When I mentioned to my wife that the new Batman movie comes out tomorrow, she responded, “What? Another superhero movie!” Those four words managed to express a perfect blend of astonishment and disgust. Her outburst reminded me of something Ross Douthat wrote earlier this year on the New York Times website. Douthat was bemoaning the fact that The Avengers was going to be a great movie. Since The Avengers was to be so successful, studios will make more superhero films to follow up on that success. Add that to the superhero movies that led up to The Avengers, and we find ourselves with too many movies based on comic books. Douthat thinks this is such a tragedy because all the time and money that studios invest in superhero movies ensures that resources won’t be invested in fresh movies with new concepts and themes. With The Dark Knight Rises on the horizon, I’d like to argue, however, that the superhero movie ought not be disparaged but should be celebrated as consistent with our Western Tradition.
Since America is a relatively young country, we don’t have a national identity that stretches back into the shadowy recesses of time. We have no legendary heroes that teach us who we are and what we should be about. Since we have no mythology, the comic book industry supplied one for us. In many ways, comic-book superheroes have become what the gods were for ancient peoples. Instead of Hercules, we have Captain America; instead of Prometheus, we have Iron Man; and instead of Thor, well, we have Thor.
The gods and heroes of ancient mythology were like humans, only bigger and better. They could perform amazing feats of strength and skill, and they were nearly immortal. But they could also be subject to errors in judgment, be blinded by selfishness, and be bound by some higher fate. The old gods and heroes reflected the hopes and fears of the societies that created them, and usually each god epitomized some trait of human nature or society. Our American superheroes follow this same pattern. Iron Man exemplifies the virtue of hard working American capitalism, while also demonstrating the vices of license and consumerism which can sometimes attend capitalism. Batman has his keen sense of justice, but he’s plagued by moodiness and the fear that he could easily become just like his enemies. All this is relevant to the summer blockbuster, trust me.
About twenty-five-hundred years ago, the Greeks of Athens hosted an annual festival in honor of Dionysus which lasted more than a week. The highpoint of this festival was the three-day period in which the tragedies were performed. These tragedies were meant to be epic, and the plots were almost without exception drawn from the myths about the gods and heroes. Thousands of Greeks would sit all day watching Zeus chain Prometheus to a rock or perhaps Orestes avenge his father by killing his mother. And every year the plays would be different, but the subject matter would be the same. I can imagine an Athenian Ross Douthat groaning, “Not another Oedipus reboot!” but every playwright took his shot at the old stories. And that was part of the challenge. Can we find something new and satisfying in the same old myth? Can we spin the story in such a way that it resonates with this year’s audience. The same is true with our superhero films. The overarching story will be the same, but the themes and emphases will differ.
Even though our fascination with the superhero genre is consistent with the tradition handed us by Western Civilization, not all superhero movies are worth watching. (Take last summer’s Green Lantern as an example.) But this also is similar to the Greeks. Most of their tragedies probably weren’t any good either. Out of the hundreds and hundreds of tragedies produced, only a few dozen have survived. Probably the others weren’t good enough to bother copying down.
The question, therefore, should not be, “Why another superhero movie?” but rather, “Will Batman be able to surprise me this year?” and knowing Christopher Nolan, the answer is probably “yes.” So with a clear conscience that you are fulfilling the obligation of a citizen in the classical tradition, pull on your tunic, tie your sandals, and head to the theater. This summer’s festival to Dionysus is coming to a close.