Master Chief is my favourite superhero. Unfortunately, this sentence is more complex than its syntax would suggest. To explain why Master Chief is my favourite superhero, I must first demonstrate that he is a superhero. The definition of a Superhero is vague and largely based on a set of shared traits, which can be found on Wikipedia. Primarily, superheroes are heroic protagonists who have superhuman abilities, a definition for which Master Chief definitely qualifies. However, the secondary defining traits are less clear. Superheroes typically have a distinctive outfit or supersuit. Master Chief’s armour is distinctive to players of the Halo games, but within the Halo universe his armour is designed to anonymise him. By deliberate design only other SPARTANs can tell the armoured SPARTAN-IIs apart. Superheroes have secret identities with separate, ordinary lives. Master Chief’s identity is secret, his last name has been erased from all records and most people don’t know his given name or what his face looks like. However, he lacks is a separate life. Unlike Iron Man, who can take of his armour and turn back into Tony Stark, when Master Chief removes his armour, he just happens to not be wearing armour. The third major characteristic of a superhero is that he has a goal or moral code which drives him to be heroic and to fight a specific set of enemies. Master Chief’s enemies for the majority of the series of games and novels are the Covenant but his goals and heroic actions are almost completely driven by the goals of the larger military organization he is part of, the UNSC. Master Chief Petty Officer, is, in fact, his military rank. Over the course of the novelized backstory to the games Master Chief first fights insurrectionists (rebels against the larger united government) and the Covenant. In both cases he has no personal grudge against these groups whatsoever. When the insurrectionists and the UNSC put aside their differences to fight the invading Covenant and then when the Covenant fractures and half the Covenant forces join the humans to fight the other half, Master Chief operates comfortably alongside his new allies. His own major goal, ensuring the safety of his team of SPARTANs and the AI Cortana, is typically subordinated to his orders to the point that only a handful of an original thirty or so SPARTANs survive.
Master Chief certainly has the major qualifications to be a superhero. He is a person with a secret identity, superhuman abilities and distinctive equipment, which he uses to fight a distinct group of enemies for specific reasons. However, he does not possess any of them in a typical unalloyed manner. Most of his superheroic traits have at least some variations from those of more classical superheroes. While he is a superhero, he is an irregular one. The quality of the evidence for Master Chief’s classification as a superhero is, in the end, largely irrelevant, because whether he actually is a superhero has no bearing on the fact that he is my favourite superhero.
I am a sheltered, delicate, emotional flower at the best of times, and grade eight was not the best of times. In the grand scheme of things nothing that happened to me was particularly objectively awful, but it was enough that I spent the vast majority of the year as an over-wrought bowl of miserable emotional Jello. One particularly relevant ordeal was that, for the first time in my educational career, I encountered a truly bad teacher. My grade eight humanities teacher was a mediocre educator, who was unpleasant to interact with, and who abused her position of power. I had already come to terms with the idea that sometimes teachers are just not very good at their jobs, but faced with a teacher who bullied my friends and shouted privileged information about me to the crowded school library I could not cope. I was young, and sheltered, and meek, and the mere idea of standing up to authority figures terrified me. To my emotionally overwrought thirteen and fourteen year old self, she might as well have been a supervillain bent on world domination.
I was a young teenager, I was an utter and unashamed nerd and I read constantly, so I was perfectly positioned to become very interested in comics, which are the primary home of most classical superheroes. But no one I interacted with regularly was a comics fan, and so I was never really introduced to them. Instead, a friend of the family introduced my family to Halo (this was some time before the release of Halo 2). I loved Halo. I loved it to bits. So did the rest of my family, and in short order and X-Box and a copy of the game were procured.
This turned out to be a real life-saver for me. Halo got me through grade eight. It rapidly became a routine that when I stomped through the door squawking that one of my friends had spent the entirety of gym class calling my other friends names, and I didn’t know why, or my humanities teacher had responded to one of my friends leaving class early to deal with some family problems by taken me aside to tell me not to let her be a bad influence on me, as though family problems could be somehow contagious (this actually happened), my mother would respond with a calm “go and shoot some aliens” and, after half an hour or so of vicarious violence in which I took my frustrations about incompetent, unethical teachers on Covenant invaders I would be rendered calm enough to talk about my problems like a human being.
I will clarify that I did not ever want to actually commit acts of violence against my teacher and given the opportunity, I would never have taken it, but I really felt, at the time, that she, like an army of technologically superior alien invaders, was the sort of reason why one might need a team of highly trained, armoured super-soldiers.
One of the interesting facts about Halo, is that there are two ways to interact with it as a player. You can play the Master Chief as an escapist character, pretending that you are him, or you can play the Halo game as an interactive movie. To assist in maintaining both of these modes of play, Bungie helpfully provided a set of novels (Halo: Fall of Reach, Halo: The Flood, Halo: First Strike), which is where the backstory and characterization for the Master Chief, Cortana and the rest of the cast can be found. This way, players wishing to be the Master Chief can avoid learning anything about him, so as to better project themselves into the game, and those wishing to play the game like a movie can go and learn all they want. I devoured the books. I am a character oriented reader (and watcher and player) and I am, and was very good at becoming very emotionally involved with fictional people, so I rapidly became quite attached to Master Chief, who is a very complex character for someone who, in his primary medium, hardly speaks.
One of Master Chief’s more well-known in-game characteristics is that when he does talk, he does so in a distinctively calm, even tone of voice. What is made clear in the books is that Master Chief does not sound calm because he is a robot, or unemotional, or because he is very good at coping with trauma and crises, which would be more typical of an action hero, but because he genuinely is calm. To my emotionally overwrought self, the ability to be calm and unruffled in the face of a crash landing on an alien artifact surrounded by hostile forces following the probable death of all your friends (which are the novelized events immediately preceding the first Halo game), seemed like a much more impressive superpower than superstrength, or speed, or even luck, the trait that distinguishes Master Chief from his SPARTAN siblings within the Halo universe.
I could never have identified directly with Master Chief. Even while playing the game without the backstory, the idea of me being a terrifying armoured super soldier was (and still is) too ridiculous. I am a smallish, wimpy girl, who hates loud noises who when faced with an out of control teacher insulting her and her friends, ran away and played Halo. There was nothing to be learned from Master Chief, his near supernatural level of calm is a personality trait, not something that can be imitated, and he’s far too poorly socialized to make a good role model. Instead, he provided the same support as a more typical comic book superhero, that of a comforting myth. It was the idea of a looming figure who could be sent to relegate humanity’s most terrifying enemies to bloody oblivion and who was indestructible apparently by sheer force of will that I needed. If I could pretend that my petty autocrat of a teacher was in fact, an Elite and that shortly after I ran away Master Chief would come and deal with this latest Covenant incursion on human territory with his usual combination of daring, recklessness and assault rifles the reality of me fleeing from a pettily vindictive junior high school teacher with nary an alien in sight, was easier take.
Superheroes are heroic because of the people they save in their own, fictional universes, but their heroism carries over into the real world in the form of the people their stories save, comfort and inspire. Now, as a young adult, living on my own, I have a large Halo 2 poster of Master Chief. Initially I was reluctant to put it up. Living in a studio apartment means that if you want something to be private it has to go in a drawer or a cupboard and I wasn’t sure I wanted to risk having to explain my love of Halo to everyone who came into my apartment. I put it up. I have come to appreciate having my very favourite superhero keeping an eye on me. So far, my apartment has remained free of Covenant invaders.