In 2019, Avengers: Endgame broke global box office records as it concluded over a decade’s worth of storytelling lead-up by the Disney-owned Marvel franchise. Eight of the top ten grossing movies of the last decade, including Endgame, were superhero films under Disney’s ownership, each telling the story of supernaturally exceptional individuals.
The current lineage of today’s superhero movies, arguably stemming from X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) before its numerous sequels and reboots, is no stranger to the model of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. As Roland Barthes puts it, “…the fundamental character of the mythical concept is to be appropriated: grammatical exemplarity very precisely concerns a given form of pupils.” The form of the myth – the story – needs to adapt to fit its changing audiences. The tried and true model of the monomyth sees protagonists throughout today’s superhero movies leaving their ordinary worlds, crossing a threshold into a transitionary realm of trials, then reincorporating themselves under their new hero guise, all while getting the eye-catching technical treatments of contemporary action film making.
It’s no secret these superhero films pull from respective histories of writers. The ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe, of which Endgame sits in, consists of film adaptations of comic books from the mid-late 20th century. The models of the myths, however, go further back than 20th century storytelling.
Take Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) as an example. This iteration of Peter Parker, a high school boy, receives a high-tech suit from mentor and veteran-hero Tony Stark. Still suffering from his own hardships of the hero’s life, Stark warns Parker to be cautious of the suit’s use as the powers and responsibilities of a hero are dangerous if abused. Parker naively gets over-ambitious at the sight of a masked villain, throws himself into the fray, and after realizing that he’s bit off more than he can chew, his personal life comes crashing down and he loses his suit. It’s the same narrative outline as the myth of Icarus: a boy given wings by a wise mentor is warned to not fly too high, proceeds to naively fly too close to the sun, burns and melts his wings, and crashes to the ground. Spider-Man: Homecoming just looks flashier than the original tale and intertwines additional appropriations of mythological tropes, such as revelation of personal relationships with the masked villain.
If these myths are so clearly far from new, then why have they become such a dominant market force in the 21st century? The advancement in technology is a clear enabler. Whereas late 20th century cinematic techniques left the visual effects in an uncanny valley of aesthetic, today’s computer-generated imagery has progressed to the sell the effects on a spectacular level. There’s undoubtedly an appeal to the high quality of craftsmanship in action packed sequences and a certain satisfaction in seeing cinematic manifestations of imagery previously only possible in the imagination.
A further success in today’s superhero films is their ability to maintain opacities in any meaning the film’s story may hold. Impactful moments of plotlines and storytelling are typically quick, witty dialogue moments or the broad messages of hope, perseverance, and justice. Rarely have the embedded messages in the stories sought to drastically upset status quo of lifestyles further than Black Panther’s (2018) broad counter-myth to racist portrayals of African life or Captain Marvel’s (2019) empowerment of the female identity.
The ethos of superhero films is predominantly a glorification of individual exceptionalism. Historically a value tied to the canon of the American Dream, any virtues of success through hard work are suspended as our protagonists have abilities that far exceed human capabilities. Success of the hero is typically rooted in the empowered individual, rarely the collective efforts of common people to persevere. The emphasis is placed on an exaggeration of the idealized, sole hero, standing out from the ordinary.
Through all its techniques of Hollywood cinematic appeal and rhetoric emphasizing the empowered individual savior, one more success of superhero franchises is the virtual ground created by their expansive longevity. The Marvel Cinematic Universe offers an interconnected web of plotlines and characters for the audience to see from the spectator’s top-down view. While not allowing for audience intermediation or negotiation, the culmination of those plotlines - connecting all these hero’s journeys - is the payoff of seeing the full constellation. That storytelling proposes a ground backed by history - a relatable mythical model of departure from normality, perseverance through trials, and the making of greatness.