I was 11 years old when Sam Raimi’s first “Spider-Man” film came out. I don’t remember whether or not I saw it in theaters, but I do remember that I thought it was pretty good. Of course, as a tiny little girl who loved Shakespeare and had no preference for Dunstian redheads, I couldn’t really identify with Peter Parker. His teenaged awkwardness definitely skewed older than me. But something about him struck me, even then.
Not knowing anything about the film industry at the time, I didn’t know that what I was seeing was the beginning of a new film subgenre. It wasn’t until “Iron Man” came out that I began to see the trend. Of all of the films I’ve seen in the new millennium, the subgenre of comic book movies reigns supreme in my memory. I can remember seeing the “Spider-Man” films, “Fantastic Four,” all of the “Iron Man” films, “The Dark Knight” trilogy, and the series of Marvel movies leading up to “The Avengers.” I didn’t necessarily like all of them, but I went to go see them, without fail, as soon as they came out.
So what is it about superheroes that makes them so popular? It isn’t necessarily the popularity of their comics. I’d never read a comic book until recently, and neither has my mother, but she’s seen and enjoyed them right along with me. So what keeps pulling us back? What makes these characters so popular in our culture?
I believe the trend towards superheroes is a shift in Western mythology. It’s our generation’s version of classical hero cults. Superheroes are our heroes.
Classical heroes had single goals or traits that made them distinct. For example, look at the Greek heroes. Hercules’s greatest strength was his strength. Odysseus was clever. Perseus wanted to protect his mother and later his wife. These traits are often complemented by favors from their deity, usually an anthropomorphic force of nature.
Now look at our favorite superheroes. Batman’s greatest strength is either his resolve or his money depending on who you’re talking to. Iron Man’s is his tech savvy. Wonder Woman is her devotion to truth.
This would explain what makes certain superheroes so popular. They are idol figures, people who possess traits we either value or which we believe to part of the human condition.
There is a difference between the superheroes who are idols and the ones who are just characters. Wonder Woman is an idol, while Black Widow is a character. One has a single personality trait constant throughout all of her portrayals, and the other is a mix of traits with no one thing predominating. You can usually tell which ones are which by counting the number of times they’ve appeared in media besides their native comics.
The new devotion to superheroes in film is part of a continuing trend of hero worship in Western society. We continue to idolize fictional figures for single traits that represent either things we aspire to have or things we believe everyone should have. Within our massive media sphere which acts as the visual center of our whole culture, we’ve created our own myths.
Read Rachel Kaser’s gaming blog “The Play Button” at KDHnews.com/opinion.