May 5, 2019

Superheroes as Modern Gods

Wonder Woman and Superman

Do you think it is possible that superhero films are as popular as they are because they fill a void left by declining interest in organized religion? Have superheroes become our modern gods? This possibility seems far-fetched, but it might help to explain the popularity of these films and the appetite people seem to have for them regardless of how many Hollywood churns out.

I read comic books for a couple of years when I was a child, and the Avengers were among my favorites. I saw The Avengers and Avengers: Age of Ultron, and I enjoyed them both. While I did not care for the plot of either film and was disappointed with the villains in both, the main characters were interesting enough to hold my attention. And yet, I have no interest in seeing any more of them or any other superhero films. Why? Extreme over-saturation. It seems like this is the only type of film the studios are making these days. A few minutes before I started to write this post, I noticed superhero films playing on at least six different cable channels. There's little else on. I've seen most of the superhero films and enjoyed a few of them, but I cannot imagine watching any more of them. Whatever appeal the "Marvel Universe" once had is long gone.

I did not used to feel this way. I have enjoyed plenty of superhero films over the years. I loved the Dark Knight Trilogy and remember being excited to see those films when they came out. I was even more excited for Captain America: The First Avenger. In the years following the first two Avengers film, not to mention all the Captain America and Ironman films, my interest has faded. I think there have just been too damn many of them. Of course, I've also encountered superhero films I couldn't even sit through. I tried three times to get through Guardians of the Galaxy because everybody raved about how wonderful it is. I couldn't get past the talking raccoon. And while I did get eventually get through Watchmen, it took two tries and lots of complaining.

The beginning of the end was when Marvel started sticking random characters (or at least references to them) in other superhero films. Missing one would leave me without the proper context for another. At the same time, many of these films seemed to get longer and more bloated. By the time they began making films featuring superheroes I'd never heard of (e.g., Deadpool, Black Panther, Captain Marvel), I had mostly checked out.

In my case, I think that the primary appeal of these films was always about nostalgia. I had enjoyed some of the comic books as a child, and I was curious to see how some of the characters I remembered would be brought to life on the big screen. Initially, this was a positive experience despite the plots I often found disappointing. As the studios churned out more of these films than I cared to keep up with, I became tired of them and moved on.

While watching certain superhero films, I have found myself thinking about Greek mythology and wondering whether these films are really that different from the tales of ancient gods parents used to tell their children. The format in which the stories are told is different, but many of the themes seem familiar. Of course, I suppose they might just seem familiar since I feel like I must have seen several hundred of these films by now. It also seems like at least some of the superheroes depicted in these films are much closer to ancient gods than many other film characters. One certainly encounters mythological themes in the Star Wars films, but most of the human characters aren't presented as godlike in quite the same way the superheroes are.

I think there are plenty of reasons to be drawn to superhero films that have little to do with gods. There will always be a market for big-budget action films with impressive special effects. Still, I do wonder if the massive popularity of these films happening at the same time as organized religion is becoming less important might be something other than a coincidence.