Western culture thrives on the concept. Bold individualism, a willingness to break the "rules", an affirmation that the individual and individual freedom is the ultimate and greatest virtue.
Unfortunately western culture is also a culture that thrives on fantasy in the face of continuing disappointment and desperation. The "Wild West" of the United States, where the icon of 'Americanism' the cowboy comes to the aid of the townspeople when a criminal rogue from "back east" sets up a gangster empire/operation.....
Criminality rules and it takes a man like Elliot Ness the hero of law and order to bring justice to the gangland chaos that "free enterprise" and unbridled individualism spawned in many American cities.
The gangster him/her-self became a "hero" to many Americans. The renegade bank robbers Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, the list of criminals and the legends of Prohibition United States are the grist of a movie industry mill that continues to crank out mostly disingenuous worthless crap that is scooped up and swallowed down by people left to feel powerless and disenfranchised from their society and their lives.
American military propaganda in the form of "war movies" using big name stars that represented the political will of the day and although body bags come streaming home from South East Asia, the "heroism" pummelled into the American psyche of fighting the evils of communism
, successfully divided the people of the United States permitting (just like Iraq and Afghanistan) the war machinery and war profiteering to go on until the blood became too deep...for the "return" on investment....
"Heroes" are sometimes "iconic" and particularly so in European and Asian cinema as once again a population is manipulated to believe the unbelieveable and embrace the fantasy provided by a self-serving power structure.
It should tell people something about the choices we make in lionizing a set of behaviors and expressions that we're conditioned to regard as "heroic", but the reality of the outcome of these folk who've elected to break the rules and take the law into their own hands is the stuff of the American Dream.
There's a great deal wrong with the "hero"-notion when a phoney war (VietNam, Granada, Iraq, Nicaragua, Haiti, etc. etc.) become the metric of "heroism". American iconography in particular is an entirely shameless misrepresentation of what and who the average American is, and yet from the nickel spent at the movie house to watch as John Wayne and Bruce Willis and all the other artificial heros of the genre re-affirms the willingness of Americans to live somewhere other than reality.
Our friends Toro and Triedit have mentioned the actions of firefighters on Sept. 11/2001 as heroic and indeed is was, but the idea that there may have been something other than merely the attack of a radical terrorist fanatical criminal gang behind the events of that day would impinge on the "heroism" of that action and so any idea that there were contributing elements to the initial causality and the resultant carnage is strenuously and vigorously rejected.
Elvis Presley, Madonna, Hulk Hogan, Barry Bonds, Tom Cruise, the ideafication of what makes a "hero" a "hero" is forged in the furnace of pop culture. A furnace that is in fact a mirror (is hoped to be by many at least) of the courage and persistance of the individual heroic figure translated onto the average individual.
When forced through circumstance to look at the dug enhanced "heroic athlete" or the morally dubious behavior of the rock star or the film star, the luster is never lost on the "image" of the hero as clutched desperately to the bosom of a nation hungry and crying out for "heroes".