superheroes and atavism
September 14, 2015
I was on a panel last year with a writer and activist who explained that superhero stories — and particularly the movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe — are fascistic. They’re about Aryan ubermensch acting as judges, juries, and executioners, essentially becoming dictators, larger than life and certainly larger than the faceless masses they’re supposedly saving. Who do they work for? Who are they accountable to? Nobody. They’re an abdication of democracy and an embracing of authoritarianism. And I thought — well, she’s not necessarily wrong about any of that. But I don’t think she’s entirely right, either. Because I don’t think superheroes are fascistic.
Atavism: “The tendency to revert to an ancestral type.” They reach back to a time when the world was large and poorly understood. Think primal, rather than primitive.
The impulse to create heroes with special powers — to believe in them, to celebrate them — is very old indeed. Gilgamesh old. As long as we’ve had writing, we’ve had magical, superpowered heroes. We can assume the oral tradition of heroics goes back even further — those written stories came from somewhere.
Heroes are the tools that human storytellers invented to give us hope. And that hope is distinctly human. Not gods, not demons, not supernatural creatures. They’re human beings who take these supernatural powers and use them for good, rather than destruction. That’s the key, I think: These ancient heroes, and their modern counterparts, are how storytellers take things that scare us and turn them into things that save us.
In Greek mythology, people were most scared of the gods and goddesses of Olympus. They were capricious, cruel, they caused storms and earthquakes, they blighted crops and killed babies. One committed a lifetime of prayers and sacrifices in the hopes of propitiating these gods, and of averting their attention from your tiny human life. But then came the heroes. Theseus, Perseus, Hercules, and so on. What they all have in common: they’re demi-gods. They’re the children of gods, but they’re also human, and they bring superpowers literally down to Earth. They represent those fearful divine powers, but in a form that will slay monsters and tyrants and rescue the innocent from certain doom. They are semi-divine, but they are human, and they want to help.
Fast forward to the Middle Ages in Europe. Saints were the superheroes of the western medieval world, performing miracles and interceding with an absent God to protect us poor mortals, once again making the thing that scared us — divine wrath — a thing that could save and protect us. Their stories were presented in full color in the stained glass windows of a thousand churches for all to see and celebrate. Medieval graphic novels, read over and over again by the faithful.
Where do modern superheroes get their powers? From radiation. From genetic mutation and manipulation. From accidents, from toxic waste. From aliens and outer space. The terrible mysteries of our modern age, transmuted into a form that is human, that can battle all manner of disasters. Notice the different origin stories for Spider-Man in the comic and the 2001 Sam Raimi movie? A bite from an irradiated spider became a bite from a genetically engineered spider. Because radiation was the big scary thing in the 60’s, but at the dawn of the twenty-first century, it was genetic engineering.
Superhero stories change to reflect the times and people writing them. They’re supposed to adapt — they were built that way. That’s why we’re still telling this kind of story, after 10,000 years of civilization. Superheroes are the oldest form of storytelling. Archetype and melodrama and battling monsters and making cosmic journeys and encountering crazy shit like giant scorpions and holy cedar forests. These stories are as old as writing.
Psychologically and emotionally, superheroes are a shield against darkness. Against evil, against death. Against the terrible things that happen to us that we have no control over, like the wrath of the gods. If a portal to deep space and the alien army waiting there opens up over New York City — metaphorically speaking — we want to believe that something will be there to save us. Something human, who we can understand and relate to. We want to be inspired to maybe do that saving ourselves.
Superheroes aren’t just for fun. We need them. We’ve always needed them. Superheroes are atavistic, and that’s not a bad thing.