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.