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…

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