I’ve been on a Greek mythology kick this summer. If the desire to create stories, like those of classical mythology, is universal, what are the myths of today? I’d argue that superhero stories are the modern equivalent of classical mythology.
They are basic stories and characters that are familiar to almost all of us. The artist doesn’t invent the characters or their stories, he provides his own twist with his own telling of these familiar stories. Similarly, Sophocles did not invent the story of Oedipus, Euripedes did not invent the story of Iphigenia, etc… Each play or each telling of an epic poem was like each “re-boot” of the Batman, Spiderman, or Superman sagas — changing the emphasis and minor plot points in order to create a new meaning from a familiar character and story.
Greg has suggested this connection between modern superhero stories and classical mythology by trying to connect current directors and writers with their ancient equivalents. But I want to take the point even further. Not only are the modern makers of superhero movies like the playwrights of antiquity, their stories serve the same purpose for us and do so in very similar ways. Neither the new Batman series nor others attempt to capture realism in their plots. As real as they make the action and special effects, the plots and characters are obviously unrealistic. We only accept them because they fit within the genre of a hero story — with their defining flaws, archetype villains, and endurance for suffering and sacrifice. As ironic and post-modern as we like to think of ourselves, we are as willing to suspend disbelief for hero stories as were the ancients.
In addition, the plots of the Christopher Nolan Batman as well as other superhero sagas are designed to make sense of the world and offer some moral guidance, just as ancient myths did. (SPOILER ALERT) The Nolan Batman evokes images of our post 9-11 experience with terror, the need for security, and the price we pay for that need.
In his earlier posts, Greg suggested that the message of Nolan’s Dark Knight is that political and social order may require a lie. The new movie makes clear that lies have their consequences and are ultimately self-defeating. And as the earlier Dark Knight films emphasized the need not to be paralyzed by fear, the current movie suggests the opposite danger of being completely without fear. And in earlier movies we learned that the rich and powerful were fundamentally corrupt, but in the new movie we see that rule by The People is at least as horrifying. And a final paradox– in previous movies Batman learned that his success requires not trusting others because they are unreliable, but in the current movie we see that success ultimately requires trusting others despite their unreliability.
Perhaps the moral of Nolan’s Batman is also drawn directly from the Greeks. We know that “Carved into the temple [to Apollo at Delphi] were three phrases: γνῶθι σεαυτόν (gnōthi seautón = “know thyself“) and μηδέν άγαν (mēdén ágan = “nothing in excess”), and Ἑγγύα πάρα δ’ἄτη (eggýa pára d’atē = “make a pledge and mischief is nigh”), I’m not sure Nolan could have summarized the messages of his Batman trilogy more succinctly.