Modern superheroes reflect millennia of tradition



I remember the first time I held a comic in my hand: the eye-catching cover, the detailed and illuminated faces of the justice-seeking hero, the rough fighting scenes juxtaposed by the sleek comic design. The Amazing Spider-Man hooked me with its unexpected call to action. I loved the exploration of our society through the lens of a struggling teen and, based on world history and our present-day superhero mania, I know I’m not the only one.

Shown in the increasing number of box office hits over the past decade—from comic book stores to Walmart toothbrushes—superheroes have infiltrated every part of American culture. According to Forbes, the six major superhero movies produced in 2017 were Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok and Justice League, generating a revenue of $4 billion in worldwide box office—the highest combined gross for superhero movies in a single year.

Despite these immense financial feats, superheroes have existed long before these modern consumer grounds. They have exemplified cultural ideals and found unique purpose in a multi-faceted world.

The first “superheroes” alight themselves in ancient myths. Whether it is the Indian Rama or the Scandinavian Beowulf, ancient heroes from around the globe “illuminate the human condition—and they do so precisely because they operate at a slightly inhuman level,” writer Natalie Haynes explained in an article for the BBC. They explore humanity through “a kind of bridge between what they could understand and explain, and what they could not.”

Superheroes continue to evolve and explore cultural norms in a variety of ways. A cult classic in Bollywood entertainment, Mr. India tells the story of a big-hearted man trying to save India from an evil general. Film critic Sukanya Verma states, “Shekhar Kapur’s 1987 classic is a labor of love, ambition and ingenuity.

Under his direction and Salim-Javed’s penmanship, it celebrates compassion and human spirit with generous doses of humor, thrills, music and contrivances.” A hero that would rather play with his children or feed the homeless than seek vengeance, Mr. India contrasts an American definition of justice with his desire for passivity.

Mainstream media often overlooks Africa, but comics like Kwezy unify African culture and give an identity to a previously voiceless population. The artist of Kwezy, Loyiso Mkize, says the South African teenage protagonist is “an arrogant, opinionated anti-hero who discovers and appreciates his superpowers … the cultural aspect brings him back to his roots.”

Asterix and Obelix, a French comic series translated into over 100 languages, began over 50 years ago and continues to spread its hilarity all over the globe. Despite many mishaps and misadventures, the heroes’ seemingly impossible defeat of all obstacles thanks to a magic potion gives a sense of hope in today’s tumultuous society.

All of these heroes simultaneously explore our worldly differences and similar archetypes. They show us who we can strive to be, creating an enviable vision of our complex humanity. Robin Rosenburg sums up the effect of superheroes on society perfectly in a Smithsonian article writing, “I think origin stories show us not how to become super but how to be heroes, choosing altruism over the pursuit of wealth and power… At their best, superhero origin stories inspire us and provide models of coping with adversity, finding meaning in loss and trauma, discovering our strengths and using them for good purpose. (Wearing a cape or tights is optional).”


Julia Johnson is a freshman journalism and communication studies major from Missoula,  Mont. 

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