Superheroes play elemental role in culture

Fans had waited for months. Then, on Oct. 11, it happened — the cinematic event of the month. Marvel released the teaser trailer for The Avengers. Directed by Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly), The Avengers features Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye and Black Widow joining forces to fight evil. Though the film does not come out until May 2012, fans’ imaginations have been running wild since Iron Man domestically raked in more than $318 million this year.

The Avengers has been in the works since 2008, and Marvel has taken an unconventional approach to creating the film. All of the heroes, besides Hawk Eye and Black Widow, have had their own movies — Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger came out this summer.

If you stayed through the credits for the movies, you might recall a series of kickers that involved Samuel L. Jackson appearing to say something cryptic and badass. Or in the case of Thor, the not-so-dead villain Loki gets psyched about the Cosmic Cube (the most powerful artifact in the Marvel universe). For those unfamiliar with the source material, Jackson’s character is Nick Fury, an ageless spymaster. He’s also crossed multiple high-grossing franchises to bring our heroes together for one epic battle. The financial cost of this strategy is momentous — Marvel puts a lot of stock and money in America’s love of superheroes.

Since Batman and Superman were brought to life in the late ’30s, superheroes have dug their way into pop culture and all forms of entertainment. Even more so, they have ingrained themselves in the American psyche.

Mythology pervades virtually all cultures. The Greeks had Zeus and Odysseus; the Norse had Odin and Baldur; and the Irish had Lug Lámfada and the Mórrígan. Apart from the Native Americans’ religions, however, America has never had its own mythos. Characters such as Johnny Appleseed and Briar Rabbit emerged in folklore, but Johnny Appleseed wasn’t exactly leveling buildings and taking down Nazis to plant his apple trees.

It seems we created our own Odysseus and Hercules with Batman and Superman. Like their fictional identities, they also appeared at a time when we needed them. Captain America, for example, appeared during World War II, a time when Americans needed a figure to rally behind as they took on Nazis. Captain America also came at a time we perceive as more sincere and patriotic, and many critics and film buffs praised the 2011 film for retaining these authentic qualities. Snarkiness is better left to Tony Stark from the Iron Man series, a Cold War-era hero. The Cold War influences were later equated with terrorism for the 2008 film, but the switch-up worked.

Looking at our superheroes also tells us about ourselves; all mythological heroes embody what the culture sees as its virtues. For the Greeks, it was intelligence, strength and honor. In America, among the most honored qualities is self-determination. It’s the ability to watch your parents die in front of you or escape an exploding planet and not need years of therapy. Underneath the silly costumes, American mythical heroes are strong, rugged, independent and very manly. Fittingly, their villains range from brainy mad scientists like Lex Luthor to the effete trickster Loki.

At the same time, just appearing in a comic book does not make one a mythical superhero. Eric from The Crow, later filmed in 1994 with the late Brandon Lee, is invincible and determined to get the bad guys. But few would consider him a superhero; he acts out of personal vengeance, not justice — he’s just too dark. To look at some comic book characters objectively, V from Alan Moore’s V for Vendetta is a crazy terrorist, Frank Castle as the Punisher is an unrelenting murderer and Eric is a manic depressive zombie. Though they might have heroic qualities, they don’t fall in line with the “All-American Way.”

America had its thirst for superhero films revived with 2000’s surprise hit X-Men, although we have had superheroes onscreen since the early ’40s. Our heroes have changed with the times, however. Batman was campy in the Adam West 1966 film. In Christopher Nolan’s 2005  Batman Begins, he is brooding and tortured, but he is still a force of good against evil, even if his antics attract many of the crazies to Gotham. It is a characterization that seems more realistic to the more cynical modern audiences of today. At the same time, he is still a fighter for justice and protecting the common people  — just more obviously affected by his parents’ brutal death and his confrontations with psychotic killers.

This summer The Avengers will be an amalgamation of different films. But it is far from the culmination of the superhero genre. The genre still has adventures in parody to discover, as with the beautifully biting Kick-Ass in 2010. In the future, look out for sequels to Iron Man, Captain America and Thor, as well as the upcoming blockbusters The Amazing Spiderman, Man of Steel and The Dark Knight Rises.


Mimi Honeycutt is a senior majoring in print and digital journalism. Her column “Cut to Frame” runs Fridays.