superhero movies modern myths

Superhero stories: modern myths for a twenty-first century audience.

“Just because someone stumbles and loses their path doesn’t mean they can’t be saved.” – Professor Charles Xavier (X-Men)

A recent op-ed in the Washington Post asks “Are movies like ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ worth taking seriously?” The real question that the column addresses, however, deals with whether fantasy blockbusters warrant serious reception by critics:

Mass culture…gives critics an unusually broad sense of what audiences are responding to in a work and how they read a movie. And by meeting moviegoers where they are, critics have opportunities to talk to our readers about big issues in a more penetrating way than is possible in our current political deadlock.

The public decides which movies they want to see and which ones they like, regardless of what critics review. And our culture has decided to embrace superhero movies in a big way.

Currently, of the top ten highest grossing films worldwide, three are superhero movies (The Avengers; The Avengers: Age of Ultron; Black Panther). Four are fantasy blockbusters (Avatar; Star Wars: The Force Awakens; Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2; Star Wars: The Last Jedi). That leaves just three films that don’t fall into the category of fantasy blockbuster (Titanic, Furious 7, and Jurassic World). (Wikipedia)

We know what fans are paying to see in theaters. The question is why?

It’s not just critics who are resistant to these movies. Plenty of people bemoan their popularity. They yearn for a time when movies were real, waxing nostalgic for films that are reminiscent of college-level literature courses. They can’t understand how movies like Avengers: Infinity War are dominating the box office instead of films like The Godfather, Titanic, or Braveheart.

In actuality, the films coming out of Hollywood and dominating the box office these days draw on the rich tradition of mythology. Some spectacle films are pure entertainment—but most of the box-office dominators contain rich messages and themes that reflect and shape our culture.

“It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” – Batman

What superhero isn’t coping with some kind of personal tragedy? Bruce Wayne witnessed his parents’ murder. Tony Stark was captured and tortured by terrorists. Bruce Banner was forced to exile himself from the love of his life, lest he put her in mortal danger.

Each of these characters made a choice: they chose to respond to their personal tragedies in a way that benefited the greater good. Wayne would go on to become Batman and fight for justice on the streets of Gotham. Tony Stark decided that his compassion should outweigh his narcissism, becoming Iron Man. It took some convincing, but Bruce Banner eventually agreed to join the Avengers and fight for humankind.

Superheroes make sacrifices for the greater good. Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are filthy rich—they could live in luxury and safety, but instead they put their lives on the line to protect others from evil. Peter Parker is a teenager—but instead of chasing girls and spending all his free time playing video games, he’s out there fighting supervillains. Is it a coincidence that we’re now seeing teens focused on matters of social importance rather than on the personal pastimes that occupied previous generations?

“With great power comes great responsibility” – Spiderman

Superheroes make mistakes. They fall in love. They get hurt. They experience loneliness and hardship, grief and suffering. These stories resonate with audiences due to the simple fact that superheroes reflect the human condition. But they also embody that rare human trait of heroism: they fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.

It is through their humanity and their heroism that superheroes empower audiences.

Consider Batkid, a child cancer survivor. The Make-A-Wish foundation converted the entire city of San Francisco to Gotham, and then Batman showed up to support Batkid. Did Batman cure him? No. But he gave Batkid and his family strength.

We all need role models and sources of inspiration, and while it might seem silly to choose fictional characters—especially fantastical characters—as our role models, does it really matter where we draw our inspiration from? Can’t we be inspired by fictional characters such as Black Panther while simultaneously being influenced by historical figures such as Susan B. Anthony? Do we really have to choose?

“I had my eyes opened. I came to realize that I had more to offer this world than just making things that blow up.” – Iron Man

I know who Batman is fighting for. I know what the Avengers are fighting against. I understand the sacrifices and hard choices they made to get to where they are. And I know none of it is real. But I can view the real world through the lenses of these stories and use them as metaphors, tools for understanding, and I can cull important lessons from them, particularly the idea that even in the face of great loss and suffering, we can do the right thing, fight on the side of justice for all people.

The meaning within these stories becomes even more useful when we’re discussing complex concepts with kids. Let’s face it: learning about morality or history or the human condition isn’t particularly interesting to children, and the language we use to discuss these concepts is often out of reach for younger kids. But if we can funnel these ideas through stories that they love, maybe we can grab their attention; maybe the lessons will stick.

I understand why many people view superhero films as popcorn movies. Nobody is forced to see them or like them. But the highbrow attitude that claims these movies are for sheer entertainment and aren’t beneficial to our culture is uninformed and shortsighted. At the very least, critics should be able to appreciate the value these films hold for the fandoms that are drawn to them—it’s not like there aren’t countless think pieces coming out of geekdom that explain, in thorough detail, the social benefits that these films add to our culture.

Consider the ancient religions—now referred to as myths. Nobody questions the value of these old stories. Nobody disputes intellectuals who hold up the tales of Pandora’s Box, Prometheus, or Odysseus as great works in the literary canon, despite the fantastical elements that they contain. Nobody questions the contributions that such stories made to human culture.

Superheroes, Jedi, and contemporary wizards are no different from those great and ancient myths. George Lucas once said that he was creating a myth for modern audiences. And look what happened: the Star Wars franchise is nothing short of a phenomenon, and while the average viewer might watch a Star Wars movie to be entertained, plenty of fans draw philosophy and wisdom from the stories of the Star Wars galaxy.

“I don’t like bullies, I don’t care where they’re from” – Captain America

We need these stories now more than ever. It almost seems like kismet that these spectacular blockbusters have reached peak popularity at this particular point in history, when dangerous worldviews are on the rise, worldviews that focus on exclusion, blame, hate, and violence. I’m glad that films like these are giving people strength and courage, and in many cases, addressing questions of good versus evil, right versus wrong.

Superhero movies have fed the minds and hearts of a generation of people who are facing a mountain of formidible tasks: expanding freedom and equality, establishing justice for all, ensuring our planet remains habitable, and fighting against bigotry, greed, and anger.

I’m not sure why anyone needs to convince film critics to review superhero movies. It seems obvious to me that part of their job is to examine the movies that people are actually watching, in addition to films that might not garner a lot of public attention. That is but one of many reasons to view and review these films. These stories should also be understood and appreciated for what they are: myths of the modern era.

“There is a superhero in all of us, we just need the courage to put on the cape.” – Superman

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