But does Captain America punching Iron Man in the helmet really resonate for us today with the same archetypal force as Oedipus stabbing out his eyes because he finds out he has slept with his mother (and the ancient Greeks frowned on that sort of thing)?
Okay, sure, Superman is superstrong, and Hercules was superstrong. Yes, there was a mythological Thor, and there is also a Thor played by Chris Hemsworth. But these are superficial similarities.
In their basest structure, superhero stories simply don’t follow in the footsteps of ancient myths.
In fact, they deliberately refute them.
Well, that's the basic category mistake Berlatsky makes from which his argument can't recover. There's no reason that the function of mythology in pop culture today has to conform to ancient Greek or Roman or Norse mythologies. We can get to why this is a little bit later.
Because myths, Eco argues, present characters with “immutable characteristics and an irreversible destiny.” Hercules always performs his labors, and then dies in the grip of a poison cloak. Thor, in myth, always dies at Ragnarok after killing the Midgard serpent. Orpheus can seek to defy death with his super-powered singing, but ultimately his human weakness and lack of faith will get the better of him and Eurydice will be dragged back to hell.
In myth, the existence of powers beyond the ken of mortals doesn’t mean those bestowed with them get to have awesome adventures and defeat the bad guys; it means they are locked in tragic narratives, against which struggle is futile.
Orpheus, Hercules, Agamemnon, Oedipus, even Thor, they don’t control their own fates – because myths, with their sweeping backdrop of the divine, are meant to show that human beings are small. ”
In Greek tragedy, film scholar Linda Williams writes, “Tragic heroes may rail against injustice, but in the end they must accept it.”
Yes, and in the sense that American narratives seem to constantly subvert the possible European counterparts, right down to the American variants on Faust having the Faust character making a deal with the devil but getting away scot free that might tell us something about American approaches to mythology if Berlatsky were open to that.
There are many myths from many traditions and you can’t sum up the entirety of human religious tradition in one easy definition, but one common characteristic of myths is the focus on the divine and on forces and powers beyond the human.
Superhero films and comics, in contrast, are relentlessly focused on the mortal.
They are about what humans can do, or could do, given just a little more strength, or speed, or oomph. Jessica Jones can save her sister and kill her rapist; Captain America can defeat the fascists who have infiltrated the government. People, like you and me, can put on a suit of armor or a batsuit and hit things until there is justice for all.
But those aren’t myths.
They’re narratives about how we don’t need myths. ....
But who says that American myths have to conform to the fatalism of Greco-Roman polytheistic beliefs? What if American mythology doesn't derive from polytheistic fatalism so much as post-Enlightenment panentheistic Pelagianism? Whether we're talking about a John Steinbeck novel where every man shares one soul, or George Lucas' the Force of which Yoda says "life creates it and makes it grow", or how about the phrase Dwight Macdonald so loathed from Thornton Wilder's Our Town? "There’s something way down deep that’s eternal about every human being.” When Americans have retold the Faust legend so that the American can make a deal with the devil and not lose his soul for it that tells us a lot. Sure, Berlatsky's right that Americans don't believe in Greco-Roman mythology, but to say that we don't believe in those myths as a nation doesn't mean we don't believe in other myths. It seems like a fairly easy case to go by pop culture that what we believe in is the power to break or interrupt or postpone the cycle of death that characterizes other mythologies. I've been riffing on this idea this year but when we look at which pop culture franchises keep in rotation in Hollywood people keep coming back to the utopian and dystopian genre fictions of the Reagan and JFK eras, whether it's Star Trek and Planet of the Apes or whether it's Star Wars and Terminator or Robocop.
We keep coming by to the idea that whatever the future of the whole world is going to be, it's going to be decided by US, by the U.S. Star Trek envisioned American style liberalism and democratic principles saturating the galaxy. Even when the pop mythology is explicitly secularist it's arguable that the relentlessly anti-fatalistic optimism still permeates the pop cultural myth. There's no fate but what we make. The Force can guide your actions but it can also obey your commands, the perfect panentheistic kind of deity that is one with us and submits to our will and gives us the kind of destiny we want based on whether we choose the Dark Side or the Light Side of the Force. Sure, Oedipus may have been doomed by decree of the gods and the fates ... but Yoda's ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.
But Berlatsky's got some points about how superheroes aren't myths in any traditional sense, and there's arguably a point that could be made about this in connection to why some people disliked Nolan's Batman films, those Batman films gave us a Bruce Wayne who decided he'd done enough to save Gotham and retired and left the city behind to build a new life with Selina Kyle. That reduced Bruce Wayne to the level of a normal mortal man who never wanted to be Batman the rest of his life to begin with, and that ending subverted the mythological tropes that have been credited to Batman.
That the superheroes are never ultimately defeated and never permanently face death can be construed as actually truly mythological about America in the sense that if Star Trek could imagine the galaxy working on American style progressive thought centuries from now the assumption behind that is a kind of endless American empire, benign and benevolent like no empire before it. The level of self-confidence in American goodness and superiority during the peak of the Cold War displayed by Star Trek is pretty amazing if you step back and look at it. It's not even the kind of thing that could be construed as cultural imperialism by people who take it seriously. I mean, in the earlier Trek chronology it says we bounced back from World War III. We may mythologize the future more than we mythologize the past, though we surely do a ton of that, too.
And what makes the American version unique is that the champions of the American empire won't even grant that's what it is, because liberal democracy just can't be an empire by definition. The revolution of the proletariat can be imagined as the perfect future in much the same way that the Secret Rapture can, so in a sense Americans who are Marxists and Americans who are fundamentalists can keep up the business of avidly anticipating a great apocalyptic eruption of a utopia that we will get to witness just around the corner. The American mythology seems to be optimistic in the face of certain death and determined to deny that any one choice we make individually or collectively could have an unrecoverable opportunity cost. In that sense, as a moderately conservative Presbyterian, I'd agree with Berlatsky that Americans don't believe in a Greco-Roman mythology in which it could be recognized that some decisions are fatal and irreversible. The Romans and the Greeks and the Norse weren't going to put on their best smiling Botoxed face in the face of impending doom ... but they didn't have the Force as their ally like we Americans do.