The creation of superhero characters can be traced to the influence of mythology, just as how Superman is argued to have an origin story that parallels the biblical story of Moses.
This essay will argue that superheroes are modern mythology, expounding on the significance and function of superhero characters in culture and society. Mythology functions as a reflection of the society from which it was created. Much can be learned about ancient societies through ancient mythology, from societal norms to why a culture did certain things.
For example, mythological characters such as Achilles reflected the cultural values of a society that relied heavily on the warrior class. Similarly, modern superheroes often reflect societal current affairs.
For example, during the Great Depression, Superman was portrayed as a sinister figure obsessed with power; during WWII, a character selflessly dedicated to the public good; and presently, an embodiment of the American ideology.
Other characters like Captain America have narratives that correlate to national events, like The Death of Captain America storyline which happened after post-9-11 attacks. Furthermore, the relatively recent African-American civil movement has been reflected in superhero entertainment, such as the introduction of an African-American Green Lantern in the animated Justice League series; a change in Nick Fury’s racial heritage from white to African; and the recent emergence of African-American television series and movies such as Black Panther, Luke Cage and Black Lightning.
While many superhero characters have sci-fi roots, such as Superman’s alien origins and the scientific explanation of his powers, the overarching narrative of Superman is largely driven by societal changes. Superhero characters, like mythology, function as reflections of society, while science serves as a modern answer to the supernatural and magical.
There are uncanny parallels between modern superheroes and ancient mythological characters. For example, the JLA as depicted by Grant Morrison, parallels the deities of the Greek pantheon: Superman as Zeus, Batman as Hades, Green Arrow as Apollo and Wonder Woman as Athena. We can see that the fundamental idea that drives the overarching narrative has deep roots in mythology.
Another resemblance is Superman and Batman’s conflict, as told in the Batman vs. Superman story arc, which parallels Zeus and Hades’ conflict in Greek mythology. Also, the inclusion of Greek deities like Thor and Loki into the superhero universe suggests that superhero characters are like gods, and thus, modern mythology.
With regards to ‘powerless’ superheroes such as Batman, his character reflects the human condition of moral dilemma, along with the war on terrorism which might never end for as long as Batman chooses to uphold his moral code. Similarly, Achilles’ character was a portrayal of strength and honour, especially when he chose to live a short but honorable life instead of a long and dull one.
In essence, it is arguable that the mythological elements that pervade superhero characters reach so deep that superheroes have perhaps become the mythology of our time.