Why Do We Love Superheroes?

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This weekend’s box office results showed that Americans need a hero — preferably, a hero with a large hammer and a bizarre haircut.  Thor cleaned up in theaters across the country, clocking in with a whopping $65.7 million.  The Norse god’s movie debut follows The Green Hornet and precedes both Captain America and The Green Lantern.  It also marks the latest in a decades-long American love affair with superhero movies.

Over the last ten years, superhero movies have exploded in number and popularity.  The 2000s opened with the X-Men series (another X-Men is due out this year); then moved on to the Spiderman series (the next installment is in production); the re-launched Batman series (which spawned The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, soon to enter theaters); the Hellboy series; the Iron Man series; and the egregious Fantastic Four series.  Then there were the one-offs like Hulk, Catwoman, Daredevil, Watchmen, Kick-Ass, and The Incredibles.

During the 1980s, superhero movies took off, with the rise of the Superman series, and the beginnings of the original Batman series.  During the 1990s, the number and quality of superhero movies seemed to trail off – it’s a long way down from Tim Burton to Joel Schumacher (though Christopher Nolan beats both by a long shot).  Nonetheless, the American superhero has been a constant in pop culture for more than a century, from the dime novels of fast-draw cowboys to the comic books of the incomparable Flash.

Why do we need superheroes in the first place?  Why, in this age of cynicism, do we look to escape to the world of Thor?

The answer lies in our dual needs for clarity and hope.

First, clarity.  The human mind desires clarity above all – that’s why we create mythologies in the first place.  The concept of mythology, in its original sense, meant a narrative attempting to explain mankind’s origins in a rational manner.  Mythology was an attempt to superimpose a reasonable story on a mysterious universe.  Religion is the highest form of mythology (which isn’t to say that it isn’t true, of course).  Certain sorts of mythology are vital to a healthy mind, telling us why things are the way they are, and why certain people are evil and certain people good.

Mythology, however, has been damaged by the “enlightened” Western mind, which supposed that attempted explanations of creation and human nature had to be destroyed.  Darwinism pictured the world as a random place full of odd coincidences springing from nothingness.  It debunked mythology.  Nietzsche dedicated his life to fighting mythology, stating in forceful terms that only when just-so stories were cast aside could man be free.

A world without mythology is disturbing enough.  It is nihilistic in nature – without any explanation of who we are or how we got here, how can we define what to do next?

The left copes with this problem by creating a mythology of its own – a mythology of ends rather than of means which seeks to paint a politically-driven picture of mankind.  “We must have a new mythology,” Hegel wrote, “but this mythology must be in the service of the Ideas, must be a mythology of reason.”

This “mythology of reason” justifies every leftist agenda.  Thus environmentalists create a mythology of environmentalist reason in which the Earth is a precariously fragile planet requiring human sacrifice (population control), self-flagellation (cap-and-trade), and ritual (recycling).  Communists create a mythology of communist reason in which Rousseau-ian man lived in peace and harmony with nature, only to be torn from Gaea and shackled to the bonds of capitalism.  Nazis create a racial origins mythology in which certain areas dominated other areas, and in which certain races were destined to dominate others.  The mythology of reason is highly dangerous.

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  • Raymond in DC

    "We can only make the same oath if we believe in the terms: innocence and guilt, good and evil. It may be mythology. But it is that same mythology that has preserved Western civilization for thousands of years".

    Comic book heroes did not emerge in a world of "moral equivalence", but one that could tell the difference between good and evil, in that Western civilization still cognizant of its Judeo-Christian heritage. It's not surprising, therefore, that Superman who fought for "truth, justice, and the American way" was the creation of two Jewish sons of immigrants, and soon after emerging was fighting Nazis. In this world, evil is not deemed a "social construct".

    I should note in passing that the TV series Smallville ends its ten-season run tonight with Clark Kent *finally* assuming his heroic persona.

    • Brtce Armstrong

      "Soon after emerging was fighting Nazis"?


  • tanstaafl

    Comic books also preserve the notion of "noblisse oblige". We expect our superheros, no matter how "godlike" and powerful to protect those weaker than they are. Superheros are always saving mankind from the plots and plan of Supervillians, who are always trying to die and/or make us suffer.

    It is the eternal battle between sociopaths and the guardians of our human society.

  • AL__

    You want to see a superhero?: http://www.liveleak.com/view?i=075_1305230780

  • Conservative Pagan

    Fun fact… there are actually a lot of pagans and for once i find it a little irritating that there is a movie based on a comic based on a religion where all the gods names are mispronounced and Heimdallur is an african american, i still don't feel at all like beheading anyone.

    Imagine what would happen if you would make a movie where Mohammad were an inuit. And the funny thing, Islam is a religion of peace, while norse paganism is actually a religion of war, the only way to get to valhalla is to be a exceptional warrior.

  • ADM

    In my opinion, the current obsession with comic book superheroes reflects an inability to appreciate genuine human heroism and adult behavior. It also reflects a cultural reality in which gender neutrality trumps everything else: most traditional, real-life heroes have been men. Men overwhelmingly take on dangerous jobs in the real world. To acknowledge this, to recognize masculinity, would produce such a backlash from the usual suspects as to make it a pointless undertaking for Hollywood, even if they were so inclined to do so. The result, we are reduced to comic book characters who, by definition are outside of reality. The message: heroes are not real; they're silly and childish and we grow beyond them.

    It is also false to speak of a "mythology of reason" and include either communism or fascism in it. Both were amongst the most consciously irrational political movements in human history.

    • Questions

      Absurd. Did you see Tony Scott's movie of last fall, "Unstoppable?" Or Andrew Davis' "The Guardian?" (2006) or Ron Howard's "Backdraft" (1991). These are but a tiny handful of many real-men movies that you claim Hollywood isn't willing to make, and have in fact been made.

  • Jim

    People want to be saved from this mess but they are too lazy to jump in and help. So they pray for some invincible being to do it for them.

  • RobertPinkerton

    I have posted distinctly sour on this topic in the comment columns of previous articles. Such entities as "super-'heroes'" exist at a point beyond my capacity to suspend disbelief and extend make-believe "belief." A "super-'hero'" is a secularized soter (saviour) or eleutherios ("deliverer"), a deus ex machina "solution" to problems.

  • Chiggles

    The reference is to Superman, not Thor. The Avengers were formed in 1962. Captain America was not the founder but joined after he was found in a hunk of ice (flash frozen in 1945) and thawed out.

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