In Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008), humans have escaped a waste-filled Earth to live on a giant spaceship called the Axiom, leaving the film’s eponymous robot protagonist behind to clean their mess up. Wall-E’s life changes when he encounters Eve, another robot sent down by humans to gather signs of plant life that signal the possibility of returning to Earth. Infatuated with her, Wall-E gives her a plant he found—the very life she has been tasked with searching for. When she departs for the Axiom with the plant, he follows her back, only to stumble into chaos as robots in the spaceship steal the plant and try to prevent humans from returning to Earth. Ultimately, he helps bring humanity back by retrieving the stolen plant to serve as evidence of life on Earth, as well as by inadvertently causing the Captain of the Axiom and the remaining humans to recognise the importance of protecting the Earth and fight to bring themselves back. The film ends with the happy robot couple on an Earth humans have started to clean up.
Wall-E is clearly viewed as the hero—after all, he gives the film its name. Various hero tropes define him. Murray and Heumann refer to Wall-E first as a “tragic hero”, and as a “comic hero” towards the later half of the film; Herhuth concurs with the latter, calling him a “comic hero disrupting the standardized, rationalized, and programmed practices of life and labor on the Axiom”. Alternatively, Wall-E could be read as an everyman hero. His only unique qualities are his human-like emotions like dreaminess and sentimentality, and even then, these are not characteristics associated with heroism. Yet, under the extraordinary circumstances he places himself in by chasing Eve, he ends up exhibiting heroism when he helps humans return to Earth. The other robots who help Wall-E and Eve in their quest to retrieve the plant, while never explicitly referred to as heroes in scholarly literature, are also read as having laudable human characteristics: they are individualistic and dare to challenge the status quo. Indeed, Henderson writes that the malfunctioning robots are “the very ones that have some degree of personality when they help Wall-E and Eve with their newfound mission”.
However, we overlook the moments of heroism that shine in the humans. While humanity’s heroism takes up a small portion of the film, I believe it is still worth examining, as it portrays a different dimension of heroism, bolstering our understanding of heroic characteristics.
What makes a hero?
Conceptualisations of literary heroes have evolved over time. Teresa Maybee traces these developments over major literary eras, whose heroes each have their own identifying traits: the ancient Greeks imbued their heroes with “a heritage of divinity and/or nobility, along with qualities of intelligence, strength, leadership, military prowess, and pride” (20), for instance, while 20th-century modernist writers tended to represent heroic endeavours as “solitary struggles against self […] or nature” (59). Amanda Shang, speaking more broadly, asserts that traditional heroes are “largely defined by their actions and results”, but modern heroism “pulls the focus to the underlying motivations behind a hero’s actions” (20-21).
However, despite the definitions that have proliferated, some heroic characteristics still transcend time. When we think of heroes, even as we consider role models like family members or celebrities, we instinctively jump to notions of physical strength or superhuman feats, conditioned by today’s superhero movie franchises like Marvel or childhood fairytales of knights in shining armour. In other words, traditional ideas of heroism dating back to ancient or mediaeval times remain. Maybee concurs: while our definitions of heroism have expanded, “we still glorify the divine, or the super-human” (64).
This perception helps explain why WALL-E’s robots tend to be the ones read as heroes, rather than the humans. They are the ones who carry out great performances of strength and bravery, sometimes even in line with classical traditions of “heroic self-sacrifice”: Wall-E, for instance, is electrocuted while protecting the plant, and physically crushed trying to open the Holo-detector needed to direct the Axiom towards Earth. In contrast, the humans are depicted as fat, lazy, simple-minded consumers, transported by hover chairs and pampered by robots; they are overly reliant on technology and lacking in individualism. We are led to be disgusted at humanity, who now fulfil a mere fraction of what we know to be their potential, if any at all. These depictions of robots and humans, alongside the fact that the robots are the main characters with more screen time, create the perception that the robots surpass humans in heroic qualities. Thus, we latch onto them as the heroes.
There is more to the humans, however, than it seems. I believe that the humans in WALL-E should still be considered heroes, in line with a more modern definition: their heroism is of a more everyday, relatable form, but not lesser than that of the robots. Furthermore, it serves as a thought-provoking analogue to real-world environmental advocacy and provides a more realistic model of what heroism can look like.
Humanity as relatable heroes
Humanity’s heroism first manifests in small steps rather than grand gestures, to the point where we wouldn’t even consider these steps heroic. Yet, they deserve to be considered parts of humanity’s hero journey as well, for they enable humans to develop eco-consciousness and a desire to return to Earth. We see this most clearly in the Captain, the representative of humanity. When he receives the plant that Eve has brought from Earth, he waters it. “There you go, little guy. […] Just needed someone to look after you, that’s all…” he says tenderly, the importance of putting in effort to care for the environment dawning on him through this small action. He begins to develop a sense of leadership, a quality often held by Greek heroes (Maybee 20): “I should [fire up the Holo-detector] myself,” he insists, wishing to take the initiative rather than delegating work to Auto, the robot that controls the ship’s internal systems. When Auto asserts that humans cannot return to Earth, even more passionate language ensues: he exclaims desperately that Earth is “in trouble”, and he can’t “just sit here and… and… do nothing!”. Maybee explains that seventeenth-century writers promulgated the idea of the “heroic goal of social justice” (50); I would extend this definition today, when climate change threatens Earth and thus our lives, such that the Captain is heroic in his passion to work for environmental justice. The other humans also exhibit minor heroic qualities before the film’s climax: despite being used to perfect service from the Axiom’s robots, John and Mary do not rage when confused Wall-E—to them just another robot—responds unexpectedly to their requests or distracts them from their screens, demonstrating, according to George deForest Lord, the “patience, amenability and adaptability” of ancient Greek heroes like Odysseus (qtd. in Maybee 13).
These small instances, furthermore, culminate in larger, more consequential actions. The Captain, after watering the plant, is determined to return to Earth. When Auto steals the plant needed to trigger the journey back, the Captain’s heroism begins to shine. Auto locks him in his quarters, but he retaliates bravely, luring and wrestling Auto even while swung around in midair. He even musters the strength to walk for the first time to reach Auto and switch it to manual mode, effectively saving the day—an incredible feat for someone who has lounged in a hover chair his entire life. These achievements would not have been immediately possible without the stepping stones that developed his heroic qualities. The ordinary humans, too, grow to show a greater form of heroism. When the Axiom tilts as the Captain battles Auto, they grab others to stop them from slipping, and create a barrier to protect the sliding babies from harm. Later, they stand up and band together to pass the retrieved plant towards the Holo-detector. Thus, WALL-E presents a more realistic, relatable form of heroism: even tiny actions contribute to greatness. This idea holds greater real-world significance given the film’s environmental sensibilities: we may be overwhelmed by a compulsion to carry out grand gestures to save the Earth, but every little bit helps, and can serve as a starting point for a longer, greater journey in climate action.
The humans’ acts of heroism, moreover, reflect a triumph of moral courage rather than the traditional definition of heroism that necessitates physical action. They have lived a sedentary life of luxury on the Axiom, and even as we find their lifestyle appalling, we understand how it would be appealing. It is impressive, then, that humanity readily gives these comforts up for the greater good of Earth. Notably, they do so without even needing any persuasion or mentorship to overcome a “refusal of the call” to heroism, an essential part of Joseph Campbell’s famed hero’s journey model (34). Humanity’s sacrifice is reminiscent of Maybee’s assertion that heroes in the Greek tradition “experience[d] mortal toil and suffering as ‘inseparable’ from their heroic mission” (14)—suffering that was, according to Margalit Finkelberg, “not only self-imposed but also, […] purport[ed] to serve the common good” (qtd. in Maybee 14). Of course, the humans do not suffer trials of physical pain, and neither is their anguish over giving up their comforts explicitly illustrated. Nevertheless, their sacrifice must entail some sort of loss and moral courage to accept that loss, blissful as they were with their perfect lives.
The humans, therefore, manifest a different heroism from the robots; while humanity shows moral courage, the robots show physical courage, and for more selfish reasons. The robots’ bravery and “heroic self-sacrifice” (10) are out of Wall-E and Eve’s love for each other, rather than a desire to achieve “social justice” or serve “the common good” (qtd. in Maybee 50). This difference mirrors the contrasts between traditional and modern ideas of heroism set out by Shang above: the robots are like classical heroes, admired for their physical accomplishments and success in bringing humanity home, while the humans embody modern heroism that emphasises intention and good morals.
To be fair, the humans’ feats like standing up and walking are physical too, so they are still somewhat aligned with traditional conceptualisations of a hero. However, while these feats are incredible given how the humans on the Axiom have grown up, their impact is lost on most of us, to whom the actions are hardly considered challenges. What matters more than the heroism of the physical acts themselves is the moral courage that motivates them, for the acts only arise from humanity’s fervent impulse to do the right thing: return to Earth. Thus, compared to wild tales of physical prowess that the average person could never achieve, the humans’ moral courage shows a more realistic and relatable form of heroism.
The humans in WALL-E may be side characters, but their heroism deserves attention too. They exhibit a different sort of heroism compared to the robots—one founded upon small stepping stones to great impact rather than immediately grand gestures, and upon moral courage rather than physical achievements. Thus, rather than feed into the idolisation of impossibly perfect models of strength and valour, WALL-E paints a picture of everyday, relatable heroism that the average person can attain. It may not have intended to forward an environmental message, but it inevitably participates in such discourse, such that an examination of its portrayal of humanity prompts an examination of ourselves and how we can do better in our climate crisis. And for us viewers, it offers hope: a sign that we, too, can be heroes in our own little ways.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 2004.
Henderson, Kati. “‘Wall-E’ Reflection: When Robots Are Human and Humans Are Robots.” Ambiguously Human 9 Mar. 2016 <https://sites.duke.edu/ambiguouslyhuman/2016/03/09/wall-e-reflection/>.
Herhuth, Eric. “Life, Love, and Programming: The Culture and Politics of Wall-E and Pixar Computer Animation.” Cinema Journal 53.4 (2014): 53–75. https://doi.org/10.1353/cj.2014.0042.
Maybee, Teresa M. “Figurations of the Literary Hero.” Master’s thesis. Florida Atlantic University, 2006.
Murray, Robin L. and Joseph K. Heumann. “WALL-E: from Environmental Adaptation to Sentimental Nostalgia.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media 51 (2009). <https://www.ejumpcut.org/archive/jc51.2009/WallE/>.
Shang, Amanda. “Who are Heroes? An Analysis of the Literary Hero and an Interpretation of the Modern Hero.” Honors thesis. Dept. of English, University of Texas at Austin, 2018.
WALL-E. Dir. Andrew Stanton. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2008.