Are Superheroes the New American Gods?

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Superheroes have influenced, generally for the better, countless individuals to embrace truth, justice, and beauty – to generally do the right thing. I mean, who doesn’t know the phrase “with great power, comes great responsibility”? Yet, the force which imbues these modern American deities of sorts with such drama and power is our own collective history of myth, superstition, and dogma – as well as our modern devotion to science and democratic principles.

Superhero lore borrows much of its thematic material from classical dogmas, much like pre-modern mythology did from earlier pantheism:

Superheroes are possessed of powers, nigh-invulnerability, and even unearthly origin stories (Superman and Supergirl meet Apollo and Artemis).

They live in towering bases far above those of mere mortals like The Hall of Justice and Asgard (such as, um, Asgard).

Resurrection themes and sacrificial acts often play a part in their stories, from Superman to Captain America (as with Jesus Christ, Quetzalcoatl, Osiris, et. al.).

Of course, we couldn’t forget the corrupting or destructive forces of Darkseid, Apocalypse, or Thanos (mirrors for Ravana, Hel, or Iblīs Shayṭān).

Darkseid
Darkseid

In this respect, superheroes truly are the most relevant deities of modern era. Comic book source material is even construed as modern biblical lore and often causes heated debate across message boards, which turn into contentious
“bible” studies. And woe is the director who modifies elements from canon to suit their needs or tastes (Shame on you for changing the X-Men’s uniform! Not really.)

Of course, unlike traditional mono, poly, and pantheistic religions, no one – save for fangirls/boys – worships these “New American Gods”, right?

Well, the answer isn’t quite as black and white as people might expect; it depends upon what you consider worship. In America, above all else, we seem to bow before the mighty dollar, and superhero films and TV shows are the spectacle to beat of late, pulling in billions of dollars for their collective studios. Marvel and DC heroes are renowned on a global scale the likes which only massive religions can rival.

In America, above all else, we seem to bow before the mighty dollar, and superhero films and TV shows are the spectacle to beat of late, pulling in billions of dollars for their collective studios.

American Gods
American Gods, based on Neil Gaiman’s novel

Neil Gaiman, one of comic book and literary fiction’s most creative forces, predicted this need for a more transitive cultural mythos in his delicious novel, aptly titled, American Gods. The forthcoming TV series based on his work explores the interplay between the deities of the ancient world, such as Thor, Zeus, and Christ, and those of the modern world like Media or The Intangibles.

Gaiman’s concept of a war between new and old gods for popularity and dominance also echoes those of comic book pioneer Jack Kirby. The four-color legend clearly found the dichotomy between superheroes and superstition interesting enough to explore it in The New Gods.

His DC series from 1970 created a world in which the Old Gods actually destroyed themselves during Ragnarok, splitting their world Urgrund (German for “primal ground”) into two separate realms: an Eden-like planet named New Genesis and the Hades-esque Apokolips. He even placed allegorical rulers to lead his dualistic worlds, as the benevolent yet proud leader Highfather kept the balance against warlord Darkseid.

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What Kirby and Gaiman were both hitting on was the constant cycle of birth and renewal in our world, especially within our dogmatic lives. As explored before, the shared universes of Marvel, DC, IDW, etc. are really just fantastic re-workings of the pantheons which came before them.

Stepping back to American Gods, though, the televised version will also employ a shared universe, much like its comic book colleagues, using actual mythological gods rather than superheroes (in a delicious piece of real world retconning). In an interview with Crave, showrunner Bryan Fuller (Hannibal) explored one of the most curious aspects of modern mythology, something at the heart of Gaiman’s book and the New American Gods:

“Since the rules hinge on thought form – which is, if you believe in anything enough, it manifests into reality – that if we believe in Superman will we manifest him into reality?”

When we believe in an idea with such fervor, such as democracy or peace, can the energy of our thoughts will those concepts into a physical existence? It’s certainly an intriguing notion. Can our heroes become our gods much in the same way our ancestors’ power of belief manifested their own mythos?

It’s happened before.

It also comes down to interpretation. For instance, could future archeologists (not privy to our historical texts), interpret drawings depicting nearly invincible beings that fly and shoot lasers from their eyes as religious icons? Our own interpretation of ancient hieroglyphics certainly draws parallels along those lines.

Another aspect of superhero culture which makes these new gods truly remarkable is their transformative powers. Throughout their roughly 80 year history, American superheroes have progressed from the underwear-clad goody two-shoes read by your grandfather to a geek culture staple to gaggle of technologically advanced cats we’d actually want to grab a beer and a chicken shwarma with.

While being current doesn’t necessarily define the staying power of any ideology, it doesn’t hurt its ability to captivate. Perhaps we don’t want to have Netflix and chill with our deities, per se, but identifiable characters certainly make it easier to digest complex issues of morality and philosophy. If that’s not the ultimate superpower, I don’t know what is.

Superman vs Darkseid
Superman vs Darkseid

In the long run, whether Superman can kick the crap out of Captain Marvel, or Media and Jesus can coexist isn’t the real point – despite what zealots of all varieties might decry. Our superheroes and deities need to change along with us, otherwise they’re in danger of phasing out of relevance like the rogues gallery of ancient Egypt and Scandinavia.

When it comes down to it, though, what’s more important: who our heroes are, or what they teach us about ourselves living alongside our fellow human beings? If the New Gods can successfully impart ideas and encourage us to treat one another with respect, then more power to them, literally.

Because, ultimately, as we undergo our personal evolutions, who we look up to should always be our choice.

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