Superheroes Aren’t Modern Myths (They’re Melodramas)
“Superheroes are modern myths!”
Whenever a big superhero film like Captain America: Civil War comes out, fans are quick to compare these superheroes to the ancient Gods and heroes. The latest bloated Cineplex event isn’t just the standard cash grab we’re told – it has epic, even cosmic, significance. Marc Guggenheim, the executive producer of Arrow, even said superheroes are “living myths,” while the creators of Batman vs. Superman cleverly inscribed a quotation from New Age-y comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell on Wonder Woman’s sword and shield#. Scholars have written scholastic books about how superheroes are “a modern mythology.”
But does Captain America punching Iron Man in the helmet really resonate for us today with the same archetypal force as Oedipus stabbing out his eyes because he finds out he has slept with his mother (and the ancient Greeks frowned on that sort of thing)?
Okay, sure, Superman is superstrong, and Hercules was superstrong. Yes, there was a mythological Thor, and there is also a Thor played by Chris Hemsworth. But these are superficial similarities.
In their basest structure, superhero stories simply don’t follow in the footsteps of ancient myths.
In fact, they deliberately refute them.
It’s true many myths are about beings with great and mysterious abilities, but as Umberto Eco indicates in his famous essay about myths and superheroes, for all their supernormal ability, the heroes of myth are actually notably powerless.
Because myths, Eco argues, present characters with “immutable characteristics and an irreversible destiny.” Hercules always performs his labors, and then dies in the grip of a poison cloak. Thor, in myth, always dies at Ragnarok after killing the Midgard serpent. Orpheus can seek to defy death with his super-powered singing, but ultimately his human weakness and lack of faith will get the better of him and Eurydice will be dragged back to hell.
In myth, the existence of powers beyond the ken of mortals doesn’t mean those bestowed with them get to have awesome adventures and defeat the bad guys; it means they are locked in tragic narratives, against which struggle is futile.
Orpheus, Hercules, Agamemnon, Oedipus, even Thor, they don’t control their own fates – because myths, with their sweeping backdrop of the divine, are meant to show that human beings are small. ”
In Greek tragedy, film scholar Linda Williams writes, “Tragic heroes may rail against injustice, but in the end they must accept it.”
Superheroes don’t accept injustice, they punch it in the face and then drag it to jail.
In other words, they fix stuff, 1and as such are much more closely linked to the modern of tradition of the pulp melodrama – which as Linda Williams says, “always offer the contrast between how things are and how they could be, or should.”
Melodrama presents a world in which there is a fundamental injustice — a damsel in distress is tied to the train tracks – then offers a possible solution: the hero races in to save the day!
Obviously, it can be a lot more complicated than that, too. Dickens’ Bleak House, for example, is a melodrama in which the villain is not one moustache-twirling villain, but the judicial system itself. For Dickens as well, though, the purpose of the melodrama is to present a contrast between wrong and right. Right may not always win, but in melodrama right is supposed to win.
Melodrama creates a moral world in which viewers recognize, root for, and imagine the triumph of goodness.
Melodramas, in essence, are empowerment fantasies. They present a world in which humans — normal or superpowered — can fight the good fight and change things for the better. Superman sacrifices himself in Batman vs. Superman in order to protect the innocent, save the world, and make sure the bad guys are locked up the way bad guys should be.
Eurydice’s mythological death, in contrast, is a mistake, the only greater meaning of which is, “even if you’ve got a superpowered song like Orpheus, death will get you. Too bad about that.” Superman can affect fate and change the course of the world — like in the 1978 Christopher Reeve film, where he flies counter-clockwise around the earth and literally turns back time to save the woman he loves – but Orpheus can’t do that, and won’t ever be able to. When the woman he loves is dead, she’s dead, superpowers notwithstanding.
There are many myths from many traditions and you can’t sum up the entirety of human religious tradition in one easy definition, but one common characteristic of myths is the focus on the divine and on forces and powers beyond the human.
Superhero films and comics, in contrast, are relentlessly focused on the mortal.
They are about what humans can do, or could do, given just a little more strength, or speed, or oomph. Jessica Jones can save her sister and kill her rapist; Captain America can defeat the fascists who have infiltrated the government. People, like you and me, can put on a suit of armor or a batsuit and hit things until there is justice for all.
But those aren’t myths.
They’re narratives about how we don’t need myths.
In a world with superheroes, humans control their own fate.
Humans can do anything, we tell ourselves; not because we believe in myths, but because, for better or worse, we don’t.
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