Posted by: Doc Comics | April 25, 2018

Superhero Anti-Myths?

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In a pretty interesting article at Pacific Standard Magazine, Noah Berlatsky takes on the notion that superhero stories are mythology. “Unlike myths, superhero sagas suggest that justice is actually attainable,” Berlatsky asserts. Furthermore, aside from some superficial similarities, these Nietzschean superhero narratives actually run counter to a lot of the usual socio-cultural functions of Myth.

“The whole premise of the superhero is that the Gods are dead and irrelevant, and that humans can, and should, expand to fill the space left in the cosmos by that divine absence. … In comparison to selfish, philandering, all-powerful jerks like Ego or Zeus, superheroes start to look like a pretty good ethical model, Superheroes wouldn’t just accept that Iphigenia has to be sacrificed for no reason. Instead they’d feel empowered to confront injustice and evil and to make the world a better place. Give Job a super-suit and let him grab Satan by the horns. If myths say that we should be powerless before injustice, then, yes, let’s do away with them and make some anti-myths about getting empowered instead.”

The downside of these Superhero Anti-Myths, however, is that these narratives of every[hu]man underdogs work “only if you believe the myth that your fellow humans are kinder and wiser than the gods.” So are these superhero stories perhaps too utopian in their presumptions about human nature? Maybe TOO democratic, or alternately, inherently fascistic and dangerously delusional when wed to American populist politics?

Avengers-InfinityWar

The answer from our perspective is YES, of course Superheroes present us with the narrative potentials to be BOTH, which is precisely what makes them worthy of important critical engagement and reflection. At their best, Superhero stories can remind us of the importance of opposing tyranny while being cautious not to abuse power, and thus as anti-fascist as it gets. But at their worst as a reductive power fantasy, the lone superhero narrative can pander to our basest desires and nationalist prejudices. Every superhero story, however, is a projection of our cultural duality & contradictions.

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One group’s Vigilante Superhero is another’s Sociopath Terrorist?

At the end of the day, superhero tales ARE MYTHS precisely because of these dialectical tensions: the potential for absolute power to corrupt absolutely, the seduction of hubris and narcissistic Messianism, conflicting American values, and the Fascistic impulse to violent control of difference or Otherness. These Superheroes are indeed a post-9/11 Zeitgeist that can reveal a lot about our tortured American anxieties, fears, and desireous hopes, even as they also offer reassuring Myths of American Power. These are indeed SuperGods worth studying, and maybe even capable of saving us…  or lead us astray.

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The answer is… Maybe. And maybe not.

President Supervillain

President Supervillain puts Trump words into Red Skull word balloons.


Responses

  1. It just seems overly simplistic and not necessarily a given to declare that “The whole premise of the superhero is that the Gods are dead and irrelevant, and that humans can, and should, expand to fill the space left in the cosmos by that divine absence.” Maybe I need to read the article more, but I don’t see that as arising fully from the evidence.


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