My husband and I came together at around the same time as the recent resurgence and interest in comic film adaptations - at the tail end of the Spider Man and X-Men series and just before Marvel unveiled their plan for world movie domination.
Now, my dear husband does not share my interest in myth, fantasy and science fiction. In fact, those are generally his least favourite movie themes! We always joked, early in our relationship, that his favourite films were gritty street dramas - which is why he seemed to love all those dark 1970s films. And yet, when the news came that Captain America and Avengers were finally coming to the big screen, I watched as my very grown-up husband transformed into a very excited little boy, with all the innocent anticipation of a child waiting for Christmas morning.
See, my husband grew up, as so many children do, addicted to comic books. In fact, he would probably argue that Thor (the Marvel hero) had taught him everything he knew about myth (before he met me!).
Comics are interesting because they very often juxtapose seemingly simple action stories with far more subtle and mythic themes. Strip Thor of his Norse trappings or Wonder Woman of her Amazonian origins and you still have all the makings of a mythic story. My husband, as a child and as a man, had no idea that he was reading myth through a pop culture lens when he was enjoying these comic stories.
The popularity of comic stories and films through the years clearly demonstrates a powerful storytelling formula. Comics grapple with the themes of good and evil, dark and light - often within the heroes themselves. The best stories balance exciting action with psychological insight and personal reflection, and tackle social themes that really are mythic in nature. The Dark Knight Rises does this brilliantly, exploring the idea of class and social stratification that so preoccupies our North American society today. From what I saw in the new trailer, the upcoming Captain America film might attempt this as well - using the 1940s hero with his 1940s values to raise questions about the military, war and America's place in the global community.
The one place where I find fault with these stories is that, at the end of the day, they still rely heavily on the physical act of fighting to solve problems. I think it is time for a paradigm shift, a change in the way we frame these stories to reflect a somewhat higher level of thinking. I can see the start of it - many of today's superheroes do struggle with ethical dilemmas and their violent nature and, I would argue, the best villains are the ones who really explore this dark side of humanity. But we need it to be pushed further. Our society needs to see that there are other ways to be heroic.
In her book Riding Into Your Mythic Life, Patricia Broersma discusses the mythic games she plays with her riding students. Together, they write, set up and act out mythic stories in the riding arena and with their horses as partners and guides. The entire theme of the activity is to work together with the horse (or sometimes with other students) to accomplish a final, mythic goal. Broersma particularly discourages using any stories that rely on physical force to reach this goal, instead teaching students the value of creative problem solving and cooperation. This exemplifies the new kind of hero we need to see reflected in pop culture.
It's often said that, as a culture, we need to return to the feminine - not the feminine as a gender, but instead the Jungian idea of "genderless characteristics related to emotions, intuition, creativity, receptiveness and nurturance" (Ensoulment Film). I think our heroes need a return to the feminine as well.
This was clearly illustrated to me in the following Wonder Woman short film created by Rainfall Films. It's beautiful, visually stunning actually, and certainly made me excited at the prospect of finally seeing a truly great Wonder Woman film adaptation. But somehow I felt that it missed the mark. It seemed like the filmmakers tried to take a very traditional, formulaic and physical heroism and apply it to a character who could instead be an embodiment of the feminine that's missing from these stories. Once again, everything revolves around physical strength and force.
I know that film is a visual art form, one that relies on visual action to tell an exciting story. As do comic books. But I think there are still ways that we could bring the quieter, more intuitive nature of the feminine to life on screen. I always thought the Hercules and Xena television series did a fairly good job balancing physical action with an exploration of more emotional themes and struggles.
What do you think - do superheroes need a return to the feminine?