There is a concept, a hidden implication, in the original Star Trek series that James T. Kirk might not be unique. He might be merely one of many Starfleet captains out there boldly going, having amazing adventures across the galaxy. After all, the Enterprise is one of a dozen identical starships, and the rest are certainly not sitting in space dock all that time.
It’s an idea that has almost completely been replaced in contemporary SF and fantasy by variations of the “Chosen One” mythology. Its modern popularity goes back to Luke Skywalker, the farm boy who turns out to be descended from the great fallen Jedi (himself a Chosen One, what with his midichlorians), but its origin is millennia earlier, with the tale of baby Moses found in the reeds, and King Arthur raised as a simple squire. Superhero origins are rife with it: Superman is the last son of Krypton, sent (Moses-like) to a new society. Wonder Woman is the created (not born) daughter of the Queen of the Amazons. Billy Batson is literally chosen by the gods to become Captain Marvel.
Its current prevalence is vexing, because in a lot of ways, it seems to be the only story around. I mean, in the new Star Trek continuity, even James T. Kirk is a Chosen One, with a miraculous birth, raised in the hinterlands, until he gets the Campbellian call to adventure, learns of his true nature and becomes the entitled dude-bro J.J. Abrams has made him.
I was led to pondering this issue indirectly, by noticing the shifting character of Marcus Brody from the Indiana Jones films. In Raiders of the Lost Ark, he tells Indy, “Ten years ago I would’ve gone after it [the ark] myself.” The implications are both that Marcus used to be an adventurer like Indy, and more interestingly, that Marcus is in fact Indy’s future: eventually Indy will settle down and devote himself full time to academia, just like Marcus, making way for the next generation. It’s a rich concept that, among other things, sets the two up as equals, just at different career stages.
But this is all thoroughly trashed by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which Marcus is revealed to be an idiot. I mean, really. A recurring joke is that he once got lost in his own museum. And while this doesn’t exactly make Indy a “Chosen One,” it does remove him from a world in which he might have equals.
There’s nothing wrong with the Chosen One as a story device, as long as it’s done well, except that it removes all agency from the character, who has only to decide to embrace his or her specialness, not create it. (WARNING: SPOILERS) In the Divergent series, Beatrice is born capable of stepping into any of her society’s “factions.” In the Maze Runner series, hero Thomas is revealed to be the Final Candidate, who might cure the world of a deadly plague. In the atrocious Men in Black III, Agent J is revealed to have been watched over by Agent K since childhood. And in possibly the greatest Chosen One twist of all, The DaVinci Code’s heroine is revealed to be the last living descendant of Jesus Christ.
That’s why I’m happy to see someone like Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, whose heroism is driven entirely by her own impulsive choice to take her sister’s place; she is “chosen” by no one but herself. It’s also one reason I like Batman as a character: he suffers a precipitating trauma, but he chooses to become a vigilante; he is not chosen, by other characters or circumstance.
It’s the way most people become heroes in the real world, after all. Name one real-world hero who was a Chosen One, destined from birth to do something extraordinary. Hard to do, isn’t it? It’s because the Chosen One is an artificial construct, one that we embrace because it excuses the failure and cowardice of the rest of us. And I think it’s a model that might have outlived its usefulness.