Myths, Marvel Comix and Men in Tights

Padre bearing Mel Gibson’s sword from Braveheart

I know the pressure will be on for me to take the boys to see Man of Steel. To tell the truth, I am rather weary of superhero movies. It seems what was once a fine and developing art form–cinema–has suffered a coup d’etat by the comic book folks. I recall a meeting I had in LA with Steve McEveety–who produced Braveheart and Passion of the Christ. I pitched a great idea for a movie about Shakespeare the Catholic. Basically Shakespeare was a secret double agent for the Catholic cause in Elizabethan England. There was torture and martyrdom and chase scenes and love and passion–everything you want in a movie. Steve said apologetically, “I’m sorry Father, but you have to understand that everything in this town is now aimed at fourteen year old boys.”

Why the addiction to superhero movies? Is it just summertime popcorn escapism? I don’t think so. In fact, what few people seem to comment on is the deeper connections to ancient culture in the superhero comics and movies. What we’re really seeing is a modern version of the ancient myths.

All the elements are there. Super strong gods and goddesses come to this earth from another realm, or they are ordinary mortals who are given supernatural powers by some miracle or freak of nature. They go on a great quest–usually to find their father or redeem their true love–on that quest they encounter great darkness and evil. The darkness and evil is alway symbolized by the nemesis–a sort of demonic anti-god against whom they must fight to the death. As they engage in this battle they save not only their family, friends and true love, but the whole world.

The ancient myths of the different cultures all echo the same basic stories. The hero engages with the forces of evil and overcomes and saves the world. There is a deeper dimension to all this which accounts for the popularity of the superhero and his enduring appeal. The superhero stories are plugging into deep and powerful currents in the human consciousness. It’s universal. The comics are cosmic.

The idea of the myth is that the audience participates in the mythic story. They identify with the hero and go on that journey with the hero at a subconscious level of their awareness. As they go on that journey they face the same moral dilemmas as the hero, and they are faced with the same moral choices to battle against evil or not. When the hero dies and is resurrected the audience experience this ‘catharsis’ and  participates in a kind of moral and spiritual transaction.

What interests me therefore, is the interplay between the different mythic stories told by virtually every human civilization down the ages, and their fulfillment within the story of Jesus Christ. Critics like to see these parallels and say the Jesus story had mythic elements bolted onto it by later editors and redactors. However, there is no textual evidence for this later mythic dimension being added to the story.

Instead, what we see in the Jesus story is all the different mythic stories from the different cultures becoming actualized in history. As C.S.Lewis put is, “The gospels work on us like all the other myths, except it really happened.” It really happened in history, but it also really happens in everyday life of the religious person. Through the daily sacrifice of the Mass and through the annual celebration of the Paschal mysteries we too go through the cosmic struggle with Christ the superhero.

The battle is real and nitty gritty. We don’t battle with Octopus man or the Green Goblin. We struggle against the many tentacled beast of our anger, greed, lust, rage and despair. We struggle against the demonic forces against us and the dark forces within our own human hearts, and our religion is the way we do this.

So I guess I’ll haul myself off to see man in steel and ask why they got rid of Superman wearing his underpants on the outside and check out what they’ve done with Lois Lane…

  • Thomas

    You could have observed that 12-14 year old students, in urban and suburban environments, enjoy studying the Graeco-Roman nature gods. Parts of the Iliad and Odyssey are still standard fare in middle and high schools, and remain popular with students of that age. Of course, your experience in religious education for this age group is stronger than mine.

    • Jim

      Lives of the Saints would be better.

      • Howard

        It depends on the saint and how the story is told. If you think you are going to excite 12-14 year old students with the story of a nun who founds a religious congregation ever so slightly different from the scores of others, welcome to Earth, stranger.

        You would do well to include Catholic heroes who have not been and probably never will be canonized — people like Don Juan of Austria or John III Sobieski.

        • JoFro

          Truer words have never been spoken – people like Chesterton and Tolkien, along with Belloc, may never be sainted and neither will fighting men like Sobieski, Don Juan and Grand Master La Valette and yet these men should be known to every Catholic man and woman out there!

  • Rob B.

    Steven Greydanus just posted his review of Man of Steel on the NCR blogs. From what he says, you might just want to give this one a pass, Father.

  • mmatthew

    Father, you are dangerously close to becoming OLD! You need to put on the breaks and recapture your inner 14 year old. At 65 I have no intention of growing older than 14! Life is so much simpler.

    • Happy Birthday

      He is, it’s his birthday today!

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    I have 4 kids–all grown up now. But I still recall many decades ago taking them to one of the earlier Superman movies and one scene opened my eyes to the brainwashing getting underway from Hollywood precincts. In one short scene the cameria panned in on Superman and Lois Lane in bed together–they were not married of course. There was no editorial or speech promoting promiscuity–the quick scene did it all. Then I started noticing how often in more and more movies the “hero” wound up in bed with the movie’s “heroine.”
    At the time I mentioned to my wife it seems like Holywood is out to destroy the morals of our young people.
    Now we see the fruition of Hollywood’s propaganda promoting promiscuity and bed-hopping as many young people today regard sexual relations as nothing more than a reacreational sport or the ultimate cup of coffee at the end of a date.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    Try pitching your movie idea to

  • Howard

    There are also non-religious true myths. Recently I watched a documentary about how atmospheric conditions may have made it practically impossible for the watch of the Titanic to see the iceberg, and it occurred to me that the story of the Titanic has remained so popular because it is a classic myth about hubris. Other ships have sunk with great loss of life, but none so perfectly embody a myth, therefore no other shipwreck can compete with the fame of the Titanic. Later I watched a series about people tying to climb Mt. Everest, and I realized that the whole appeal is the idea of not merely hearing, but actually somehow stepping into a myth — the struggle of man vs. a nature that is sometimes benevolent and often beautiful, but also capricious and deadly.

  • Andy

    Father – if it is any conciliation my three children all over 14 plan on taking me to Superman tomorrow, after they take me to a all game. My son told me that they think I am still 12 in my heart of hearts. More seriously I think sometimes kids look to these movies because they do not see heroes in today’s world to emulate. So they look to anywhere. else.

  • Observer8

    Along a tangent, back in the late 70s, every self-respecting 14 year old boy wanted to be Luke Skywalker, saving the galaxy.

    Today, they all want to be Darth Vader, leading the empire and conquering the galaxy. Skywalker is seen as a wimp who should be crushed.

    What more needs be said?

  • Benedict James

    18 year X-Men/Marvel comic book fan here and I’d like to contribute some points.

    1) There are two main publishing houses for Superhero comic books: Marvel and DC.

    2) Marvel – these heroes which you might know: Iron Man, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, Black Widow, Thor (which made the core Avengers team), The X-Men, Fantastic Four, Daredevil, Ghost Rider, The Punisher, Blade and so on.

    3) DC heroes consist of: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, Flash, Aquaman (which make the Justice League of America) and so on.

    4) There is a (sometimes) unspoken rivalry between the two comic houses which has stretched throughout the decades and can still be heard/seen by both fans of Marvel and DC.

    5) Without sounding like a fanboy, Marvel is the better comic publisher by far. Wait, I’ll explain.

    6) The Marvel universe might have gods like Thor and Hercules, but they’re regarded only as champions/heroes of Earth and the title “god” when referring to them is usually done in a sarcastic or satirical way. Sometimes, these “gods” would even mention man’s mistakes in worshipping them in the past and though they might be more resilient than the casual superhero, they can still be defeated as the universe contains greater, more powerful beings than them.

    There are cosmic guardians like The Phoenix (who represents rebirth and is known as the child of the universe) which are more powerful than the aforementioned gods and yet still dwaf under the power of more greater beings.

    There are cosmic beings who are an abstract concepts of the universe and represent its essential forces:

    Galactus represents Equity

    Eternity and Infinity represent Necessity

    Death and Oblivion represent Vengeance

    And above these cosmic concepts there is the Living Tribunal who is the guardian of all the universe and the multiverse.

    7) Then there’s the person who created the Living Tribunal: The One-Above-All.

    He’s the one that you would identify as the One True God.

    When a pregnant Sue Storm (Invisible Girl) was worried about her husband (Mr Fantastic) fighting the “all-powerful” Silver Surfer, an entity known as The Watcher comforted her by saying there is only one being that is truly all powerful, and “His only weapon.. is love!”

    When Dr Strange (Sorcerer Supreme) met with the cosmic entity Eternity, he was told that though both him and his brother Death comprise all of Dr Strange’s realities, neither he nor Death are God, for God rules all realities.

    Even Thor confessed the One-Above-All:
    “… and ’tis said that a being, called the Living Tribunal – the final judge – hath the power to enforce his will ‘pon any cosmos he doth judge! And ’tis said his power is supreme in all the Multiverse. Even I, son of one of the mightiest of gods, find it impossible to conceive of such levels of power! And ’tis a humbling thought to consider how much greater the Creator of all Universes must be than that of all of His creations combined!”

    The One-Above-All also appeared to the Fantastic Four when The Thing died and congratulated them on their persistence in exploring the Universe and their contributions to science before restoring The Thing back to life.

    He also comforted Spider-Man when his Aunt May was close to death.

    Even Mephisto (known Devil and a Lord of Hell) told a bartender (which he promised to answer a question in exchange for a drink) that the Living Tribunal is not God. That “He’s just the biggest kid in all the playgrounds. And if he knows the Principal, he’s not exactly chatty about it.”

    8) There are many catholic characters in the Marvel Universe,

    some good:
    Nightcrawler (mutant, in-training to be a priest, sacrificed himself to save his fellow X-Men)

    Oya (mutant, devout, struggling to not let the secular world as well as its villains corrupt her faith)

    Daredevil (blind lawyer who does pro-bono work)

    some….. need more help and prayers:

    Venom (Spider-Man enemy)

    Gambit (Though an X-Man, has klepto-tendencies and has a weakness for women)

    9) I like the Marvel depiction of the Universe because there are lessons to learn from them. Part of my faith was inspired by images of Nightcrawler praying Ave Maria (in Latin) and Gambit (who reminds me that like him, I’m not perfect and I’m constantly trying to make up for the mistakes that I’ve made).

    Also, the cosmic beings mentioned remind me that there are things far greater than I, which is humbling, yet God chose to love our laughably fallen race because He loves us, which is comforting.

    10) I’ve read DC comics before and their brother publishing house: Vertigo and they usually portray God as an absentee creator. He’s usually seen as abandoning the Throne and disappearing, causing the inhabitants of the universe to fend for themselves and the higher beings to fight for God’s position.

    Also, DC authors seem to write themselves into a corner every few years, causing the editors to restart the universe from square one. I think that’s pretty insulting the fans who have painstakingly taken the time (not to mention money) to memorize the stories the heroes have gone through.

    Marvel’s continuity has remained more or less intact. And as Catholics, we know that continuity is important!

    Also, DC’s latest reboot portrayed the women heroes (and villains) in very misogynistic ways and there was a kerfuffle about it. Very unsuitable for children.

  • Sue from Buffalo

    I saw the movie with my 14 year old daughter and friends. Our views differed. She loved it. I was completely bored with it. Seen it before. Poor script. I thought the guy who played Superman was over rated. They relied heavily on destruction and little on storyline. I found myself looking around the theater instead of watching the big screen.

  • MarylandBill

    Myths, channeling them, constructing them and deconstructing them has been part of movies almost since the beginning. Hollywood’s current fascination with superheros is in many respects no different than their attempts in the 1970s and 80s to find ways of cashing in on Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Jaws, or (and even more telling and more clearly myth) the many, many westerns that Hollywood use to churn out. The advantage with superheros is the relatively large number of heros and stories that Hollywood could tap into and plenty of action that could attract those teenaged boys (Who probably know the superheros more from their movie exploits than their comic book exploits).

    Even the fascination with teenagers is nothing new since lets face it, the serials staring Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon and others were probably not aimed at 40 year olds. It has grown though as more and more adults simply stay home and watch stuff on their ever growing big screen T.V.

  • Victor

    (((We struggle against the demonic forces against us and the dark forces within our own human hearts, and our religion is the way we do this. )))

    I’ve already seen the man of steel so I won’t talk about “IT” for the sake of the ones who might still be planning on watching the movie.

    Instead I’ll simply say that protecting religion so that human hearts succeed in the struggle against the demonic forces won’t be easy. Long story short Christian Religion will have their hands full if this story below is true.

    God Bless all Christians