The pantheon of superheroes is a crowded place at the moment, with superhumans and demigods jockeying for cultural superiority in films, comic books and video games. Leaving aside those characters who were gifted their powers through a freak accident (Spider-Man/The Incredible Hulk), and those whose powers were baked in by design (Captain America, Wolverine et al) we are left with those superheroes (and occasionally villains) whose unearthly powers were bestowed by birth right. Everywhere you look, the Old Gods are coming back to life. H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E Howard would be overjoyed.
Mything in Action…
Just as Lovecraft (1890-1937) and fellow writers of baroque Gothic fantasy lifted the pith of their tales from a rich tapestry of overlapping mythologies, so too do today’s writers glean their inspiration from the legends of earlier times and cultures. The sons and daughters of Romano-Greek, Viking and Egyptian mythology storm the summer movie theatres, robed in CGI splendour. Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, Amazonian grandchild of Ares, the God of War, does battle not only with Dr Poison and the dark forces of the DC universe. She also finds herself pitted against Chris Hemsworth’s son of Odin and rugged hero of the Marvel Universe who gets his third solo outing this autumn in Thor: Ragnarok, set for release in the UK on October 27. On the face of it this rivalry seems a pity – they’d probably get along swimmingly. But this fierce and ongoing movie franchise war takes no prisoners, and has just become even more complicated with the release of Tom Cruise‘s vehicle The Mummy this June, courtesy of Universal Pictures, who are attempting to assemble a bandage-wrapped fantasy franchise of their own to compete against both DC and Marvel.
As to who will win this three-cornered box-office struggle, the jury is currently out; although Wonder Woman looks to be a strong contender, hoovering up a more than respectable $227 million within two weeks of its feature release. If you factor in the recent TV and Internet success of Neil Gaiman’s dark pantheistic fantasy American Gods (2017, Starz Entertainment), all this frenzied activity points to a clear and resurgent interest in the modern re-framing of old legends.
When it comes to hero creation, there is a tendency to reach into the past rather than look to the present, even when the staging medium is as contemporary as video gaming. God of War (2005) and its sequel which was released in 2009 take the entire Olympic pantheon as a launch point, casting an epic vista of old-school hack-n-slash in terms of warring Greek deities locked in bloody and eternal conflict. Dark Souls (2011), which had its third instalment released in 2016, similarly nails the gruesome perspective of warring men being but pawns in a higher struggle. Browsing an iGaming hub like Betway reveals a host of online slot games based loosely around figures and iconography that have their shared genesis in old myth and ancient folklore. Thunderstruck II for example deploys stylised Icelandic imagery to convey 5 reels of action decorated with glyphs of longboats, the thief-prince Loki, and the rainbow bridge of Valhalla. When even pick-up-and-play mobile games such as these reference such imagery, we can be sure that it resonates somehow even today. So what’s going on?
Heroism in an Age of Grey
The modern world throws up more than its fair share of villains and heroes, but rarely in a manner that is clear-cut and ascertainable, and perhaps this gratuitous lack of certainty is key to understanding the enduring appeal of the ancient. Wonder Woman and Thor, and yes, even Hercules (at least when he’s in New York, 1970), have a purity to their characters and a pre-determined backstory that our conflicted world can rarely match. The children of gods have to represent the crystallisation of higher ideals, those same ideals that get so watered down upon contact with the ambiguities of everyday reality. It can be no coincidence that the origin stories of superheroes – even those born of divine parents, often tackle this ambiguity head on, presenting the hero/heroine’s bemusement at the nuanced state of the world around them as a narrative shorthand for the frustration experienced by each of us when we butt up against the labyrinthine tangle of interests that steer the course of day-to-day events.
Which of us doesn’t covertly yearn for a moral ledger with “goodies” racked in one column and “baddies” tallied in the other? You don’t have to be a grandchild of Ares to work here, but it helps…
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