The answer lies in our dual needs for clarity and hope.
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.
The mythology of reason is far more problematic philosophically than mythologizing man’s origins. It says that reason is a faculty that springs from nowhere, but that reason also rules everything around it. It says that the universe is irrational and unreasoning, but that we can divine scientific principles nonetheless. The mythology of reason is full of internal contradictions and oxymoronic concepts.
The mythology of reason is confusing and nonsensical. And human beings don’t like that which is confusing and nonsensical. We’d rather have clarity.
Unfortunately, traditional mythology – the attempt to use reason to discern our origins and purposes -- has been relegated to certain select segments of the popular culture. It has been removed from our politics. No longer can we say with certainty that Osama Bin Laden is evil – evil, says the left, is a myth, meaning that it is useless.
But we like our myths. We believe in good and evil. We believe in right and wrong. And so we buy comic books. We watch superhero movies. We cheer good, and we boo evil. We wish that good were always cloaked with total strength, and evil garbed in the robes of villainy. There’s a certain comfort to knowing exactly where Superman came from, knowing precisely the limits of his powers. There is nothing random in the superhero world. That’s why we like it. We root for Superman, for Batman, for Thor because we want to be them, to live in their world – and we hope that in a moral if not a physical sense, their world resembles our own.
Which brings us to our second need: hope. In today’s world, we are constantly told that there is no hope of rooting out evil. We are lectured about the use of force against evil by pusillanimous liberals, and criticized for fighting for good.
In the superhero world, there are no such conundrums.
In a certain way, then, the superhero world is true to real morality: it has heroes and villains, treachery and valor. We still need our superheroes, even in so puny a form as film gods – with the decline of traditional religion and the rise of alternative moralities, superheroes have become the cultural moral touchstones for many people.
In fact, we need our superheroes now more than ever. That’s why we’ve seen so many of them all over our screens recently. We feel a sense of impotence and confusion from our politicians – the inability to identify and fight evil. We looked for a superhero president, and instead got a namby-pamby in the White House. No wonder we seek relief.
“Do you swear to guard the lives of the innocent and preserve the peace?” Thor’s father asks him. “I swear,” answers Thor. 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, and which will enable us to continue on for thousands more.
Ben Shapiro is an attorney and writer and a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, and author of the upcoming book “Primetime Propaganda: The True Hollywood Story of How The Left Took Over Your TV” from Broadside Books, an imprint of HarperCollins.