Myth and the Super Hero: Understanding a culture

Last week I was inspired by the new X-Men First Class movie to talk a little about the superhero mindset, and I’ll be honest I haven’t stopped thinking about it.  The idea of the ubermensche and superhero complex really has me intrigued.  I personally think that it is the closest thing we have to classical heroes from the myths.  The superheroes are the new classical heroes.  But what does this mean and how does modernity (the ubermensche philosophy) and post-modernity affect the heroes and our perception of them?

I am convinced that we can learn a lot about ourselves and our culture by how we approach the superhero.

  • Is he/she the bumbling sort of character  who just happens to be at the right place at the right time to save the day?
  • Is he/she the sort that makes the morally right decision all the time?
  • Is he/she conflicted by what it is right versus obligation?
  • Is he/she trying to right wrongs by taking matters into his own hands?
  • Is he/she fighting for a greater cause: the moral good, justice, freedom, equality?

How we answer these questions will determine how we perceive our cultural values.  Batman feels that the he must become something that he is not in order to root out the evil in Gotham.  He becomes a law unto himself.  Fortunately, Batman is a strong moral character and insists on not killing even the criminals.The villains are cheesy and  rather ridiculous and most of them completely insane. It is clear that Batman is right and his methods are right, even if unconventional, and that the criminals are to be pitied because they are the products of environment and not of a base nature.  The new movies have done much to improve the villains.  But does Batman really need a better class of criminal? I say “improve,” because the villains are less ridiculous and actually scary. However, they are still presented as being products of their environment.

Though Batman relies on an understanding of justice and goodness, the philosophy is that everyone is good until something bad happens to them and then they turn bad.  Therefore, if Batman/Bruce Wayne can together stop the bad things from happening and  enough social reform programs can be created/found, the city will eventually right itself.  Whether we realize it or not, this is our world’s mindset.  Our government spends billions on social reform programs because criminals were just products of their environment and if we just talk to them and reason with them they will change and become good.  I am not saying that we should not try and help people better themselves or that social reform is not beneficial, but you can see that our superheroes reflect how our culture actual thinks.  There are other characters, like Ra’s Al Ghul, who sound like they want to protect peace and justice but their methods are questionable.

We can apply this same concept to understanding the cultures that created heroes like Hector, Achilleus, and Aeneas.  Achilleus and the Greeks were fighting at Troy for the honor of the household.  Helen had been stolen by Paris and the household of Menelaus had been dishonored and shamed.  Even though, Hector was fighting against the Greeks and therefore could be considered the “bad guy,” both Achilleus and Hector are considered heroes and men to be emulated.  Because what mattered to the culture was valour on the battlefield, fealty to the gods, and the respect for the dead.  And both men accomplished those things.

We can see the difference between how the cultures viewed right and wrong.  Where we see that there is a clearly evil side the Greeks did not.  What matters is the character of the hero and how he responds to the situation.  Paris may have been wrong in stealing Helen but he did have a gods blessing on the matter.  What he should have done (according to the Greeks) was to offer Menelaus a fight to win her hand. So there is not right or wrong side…only the winning and losing side.

Whether the modern culture realizes it or not many of its conceptions of good versus evil comes not from the Classical cultures of the Greeks but from Christianity. Christianity identifies not only a winning side but a right side, which should be the winning side.  However, Christianity demands the acknowledgement of God and Modernity does not like that concept.  Therefore, mankind becomes the determinants of right and wrong, which is why Batman has the not only the power but the authority to become the judge and figurative executioner.  He is a man who sees the injustices and though he has not been called upon by the governing authorities or a higher power, because Bruce as the power and ability, he can change his world.