Like millions of Americans, I spent tonight with a small crowd of people watching the Superbowl in my living room. Until the last few minutes of the fourth quarter, most of us barely watched the game. Instead, we mingled, snacked and waited for the commercials. They were largely unimpressive this year, and few of them caught many people’s attention.
Except for the trailer for The Avengers:
When that trailer came on, this room full of young professionals fell almost totally silent. As the spot closed, everyone in the room started talking about it.
“Wait, was that the Hulk that I saw?” said one woman, awed.
One man excitedly asked another if he ever read comics. Neither of them did.
Someone in another corner of the room said, “This is all the super-heroes!”
My friend’s girlfriend turned to me and asked, “Who was that blonde guy?’
“That was Thor.” Then I added, apologetically, “I’m a bit of a nerd.”
The truth is, though, that despite a lifelong passion for Batman, my only childhood foray into comics was brief and tepid. I watched a spattering of super-hero shows in elementary school (Batman: The Animated Series after school, the occasional episode of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman before bed on Sundays) but that was about it.
No, as a kid, I was more into mythology. The ancient stories of gods and champions seemed to unfold on two levels at once. On a deep plane, every enduring myth seemed to be a story about the life of primal ideals. Even as the ideals thwarted and fulfilled one another, the myths never became didactic, thanks to the myths’ other, more human level: The flawed and often petty personalities of the gods provided a compelling and relatable face for the myths’ deeper moral and philosophical dramas.
One night during my freshman year of college, a friend started waxing enthusiastic about an exceptionally talented representational painter named Alex Ross. He has dedicated his career to painting super-heroes, and his figures convey a sense of weight and presence that is rare in even the most skillful portraits.
One look at Ross’ work—Clark Kent slumped in a chair by a table lamp, his shirt unbuttoned to reveal the iconic Superman shield; Bruce Wayne donning his costume, his back criss-crossed with scars; Captain Marvel gasping with childlike concern at a landslide tumbling toward a schoolbus—and I got it. These weren’t thinly written caricatures of brutes and broads. These were olympian avatars of abstract ideals.
The titans and gods of ancient myth placed personalities on top of their respective virtues: There were gods of sport, romance, war, politics, duty, patriotism, revenge, justice. Their stories, though, weren’t always just neat allegories for prescribing behavior. They hit at deeper, messier truths about the way we relate to the world, to one another and to ourselves.
To quote one of my favorite passages from G.K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man,
…the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone … knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalizations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras.
I believe that the mythic impulse that seemed so common in many ancient cultures is not only alive today, but is just as fundamental to how we develop an understanding of ourselves and of the world today as it was to developing a similar understanding thousands of years ago. At first glance, contemporary western culture doesn’t appear to have overt narrative myths—iconic characters whose relationships to one another are always generally the same but undergo iterations as their widely known stories are retold from generation to generation. Until you remember super-heroes.
Super-heroes fulfill the mythic impulse in contemporary American culture. That’s why nearly everyone in the country can accurately describe Superman’s lineage, Batman’s history, Wolverine’s attitude, Spider-Man’s driving motivations. As the ancient Greeks related to the Homeric tales of Odysseus defying Poseidon, Jason stealing the golden fleece and Prometheus bringing fire to his people, we relate to the story of a scrawny kid from Brooklyn getting the opportunity to defend his hometown and calling himself Captain America. The medium may have evolved from blind bards singing poems by a roaring fire through amphitheater dramas through books and comic books to hundreds of people devoting years of their lives to putting together a hundred-million-dollar movie, but the social and emotional function is basically the same.
I don’t think I’m reading too much into it. The fact that the iconography of super-heroes brought a whole room to silence proves that these characters and these stories hit at something deeper in our collective poetic imagination. The buzz in the room after the Avengers trailer backs me up.
Turns out I didn’t need to apologize for knowing who Thor was.