In Search of the American Myth: American Gods

Normal_Superman_RenderI do not mean to plagiarize the title of Neil Gaiman’s wonderfully cerebral novel, but I think the last posts in this series on the American myth aptly deserves this title. As I discussed several weeks ago, Walt Disney established our American mythology through America’s central medium–film. His legacy has given us some of our first heroes, and we see many children carting around a figurine of or dressing up as their favorite Disney hero or heroine. Even Westerns and science fiction have given rise to American heroes, especially characters from television programs such as The Lone Ranger, Bonanza, The Wild, Wild West, and Star Trek.

However, many of these heroes are mere mortals; their power does not ascend to the status of god. Mythology, by definition, is a divine narrative examining the tales of gods and men. The gods of any culture are in fact the embodiment of the values of that society in human form. For instance, Greek gods represent the values of Greek culture, and their appearance and demeanor changed in Roman culture to reflect Roman values. America values progression and independence, and its stories certainly encapsulate these values–at least in their heroes. But what about “gods”?

Without a doubt, America has an obsession with superheroes–almost to the point that audiences have criticized Hollywood shameless attempt to adapt, remake, reboot, mangle, bedraggle every single comic book or graphic novel story. Despite this aggravating affinity to reboot any film created within the last decade, these films, good or bad, do tell the stories of our American gods: the noble superhero.

dark-knightTwo recent (and successfully created) film franchises accurately demonstrate the god-status of superheroes. First, Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy demonstrates a darker version of America’s gods. DC Comics focus on the mythology and “magic” of each superhero, and Batman, interestingly, is one of the few DC heroes to not have a congenital superpower (except probably unimaginable wealth and way too much time). Yet, the Dark Knight ascends to the level of god by becoming the embodiment of justice in Gotham City. In Nolan’s vision, Batman definitely has a darker side to him. He, like the gods of Greek and Roman myth, has a human side to his divinity, and he shows weakness and hesitation in each film. The villains in each film represent a certain vice that Batman must overcome to truly become a god. At the end of the series, Gotham erects a monument to their greatest hero–and their “divine” deliverer.

the_avengers_movie_2012-HDJoss Whedon’s The Avengers and the films associated with the film also tell the stories of America’s gods. Marvel heroes, as opposed to DC heroes, are actually human that ascend to god-status through science, not through some innate ability. Further, while DC has a more familiar history in America, Marvel truly embodies modern America’s paradigm of progression and advancement and shift away from religion in favor of science. In Marvel stories, science is the god, and the superheroes have tapped into its power, becoming gods themselves. The Avengers movies demonstrate this focus, but the main success of the films–and of The Dark Knight trilogy for that matter–is the storytelling. The Avengers was an action-packed film but told a good story of several people pulling together to achieve a common goal: the protection of their way of life, another paradigm of American culture.

America, as I have said before, has a mythology. It does not appear in a sacred text, nor is it retold by the fireside before bedtime. Instead, America views its mythology through film and television. While some may decry the rise of virtual interaction at the expense of literacy, stories are not confined to a textual medium. Stories began as an oral tradition and have evolved over time and through various cultures. Our culture sees film as its medium and therefore has adapted its stories to fit this capacity. American mythology and stories live on–you may have to pay $10 to go see it.

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Posted on October 24, 2013, in Film, Mythology, Stephen Parish, Superheroes and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. Nathanael Andersen

    I definitely agree with you when you say that television characters have become American gods and heroes. I also like how you made the distinction between the Marvel and DC comics, and explained it. But when it comes to mythology I believe that you could go farther by saying that television and entertainment has in itself become a god to the American culture. We even as Christians can allow entertainment to become an idol. My point is illustrated by the upward trend of movies, television series, and video-games.

  2. Marianne Freeman

    I agree with the point you make. Growing up TV free I was not as exposed to all of the philosophies that come through TV. Growing up like that I can see more clearly some of the wrong philosophy that shape our society. Entertainment has become an idol to most people in the United States. They idolize characters from movies and cartoons of which have become more and more graphic over the decade. I never thought of the superheroes as American mythology, but indeed they are. The American super heroes display the American ideology of an independent and unconquerable spirit. They over come their own troubles and trials without God and by their own power. We not only idolize the characters but also the actors. Esteeming higher than human and almost to the place of gods. We as Christians must beware of these subtle philosophies and keep our focus upward towards God.

  3. Believe it or not this is not just an American thing. Going to my home country, Dominican Republic, every summer I can see how all these heroes have also become gods to some people over there. My cousin, who is thirteen years old, has in a way no intellectual life past talking about superheroes. Everything he does has to do with superheroes whether it be games, movies, toys, or surfing the internet. The way the superheroes are presented in movies is why they have become such a huge hit. Hollywood presents them in such a real way that it almost seems like we are meant to become superheroes. In the other hand I would say that many people watch these movies for pure entertainment. I personally watch these superheroes movies because they are well made and have good effects. I truly believe that the way people are going to study our culture in the future is not going to be by books but rather by movies.

  4. I definitely agree with you when you say that television characters have become American gods and heroes. I also like how you made the distinction between the Marvel and DC comics, and explained it. But when it comes to mythology I believe that you could go farther by saying that television and entertainment has in itself become a god to the American culture. We even as Christians can allow entertainment to become an idol. My point is illustrated by the upward trend of movies, television series, and video-games.

  5. Our culture has adapted stories to fit film. Our myths have gone from fireside stories to modified versions fit to be on the big screen. That’s how we came to view superheroes as gods. What we see on TV has such a great impact on the way we view decisions and certain aspects of life. Girls see Batman on TV and decide that they want to marry a man like Bruce Wayne. Things from movies that we see on the Internet and Pinterest exemplify superheroes as gods. We idolize superheroes because of what we see on film. We also view superheroes as gods because we are made to worship something. God made us so that it is in our nature to idolize something. Since most people turn down the real God, they turn to other things with god-like characteristics to satisfy their urge for supernatural beings. That is why we view superheroes as gods.

  6. The thought that action packed movies,filled with glorified “heroism” and fictional characters, has impacted America is definitely a true statement. The movies that you mentioned such as The Avengers and The Dark Night Rises, demonstrate the exact principle of fake heroism. Today Hollywood has brain washed us into thinking that a true hero is someone who has unrealistic super powers and rescues citizens in distress while disguised in their signature costumes. Not to say that super heroes are vile and are to never be watched, it is when we take their unreal actions to another level that it because an issues and for us as Christians, a sin. If we allow the pleasures of super powers and violence encompass our every day lives we have allowed the world and Hollywood’s outlook on heroism change us for the worst. All in all, allowing the super hero fictional characters from these movies become gods is a real struggle and is most definitely something to be concerned about.

  7. I had never considered what connections people,primarily children, have drawn from fictional characters to heroes. After reading your blog, I couldn’t agree more. By simply observing children and even adults, it is very obvious that the “true” definition of a hero has declined. We live in a real world where have to except the real facts. Fictional characters are not heroes simply because they are fictional. Yes, they are heroes in the story, but they are not heroes in a persons life. It is easy to create a perfect person in one’s mind but the real hero’s are the one’s, who like Christ, was real and truly did something worthy of our respect, admiration and love. The real problem is that people are looking for an unrealistic hero and then encouraging their children to do the same thing. This blog was extremely thought provoking and it even gave me some ideas for my paper!

  8. Courtney Richmond

    I do not exactly agree that people have come to believe that superheroes are gods. I believe that they have almost in a way downgraded their views on superheroes. Nevertheless, those superheroes created by Marvel and DC are completely fictional, but maybe we have our own everyday “superheroes.” Everyone has a person, or more than one person, that influences their lives greatly. To them that person could be their own personal superhero-like figure. For example, Justin Bieber fans may see him as a “superhero” but a more accurate example would be as Christians we could view Jesus as our superhero. He saved us, and He is there for us in our time of need, as would a superhero. America used to have the view that a superhero has to be one that has a superpower or is superhuman in a way that puts them above others. Now it seems that a superhero can be anyone you want it to be. For instance the Justin Bieber fans would have to consider him in some way “superhuman” that they would want to put him before everything in their lives. Everyone has their own superheroes, someone that impacted their lives, someone they will never forget, and each “superhero” means the world to some person.

  9. Before reading this blog, I would never have thought that superheroes could be considered American gods. This is the problem with many people today. They are lifting something to the status of a god without even realizing it. Several points in the blog lead me to believe superheroes have become gods, but others make me wander if we are over-thinking things. Just because we use fictional characters to symbolize what this country stands for does not necessarily mean we are making them gods like the Romans did. I believe they were purely intended to symbolize America, and today’s directors have conveyed the same message in a more modern way. Also, I do not believe many Americans are obsessed with superheroes. Of course there are a few who completely obsess over them, but I have come to believe the majority does not take it to an extreme. Showing an interest in well-made films is perfectly fine. Most people who go to see these movies are going because they enjoyed other previous films and books of the superhero and hope that the new one is even better. This is why I personally think that we are complicating this god-superhero parallel too much.

    BTW-Sorry it is late. I could not find this website ANYWHERE!

  10. I have never really looked at super hero movies from this point of view, but after reading this I now understand where you are coming from. Batman is basically a god to Gotham and it shows when the city is in times of distress. Marvel’s superheroes however do not all seem that way to me. If you have seen the movie Captain America, he represents humility and the fight for freedom and it shows what a true american hero really is. I think that’s why people love him so much and saying that he is viewed as a god is a little extreme. Looking at other marvel characters it does show how people’s idea of a true hero has declined. Hollywood has revealed a hero as someone who has money, fame, and is just given these things towards the beginning of their story, rather than a person who has had to earn everything and work their way up. I agree with your post to some extent.

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