Understanding Heroism: A Look at Modern Mythology and the (Super) Appeal of Superheroes

Why Superheroes Matter: Understanding the Mythology of Now

Superheroes accomplish something outside of simply following mythic structure—they augment mythology itself.

The creation of superheroes and the books in which they are found function as part of our own modern mythology; just as folktales, fairy tales, and ancient myths say something about the cultures from whence they spring, superheroes are part of a uniquely American mythology. While comics and superheroes are no longer solely an American property, the invention of these things says a lot about the culture and attitude of our culture.

Comic books are the American mythology, and, much in the same way Zeus and Poseidon and Perseus come down to us from the Greeks, Superman and Batman and the X-Men represent the culture that birthed them.

These are our Gods and Heroes, our stories—and our commentary on our society.

The early days of comic books clearly show the aspiration and American idealism of the time in which they were written—the feel-good resolutions, the perfect heroes, the general attitude of optimism. Comic books have chronicled our history, and touched on World War II, the War on Drugs, the current climate of terrorism.

Superheroes have changed with the times, as have their costumes and accessories—but not as much as their attitudes; and, in fact, that attitude of comics in general. No longer completely bright and shiny, comics and comic characters are sometimes cynical and sardonic, with the heroes themselves being presented as increasingly flawed.

Comics reflect the attitude and feeling of the society. This is our mythology, created and evolving decade after decade—and because of that, it’s our gift to the world, our mark on it.

If like all great empires that have come and gone, America were to fall into the ashes, these stories and legends would still survive. Superman will be here long after any of us—the idea of him and who he was, the embodiment of the highest concentration of Idealism and Virtue will outlast the nation that gave him life, and perhaps even its memory.

With the representation of these heroes, this is the mythology that we give to the world years after we disappear.

That is one of the many reasons why I have always been completely fascinated by superheroes – one of the reasons I have loved them since I was a child, one of the reasons why my birthday cake was shaped like Superman or Batman or Wolverine every year. Because, even as a child, though I was incapable of processing their importance on a conscious level, my very human psyche recognized the need for them, and was inspired by them.

Why We (All) Love Them: Understanding the Universal Appeal of Super Heroes

Going further with mythology, we can look at things in terms of storytelling, and how myths of Superheroes, like all heroes, appeal to us on a number of levels; certainly, they excite us and delight us because they are cool, but they also appeal to us on a deep psychological level, for reasons both obvious and subtle.

The prototypical journey of self-evolution, represented visually.

The subtle reasons are a bit beyond the scope of this post, as they primarily have to do with Mythic Structure and the Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell.

To give you a very brief description, Campbell was a mythologist who looked at myths across cultures, and focused not on how or where they diverged, but how they converged; that is, looking at what the myths from various cultures had in common.

What he discovered is that regardless of when they are written or how far apart geographically, myths from all cultures tend to follow a particular structure. Campbell came to call this the Monomyth, and it’s the defining idea behind his work.

Again, a full discussion of the Monomyth is a bit too large for this writing, but the important thing is the impact of the idea.

The fact that nearly every culture tells stories in the same way says something about the collective mindset of humans as a whole: the structure satisfies something innate in us. The way that heroes emerge, evolve, and complete their journey is more than a story—it’s an emotional need that every person is attracted to on a level deep within the psyche of humanity itself.

We need heroes—super and otherwise—and we need their stories to be told in a way that satisfies us on levels beyond our understanding.

The Hero Himself And The Hero Inside: Understanding Superheroes as a Reflection of Our Desire for Better Self

In all hero stories—particularly those told in the Monomythic tradition—the hero is identifiable, immediately, as an extension of the Self. As a reader, you are inexorably drawn to the hero, learn things as he learns them, see the story from his perspective. Eventually, you identify with him.

We identify with the hero for a few reasons, not least of which is that, we want to be heroic: the hero is relatable because he stands for everything we would love to stand for, embodies everything we would like to see in ourselves.

However, most of us do not see ourselves as superheroes, initially; and so it would be hard to identify with a hero if he starts off that way. This is where mythic structure becomes more important because the Hero’s Journey is less about getting from Point A to Point B than it is about the changes that occur to the hero along the way.

Therefore, the identification happens in part, by virtue of the way we tell stories. We can identify with them at the beginning, and we grow as they grow, cultivating that identification and carrying that identification all the way to the end.

When we watch their struggles, we feel like it is us, and we can identify with them overcoming these challenges. In other words, we inherently want to experience the Quest and the growth it brings. Looking at heroes allows the reader insight into how they might react in extraordinary situations, if and only if they had already gone through enough struggle, and had evolved to become something more; looking at them shows what we would like to be – the best version of ourselves.

Culturally, these stories give us a greater understanding of and context for conduct within our society, as well as an idealized version of what that society can achieve.

Personally, following the Hero on his journey allows us to realize the potential for own apotheotic moment: a moment wherein we become whole in the highest sense of the word; a moment wherein we could set aside fear and claim the ability to do what is right or needed.

And so, in a very true sense, Hero stories are not only inspirational, but aspirational; they allow to see the potential for change, first within ourselves, and in the world.

Or, perhaps better stated, these stories help us realize that striving for positive personal change places us in the best position to change the world for the better.

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About The Author
John Romaniello is an author, consultant, and coach who helps people and brands find their voice through writing. He's published hundreds of articles, dozens of courses, and one New York Times bestselling book. Might wanna check out his Instagram, he's pretty easy on the eyes.