This week Warner Brothers announced a slew of upcoming films based on characters from the DC Comics universe, which will take us through 2020; Marvel Comics have already announced their future lineup. The offerings from DC include stand-alone superhero movies based on Wonder Woman, The Flash, Aquaman, Shazam, Green Lantern, and Cyborg, as well as ensemble films such as the in-production “Batman v. Superman”, and the interesting sounding “Suicide Squad”, which will be something like “The Dirty Dozen”, only with supervillains. The really BIG event will be the first-ever “Justice League” film, split into two parts, which should bring together all of the major characters from the DC universe. Anyone who watched “Super Friends” on Saturday morning cartoons when they were little will probably be looking forward to that one.
If this seems like a lot of spandex to deal with on the big screen, not to mention the host of superhero-themed television shows now appearing on the small screen, it may be worth stopping to consider how repeated storytelling about heroes and their adventures is a common practice within Western culture.
There is no one, single definitive version of the stories of the ancient gods and goddesses, heroes and monsters from Greek and Roman mythology. Over many centuries, the same stories were told in different ways, sometimes adding or taking away elements, depending on the times or the tastes of the audience. The basic legends surrounding Heracles/Hercules for example, were pretty much the same in both Greece and Rome, but when the Romans adopted the Greek hero as their own, they changed his story in places to make him a more Roman figure, even transferring some of his famous “Labors” to a Roman setting.
We can see the same adaptation of well-known characters over time in the legends surrounding King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. King Arthur lived – if he did at all – in what is now Northern England during the 5th or 6th century, and legends about him fluttered about in popular storytelling until a Welsh writer wrote a chronicle of these tales in the 1100’s with many of the now-familiar aspects of the Arthurian legend. However, a century later a French writer expanded upon these stories, adding both the quest for the Holy Grail and the character of Sir Lancelot. As a result, today a modern audience could not imagine telling the story of King Arthur without the adultery of Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, even though at one time this plot device would not have been considered canonical.
Both Hercules and King Arthur have had their stories told by many different storytellers. While certain details may change, depending on who is doing the telling, as subjects for sharing ideas and ideals, they have never ceased to fire the imaginations of writers, artists, and performers. So rather than be surprised that the characters from comic books continue to be revisited and reshaped, both for existing audiences and for new audiences coming to learn the stories of these heroes, we can see them as part of a continuum in Western literature.
Because they are more recent in time, having appeared in the 20th century, superheroes are more easily adaptable to the present age than figures from the very distant past, like Hercules and King Arthur. Sure, we still create entertainment around these earlier figures as we tell their stories, but there is always going to be some level of distance between us and them. Hercules is not going to be taking creatine and whey powder while powerlifting boulders, and King Arthur is not going to be receiving suggestive snapchats on his iPhone from Morgana la Fay. Superman, however, can have a meeting with Batman on a space station orbiting the Earth, and we think nothing of it.
Our appetite for mythology, tales of adventure, and acts of heroism seems to be fairly insatiable in Western culture. With the release of so much superhero material, perhaps the studios and publishers are over-estimating the public’s appetite for market saturation when it comes to this particular genre, as some have argued. Yet in seizing the zeitgeist of this moment, these storytellers are not only being very smart from a financial standpoint, they are also tapping into a long history of storytelling, one which laid the building blocks of the culture which we enjoy today.