Sunday, May 6, 2012

Everything Old Is New Again: Myths For Our Time?

I've been meaning to respond to the conclusion of this Alyssa Rosenberg post for a long time.  She writes,
I’m not sure we have myths to embody the new fears generated by a world that’s much larger than the village, or the disembodied terrors of the digital age.
I was going rant a bit and assert that we didn't need new myths; the old folk tales might be enough.  Further, new myths or, at the very least, new uses of the archetypes--Star Wars, the Harry Potter franchise, and superheroes--exist.

Rosenberg may not have come to the same conclusions, but she hints that she could answer her question in the same way.  In her review of The Avengers, she writes,
In The Avengers, the battle of ideas isn’t between the forces of good and evil: it’s between the people who are supposed to be allies. Captain America thinks Iron Man’s a showboat, while Tony thinks Steve is a hopeless square. They waste time tangling with Thor in a forest before recognizing their common aims. Once they do, those three men plus Dr. Banner, find themselves suspicious of a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. agenda they uncover in the course of gearing up to fight Loki. And Fury manipulates them into coming together as a team even as he tries to hold off the worst impulses of the S.H.I.E.L.D. council he must answer to.
In the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, superhero movies like Spider-Man 2, with its famous sequence of New York City subway passengers lifting up a fallen Peter Parker, were first about what other people had done to us and our capacity to recover. In The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan’s Batman became a representative of the terrible things we’d do to ourselves and the compromises we’d make to fight back against an external threat. The Avengers takes a third path, positing superheroes as the people who will stand firm both against terrorists and our own darkest impulses and those of the people in whom we’ve invested official governmental power. They’ll be there when we need them, but they aren’t entrenching themselves, amassing power and growing corrupt. It’s in keeping with the suspicion of institutions that’s become a major theme in Whedon’s work.
At the risk of committing both sociology and philosophy without a licence, The Avengers has long been about frightening dualities.  Iron Man reveals technology's power to save, and the risks of an imperfect human possessing unheard of power.  The Hulk personifies the fears of what can happen when science and technology go awry.  The character also illustrates the fears each of us has about our own hidden demons and emptiness of being an outcast.

I don't believe I'm stretching the dichotomies too far by claiming that the comfort provided by knowing that the powerful Norse thunder god is on humanity's side is tempered by the fearful knowledge that Loki and his mischief is out there somewhere.  The humans like Nick Fury, the Black Widow, and Hawkeye use their wits, archaic tools enhanced with modern technology, or the newest gizmos to battle fears, both real and imagined, just like every single one of us.

Perhaps all of these little examples are "mentions" or "illustrations" but not "explorations," a shortcoming that many seem to use to condemn recent superhero films.  Rosenberg, however, walks right up to the edge of declaring The Avengers a myth when she concludes,
But this franchise, with its long-form exploration of a rich cast of characters and its embrace of a huge, complex universe, has unlocked, at long last, the wondrous, weird potential of comic books to transport us to other worlds and to render our own transformed.
I would take her phrasing one step further.  Comics have the potential to unlock wonder about who humans are and the nature of our world in addition to dealing with the age old questions about never being able to accomplish the good we seek to do or believe we should do.  Those questions troubled our ancestors in their villages and continue to trouble us in the digital age.  Comics, like myths, never answer those questions; they just help us think about them.

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