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The Hero's Idol: Sight vs. Insight

"Greed, for lack of a better word is good."

Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) and his signature line from the 1987 film Wall Street has become a universal symbol for unrestrained greed.

Clearly, Gekko – a wealthy, unscrupulous corporate raider – is no hero; that falls upon the young and ambitious Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen), but Gekko is also not exactly a villain – at least not in the traditional sense. He's a mentor, but there's more to it. Fox doesn't just want to learn from Gekko; he wants to be him. Gekko is his idol. And that is quite a distinction.

The Idol is a supporting character that the hero looks up to, wants to become, and/or worships. Simply put, the Idol is the hero's role model. Whatever the hero's objective is – surviving the war, getting the girl, or beating the bad guys - the Idol is the expert in that field, and the Idol's expertise usually becomes an integral part of the plot because the hero must use the idol's know-how to help attain the ultimate goal.

Imagine Fight Club (1999) without The Narrator's (Edward Norton) alter-ego idol Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt), the nihilistic neo-Luddite who describes his ideal world as a neo-Paleolithic paradise in post-apocalyptic urban ruins. Or Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004) without Patches O-Houlihan, the aging, wheelchair bound, and once legendary dodgeball champion, who declares himself coach to the Average Joe's dodgeball team.

Often, and understandably, the Idol is seen as a mentor or guide for the protagonist; however, this teacher/student relationship does not always materialize, nor is it necessarily always positive. In most mentor/hero relationships, the protagonist wants to learn from "the wise old man" – Obi Wan Kenobi, Morpheus, Mr. Miyagi – but when the hero idolizes his mentor, the hero often loses objectivity and insight. A case in point: Platoon (1986), Pvt. Chris's (Charlie Sheen) desire to be just like the compassionate and empathetic Sgt. Elias (Willem Dafoe) leads to creating an enemy in Sgt. Barnes, a hard-core and seemingly indestructible seasoned lifer.

The Idol can also be a character from the hero's past, someone he is trying to live up to, or a person to help remember the lessons already learned. The Idol could even be a person who is out of reach, someone that the hero is proud to finally meet, yet when the opportunity arrives, the Idol is usually quick to disappoint.

But whether the idol is positive or negative, he usually steals the show. Swingers (1996) without loud, charismatic, and often obnoxious aspiring actor Trent (Vince Vaughn) would be nothing but a snoozefest.