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  • Soberheroes: A Critical Look at Modern Mythology

    by Sean Fitzpatrick

    man-of-steel

    Comic book heroes have recently become less comic—which is of both cultural and Christian concern. After the brooding superhero films of the last few years, many are asking the question made famous by the late Heath Ledger’s truly menacing, anything-but-funny Joker: “Why so serious?”

    The motivation behind this trend—largely spearheaded by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and continued with this summer’s Superman reboot, Man of Steel—is a desire to make the superhero more realistic, more human, more flawed, more psychologically divided; struggling to fight crime in a world where the line between good and evil is grayed, if not lost altogether. Many moviegoers and aficionados of the genre lament this movement, looking back wistfully to colorful escapades with Christopher Reeve, or wisecracking Spider-Man strips. Today, the innocence of Batman and Robin as quirky caped crusaders has been lost. The Incredible Hulk is now incredibly haunted. The X-Men are discriminated ex-men. All is edgy, jaded, and serious.

    This darkening in tone, however, may signalize a new cultural self-consciousness. Unfortunately, we may not always like what we see in the mirror.

    Human beings have always told fantastic tales, forming a mythology that reflects the values of a people. Mythical gods and heroes originate from mankind’s inherent awareness of beings, powers, and even worlds beyond his own. Pre-Christian folklore manifestly indicates this conviction and the consequent pursuit for super-realities. The pagan knew he belonged to two worlds, the material and the immaterial, being himself body and soul. Although this spiritual world was largely hidden, he, as a part of that world, was not satisfied with life isolated from beings greater than he. So man did something that must be called the human prerogative: he invented them for himself. He conjured up a host of superhuman existences to provide a context whereby he might judge things beyond his ken.

    Hero-based mythologies fervently seek answers to the cosmic questions arising from the primal and mystical sensitivity of the human spirit. What are the secrets behind the mysteries of nature? What is the purpose of life? How does man relate to the divine? These are serious questions that deserve serious consideration. Traditionally, therefore, mythical heroes are solemn types. There is nothing light-hearted about Heracles. Sigurd is no wag either. Beowulf is brutal. Lancelot is a perfect paradox of imperfection. One explanation for this serious trait in the ancient heroes is that the ancients took their heroes seriously.

    The current tendency to depict the heroes of our culture more seriously may indicate a traditional longing, whether conscious or unconscious, to make our mythology more meaningful. If comic book superheroes are modernity’s contribution to the folklore of the human race, representing the ideals of the age, there is cause for some concern. The Fantastic Four do not hold a candle to one Cuchulainn. Compare the episodes of Green Lantern to the epic of Gilgamesh and the discrepancies in tone and gravitas are clear. Still, superheroes are the modern mythical heroes. They are the imaginative expressions and embodiments of modern men and modern ideologies. That a propensity should arise, even now, to dignify them by making them more representative of the way that the world is perceived is understandable—even laudable, in a culture where cynicism is fashionable.

    Nevertheless, there is a disturbing quality in the darkness and despair arising out of the attempts to portray our heroes more seriously. What is disturbing is not simply that the results are dark. What is disturbing is what causes that darkness of vision to exist in the first place. Though the comic heroes are joining the ranks of the tragic heroes, a tremendous divide remains between what was then and what is now. While the old heroes were godlike, the new heroes are godless.

    The defect of the modern mythical worldview is that it is a deficient worldview. A principal element in any mythology is to encapsulate a comprehensive philosophy by delineating the relation between the natural and the supernatural. In our time, the former has swallowed up the latter to form a new paganism that is more like atheism. The creative result is the god-man—Superman. Americans with their American Dream can be God, being perhaps the first civilization to have heroes that are not heroic for being religious. Instead, “God” is only a phone booth away. It was not long before the man-as-god concept was bolstered by science and technology, making “God” now only an adamantium endoskeleton away. Without a distinct divine element, however, there can be no true mythology. Modern myth has, like its age, lost the sense of a whole, and as such it is fragmented. Ours are a people who no longer believe in two worlds, and will be deficient until we do. Ours is a mythology of materialism (which is a species of nihilism) and will necessarily be dark—a darkness that denies even the existence of Light.

    Why so serious indeed.

    Despite the efforts of Iron Man, Modern Man still plots to make the world an ordinary place to promote mediocrity, where no one is different and no one is unique. Extraordinariness is not conducive to the individualistic agenda that imposes social control and social castration. The problem of modern myth is that it portrays a world that is growing too small—even for heroes.

    The world has changed in the past few thousand years, and so consequently has heroism. Mankind needs heroes and, though the heroes of modernity are not the heroes of antiquity, they may be the very heroes we need. There is muddy subjectivity in the world of Batman and Superman that was golden objectivity in the world of Hector and Achilles, but the superhero remains, in a fundamental way, similar to the epic hero. Today there are differences in the understanding of the fabric of reality, but the principle retained is that good should overcome evil. People still uphold heroes to idealized standards, though the standards are not the same, nor as high.

    Our mythology reflects our world. It is the closest thing that we have as a culture to the classical myths; but, truth be told, it is emblematic of a world that has fallen short of the fullness of Truth. Our hero is not the same hero as it was for Homer. Neither is the modern-day saint the same as the saint of old. There remains a need, however, to encounter the world as it is. Whether or not modern mythology holds a key to redemption is, in all fairness, yet to be seen. There is cause to be wary, however. The concepts of right and wrong—and good and evil for that matter—are growing confused in modern mythology because they are being confused in modern society.

    No hero can be complete without the gods. Until man looks beyond himself for fulfillment, his myths will be as vulnerable as Superman is to Kryptonite—and that is an issue to take very seriously, because this time, humanity really does lie in the balance.

    Editor’s note: The above image is a still from the new film “Man of Steel,” directed by Zack Snyder and staring Henry Cavill as Superman. Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures.

    The views expressed by the authors and editorial staff are not necessarily the views of
    Sophia Institute, Holy Spirit College, or the Thomas More College of Liberal Arts.

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    • Ramon Antonio

      This article is very profound both in exposition and in meaning. It deserves further development and possibly a book. Not because its originality, which it isn’t and possibly it doesn’t aim to be, there are hundreds of books on parallel themes and even more pertinent ones than this essay, but because of its novel framing of the subject.

      Some of the pondering is obviously a projection to the past of present understandings which is incorrect on its own such as this quotes:
      “Hero-based mythologies fervently seek answers to the cosmic questions arising from the primal and mystical sensitivity of the human spirit.
      “Human beings have always told fantastic tales, forming a mythology that reflects the values of a people. Mythical gods and heroes originate from mankind’s inherent awareness of beings, powers, and even worlds beyond his own. Pre-Christian folklore manifestly indicates this conviction and the consequent pursuit for super-realities. The pagan knew he belonged to two worlds, the material and the immaterial, being himself body and soul.”

      But that being said or questioned, the article illuminates in very interesting ways the new paradigm of the super hero. And this is a very pertinent topic for religion right now and for all of us in our lives. The super hero myth can be read in the backstory of Edward Snowden, a hero or a foe? However, the developing story presents itself as the recipe for a modern Beowulf fighting the powerful Grendel of the NSA and its mother, the USA interests. And then this article become a genuine jewel by itself for we can see through it that the hero is based on something that we witness but not fully comprehend.
      That’s why its bad to assume the intention of the original stories and badder to type them as myths or folklore. The fact that we have’t found evidence of a previous Pope before Christianity doesn’t mean that there were not religious organizations directed by someone similar. We should keep digging, ot labeling…
      Great article. Hope to see it developed to its full potential.

    • Tom Riley

      Holy Syncretism, Mr. Fitzpatrick! I’m not so sure.

      For one thing, I’ve been reading comic books since 1966 — and some of the ones I read back in the day were hardboiled and plenty dark. The era of consciously dark comic books is supposed to have begun with “Watchmen” and “The Dark Knight Returns” in the ’80s — but I have always regarded those books as marking the recovery of something lost. In his introduction to “The Dark Knight Returns,” Frank Miller explicity states that his work was intended to recapture the spirit of the original Batman.

      As to the ancient myths, the Greco-Roman ones were told in a bewildering variety of versions and literary forms. Some of these were grave and dignified — but some were comical in the extreme. Even the very dignified versions of these myths — such as “The Aeneid,” than which there is no ancient literary work more dignified — contain elements that are offensive. Aeneas lands in Carthage, snuggles up to Dido with the held of his divine mother, exploits said Dido for the benefit of himself and his mission, then dumps her so that she commits suicide. Sure, it’s all for the greater good of founding Rome and ultimately the reign of Caesar Augustus. But moral uplift it is not.

      Other myths — I’m thinking of the “Kalevala” chiefly here — contain even worse examples. Must good triumph over evil? Well, maybe.

      One particular myth cycle in its most recognized version is designed to show that we should be good even though good does not triumph over evil. I mean, of course, Norse mythology — which C.S. Lewis summarized in the following lines: “The stupid, strong, unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,/ And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.”

      Quid enim Hinieldus cum Christo?

      • STF

        Mr. Riley,
        Thank you for your comment. I would like to address some of your many well-made points.

        Comic books have always had a darker side to them – that is
        true. (Although comics have historically been more clearly for the sake of entertainment rather than education, which sets them off from the ancient myths.) Batman started out very noir indeed in the 40’s, got lighter in the 50’s, and turned to darker, more mature paths through the 70’s onward. If we compare this to the Batman film franchise, we see something of the same pattern. We go from Adam West to Michael Keaton to Christian Bale. There is a descent into darkness – or seriousness – in both comic book history and film history. (These elements should be considered as distinct evolutions, though the article lumps them together, which is one of its failures.)

        Classical Greek and Roman myth is a bit of a gab-bag, though I would argue that it tends toward the sublime, resorting very seldom to humor. The raw entertainment value that made them memorable and effective teaching vehicles lay in the energy and action of men striving against gods and monsters and nations. In other words, they are exciting enough to be memorable. But they were not simplistic or naively optimistic. The reference you bring up concerning Aeneas and the tragic Queen of Carthage is a good example of an ancient moral dilemma. This is an instance of Virgil’s movement out of the primary heroic paradigm into the secondary – as C. S. Lewis puts it – creating a hero that is truly human, imperfect, and who ultimately does the right thing even if it is not the glorious thing. Who can solve the conundrum of duty versus love? This inspired passage from the pagan model of self-centered pride and glory is the beginning of the Christian model of heroism. The trend of the flawed hero, however, continued to develop to a point that merits questioning, in my opinion. How conflicted can a hero be before his heroism is confused in the conflict?

        The Nordic cycle is an excellent example of the good choosing to be good for its own sake. Though Midgard and Utgard are as bleak as can be – dying worlds where not even the gods will survive – it is animated with a hope that a higher heaven will take the place of Asgard. New life rises from the ashes. There is an underlying optimism in these traditions to counterbalance pessimism. Is it possible that modern myth is losing its hold of optimism?

        Myth is a reflection of culture. The bottom line of this article is that our mythology has relinquished the gods, and the worldview that results is not really a worldview because it does not see the world as it is.

        • Tom Riley

          I wonder whether the superiority of the ancient myths lies in two elements related to their origins.

          First, the mythmakers were not just telling stories, however moving, but were relating things they actually believed. There was for them no willing suspension of disbelief.
          Second, the various versions of the myths were developed and polished organically over long periods of time and thus were the products not of individual minds, however brilliant, but of entire cultures.
          Related to your own thesis, these possibilities would explain the relative completeness of the myths — that they can be hardboiled and even dark but still convey joy.

          • Michael Paterson-Seymour

            A vexed question is the relationship between myth and ritual. Were the rituals a re-enactment of the myth, or was the myth invented to explain the rite? Or was it a case of action and reaction?

            I would dearly love to know the origin of the Orphic cycle, perhaps the most powerful myth in classical mythology

            • STF

              Like our own Christian festivals and customs, the value of myth lies in a great pedagogical influence. Ancient myth especially engenders penetrating awareness of mystical reality in the young. The Greeks taught mythology strictly to their youth in the hopes that they would some day provide a point of departure to higher planes of thought about the mysteries of the world, and accustom their children to the roles and relationships between the natural and the supernatural.

              It is a point of some debate as to whether the myths originally represented religious convictions or simply philosophical principles. But, that being said, whether or not the Greeks actually believed that the seasons were brought about by the joys and sorrows of Demeter is not quite as important as what the knowledge of such myths imparted upon their children’s comprehension of the fabric of truth: the myths spoke of a power at work in the world that was beyond mankind’s own. Myth was intended as the first food of the spirit. The divine purpose of Providence may be seen in this as even the pagans were inclined to think of things spiritually, keeping their souls sensitive and receptive to grace.

              Man has always hungered for the holy. The Orphic cycle mentioned above is particularly fascinating. Orpheus is the only mythical character to appear in early Christian art (the Catacombs) as a Christ-figure. Perhaps his descent to Hades to liberate the dead was an inspired prefiguring of what Christ came to do.

              The point Mr. Riley makes about the absence of suspension of belief or an overarching purpose of escapism is very interesting. Myth was always concerned with truth, using fiction as its vehicle. I am not sure if the same may be said of modern mythical trends.

    • George

      Comic book heroes have *always* been brooding and serious, at least in the Batman, Spiderman, and often Superman lines. I have dipped in and out of comics since the 80s and have always noticed a mythological, high-flown, pathos-filled tone to them. I wouldn’t say that there has been a major shift. Rather, superhero *movies* have begun to reflect the darker qualities that formerly were reserved for comics.

    • Tony

      I like the article a good deal — and Mr. Fitzpatrick shows that he is quite aware of the dark side of the ancient heroes. What’s new now is not the darkness, as he says, but the reason for the darkness, and that’s related to something else, a great yawning absence. It’s why I hated the Lord of the Rings movies. There is no mirth, none. Beowulf is a sober poem, no doubt about that, but there is also in it the strength of youth, and Beowulf himself has plenty of moments of subdued frolic. Gilgamesh is a sober poem, no doubt, yet there is little in literature more high-hearted and youthful than the account of Gilgamesh and Enkidu encouraging one another as they approach and enter the great forest. Virgil gives us an epic of twilight — but Homer? Is there anything more essentially youthful than Odysseus and Telemachus embracing one another and weeping so loud, they sound like seabirds crying out — and then, after a while, plotting as father and son, and comrade and comrade, on how to fix those damned suitors?
      Every movie I’ve seen in the last fifteen years seems to have been filmed through three black lenses. I’m more lighthearted after watching a tragic movie from of old — How Green Was My Valley, which I just saw again for the tenth time — than after watching a contemporary “comedy” or movie about heroism. No faith — no hope; no youth, no mirth, no real strength, and, frankly, nothing to interest us for more than a moment or two.

      • Tom Riley

        I’m not sure here, either, Tony. I remember mirth from “The Lord of the Rings” movies — particularly after Frodo’s recovery in Minas Tirith. Of course, many occasions for mirth were missed — but of necessity the story was much abbreviated. At any rate, LOTR is a very bitter story. The whole point is that Frodo has to sacrifice everything in order to save the Shire — and incidentally the world — and then he can no longer live there. It’s an image in Tolkien’s mind of the priesthood.

        But, to be honest, Tony, I like dark stories. I really like dark stories.

    • TomD

      If you think of these most recent comic book portrayals as a kind of modern, secular mythology, there appears to be a move away from the traditional, pure fantasy, fictional story telling of the past, and more movement toward an almost non-fictional aspect to presenting the characters and the “issues.” In a sense, the heroes now are the issues, not the characters. The comic book heroes have become, in a sense, more representative of present day reality and aspirations . . . which may explain why so many of the traditionalists lament what has happened to the genre.

      Why so serious? is right . . . no longer fantasy fun, now much more serious, often dark, and reflective of our own angst and projection of the “issues of the day” into the storyline. Of course, there was an underlying seriousness to the Superman of old, but he never took himself too seriously . . . and the story never completely crossed the line into “dark” commentary without retaining some of the fantasy fun.

      Perhaps the comic-book genre today is reflecting the secular, “spiritual” times more typical of the modern mindset.

    • Robbie J

      I lost interest in “superhero” movies a long time ago. I’ve not seen a single Batman, or any other modern, comic-book hero movie in a long while. Oh yes, I did sit through part of the original ‘Iron Man’ flick. But I was sorely disappointed. That’s a super-hero? To me that’s just a guy who has the finances and technology (toys) at his disposal to go out and make a lot of noise. I guess I’m an old-timer;I need to identify with the hero. But I cannot do that if he (the hero) is not a man with a solid moral core, and humble as well; able to stand outside of himself for the greater good of all. Isn’t that how is supposed to be?

    • HigherCalling

      While not directly related to the main thrust of this article, I found myself recalling Chesterton’s essay in Heretics, “Mr. H.G. Wells and the Giants” (particularly the second half), while reading this piece. His objection to *The* Superman (ala Nietzsche) is not exactly the same as Superman of comic lore, but he makes several good points regarding what a hero (or superhero) consists of. His superhero is always a better version of a man, a champion of the enduring human standards, not a darker version.

      “If the Superman is more manly than men are, of course they will ultimately deify him, even if they happen to kill him first. But if he is simply more supermanly, they may be quite indifferent to him as they would be to another seemingly aimless monstrosity. He must submit to our test even in order to overawe us. Mere force or size even is a standard; but that alone will never make men think a man their superior. Giants, as in the wise old fairy-tales, are vermin. Supermen, if not good men, are vermin. [...] If the Superman is better than we, of course we need not fight him; but in that case, why not call him the Saint?”

    • treecie

      Maybe, but I like Captain America’s line in the Avengers, in response to Natasha Romanoff’s comment about Loki and Thor being gods: “There’s only one God, and I don’t think He dresses like that.”

    • Uuncle Max

      Sean,

      I realize that this is a chance to see your name in print and to make an impression on someone/somewhere as a serious thinker.

      But

      You are taking this whole thing WAAAY too seriously.

      Try this

      A few hours of escapist entertainment, the action scenes are WAAAY overdone, but that’s ok, Russell Crowe is terrific because the word ‘Krypton’ sounds better when spoken with a bit of an accent, Henry ROCKS in the lead role, I came out feeling a bit safer knowing that somewhere Clark is working for the Daily Planet

      But the popcorn was only lukewarm

      B+

      Recommended summer reading – ‘The Code of the Woosters’ by P. G. Wodehouse

      My work here is done

      • STF

        Max,

        Your comment brushes aside a venerable tradition of taking folklore seriously. I am sorry my article failed to convey some of the gravity and intrigue of this branch of study to you, and only seemed to exhibit a desire for personal distinction.

        If you were to argue that we as a race are too close to modern myth to take it as seriously as it deserves, that would have been another matter.

        Instead, you say that our culture’s contribution to the galaxy of heroic paragons is unworthy of scholarly attention. I respond by paraphrasing Fr. Ronald Knox – to the scholarly mind anything is worthy of study if that study is thorough and systematic.

        It is only by treating things as significant that we discover their secret significance, and single out the surprisingly essential from the seemingly incidental.

        • http://www.popmythology.com/ Pop Mythology

          We need to also remember that even a lot of the now venerated “classics” of literature, mythology and folklore, at the time, were just the trashy pop culture of their day. It’s only with the passing of time that we’ve come to see and analyze them in context and realize their full cultural importance and influence. I am fully with you on this, Sean.

          • Uuncle Max

            why so serious?

            You choose to take it seriously, I choose not to. My reaction to it means without doubt that you are a much deeper thinker than I, a point which I gladly concede. I retain however the right to take it as escapist entertainment and nothing more.

            “You choose to brush aside a venerable tradition of taking folklore seriously.”

            Forsooth!!

            • STF

              There is a strong element of escapist entertainment in many of the myths of old – especially the Nordic traditions. Myth had to be entertaining if it was to be an effective teaching tool. I’m sure that there were no profound thoughts behind the wedding of Thor and Thrym. It is simply hilarious. It is escapist entertainment whose significance as something more has only become apparent with the passing of ages.

              • Uuncle Max

                Anyone out there remember ‘zap’ comics? Remember Mr. (Fred) Natural? Remember what he said when asked by his colleague Flaky Foont “what does it all mean?”

          • Uuncle Max

            And I STILL think you all should read some P.G. Wodehouse.

    • YankeeTexan

      Mr. Fitzpatrick,
      While I enjoyed your article immensely and look forward to future articulations, I can’t help but bring up one point:
      The modern, contemporary “mythologies” do accurately represent our Society most of the time; darker, more angst ridden, and perhaps resolved to trust the protagonists own Narcissism, before trusting a Higher Power. But sadly, that is the reflection in the “looking glass” of our own Society.
      I have always enjoyed the Hero/Superhero archetypes; Alan Moore’s “Watchmen” (though we may disagree on a great many things of a personal level), Frank Miller’s iconic, “Dark Knight” or his edgier “Sin City” series, Warren Ellis’s, “Transmetropolitan”, to name a few.
      Though they are darker, confuse moral and ethical imperitives at times, I still find myself asking “What is their motivation; the “impetus” of their own soul that drives them? Can it ever really be defined? But, would we not learn something worthy in the attempt to define the “ghosts of their own soul”?
      For, without having a reference point of darkness, how could we clearly define the Light?
      Not criticism; just food for thought and comment…
      Thank you!

    • Joshua

      Perhaps it is more helpful to think of comic books as modern fairy tales rather than modern mythology. A quick read of Grimm’s Fairy Tales makes it easy to see that they were both dark, and essentially godless. Comic books are not setting forth a cosmology so much as they are giving us morality tales, some of which are better or worse than others.

      I think you are right in saying that it reflects our society, but I also think it pushes against the culture in several areas. The Dark Knight is a perfect example of the story taking an obvious stance against nihilism. While the higher power is not explicitly mentioned, especially in Nolan’s universe, Batman and Superman answer to a higher morality, one not based solely in materialism.

    • Joe Muszynski

      every myth can be told in different ways. it all depends on who is doing the telling and why. yes, there is a darker side to some of the superhero myths coming out right now. but so too the myth hero jesus in many peoples tellings. so many myths, so many ways to express them.

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