The myths that made Marvel

By: John Anthony S. Estolloso

AVENGERS: ENDGAME premiered last week and social media was teeming with posts, memes, and the occasional spoiler, all ranging from the profound to the absurd. Some expressed their gratitude to Marvel for entertaining them in the past decade while others took a much lighter take of the mad rush of fans to the cinemas. One particular post came to my attention when it opined that the characters may not be real but they taught the audience a lot of things – which made them more real to the viewers. Reading that, I realized that what we have been watching in the past decade was not mere entertainment: we have witnessed the creation of modern myth.   

I was teaching classical mythology to Grade 10 students when Marvel was halfway through producing their series of blockbuster movies. Of course, my students were hooked on the films. Predictably after each new movie, the hallways are filled with loud conversations and discussions about which character has more depth or decrepitude. One way or another, the same conversations eventually trickled into mythology class. Listening to them talk, I am sometimes left wondering whether teaching about archaic gods and heroes is still relevant in the age of caped crusaders and ninjas in tights.    

Nonetheless, if we look beyond the sheer veneer of CGI battlefields, well-sculpted bodies, and pretty faces, what was interesting about these film narratives is that they are essentially retellings of ancient myths. Looking back, one can read in the seams and strings of the storylines the same enduring themes that were the stuff of great epics and legends. For instance, one is reminded of the cyclical hero’s journey in many of the characters’ development where they start out as scrawny, unsure teenagers to become muscled and determined personas ready to fight and die for justice and freedom – just like the heroes of mythology. On a more specific situational reference, the bitter fight between Captain America and Iron Man is a modern echo of the combat of Hector and Achilles, both noble warriors in their own right. Peter Quill’s adventures and his search for identity is a space-age odyssey likewise fraught with monsters, maidens, and magic. The archetypal wise prince is portrayed in T’Challa or Thor where they have to defend the kingdom from a usurper – even if rightful royalty must suffer death in the process. Sounds like Hamlet, right? The list goes on.

On a much wider point of reference, these stories are generally similar: they talk of the same things and ideas that humanity has done, built, accomplished, fought over, destroyed, or fell in love with. Think about these:


The eternal battle between good and evil

This is the heart of every epic myth: at the end of the day, evil must be defeated and goodness prevails. That is textbook content. Also, it sets the battlefield of the players of the narrative: heroes must fight with villains and monsters. Often, the heroes win. At other times, the endings can be tragic: even the Norse gods have to meet their doom with banners flying. Then again, c’est la vie. One cannot always win every battle and it is sometimes the wiser decision to break off and fight another day.   

Power: Boon or bane?

That superheroes have powers is a given; that and a ‘magic’ weapon may it be in a form of a hammer, sword, or shield. What is more interesting is how the characters perceive these talents or gifts. We encounter reluctant heroes (like Bruce Banner) who spend resources looking for ways to find an antidote for their powers, which they perceive as burdens rather than gifts. On the other hand, there are those who willingly embrace their abilities and thus, set the pace of the team (for instance, Steve Rogers). Both entities nonetheless understand that power is both a privilege and a handicap: Dr. Strange would have agreed that uneasy rests the head that sees the dreadful future.    


Character is everything

Then again, it is a question of who holds power and how it is used. Generally, the protagonist’s image would demand that right is might; hence, he or she is virtuous and selfless. Still, we see disturbed or dubious characters who change sides as the occasion would demand. The trickster archetype, for instance, finds embodiment in Loki who could be a friend or foe, depending on the situation he is in or the gain he can profit from it. On a more serious note, we have Magneto, a profound character whose convictions lead him to extreme positions that tip the balance of his kind’s acceptance or exclusion.       


Family relationships, anyone?

Family squabbles are a mythological staple. Think about the Oedipus trilogy or Agamemnon’s bloody ending. You have to agree: it is pretty messed up. The Marvel characters face no less an issue in their universe. We hear of missing mothers, fathers, or siblings who become eventually objects of quests, causes of discord, unexpected defenders, or even sacrificial lambs as the narrative unfolds. Admittedly, they provide the affective touch that tugs at the heartstrings of the audience but it drives home the point that these characters represent us: they too can derive happiness, despair, love, anger, or admiration from companions.      


Girl power

Though classical myths are filled with goddesses, nymphs, queens, women warriors, soothsayers, witches, and seductresses, they nonetheless take second place to male characters. Contrary to this, the Marvel universe is filled with strong female roles. We meet strong personalities, the likes of Natasha Romanoff, Carol Danvers, Agent Carter, or even Shuri, who hold their own in a perceivably masculine field of expertise. On the other hand, some provide a contrasting though undiminished foil to overbearing personalities: Pepper Potts and Jane Porter have their hands and hearts full with Tony Stark and Thor respectively.         

Hence, to say that mythology is just a dusty collection of stories of how and why things came to be would be a gross understatement. Rather, myths serve to reflect and attempt to explain what is humanly and collectively unquantifiable within us: our identities and ambitions, our virtues and beliefs, our frailties and failures, and our capacity to rise from them and aspire for goodness and greatness. As such, they are made and remade to reflect the face of the times.  

With Endgame, an era of cinematic storytelling has come to a close, one that has transformed what kids would have just read on comic books and Sunday papers into visual spectacles brimming with relatable characters, conflicts, and consequences. Artificial as they may be, they have maintained – and remade – the function of myth: the Marvel universe with its characters may not be real but that does not mean they are not truthful.

(Mr. Estolloso is an Art Teacher in Ateneo de Iloilo-Santa Maria Catholic School Senior High School Unit. He is also the one in charge in supervising the Humanities and Language program of ADI-SMCS SHS)