The Modern Mythology
January 12, 2014
It is the year 4,000,000,000. Beneath the baleful glare of the red giant Sun, post-human cyborg archaeologists are working frantically to excavate, record, and preserve the history of Terran civilization before the planet is consumed by the ever-swelling Sun. As they reach the deeply buried strata corresponding to the 20th and 21st centuries and analyze the artifacts, these future scientists come to the following conclusions about our society:
- The apparent purpose of our civilization was to spread plastic shopping bags and water bottles to the farthest corners of the globe.
- We worshipped in ubiquitous temples dedicated to a goddess of caffeinated beverages known as “Starbuck.”
- We had created a race of sentient felines speaking the language “LOLCat” who then assumed control of the Internet.
- We had a very rich and complex mythological system that permeated our culture, based largely on two major schools: Marvel and DC.
The first three of these conclusions will be wrong. However, we do indeed have a complex mythological system just like those of previous civilizations, such as the Greco-Roman world. In these stories, larger-than-life heroes and villains clash in exciting tales of good versus evil. Yes, our modern mythology is based on superheroes and their exploits in comic books, television, and film.
Looking back on previous mythologies, we see that these tales of gods, heroes, and monsters were more than just entertainment. They functioned as vehicles to explore questions of morality, ethics, and the human condition. The Iliad is both an exciting story of the siege of Troy and an exploration of the destructive effects of anger, pride, and envy. The Odyssey shows that in many cases, intelligence far outweighs physical strength, and loyalty is the greatest virtue of all.
Just like their forebears, superheroes allow us to examine these questions of morality, ethics, and the human condition. Let’s look at arguably the most popular superhero, Batman, and the questions raised by his stories. First and foremost, just like Bruce Wayne/Batman, our society values justice. But how far should we go in the pursuit of justice? What if our obsession with justice becomes toxic? Where is the line between seeking justice and vigilantism? Is there really that much difference between a vigilante and villain?
Batman’s arch-nemesis, the Joker, represents an ancient mythological theme, the Trickster. This figure doesn’t play by the rules and serves to act as a foil to the gods and heroes. In Norse mythology, Loki played this role, and Loki himself has found his way into our mythology via Marvel’s Thor comic books. It should be noted that, especially as played by Heath Ledger and Tom Hiddleston, the Joker and Loki are very popular characters. Our society may value justice, but it also likes a clever, charismatic rebel.
So the next time someone calls tales of superheroes and supervillains “just comic book nonsense for kids,” blow their minds by whipping out an analysis of how Professor X and Magneto represent two opposing ideological approaches to resisting oppression by an intolerant majority.