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Functions of the Modern Superhero Archetype

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The traditions of mythical storytelling organically developed as a way for human civilizations to relate to one another. This process of storytelling dates back to what antiquity recalls as the Paleolithic prehistory. At least, that’s as far as we can date back to early mankind’s prehistoric rock art. It is this shared cultural experience of storytelling, a deeply woven use of human communication that has propelled humans to connect with one another, to relate to shared experiences throughout their lifetime. It is the evolution of the storytelling process where antiquity gifted us with the significance of mythology.

American culture’s fascination with superheroes suggests a modern adaptation of Greek mythology, creating valuable and teachable morality in contemporary times. Through this bevy of guidance, concerning our modern mythologies of Superman, Wonder Woman, and the Justice League, we collectively implore humanity to become the greatest version of itself. These notions are most vital in this particular generation because they keep us tethered to reality as we inch toward global destruction through various cautionary concerns arising, such as pandemics, climate change, and impending nuclear catastrophes.

Mythology has been deeply ingrained in current pop culture, with year after year, Hollywood revealing at least a half dozen superhero films. So, it was with my inquisition of personal interest, and a will to understand what the modern mythologies of the superhero influence truly mean, and what it lends to our global culture. This leads me to present an important consideration to modern-day pop culture: the archetype of superheroes is often relatable to humanity because they experience great loss, subsequently overcoming their own identifying obstacles with optimism, steadfastness, and meaningful substance within their individual causes.

It was as an adult that I begin to find my attraction to this set of superhero archetypes, which I felt encouraged individualized personhood and the personification axis of being an ideal human being. And as the more superheroes I came across, the more the ideas hit home. It is with a genuine effort to understand why so many others are also captivated by this pop culture phenomenon. With the assistance of the readings of the celebrated legendary Joseph Campbell, I am able to decode the great importance of superhero relatability in our modern era. Campbell suggests, “...in this wonderful human brain of ours there has dawned a realization unknown to the other primates. It is that of the individual, conscious of himself as such, and aware that he, and all that he cares for, will one day die” (Campbell, 21).

It is with our own sense of mortality that we cathartically connect to the superhero archetype, as a means of fulfilling our fantasies of our mortal transience. Our concerted consciousness of superhero culture empowers humanity to think critically about our current age. Superheroes inspire us to put the efforts of humanity first before any one person's particular needs in order to preserve our existence.

Mythologies inform us of the importance of morality and principles of social constructs and the comprehension of global caretaking. Mythology is present in every major religion or belief system, serving as an important overview of how civilization should conduct itself. Accompanied with thematic personifications of leading a virtuous, gratuitous, meaningful life. With mythology frameworks in every major religion, it serves to prepare civilization on how to institute compassion for the integrity of humanity. The epidemiology of the word ‘mythology’ is derived from Greek origins; ‘mythos’ is generally translated into ‘fable’ or ‘legend’. This is where this notion of the word origin translates seamlessly into our modern American culture, superhero narrative.

The 20th century conceived our most beloved superhero – the famous moniker Clark Kent, also known as 'Superman'. To better understand his exact purpose and his notable influence on pop culture, we need to look towards his introduction to our society, beginning in the early Depression era. We can always find our most notorious superheroes’ onsets witnessed in full alignment with our national disposition. The birth of Superman as a comic book series unified the American public, as this Depression era was a dark mark in our nation’s history. With the nation in a collective era of low American morale, pop culture sprung forth the idea of an archetypal savior, someone who might carry us to the light. Just as Superman 'saves the day' in many of his stories, he also gave our nation hope of overcoming these tragic economic circumstances.

Delving further into the ideas behind the superhero narrative is that of the monomyth, defined as a focused story based on a singular ‘hero’s journey’. Many modern superheroes have these elemental functions, even going so far as to say, alignments to god-like qualities, or are perceived as part of the god in their origins. Our modern-day superheroes tend to come from other planets, harvesting powers that are considered to be superhuman, drawing obvious analogies to a religious text.

In those parallels to Christianity and Judaism, Superman is sent via a heavenly father, with the explicit purpose on Earth to save humanity, he does not begin his public service until age 30. Similar to stories told of Christ. He also resurrects at some point, and just like Christ, Superman exhibits phenomenal mystical powers, and he goes so far past the supernatural that he has the capacity to fly. With endearing abilities to forge through gargantuan feats that no other mortal man has the strength to commit to.

Superman’s origin story of having been sent to Earth as a baby is reminiscent of the tale of Moses, being a child adopted into a culture in which he saves its people, but he does not originate from the culture he saves. There are arguments suggesting his well-known 'S' emblem on his chest is a comparison to the shape of the Holy Trinity. With Superman’s inception, he is the first homegrown superhero, our mythological archetype, and he directly sets the precedent for our subsequent superhero pop culture in America. Superman is very much connected to our present-day archetype of the Savior or the Messiah.

In Greek mythology, we see comparisons of Superman to the classical myths of Hercules and Perseus, who are demigods and champion many monsters, as Superman triumphs over his perspective supervillains. As did civilizations in antiquity, we adopt superheroes as a relative of modern mythology, functionally explaining the world around us, within the fantastical stories, we also use superhero archetypes to institute lessons of justice and morality and to empower us to stand in their place to save humanity.

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Circa 1941, we are graced with the female archetypal companion to our first male superhero – Wonder Woman. The story of Diana Prince comes directly through the vein of Greek mythology, as she is the product of the Amazonian queen and the great Greek god Zeus himself. Her genesis is similar to Superman, her missions are to save humanity from any impending doom, and the consequences of evil doings, and she seeks peace rather than conflict.

Diana Prince is a wordplay on her background being an Amazon princess, in addition to a symbolic embodiment of male equality in strength. Her greatest attributes are her power of forgiveness, her power of love, her righteousness, and her ability to seek justice while using her kindness and wisdom to bring peace to the world. She is meant to rule not through force, but to influence through love. She is specifically imagined in a way to show womanly traits as a means of strength, not weakness. In 2017, Wonder Woman rightfully earned her first contemporary cinematic feature film. Her background of a being demigoddess and an Amazon warrior princess makes for an incredibly impactful feminine archetype. Our latest version of Wonder Woman is directly concerned with humanity's own self-destruction, by way of war, in its gruesome totality.

In many ways, Wonder Woman is the ultimate ideology of the most perfect woman. She exhibits a sense of dignified beauty, power, strength, independence, and collective ethical righteousness. The architecture of Wonder Woman reflects early feministic endeavors of the women’s suffrage movement, which imparted the genderized value of equality and how vast a woman’s contribution to society can truly be. Moreover, the creator of Wonder Woman was directly inspired by the women’s liberation movements, so it is natural that she carries many of these values. She is a woman so heroic that she alone can save humanity.

One of the most renowned Greek myths of the sea is that of Jason and the Argonauts. Jason and the Quest for the Golden Fleece is one of the oldest myths that showcase the hero’s journey. This adventure myth tells of an undertaking of many Greek mythological forces uniting to accomplish one mission – to recover the fabled Golden Fleece. Jason’s tasks are so daunting that he knows he cannot accomplish them on his own, so he prays to Athena and Juno for their assistance. And the goddesses work together, pulling a group of the bravest men, demigods, and other heroes. They assist Jason in building the famed Argo ship.

Knowing his fate rests in the hands of others, Jason rises as the leader of this assemblage of comparable heroes, helping him complete his task. Jason demonstrates bravery knowing that he could perish during his trials. Jupiter rouses Jason and volunteers to come along for the journey. “Jason, trembling – although the omen of the gods was a happy one – jumped up from his couch... the weeping of the mothers grew louder and the brave hearts of the fathers grew heavy. Weeping they clung to their sons in long embraces. And now it was time. With its sad signal the trumpet, sounding three times, loosened the embraces that were both wasting the breeze and delaying the ship” (Hendricks, 186)

Bravery displayed in the face of adversity is a character attribute that we generally admire and revere, and is something of a necessary quality that we idolize amongst our superhero archetypes. The superhero band as seen in the Justice League is equivalent to the mythological stories of Jason and the Argonauts. In this representation of quantitative heroes aligning and fighting together, we observe a superhero mash-up, the Justice League, which happens to include both Superman and Wonder Woman.

Each superhero has its own specific skill set and power, its own personality with compassion, love, a sense of justice, and equality that lends itself to the ultimate goal of saving humanity. We have much to learn from the cinematic themes that are displayed in our current superhero culture. It is selfless perseverance and shedding of egotism that brings several people to gather for a shared cause. In the discussion of pulling together an alliance, Batman speaks to Wonder Woman: “I wouldn’t count on the tribes of men… they act like the doomsday clock has a snooze button” (Justice League, 2017).

With impending climate change, coupled with the fact that we have more people on the planet in this generation than any other preceding one, we are faced with a certain adversity when it comes to caring for our humanity and the state of our planet. The superhero archetype allows us to relate to these concepts in a thoughtful humanistic nature. We can take pause, reflect, and see ourselves in the mirrored image of a superhero archetype, with cause to a shared purpose. In the last dozen years or so, our entertainment industry has seen a prominent influx in a steady stream of superhero productions. In her compelling essay 'Avengers in the Void: Nietzsche, Nihilism, and Why We Need Superheroes', Abby Moore suggests this is directly related to our national mourning and posttraumatic trauma of the September 11th attacks. “There is no doubt that the terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, played a part in rebooting the superhero industry back into high gear. Fear of instability, fear of future attacks, and worry about a new war in the Middle East are obvious reasons for people to want to escape into fantasy worlds” (Moore, 3).

While viewing the film ‘Justice League’ (2017), in the opening scene Superman describes his emblem as the 'S' is similar to “...that of a river, but it does stand for hope. And that hope, it’s like your car keys, easy to lose but if you dig around it’s always close by” (Justice League, 2017). Later on, in an endearing conversation with Superman's mother, Louise Lane expresses what her passion is behind being a news writer… and this is no coincidence that both she and Superman worked together as journalists. It is easy correlation to see how we are all distinctly connected through our shared consciousness of the act of storytelling. Storytelling gives the human race a sensibility of resolution and control of the world environment around them, just scan through the channels of your television set for evidence of this concept. The more we can report on the world we live in, the more we can do to protect it, guide it, and see it through to its ultimate safety. “Stories just make sense, it was more than just a puzzle, it was about the truth; it was about seeing the engine of the world when it still ran” (Justice League, 2017).

Our now engrained cultural, psychological functions of superheroes are used in a framework of secular god-like manifestations. German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote about his concept of the Übermensch (loosely translated as ‘Overman’) in exactly this way, which bares resemblance to the character of Superman and is thought to be connected to the inception of his character. The archetype of the Übermensch was meant to be a leader, a philosopher-stylized king of men who would recreate morality in accordance with his own will. Nietzsche theorized that under the right societal conditions, humanity would be engaged to continue to evolve and grow towards idealistic humanitarian betterment.

This should suggest that the concept of the Overman is someone who can establish his own values as an independent free thinker in the world in which others live their lives. This would designate an Overman who can affect and influence the lives of others, setting him apart from groupthink scenarios. An Overman is then someone who has a life, which is not merely to live each day with no meaning, he lives with an unequivocal focus on the present, but with the understandable purpose for humanity, furthermore, the reformation of humanity. Nietzsche expected that greatness might be achieved through necessary suffering, which may rely on qualities that could be unconventional in nature, and that a 'good outcome' excuses any wrong acts that were created as a byproduct to attain said outcome. As the anecdotal saying goes, “The end justifies the means”. Nietzsche implies that the idea of the overman helps to refine our best version of ourselves.

Our unified gravitation towards superhero archetypes offers humanity a momentary escape of entertainment, on the surface, but subconsciously we ingest our superhero material to find important elements on how to live one's life. We are deeply invested in the pop culture 'religion' of the superhero. The philosophies of an adopted superhero thought processes have been firmly rooted in our American popular culture. In her essay, Moore states: “…the world is still fighting an uphill battle against entropy, but the fact that he keeps fighting means that the systems are worth saving, optimism is a view worth having, and human existence is ultimately meaningful. Even if the battle lasts forever, that’s fine – because the fight itself gives us meaning, too” (Moore, 18). These archetypes encourage the betterment of our global consciousness in our most trying times. This is one of those times. Now, with so much to lose by way of global warming, nuclear technologies, and apocalyptic natural disasters, the planet is sending a message. Although our revered superheroes are that of fiction, through our reverence of mythological storytelling, we might take action to the likes of our beloved superhero archetypes and use their teachings as a beacon of light in this dark time, as we always have. These paramount mythical archetypes propose the embodiments of impeccable humanitarian preeminence of self-preservation, and an overall reverence of our one and only home, Earth.

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Functions of the Modern Superhero Archetype. (2023, November 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 2, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/functions-of-the-modern-superhero-archetype/
“Functions of the Modern Superhero Archetype.” Edubirdie, 15 Nov. 2023, edubirdie.com/examples/functions-of-the-modern-superhero-archetype/
Functions of the Modern Superhero Archetype. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/functions-of-the-modern-superhero-archetype/> [Accessed 2 Mar. 2024].
Functions of the Modern Superhero Archetype [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2023 Nov 15 [cited 2024 Mar 2]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/functions-of-the-modern-superhero-archetype/
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