov must be wrong.
In To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus says to Jem: “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” For the lawyer arguing an impossible case, courage is standing and making an argument—more with heart than with ammunition. Atticus suggests that there is an alternate reality of heroism, one the Rambo slogan would rather pretend isn’t an option; meanwhile, Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov contributes the maddening notion that you can’t kill someone without deadening your own soul. Atticus and Raskolnikov both come, by these ideas, to a basic but somehow startling conclusion: they are human.
Raskolnikov learns this only in the last twenty pages of Crime and Punishment, but he knows it intimately. Atticus already knows he’s human, so he can say he’ll probably lose; he’ll die metaphorically in the case, and physically after that, but he’ll battle with courage (and not with ammunition) all the same. In short, there is vulnerability in Atticus and Raskolnikov. And in order to accommodate this kind of human vulnerability, the Rambo tagline would have to transmogrify into something completely different. Something simpler, something more biologically and practically true. Perhaps: HEROES DIE AFTER LIVING VERY WELL IN THE FACE OF GREAT OBSTACLES AND/OR EGREGIOUS MISCONCEPTIONS THAT HAVE BEEN RIGHTED THROUGH THE HEROES’ OWN CONFESSIONS OF VULNERABILITY.
If we stand in front of that movie poster and try to apply our revised version, Sly’s slight smile mocks us. Our own cultural sense of masculinity mocks us. (Plus the new words are heavy. Like boulders, they are.) We can jettison our new tagline, restore the original, and walk in to see the film; or we can find some other guys nearby and ask them to help hold the new words while we try to figure out how to get them to stick.