Inner Strength: The Enduring Myth of the Superhero

Superhero movies.  They’re about a dime a dozen these days, with around twenty of them planned for the next two or so years alone.  There is no denying that they have a wide appeal.  So why is that?  Why do we constantly flock to the timeless story of good vs. evil, especially when it’s so obvious that good is going to win in the end?

On the surface level, it would seem that the appeal of superhero movies lies in our inherent familiarity with them.  We know the characters.  We know the stories.  Even though in the upcoming Batman v. Superman and Captain America: Civil War the heroes are fighting with each other, we know that eventually they will end up resolving their differences and working together.  Good will always triumph in the end.  The apparent “shallowness” is exactly why these movies are enjoyable.  They don’t require an in-depth analysis.  They just require enjoyment on the part of the viewer.

But that’s an analysis that any student in a middle or high school English class could come up with.  To sum it up, that’s the short story.

Now here’s the long version.

Despite how shallow these movies seem on the surface, their characters can have a great deal of complexity.  This is especially true in the modern Marvel movies, where the superheroes are often shown as flawed.  You can see this in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  The movie itself is not particularly good (I already talked about that before).  But what it does do is show the flaws of the characters.  In fact, a large part of the movie’s plot is them dealing with their hidden insecurities (brought to extreme levels by another character’s superpowers, but insecurities nonetheless).  Modern audiences don’t want to just see a one-sided, pro-government or whatever character anymore.  They want to see a superhero struggle.  They want to see them suffer or question themselves before they succeed.

Which brings me to Captain America.

Captain America is one of the more recognized superheroes, but not necessarily one of the more popular.  He’s commonly seen as a relic from the Cold War era, a position played up by the modern Marvel movies.  His origin story (from what I know) is simple: he used to be a weak guy with a big heart that couldn’t help like he wanted.  Then the military pumped him full of drugs and now he’s a superhero.

Kind of a funny story for the guy that’s supposed to be the embodiment of America-ness…but we won’t get into that.

While Captain America’s original inception was meant to be a man full of patriotic, American vigor, the newer version plays out a bit differently.  Like I said, they play up the fact that he is literally a relic from a by-gone era of the country.  He’s constantly struggling to find his place in a world that no longer feels like it needs him, and we see this in the first Avengers movie, where he gradually comes into his own as the leader of the team.  But even in his own movies, we still see him struggling with this.  In Captain America: Winter Soldier, he deals with a conspiracy inside the government and is on the run from them, a strange turn of events for a character that proudly wears the red, white, and blue colors of the USA all over his costume.  And in the upcoming Civil War, where the Avengers team is split into two factions, he leads the side that’s against government regulation of the superhero team.

Like I said, part of this has to do with the audience today.  They want a struggle.  They want a fight.  They want more out of their stories.  But it also comes back to the inherent morality of the character himself.  He is the good guy.  He is on the side of justice, regardless of what form it takes.  If he has to take on the United States government to bring justice to people, then he will.  In this version he’s not a propaganda character.  He’s come into his own as an uncompromising crusader for the good of the world.

And it is his success that people like.  People like seeing a good character triumph because it echoes a sentiment so endemic to American culture: the idea that one person can find the strength to do or be whatever they want.  Even when a superhero loses their powers, they end up triumphing somehow in the end, the lesson being that it wasn’t the powers that defined them but the strength of their character (the powers certainly help though).  It’s all about the idea that we have an inner strength we can all tap into, regardless of our place in life.  Rich, poor, young, old…it matters not.  If you believe hard enough, no dream is impossible.  That’s what we’re told as children growing up in this country, and it is that philosophy that superheroes echo so well.  Struggle and strife can always be overcome if you just believe.

Drugs help though…lots of drugs.  Maybe gamma radiation.

Being a powerful godlike alien from another planet certainly can’t hurt…

 

Well that’s all I have for this post.  Tune in next Wednesday for another and as always, have a wonderful week!

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