Demi-Gods; the World’s First Superheroes

This spring and summer we have Spider-Man, Captain America, X-Men, and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Next summer promises to be even better with Avengers 2 anchoring and Star Wars Episode 7 in the fall.  Sure we have romances, action, fantasy, sci fi, and comedies but the superhero movies are quickly becoming the blockbuster mainstays.

It’s interesting to see where we’ve gone since the first superheroes, the demi-gods; men and women descended from gods who were much more than mortals but nothing like their parents.  They led armies against mortals, expeditions against the monsters of man’s creation, and they were looked on as divinely empowered kings.  On rare occasion a great hero like Hercules, Perseus, or Bellerophon might even fight a pet of the gods and beat them.  There was, however, no denying that they were allowed their accomplishments by the gods, no doubt that it was a world of gods first where humans only shined when the gods accepted it.  Hercules had a club, Zeus had thunderbolts.  Achilles was invulnerable apart from his heel, but the gods all had impenetrable armor and weapons that were beyond men.  In the ancient thinking, gods were to men as men were to ants.

Not so today.  Thor is one of the Avengers, and while we no longer think of him as a god of a real religion, his powers are not diminished as a Marvel character.  On the contrary, the superheroes have become  powerful enough to match them.  Captain America stood toe to toe with Loki in the first Avengers, as did Ironman with him and Thor.  Hulk tossed them both around like they were rag dolls.

And what of the villains.  In the myths, evil was so powerful that heroes often had to go through a period of discovery in order to gather the tools needed to fight the enemy.  Perseus needed Medusa’s head, Bellerophon needed Pegasus, Sigurd was given the necessary information, Culhwch had King Arthur.  Not anymore.  

What have we lost in empowering our heroes to godhood while allowing the villains to remain static?  I would argue a sense of awe.  The gods represented primeval forces that observed our actions but rarely partook in them.  When they did so, their actions were definitive and final – Odin tapping Sigmund’s sword so that it snapped just when he was being rushed by the enemy.  A divinely guided arrow that hit Achilles in his one vulnerable spot.  Now they are nothing more than a measuring stick for the latest superheroes.  With comic heroes so powerful, shouldn’t we just call them gods?

Shouldn’t they take on that title?  An unloved movie called Hancock was set in a universe with two beings who were basically unstoppable.  What is to stop them from being worshipped as gods.  Who is to stop them from taking control of the planet.  In The Watchmen, one being can control matter and the creation of life.  With so much superiority over humans why doesn’t the character dominate us?  Morality?  At some point such a being stops thinking of himself as like human (as he should).  As a Marvel villain once put it “Morality doesn’t even enter the picture.”

Or maybe we all want beings out there who are far beyond us, who control us, or maybe someone who could do but does not because it is a way to implicitly praise the superiority of the human species.  I don’t know.  Maybe I don’t want to.

About Cian Beirdd

I live with my kitty, and encourage his tuna and catnip addictions. I have a website as well;
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5 Responses to Demi-Gods; the World’s First Superheroes

  1. Loki says:

    Not sure I agree that heroes don’t have to go through motions before they can fight villains anymore. As more sophisticated consumers of stories, they don’t look as obvious as finding a forgotten sword or the like these days to keep audiences from groaning, but the motions haven’t gone anywhere. It might be as basic as gathering information or figuring out who or where the villain is, but it’s still there, or there is no plot. An obvious example is the Avengers (since you used a lot of Marvel comparisons), where the various super-beings have to learn to co-operate and trust each other before they can defeat Loki. Instead of finding a magical sword, they are individually self-reliant and very different personalities who need to find a way to work together. Indeed, Loki’s entire plot hinges on tricking them into fighting each other instead of him. Not too dissimilar from a villain who can only be felled with one particular weapon, which he either does not know of or assumes the hero cannot possibly find.

    Your other points stand, though. Even when some characters have less heightened powers (like Hawkeye or Black Widow’s unrealistic martial prowess, and Captain America’s reasonably grounded super-strength and speed), they seem to be demi-gods in other ways. Cap is super-humanly morally centered, for instance. He might not have the strength of Thor or the intellect of Tony, but he is still Larger than Us in his own way. Indeed, some super-powered beings, like Superman or Doctor Manhattan, are so powerful and heightened that they are for all intents and purposes more like actual gods than even demi-gods.

    • Cian Beirdd says:

      Um, nice. You should have written this article. I would qualify Dr. Manhattan as equal to a god in the Yahweh/Gaea sense and most of the other characters you and I listed as equal to gods in the Greek/Roman classical sense. Black Widow, Cap, and others are about equal to demi-gods. Is that about your assessment?

      • Loki says:

        Thanks! And yes, that’s it, really. Demigod – classical polytheistic god – priomordial deus otiosus or monotheistic omnipresence. With a similar ladder of comic heroes.

        Though of course, the lines are blurry both with the classical and religious figures and with today’s comic heroes. Hercules is counted among the demigods, but had temples of worship and was in fact a quite popular deity in his own right. The nigh-omnipotence of a god king like Zeus isn’t too far off the powers ascribed to the omniscient gods of monotheistic religions. And gods like the Norse ones were much more low-powered than the Greek and Roman ones, and would compare poorly against the Greek pantheon (kind of like Marvel heroes contrasted with DC, now that I think of it). Similarly, comics have unpowered characters that are still larger than life (Black Widow, Green Arrow, Punisher, Oracle, Batman), and the line is quite blurry between these and the truly super-powered ones. Pre-EXTREMIS, Tony Stark doesn’t really have super-powers in the strict definition of the word, but it’s tough to describe Iron Man as an unpowered super hero when he is clearly far more powerful than heroes who actually do have genuine (if modest and limited) superpowers, such as Black Canary, Daredevil or Captain America. So (much like with the myths of old, really) the three-faceted division you outline is apt, but not very exact, and the lines between the different types are blurry. Which is good — if they were not blurry, it would be hard to justify why a near-god like Hulk or Thor would ever need the help of a man who has flawless aim with a bow.

      • Cian Beirdd says:

        Of course I only use three tiers because it is convenient. It is very blurry. With the right arrow, Hawkeye or Green Arrow could kill Thor. Cap heals fast and has an Olympic physique, but it is with his shield that he can stand to-toe with anyone. You’ve given me some interesting stuff – thanks!

  2. Loki says:

    Oh, thank you, for a fun Saturday conversation. šŸ™‚

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