I feel really fortunate to be alive during this time period because superhero movies/culture have never been better. I love a good mythology, and with all that Marvel Studios is doing, there’s plenty of mythology to go around. It’s also something that bridges generation gaps. My dad grew up reading Marvel comics, so getting to share the enjoyment with him is pretty cool. And he REALLY enjoys Marvel movies.
What is it about superheroes that makes us so excited? It’s always fun to go see a movie where stuff is getting blown up, but I think it’s more than that. Even ancient people loved hearing stories about larger than life figures who did incredible things. Mesopotamian mythology gave us Gilgamesh, Greek mythology gave us such heroes as Odysseus and Achilles, early Anglo-Saxons relished in the great feats of Beowulf. We love a good story about a hero slaying a dragon.
And whether feminism will allow us to admit it or not, we love stories of strong men coming to save the day. One of my favorite images in film of the larger than life hero come to save the day is the first shot of John Wayne in the John Ford classic Stagecoach.
He looks like a hero. The way Ford shot him against the backdrop, from slightly below, gives him the illusion of being larger than his surroundings and certainly larger than the people who need his help. He’s so masculine and imposing, and it really looks like a guy who’s come to save the day. I love this image.
Since this great love for epic and story and adventure has been around for so many millennia, we shouldn’t be surprised that an old, dead, white guy gave us a formula for our heroes. This old, dead, white guy would be James Campbell and his formula would be the Monomyth (I know it’s a Wikipedia article, but it’s awesome). This Campbellian hero’s journey gives the main character a clear start to finish. There are steps along the way he must take, and if you were to write out each step on a piece of paper, I’ll bet you could fill in each one based on your favorite modern superhero. It would follow the steps just as Hercules or Perseus. We’re ages apart from the Ancient Greeks. Why would a system of entertainment that worked for them work for us? We have infinitely more options for entertainment and recreation than they did. It’s because what heroes represent is timeless.
Superheroes are representations of what we wish we could be. And by “we” I mean humanity as a whole. We wish that an alien ship would crash and leave behind a child from another world with a benevolent heart. We wish that a billionaire would look on society with compassion and resolve to help humanity instead of harm it. We wish that justice could be upheld by a nerdy high school kid who just wants to do the right thing. Superheroes are the best versions of ourselves. They can do what we cannot. But for all their super-ness, they are also highly relatable. Bruce Wayne lost his parents at a young age. Tony Stark lived in his dad’s shadow. Steve Rogers wasn’t taken seriously by anyone. Clark Kent had to live in a world that was all at once alien and home, having few memories of his birthplace.
So these superheroes not only have to deal with their own personal flaws and hangups, they also have the audacity to take it upon themselves to worry about others. That is why we love superheroes. They have just as many problems as we do, but they choose a path of sacrifice. They choose to do the good that we believe we can’t do. They choose to take on the cares of others. No one forces their hands. If they can handle their own problems along with the problems of society, why can’t we do a little extra to care for others?
Superheroes shouldn’t, then, be some form of unattainable escapism. Instead, they should inspire hope in who we are as people, and who we could be. If someone as selfish as Tony Stark or as brooding as Bruce Wayne or as temperamental as Bruce Banner can find a way to give themselves away, what is stopping us?