A Shared, Faithless, Modern Mythology: Superheroes as Modern Legends…

I think it’s safe to say that The Avengers (aka Avengers Assemble) is one of the most ambitious superhero movies ever made. I’ve had the pleasure of seeing it and, while it’s not quite perfect, it does a deft job of managing the ingredients from five different solo films and blending them into one fairly coherent narrative. It’s a big event, and it has sparked a considerable amount of on-line discussion and anticipation.

Arguably the most interesting piece comes from Tom Hiddleston himself. The young British actor earned a lot of praise for his portrayal of Loki last year, and he brings a certain grace a less nuanced portrayal of the character in The Avengers. Writing for The Guardian, Hiddleston has made a very strong and heartfelt argument against those who would dismiss superhero cinema, suggesting that the superhero narrative is the spiritual descendent of the ancient myths and legends.

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It’s a very good piece, but here are some highlights:

Big talk for someone in a silly superhero film, I hear you say. But superhero films offer a shared, faithless, modern mythology, through which these truths can be explored. In our increasingly secular society, with so many disparate gods and different faiths, superhero films present a unique canvas upon which our shared hopes, dreams and apocalyptic nightmares can be projected and played out. Ancient societies had anthropomorphic gods: a huge pantheon expanding into centuries of dynastic drama; fathers and sons, martyred heroes, star-crossed lovers, the deaths of kings – stories that taught us of the danger of hubris and the primacy of humility. It’s the everyday stuff of every man’s life, and we love it. It sounds cliched, but superheroes can be lonely, vain, arrogant and proud. Often they overcome these human frailties for the greater good. The possibility of redemption is right around the corner, but we have to earn it.

The Hulk is the perfect metaphor for our fear of anger; its destructive consequences, its consuming fire. There’s not a soul on this earth who hasn’t wanted to “Hulk smash” something in their lives. And when the heat of rage cools, all that we are left with is shame and regret. Bruce Banner, the Hulk’s humble alter ego, is as appalled by his anger as we are. That other superhero Bruce – Wayne – is the superhero-Hamlet: a brooding soul, misunderstood, alone, for ever condemned to avenge the unjust murder of his parents. Captain America is a poster boy for martial heroism in military combat: the natural leader, the war hero. Spider-Man is the eternal adolescent – Peter Parker’s arachnid counterpart is an embodiment of his best-kept secret – his independent thought and power.

This is by no means an original idea. Stan Lee has confessed to thinking something similar when he coopted Thor from Norse mythology into the Marvel Universe. Hell, it’s hard to deny the influence of mythic figures on the creation of Superman. “Just as other genres of comics have appropriated existing narrative mythologies (the Wild West, anthropomorphism, horror),” Richard Reynolds explains at the start of the third chapter of Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, “so Seigel and Shuster created Superman from existing material already to hand: the myths of Samson, Hercules and so on.”

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There are cynics out there would decry this connection as a desperate attempt at sophistication from a very childish genre, an attempt to justify an adult interest in grown men in tights knocking the stuffing out of one another. Some might even argue that Hiddleston, an indie darling for roles in films like Deep Blue Sea, is trying to explain a decision to “sell out” by appearing in a gigantic big-budget epic.

I can’t help but find that idea a little offensive. After all, Hiddleston opens the piece by telling a story. Apparently Christopher Reeve was mocked by his fellow thespians for taking a role in Richard Donner’s Superman. Lalla Ward recalls with a sense of impish glee the fact that Patrick Stewart used to make fun of the Doctor Who actors when he worked at RADA. It’s interesting how elitish and snobbish people can get about such things, and I do feel very sorry for Hiddleston if any of his colleagues believe that a well-played role somehow diminishes him in the eyes of his peers.

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But still, Hiddleston raises some interesting points about the nature of the superhero stories that we tell. If you accept his argument, The Avengers represents the first time that we’ve truly captured a “pantheon” on screen together. (I’d be reluctant to consider the X-Men, if only because Wolverine is perhaps the only member known outside the team itself.) It’s interesting to look at many of the iconic comic characters as the spiritual descendents of these mythic figures:

Marvel Comics’ The Mighty Thor, really is the Norse God of myth but with superhero updates.

Captain Marvel has powers which are gifts from mythical gods and heroes every time he utters the magic word SHAZAM (an acronym for names of the gods he derives power from, wisdom from Solomon, strength from Hercules, stamina from Atlas, power from Zeus, courage from Achilles and speed from Mercury). His origin is that of a young boy, Billy Batson meeting a divine personage (drawn to look like the ancient of days from children’s Christian catechism books) who names him his successor and grants him the power of the gods to ‘right wrongs and crush evil everywhere’. One could even suggest that in his origin story, Captain Marvel, by taking over from the aged (senile?) mythic personage that he is taking over the mythic mantle for his age. The superheroes of Namor, Aquaman, Flash and Hawkman are just some examples of modern mythic figures derived from past gods and legends. The Flash is a derivative of the Greco-Roman gods of Hermes/Mercury while Hawkman can be likened to the bird-headed Egyptian gods of Horus and Ra and the Greek story of Icarus. Namor and Aquaman, created by Marvel and DC comics respectively, could be said to have taken over the role of Poseidon/Neptune. Aquaman is ‘King of the Seven Seas’, the undisputed ruler of Earth’s oceans and its inhabitants.

I have to say, I’m quite attached to the idea, suggested above that the SHAZAM origin story represents the passing of the torch from the old gods to the new gods. It’s a topic that has been explored at length, and is something of a cornerstone of the work of Grant Morrison, who even released a recent book titled Supergods. The writer even hosted a discussion with Deepak Chopra about the idea of the super-hero-as-modern myth at a recent Comic Con.

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There are, of course, those who reject the central idea, either dismissing it as pretentious twaddle or finding serious logical flaws with the argument. Some would argue that this position ignores the original purpose of these stories and legends:

The biggest flaw of the “superhero as myth” argument is its confusion of the myth’s form for its function. Myths and superhero fiction may share the feature of being allegorical stories, but the contexts in which they serve as extended metaphors are entirely different. Beyond the entertainment inherent in the telling of myths, myths were primarily used by pre-industrial societies to provide magical/mystical explanations for naturally-occurring and even historical events (for want of better interpretations). Superhero narratives serve no such function in the post-industrial, post-atomic, Information Age, where scientific knowledge and a more refined understanding of politics, economics, and history have largely supplanted magical, mystical, and fantastical accountings for the origin of real-world phenomena.

I’m not sure I’m convinced by such logic. It seems like a fairly rigid definition of what a myth must be – that it must explain some natural aspect of the world that is beyond our comprehension. That’s not to suggest it isn’t true – for example, the Greeks believed that the Titan Atlas held up the sky or the Inuit people believed that the moon god chases the sun goddess around the planet. But it does seem like an overly specific definition.

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What natural truths, for example, does the myth of King Arthur teach us? Or the legend of Robin Hood? Neither story exists to rationalise a scientific principle that our ancestors failed to understand. Of course, those tales tell us something about ourselves and the world we occupy, but it doesn’t need to explain a physical proof. I think there’s a lot of writing to support such an assumption:

Myths are stories that are based on tradition. Some may have factual origins, while others are completely fictional. But myths are more than mere stories and they serve a more profound purpose in ancient and modern cultures. Myths are sacred tales that explain the world and man’s experience. Myths are as relevant to us today as they were to the ancients. Myths answer timeless questions and serve as a compass to each generation. The myths of lost paradise, for example, give people hope that by living a virtuous life, they can earn a better life in the hereafter. The myths of a golden age give people hope that there are great leaders who will improve their lives. The hero’s quest is a model for young men and women to follow, as they accept adult responsibilities. Some myths simply reassure, such as myths that explain natural phenomena as the actions of gods, rather than arbitrary events of nature.

If you look at it through that lens, I think it’s a lot easier to understand how superheroes constitute such a mythology. Everybody recognises Batman, Spider-Man, Superman, Captain America. And, regardless of whether they watch the films or read the comics, people can relate the moral at the core of each. Batman is the spirit of urban vengeance, provoked by the murder of a child’s parents. Spider-Man is the weak suddenly given power and trusted to use it responsibly. The X-Men are the disenfranchised that sit at the cusp of society, victim to petty prejudice and hatred.

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These stories evoke basic archetypes and ideals, all tweaked for modern living. There’s a reason that everybody knows “with great power comes great responsibility”, even if it’s not quite what Stan said. Such a lesson might not have been too important in the era before individual rights, but it is very important now. Similarly, the X-Men represent a post-Civil Rights cautionary tale about how we treat people different than ourselves. Such a moral would not have been deemed essential to most cultures a century or two ago, but it’s indispensable to ours.

There is another argument that rejects this comparison, and it is probably a stronger one. Perhaps best stated by Alan Moore, the argument suggests that myths generally have endings, which conventional superhero stories lack by virtue of being serialised monthly adventures. Such a simple premise was at the heart of Moore’s rejected Twilight of the Superheroes pitch, which proposed to close the DC mythology:

Moore recognizes that superheroes, while arguably our modern mythological  characters, usually lack mythological resonance in the actual stories because  superhero stories rarely have an end. He cites DKR as one of the few that has  this resonance because it does provide an end to Superman and Batman, while at the same time making it irrelevant whether any creators after Miller ever actually fill in the gaps to make DKR the “real”, in-continuity end to Superman and Batman after all. It doesn’t matter.

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It’s a fair point. After all, most people would be familiar with the story of King Arthur’s death, with Excalibur and the Lady in the Lake. Robin Hood apparently fired off an arrow to mark the spot where he would die. We know how Achilles died, despite the stories of his heroism. There are stories that are open-ended (for example, the Inuit story of the moon chasing the sun), but it’s generally a fair point.

This is probably why stories like Kingdom Come or Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? or (most obviously) The Dark Knight Returns have endured as essential superhero reading. Brian Michael Bendis has described how Frank Miller’s last Batman tale “became continuity through sheer force of will.”

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I’ll accept that this is perhaps a flaw in the argument, even if I don’t think it’s a fatal one – at least not yet. These myths are still being written and are still calcifying. While the origins have ingrained themselves on the public imagination, there’s still room for more to happen. Besides, I tend to think that, like the stories of figures like Hercules, most casual members of the public are more familiar with the figures and what they represent than in any individual stories featuring them.

It’s an interesting and fascinating argument, and it’s great that Hiddleston provoked it. I do hope that people will read the article with an open mind, because it does offer an interesting reading of conventional superhero narratives, outlining the role that they play in our shared public imagination.

 

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About Darren

Darren is a pop culture commentator and lover of movie and comics. He won the Best Pop Culture Award at the Irish Blog Awards in 2011, and is now officially a member of the Online Film Critics Society. He can also be caught idly humming John Williams' Superman theme to himself.