Superheroes? The New Gods?
We can learn a lot from the current line of superheroes, beyond their showy attire.
Movie billboards have been predictable for years. Like restaurant menus, there’s always a buffet of new releases featuring superheroes (in all-new versions or revised updates of older versions). The rise of the genre is of course due to their excellent reception by audiences of all ages. They’re productions that quite simply collect millions of dollars at the box office, and can then sell licenses for use on all kinds of products. The sequels are planned and publicized to tremendous anticipation. But is it just an economic phenomenon behind our present-day fascination with superheroes?
The modern superhero par excellence is Superman. Along with his alter-ego, Clark Kent, a timid reporter, Superman goes out to fight crime in blue pajamas. He was created in the 1920s. He’s been followed by lots more superheroes: Batman and Robin, Wonder Woman and the later Stan Lee creations like Spiderman, The Hulk, The Avengers and The Fantastic Four, to name only a few. But the idea of being half-human and half-something-else wasn’t an invention of 20th-century comic books.
As long as we’ve had written records, human beings have told stories of people who’ve faced dangerous, impossible situations with which mere mortals couldn’t cope. Creation myths are full of them. Think of Enkidu, a sort of Mesopotamian Hercules, who fought beasts and gods more than 6,000 years ago. In the saga of the heroes and demigods of the Greek pantheon, we find Theseus, who succeeded in overcoming the terrible Minotaur, half man and half bull, and Perseus, who avoided the petrifying gaze of Medusa through sheer nerve.
These heroes would never have become so famous in their times if not for the rhapsodists and poets who sang of their exploits, and this is where the connection to modern superheroes really comes in. On the one hand, we can retell the story of a teenager bitten by a radioactive spider who then becomes an arachnid-man. We might then be in the throes of a horror story, or a Kafkaesque nightmare, like Gregor Samsa, (the hero?) of Kafka’s Metamorfosis, and who wakes up one day as an insect. On the other hand, if heroes were infallible, we’d worship them as gods and not as heroes.
Heroes, both ancient and modern, are not infallible. Their life stories and the extreme situations they face are compelling because they remind us that human beings can go beyond our limitations, and turn apparent disadvantages into superpowers. Clark Kent is shy. Bruce Wayne is suspicious. Peter Parker struggles to find a job. But when they feel the call of something bigger than themselves, a sort of extreme solidarity mobilizes them to help others. They transcend their failures, leave them behind, and the symbol of that transcendence may be a cloak or a disguise, but it’s their later actions that make them heroic.
It’s possible that in an age when religion has become a strong political and ethnic mobilizer, superheroes are a call not to embrace a deity, but to accept our mistakes and to give ourselves the opportunity to overcome them. The heroism of today’s superheroes (unlike, say, the knights of the Middle Ages) is not about performing fantastic feats for fame and to best serve a king or a god, but to make conditions more tolerable and just for life across the planet.
The gods have always existed in the stories of how the world was created and how we make sense of our presence on the planet. But mythic heroes, demigods, and superheroes are there to remind us (in a guise that’s frankly exaggerated by corporate filmmakers), that there are values that go beyond nationality and individual identity. They transcend family and community and still have the potential to change the world.
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