How Superhero Films Became Modern Mythology

Chris Evans as Captain America with Jeremy Renner, and Scarlett Johansson in "The Avengers." Photo by Marvel Enterprises/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock (5886273br)

Since 2007, Marvel has produced more than 23 films. Since it was founded in 1932, DC has produced close to 70. Each year, both DC and Marvel bring out flashy superhero flicks that pull in millions, even billions at the box office. The epic finale of the Avengers franchise broke a record when it became the highest-grossing movie of all time. 

But what is it about these superhero flicks that we cannot get enough of?

It’s true that these films are fun, flashy, and full of awesome special effects. And yet it feels like some other phenomenon is at work. There seems to be something about the characters and storylines in these superhero movies that means we continue to consume them over and over again, no matter how formulaic and repetitive the movies become. 

The fact is, superhero movies follow a formula that we know and love. They tell the tale of good triumphing over evil and this is a story that humans have been attracted to since the first stories were told. More than this, the mythological archetypes that were popular among storytellers thousands of years ago can be found at work in everything from Avengers to Wonder Woman.

In a simplified sense, superheroes are the gods of western cinema. They fly, shoot lasers from their eyes, and all too often, the fate of humanity lies in their hands. The image of Superman flying over New York is not too dissimilar from the image of Zeus standing over the Acropolis. They are physical representations of ancient ideology. And this ideology is as compelling to us now as it was to the residents of Ancient Athens.

Although the Superman franchise is enormously popular, there is no denying that films like The Dark Knight and the recent Joker film have an equally large, if not greater following. And yet there is nothing godly about the Joker. Instead, the Joker seems to represent the seedy underworld of modern society. In Jungian terms, the Joker is the embodiment of the shadow self unleashed. In mythological terms, he represents the shady realm of the underworld. This is a tool not just for introducing good vs evil, but prompting audiences to recognize that both realms lie within each of us.

When Martin Scorsese compared Marvel films to “theme parks”, he was right to draw a connection between the formulaic and colorful sense of fun that runs through the superhero franchise and a day at Disneyland. What he missed out on, however, is that this formula may well be innately attractive to audiences universally. Marvel and DC have thus tapped into the masterful art of ancient storytelling and reimagined mythology for a modern audience.