I don’t think I need to convince you that comic book heroes are our modern gods. Superman has a definite Jesus thing going on. Characters like Storm and The Black Panther form the centers of in-canon religions. Thor is literally a norse god. If I had a nickel for every time a comic book writer tried to ram the “these men and women are our modern gods but oh how fallible they are” trope down our throats, I would have enough money to purchase one, maybe two additional comic books. But there is one sticking point in the comparison between these modern gods and those ancient ones: if comic book heroes really are gods, why aren’t we worshipping them? Well, we are, and in much the same ways that the Greeks did. Check it out:
Every year, the Ancient Greeks got super hyped for a festival called the Dyonisia. How it worked was a select few playwrights would be chosen to write plays for everyone to watch. These plays couldn’t be about just anything – they had to be based on established mythological stories about existing mythological characters. Stuff like the Oerestes, or Oedipus Rex, or Philoctetes – good wholesome stories about royalty fucking each other to death. The Dyonisia was a religious festival after all, even if the god it was dedicated to was probably too fucked up to care.
These plays were a big deal. Getting selected to write, act, or direct for the Dyonisia was the height of most artists’ careers. Mega-rich patrons contributed ludicrous sums to pay for the costumes, props and effects that wowed the drunk-as-shit audiences every year.
Do I need to spell the parallel out for you? Okay, fine. Comic book movies are the modern Dyonisia. Mega-rich studios draft legendary artists like Joss Whedon and Robert Downey Jr. to produce wildly entertaining theatrical clusterfucks based on established superheroes and existing superhero stories.
It’s no accident that some heroes are getting more movie love than others. For Marvel, it’s Captain America and Iron Man. For DC, it’s Batman and Superman. This was true long before comic book movies were even a thing. For reasons that are probably too complicated to understand, something about these heroes has resonated with audiences almost since their creation, causing them to be passed lovingly from artist to artist as their stories are told and retold. Movies, though, seriously amplify this focus, bringing the characters and their canons to viewers who would never have followed them in their original format. Basically, the characters who get the most movies made about them are the ones that will survive in the popular imagination.
I’d argue that we see the exact same process going on in ancient religions. What we view as the definitive versions of Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology (just to name three that have been widely translated into English) are really the result of an ages-long culture war between minor local gods. Greece, especially, was a loose collection of city-states, all with their own favorite gods and customs, who all kind of fucking hated each other, and what ended up becoming “Greek Mythology” was decided through a combination of war, politics, and pop culture. Diana, for example, is said to have been the central divinity in an early Greek goddess cult, but her inclusion in “Greek mythology” lead to her being sidelined and subordinated in a male-dominated pantheon.
An even clearer example of how this works: Grimm’s fairytales are not the only fairytales German parents used to scare the shit out of their children. As recent discoveries have shown, there are literally thousands of fairytales in the same tradition. Most of those were garbage, though, and Grimm’s curated collection has thus become the most widely circulated source for an entire area of folklore. And come to think of it, which Grimm’s tales do we actually remember? Oh, just the ones that were made into movies by Disney. Disney, which now owns Marvel Studios. I better hurry up and finish this post, because it’s kind of dangerous to type when you are so on fire.
So you’re probably thinking “Okay, your amazing words have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that comic book movies are the new mythology, and also you are handsome and I want to smooch you. But so what? What makes this different from any other hot take on a comic book movie?” Well first of all, thank you for telling me I’m handsome. That’s just the kind of self-esteem boost I needed. But secondly, this isn’t an article about comic book movies. I’m not saying they’re good or bad, or that you should see them or not (personally I think they are all uniformly garbage, but I’m also a huge asshole). I’m saying that the characters in these movies are more than characters now. To many of us, these heroes are living people with the capacity to arouse deep feelings in us. And that’s not far from worship. Not far at all.
This is why people get so mad when writers try to drastically change the characters, or when something is perceived as “non-canon.” This is what motivated a bunch of angry straight dudes to try to shout down #GiveCaptainAmericaABoyfriend. Weirdly, I think it’s also what led to people getting so angry when Captain America was revealed to be a deep cover Hydra operative a few days later. These characters no longer truly belong to the writers who are writing their stories. They exist independent of their individual fictions. In our minds, many of their traits are already set in stone.
It’s more than that, though. We care about the continuity of these characters because in some ways we identify with them, aspire to be them. Insecure straight guys don’t want to identify with a bisexual Captain America, and people who don’t like racism don’t want to identify with a Captain America who is a nazi. No matter how much we talk about wanting the characters to reflect the times, or to explore new story arcs, there is a part of us that wants the thing we are worshipping to be predictable, to stay the same.
This is why we have religions, after all – to make an unpredictable world feel more predictable. And it’s why polytheism has been especially tenacious: sometimes you need different gods like you need different music. Even Jesus only acts like Superman some of the time. Put some moneylenders in a church, and suddenly dude is all Hulked out. Comic book movies give us all the comforts of polytheism without demanding we convert. Iron Man is the patron saint of startup culture. Deadpool is the patron saint of twelve-year-old boys. Superman is the patron saint of being an asshole. There’s an aspirational character for everyone, unless you’re gay or asian or a woman who doesn’t like Black Widow. And this isn’t anything new – this is exactly what Disney did with all its princesses a few decades ago. The movie pantheon will never die, and we don’t even need to sacrifice one goat. Twelve dollars a head is all the offering these gods demand.
So what I’m saying is, first of all, pay attention to the superheroes you love, and what you love about them. It probably says more about your aspirations than you’d like to admit. Our favorite superheroes as a culture also reflect our culture’s values, and changing those superheroes really does have the power to alter our culture, silly as it may seem. Third, don’t you fucking dare pretend to be a rational being. Ba’al, Belle, or Batman, we all worship gods of one kind or another.