I do not mean to plagiarize the title of Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully cerebral novel, but I think the last posts in this series on the American myth aptly deserves this title. As I discussed several weeks ago, Walt Disney established our American mythology through America’s central medium–film. His legacy has given us some of our first heroes, and we see many children carting around a figurine of or dressing up as their favorite Disney hero or heroine. Even Westerns and science fiction have given rise to American heroes, especially characters from television programs such as The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, The Wild, Wild West, and Star Trek.
However, many of these heroes are mere mortals; their power does not ascend to the status of god. Mythology, by definition, is a divine narrative examining the tales of gods and men. The gods of any culture are in fact the embodiment of the values of that society in human form. For instance, Greek gods represent the values of Greek culture, and their appearance and demeanor changed in Roman culture to reflect Roman values. America values progression and independence, and its stories certainly encapsulate these values–at least in their heroes. But what about “gods”?
Without a doubt, America has an obsession with superheroes–almost to the point that audiences have criticized Hollywood shameless attempt to adapt, remake, reboot, mangle, bedraggle every single comic book or graphic novel story. Despite this aggravating affinity to reboot any film created within the last decade, these films, good or bad, do tell the stories of our American gods: the noble superhero.
Two recent (and successfully created) film franchises accurately demonstrate the god-status of superheroes. First, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates a darker version of America’s gods. DC Comics focus on the mythology and “magic” of each superhero, and Batman, interestingly, is one of the few DC heroes to not have a congenital superpower (except probably unimaginable wealth and way too much time). Yet, the Dark Knight ascends to the level of god by becoming the embodiment of justice in Gotham City. In Nolan’s vision, Batman definitely has a darker side to him. He, like the gods of Greek and Roman myth, has a human side to his divinity, and he shows weakness and hesitation in each film. The villains in each film represent a certain vice that Batman must overcome to truly become a god. At the end of the series, Gotham erects a monument to their greatest hero–and their “divine” deliverer.
Joss Whedon’s The Avengers and the films associated with the film also tell the stories of America’s gods. Marvel heroes, as opposed to DC heroes, are actually human that ascend to god-status through science, not through some innate ability. Further, while DC has a more familiar history in America, Marvel truly embodies modern America’s paradigm of progression and advancement and shift away from religion in favor of science. In Marvel stories, science is the god, and the superheroes have tapped into its power, becoming gods themselves. The Avengers movies demonstrate this focus, but the main success of the films–and of The Dark Knight trilogy for that matter–is the storytelling. The Avengers was an action-packed film but told a good story of several people pulling together to achieve a common goal: the protection of their way of life, another paradigm of American culture.
America, as I have said before, has a mythology. It does not appear in a sacred text, nor is it retold by the fireside before bedtime. Instead, America views its mythology through film and television. While some may decry the rise of virtual interaction at the expense of literacy, stories are not confined to a textual medium. Stories began as an oral tradition and have evolved over time and through various cultures. Our culture sees film as its medium and therefore has adapted its stories to fit this capacity. American mythology and stories live on–you may have to pay $10 to go see it.