Jalal Curmally is a management consultant by profession, an aspiring writer by choice and wishes he was Batman. When he is not advising his clients on their businesses, laying waste to the forces of evil or devising world peace in his sleep, he delights in building and exploring worlds of his own design and in hunting for new targets for his questionable intellect. He is happily married and entirely undeserving of his loving wife. One day he will write that novel, he swears, because…BATMAN!
Rinse and Repeat: Tales of Heroes Old and New
Neil Gaiman once asked why we read stories; why we keep turning the pages and why we thrill to them. He posited that the reason we tell stories – why we gravitate towards them and experience them again and again – is not escapism. Rather, his answer reaches back to the feelings of the first child that sat before the first storyteller in wide-eyed wonder and anxiously begged an answer to this simple question,
‘…and then what happened?’
And then, the story continues…
…until the ‘happily ever after’ happens and they come to a close. If the tale is particularly immersive, its ending leaves one feeling alone and almost bereft. We hunger for more, asking that same question well past the happy ending. We flock to the sequel, eager to experience the continuing narrative, to delight in the return of familiar names and faces as though we were greeting old friends long separated. And if the tale is especially beloved, the more inquiring of mind may even consider asking another question,
‘…how did it begin?’
The prequel is not a new phenomenon. It has existed in literature for a long time, though the phrase itself was coined only in the last century. And one need only look to film to find an explosion of this literary trend in a new medium. Sequels and prequels now dominate the major fictions of our times. And the prequel attends to another primal anxiety: a reason for why things are the way they are; in other words, our search for origins and identity.
The superhero has his roots quite firmly in legend and the parallels are not hard to find. The reason for the parallels can perhaps be found in our need to tell stories about the best of us and the best in us.
It’s not so hard to understand why prequels have suddenly become vogue. Consider earlier bastions of identity – religion, nationality. We have seen them fracture and distort to the point of becoming unrecognizable. It is seductive then to reach into the comforting confines of story and legend and therein, if briefly, discover some secure grounds for identity. We have always sought for the best in our identities and when they fail us, we have looked instead to our legends for heroes. And now, under the glaring lights of Hollywood, ‘retrospective prequels’ live and raise our banners once again as ancient gods and myths clad in brand new clothing respond to our call to wage that ancient, ongoing, never-ending war.
Apollo Apotropaios arises from his cold, frozen abode and lights the sky ablaze with his chariot, giving light, warmth, life itself. This solar deity is associated with the highest, most noble aspirations of man, courage, art, music, truth, justice, and prophecy. He fights a never ending battle against evil to secure a better future for all mankind. Now substitute frozen abode with ‘fortress of solitude’ and ask yourself who else is powered by the sun, embodies the highest and noblest ideals entertained by all mankind, and who fights a never ending battle against the darkness for truth and justice, to secure our future?
Consider another being, one that embodies not one but six figures from myth; the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury. The utterance of this being’s very name is sufficient, in a flash of lightning and a roar of thunder, to transform a frail child into the world’s mightiest mortal. Regard this being, whose name for a time was spoken, tragically briefly, in blaxploitation era movies by hookers out to wreak terrible vengeance upon their pimps, the Man and society at large.
Apollo the Archer at Orangery Palace in Sanssouci Park, Postdam, Germany. Photo: Arklfe
If your answers to these questions are Superman and Captain Marvel (of SHAZAM fame) respectively, then you have begun to see how ancient legends find new life in modern culture.
Much has been made of the American superhero’s role as gods in a modern mythology. The gods of our modern legends have enjoyed longevity in comics, in cartoons of our youth and even made the transition from the printed page onto television and film. Since 1978, a total of 92 superhero films were released. A rough estimate of the total gross box office earnings by superhero films alone (according to Box Office Mojo, sub.IMDB) is around a staggering 8.24 billion USD. This is not factoring in franchising and comic sales. The superhero has arrived to save the day, and he plans on sticking around for a while.
The superhero has his roots quite firmly in legend and the parallels are not hard to find. The reason for the parallels can perhaps be found in our need to tell stories about the best of us and the best in us. We have always looked to the stories in our myths for more than religion. The traditions set by the ancient tale spinners have at times kept alive our most cherished histories, our social and moral codes, heroes for us to aspire to, guardian angels to wage our battles for us, archives that tell us who we are. And in an age of eroding identity, deteriorating political, social, religious and cultural norms that had in the past sustained us, retelling these stories in modern myths takes on new meaning.
The power of the prequel is that it allows for reflections on origins and it is only in reflection that we find meaning.
Mention has already been made here of Superman as the modern day sun god, the shining bright light that guides, nurtures and protects us and points the way to all that we can one day become. Where Superman is the pinnacle of otherworldly power, his dark counterpart, Batman, is the peak of human perfection. As a young boy Bruce Wayne witnesses the brutal slaying of his parents in an alleyway, a life defining tragedy that when coupled with his formidable will drives him to channel his anger and grief into honing himself to become the Batman.
Batman is not the only hero inspired by loss and tragedy to embark upon a sacred quest. Hercules comes to mind. At first glance, Hercules seems to have more in common with Superman, but only superficially. Both Batman and Hercules derive their motivations and define themselves through personal pain and tragedy. Specifically, both lost their families and cannot shake themselves from their guilt. Batman feels guilty because it was his insistence at watching a movie, the Mask of Zorro that led to his parents’ murders. Hercules is tricked into slaying his wife and children by his step mother, Hera, thinking them to be monsters. The same sense of guilt and grief that motivates Batman becomes the setting for the legend with which Hercules is most identified: his twelve labors.
Flash is Mercury. Silver Age Flash even wore the same winged helmet that the god is famous for. Wonder Woman and Thor are living examples of Greek and Norse mythology repurposed to meet the demands of comic book fiction and brought onto a modern arena.
The parallels are many and openly debatable. And that is the point. The power of the prequel is that it allows for reflections on origins and it is only in reflection that we find meaning. Our superheroes can now look back at their ancient predecessors and find that their stories were told centuries ago. Modern myths have retrospectively found their prequels in the legends of our ancestors and surprisingly, we find ourselves telling the same stories, touching upon the same themes once again. There is a common universality of wonder, breadth and depth of emotion, unique human themes that touch upon taking our darkest fears and turning them towards our noblest aspirations. Superheroes and ancient gods emerge from our imaginations to do battle for us when we cannot, to be strong for us when we are weak, to be noble for us when it is hard, and to show us the way. These were the stories of our ancestors. When religion and nationality begin to fail us, in today’s superhero these stories and aspirations are ours once again. These living stories and their ancient prequels are just sketchy enough for us to fill the gaps ‘till we find ourselves reflected within.
The prequel is especially seductive as it provides us that all important safety net – the hand holding needed to reflect upon an origin and in so doing let the stories reflect upon ourselves and our origins and identities. However, that security too comes with a price. Transported by the comic page into a world of sun gods, dark knights, Amazon princesses, thunderers, space cops and alien astronauts one cannot help but recapture a small piece of oneself. As children we were remarkably open to fantastic leaps of imagination and creativity. We expected wonder and accepted the existence of the fantastic as routine even commonplace, and we asked no questions. Superman flew because if he did not, he would not be Superman. Batman looked the way he did and punched crooks each night because to look or to do otherwise, would be to not be Batman. As children we understood that and did not seek to prequalify our acceptance with explanations, or worse, justifications. Our preoccupation with origins, facts and answers is a fixation acquired by the adults we children grew into. And our knowledge has been bought and paid for dearly, at the price of wonder.
Until the Superheroes flew in, and with a riot of glorious color, flashing costumes and musical cacophony, they saved the day.