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.