Bálint Szántó is an MA graduate at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Szeged, Hungary. He studied English Studies with Business English specialization, and American Studies. His research interests include modern American cinema, transmedia storytelling, science fiction and fantasy literature. Email:
Abstract: This paper explores the different mythological archetypes that manifest in the superhero characters of one of the most popular transmedia film franchises of recent years, the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The aim of this paper is to find connections between Marvel films and different mythologies, to trace monomythic and archetypal aspects in superhero adaptations, and to find out whether these films can serve as a modern mythology for the digital age. It builds on the idea that while people in ancient societies believed in the existence of mythological deities, people in the 21st century do not believe in the literal existence of “mythical” characters such as superheroes. However, as the origin stories of these characters involve science, they do represent humanity’s faith in scientific progress. Firstly, the theoretical background of the paper is presented, with particular emphasis on Carl Gustav Jung’s theory of archetypes and contemporary authors that work with this theory. Afterwards, three characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe are analyzed: Captain America, Iron Man, and Hulk. Captain America is examined from the perspective of Joseph Campbell’s traditional monomyth, and Robert Jewett’s and John Shelton Lawrence’s American monomyth as well. In the case of Iron Man and Hulk, the main emphasis is on how these characters represent humanity’s feelings towards the rapid advancement of science, a motif that is present even in the mythological stories of Prometheus. Besides the analysis of mythological archetypes, it will also be discussed how the transmedia narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – with stories being presented through multiple media platforms including films, TV series, and comics – is reminiscent of how Greek mythology was also told through multiple forms of media, such as epic poems, plays, and visual art. The transmedia storytelling framework and the archetypal characters that inhabit it together form a grand cultural phenomenon that influences the lives of millions of people around the globe.
Keywords: archetypes, mythology, superhero, monomyth, transmedia
Stories about characters with extraordinary powers have always been an important part of human culture. The anthropomorphic animal creatures depicted on the cave paintings of the paleolithic age, the gods of Greek and Roman mythology, the dragon slayer princes of traditional folk tales, the monsters of Victorian literature, or the wizards and magical warriors of high fantasy novels have all grown beyond just being interesting characters in their own respective stories. Instead, they became cultural icons that have influenced the lives of millions of people everywhere in the world. Within the stories of these characters, we can notice certain universal patterns that create an unlikely connection between these seemingly unconnected narratives.
The recent wave of new, interconnected superhero films created by Marvel Studios relies heavily on these patterns. Although it can be argued whether it is a fair comparison or not – regarding how these films are not considered to be “high culture”, to say the least – we cannot deny their influence, their ingenious way of reflecting on life in the 21st century, and their ability to speak to millions of contemporary film viewers and attract the masses to the cinema. The creators of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (2008-) have produced a unique storyworld where major characters are established in their own solo films – such as Iron Man or Thor – with these movies and characters later crossed over in huge ensemble-cast films such as The Avengers. This franchise has managed to attain such high worldwide popularity, that the box office numbers of some of these films are only rivalled by highest-grossing blockbusters such as Titanic (1997, dir. James Cameron), Avatar (2009, dir. James Cameron), or the Star Wars (1977, dir. George Lucas) franchise.
In order to understand the persevering success of these movies, it is not enough to look at them merely as entertaining action films that somehow keep hitting the right notes over and over again. Instead, we have to play around with the idea that these are actually modern manifestations of the same phenomenon that created the myths, legends, and folktales throughout cultural history. Greek mythology provided an imaginary world full of gods and creatures with unique powers, which was shaped by many ancient Greek authors through the centuries. Similarly, in modern transmedia franchises (such as the Marvel Cinematic Universe), many different authors work on stories with the same characters, often presented and unfolded via different media platforms (Jenkins 2006, 95-96). These platforms can include films, books, television series, comics, video games, audiobooks, and many other forms of media. In a similar vein, Greek mythology was also told through several forms of media, including epic poems, drama, and visual arts, thus making it an early version of what would later become transmedia storytelling.
But how exactly can we compare these highly commercialized, often even silly films to a sophisticated topic like Greek mythology? The explanation lies within the way the stories communicate with their audiences. In our contemporary postmodern culture, it is getting harder and harder to find a common cultural ground for people around the world. It needs no explanation that in a city-state like ancient Athens, culture was much more universal among people than in the globalized 21st century civilization. In the mid-20th century, culture was divided into subcultures (such as hippies, punks, and rockers), and after the turn of the century, even these subcultures were shattered (Chaney 2004, 36) and fragmented into the personal preferences of every single individual. However, blockbuster movie series like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and the Marvel films have managed to become huge cultural events that can be experienced by anyone, regardless of age, gender, nationality, or subculture.
Obviously, beyond the similarities, there are also some major differences between ancient myths and blockbuster films. People in modern societies no longer believe in the existence of deities like Zeus and Poseidon. No one thinks that whenever there is some trouble, Iron Man or Spider-Man pops up and saves the day. However, we do believe that scientific innovations will make our lives better and provide solutions to major problems such as climate change, diseases, social crises, and wars. The Enlightenment replaced humanity’s faith in the supernatural with faith in technology and science. This faith is an overarching theme in the Marvel Universe, where instead of a divine origin, heroes and villains are created through scientific means, in laboratories. Technology gives a near-omnipotent, godlike set of tools to the characters of this universe, opening up possibilities of time-travel, fending off alien invasions, entering the quantum realm, and creating artificial intelligence. Therefore, it can be argued that even though we do not actually believe in the existence of these characters, we do believe in the power of science that is represented through them.
The aim of this thesis is to answer this question: can Marvel film adaptations be considered the mythology of the 21st century? In order to answer it, I will discuss some of the archetypes that are present in both ancient mythology and Marvel films. I will also discuss the audience’s interactions with these characters, and attempt to find some further similarities between how modern popular cinema and how ancient mythology work. My main focus will be on the following characters: Captain America as the archetypal hero; Iron Man as the physically weak, but highly intelligent character, who creates the powerful weapons for other heroes like Hephaestus; and the Hulk as the modern embodiment of Prometheus, representing humanity’s fear of science. By the end of the paper, I aim to find evidence regarding the connection between mythology and mass cinema, and gain some understanding of the cultural significance of the Marvel films.
First of all, it is essential to define why I find academic research on this topic so important. The most criticized aspect of Marvel films is also their greatest strength: they have managed to create and maintain a formula for mass cinema that helps the creators tell lots and lots of new stories with new characters without reaching a fatigue point. Although we cannot know what the future holds, as of the writing of this paper, Marvel Studios has been producing films within its shared transmedia universe for 12 years, and their popularity is still soaring. Transmedia storytelling, according to Henry Jenkins, is the process of telling a story that “unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole” (Jenkins 2006, 95-96). The Marvel Cinematic Universe contains 23 films, several live-action series, one upcoming animated series, faux news broadcasts, and tie-in comic books. Although it is definitely not the first transmedia franchise, its complex worldbuilding through so many high-budget films is unprecedented. As a comparison, George Lucas’ original six Star Wars films were created between 1977 and 2005, and a lot of their character-building and side stories were left to the authors of books and other ancillary transmedial products. On the other hand, the Marvel Cinematic Universe builds up its pantheon of superhero characters in separate films individually, then brings them together in later films. This model could very easily become the future of storytelling on the big screen, with different franchises from horror (The Conjuring Universe) to Lego animated films (The Lego Movie) already experimenting with it. While this formula is often criticized, and considered to be repetitive by some critics, it still works well and keeps breaking box office records while also changing cinema. But what if this formula is as old as human civilization?
Myths, legends, and tales are not merely stories for entertainment. They help us understand the world around us, create a common language (Barthes 1972, 107), and can also be sources of identity. With its slew of archetypal characters, highly dedicated fanbase, and enormous global success, it is not too far-fetched to assume that the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself acts as a mythology for the 21st century. Although it looks different on the surface, the core of these films indeed shares a lot of aspects with ancient mythology. Like Greek and Roman mythology, the central point of the Marvel Universe is also its “pantheon” of heroes with unique powers. Over the course of more than twenty films and many other entries of several different types of media, we experience the history of these characters, including their growth and their fall. However, as I have mentioned earlier, there is an important difference between these heroes and characters of ancient mythology. While heroes like Odysseus or Achilles receive powers and help from the gods, Marvel superheroes are created by technology and science. They are either the result of super-soldier experiments (Captain America, Winter Soldier), laboratory accidents (Spider-Man, Hulk), interference from alien races (Star-Lord, Captain Marvel), or weapons projects (Iron Man, War Machine). Even the literal “gods” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, like Thor and Loki, are essentially extra-dimensional aliens, living in a highly advanced, hi-tech, utopian reimagination of Asgard from Norse mythology.
In order to understand the beginnings of theoretical explorations on the concept of mythological archetypes, we have to go back a few thousand years to Plato himself. Plato’s concept of the “idea” can be viewed as an early predecessor to Jung’s theories (Williamson 1985, 1). In the theory of forms, Plato sets a distinction between the material world and the world of ideas. The world of ideas contains the essential, ideal forms of all things in the world, and the versions we see in reality and art are simple imitations, lesser versions of the ideal form. It is easier to understand this theory if we put it into the context of my research: an ideal, perfect version of the “hero” archetype exists in the “world of ideas”, and imperfect imitations of this ideal form have manifested in human culture through many instances such as Odysseus, Hercules, King Arthur, or more recently, pop-cultural heroes like Captain America.
But how can we exactly define what ‘hero’ in this context means? At the end of the 19th century, more and more scholars started analyzing mythologies in order to understand the human psyche. Carl Gustav Jung, who is considered to be the father of the concept of archetypes, took a great amount of inspiration from Plato’s works (Williamson 1985, 2). Jung defined the difference between the personal unconscious and the collective unconscious (Jung 1981, 3). Although Freud had already utilized myths in his works in order to understand the personal unconscious, it was Jung who took the step towards the idea of the collective unconscious. According to him, the collective unconscious contains mankind’s instincts and forms of behavior encoded, and these forms manifest in archetypes in mythology and dreams (Jung 1981, 5). He came to this conclusion by studying many different cultures and identifying the commonalities between them. As a result, he created the twelve primary Jungian archetypes, ideals that have manifestations in most mythological stories and fairytales. These timeless archetypes are twelve different character motifs, all of which have appeared throughout cultural history in many stories. The twelve archetypes are the following: The Self, the Anima, the Animus, the Shadow, the Persona, the Father, the Mother, the Child, the Wise, the Hero, the Trickster, and the Maiden (Jung 1981). These archetypes manifest in many different forms in different cultures. An important aspect of the myths that embody the archetypes is that they are always actualized to their own respective societies. This is why The Odyssey is set during the Trojan War, or why King Arthur is represented as the protector of Britain. In a similar fashion, Marvel films are also engineered to reflect on the lives of 21st century youth: Thor plays Fortnite in Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man refers to 80s films as “really old movies”, the titular character throws a gigantic Thomas the Tank Engine toy at his enemy in Ant-Man, and Iron Man listens to AC/DC songs during fights. These little nuances make these characters feel more integrated in our world, and help us identify with them. Even if we look at the comic books, the source material for these film adaptations, they were deeply rooted in the cultural background of 1960s America. The character of the Hulk is the result of the nuclear scare of the Cold War era (Genter 2007, 962), and Spider-Man reflects the emergence of a new prominent social group, the teenager (Genter 2007, 970).
One of the most influential and most referenced works on comparative mythology is The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) by Joseph Campbell. It was heavily inspired by Jung’s Hero archetype. The book is a result of Campbell’s research on many different cultural traditions, including Christianity, Greek mythology, African Yoruba religion, European folk tradition, Native American rites, and many more. Although it was written in 1949, it is still widely used to this day by not only literary and film scholars, but also film directors, fiction authors, and video game developers. Most notably, it is a well-known fact that George Lucas relied heavily on Campbell’s text while developing the story of Star Wars. The book is about Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ theory, which claims that all myths, legends, folk tales, and other stories ever created by mankind are only varieties of the same basic archetypical narrative structure that is present in the collective unconscious of humanity (Campbell 1949, 28). Campbell calls this story ‘the hero’s journey’ or ‘monomyth’, and he describes its steps, elements, and recurring characters in a very detailed way on the pages of this book.
According to Campbell, the archetypal hero story can be divided into three main parts: separation or departure, initiation, and return (Campbell 1949, 28). He further divides these three parts into several sub-sections, each describing a step that leads the hero from the ordinary world to the unknown world and back. With the Marvel films, the case is very similar: Doctor Strange is a surgeon who becomes a sorcerer after a car crash that forces him to seek mysticism to cure his damaged hands; Bruce Banner is a scientist who becomes the Hulk after a lab accident; and Tony Stark is a millionaire who becomes Iron Man after he is kidnapped in Afghanistan. All these films present situations where a person gets dragged out of ordinary life, becomes a superhero, and saves the lives of innocent people.
However, there is a fundamental difference between the Campbellian monomythic hero, and the American portrayal of heroes. Whether it is western gunslinger or the comic book superhero that we are talking about, the American hero is different from traditional heroes. Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence noticed that while the Campbellian hero goes through the cycle of departure, initiation, and return, the American hero narrative lacks the reintegration phase. To understand American hero narratives, they identified the concept of the ‘American monomyth’:
A community in harmonious paradise is threatened by evil; normal institutions fail to contend with this threat; a selfless superhero emerges to renounce temptations and carry out the redemptive task; aided by fate, his decisive victory restores the community to its paradisiacal condition; the superhero then recedes into obscurity. (Jewett and Lawrence 2002, 6)
As this quote explains, while the Campbellian hero rejoins society after their victory, the American hero goes back to isolation. We can observe this situation in almost every superhero film. For example, in Iron Man, the title character protects a village in the Middle-East from terrorist occupation, then flies away. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Spider-Man swings around the city, saves innocent people from thieves and robbers, then rushes away without receiving any sort of reward. It is not the hero’s intention to become a fully-functioning member of the saved community.
In their 1988 essay, Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? An Examination of the American Monomyth and the Comic Book Superhero, Jeffrey S. Lang and Patrick Trimble further discuss superhero comics in relation to the American monomyth. They argue that the act of initiation is replaced by community redemption in the American monomyth, creating a secularized version of the Judeo-Christian redemption story (Lang and Trimble 1988, 158). They also state that culture chooses heroes as an indication of their national character (Lang and Trimble 1988, 159). The first American monomythic heroes, they explain, were statesmen like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, and scientists like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison. However rapid industrialization and later the Great Depression made the average American fearful of technology. This observation will be important later when I discuss Iron Man and the Hulk, as both characters represent society’s optimism and pessimism towards science.
The conception of the narrative model of the American monomyth can be traced back to several cultural and historical influences. As a young nation, Americans had to come up with their own myths, and superhero comics are among the results of this process. Anthony Mills discusses the relationship between superheroes and mythology in his 2013 book, American Theology, Superhero Comics, and Cinema. He argues that the American monomyth is an amalgamation of ancient and modern philosophical theories (Mills 2013, 21). The geographical separation of America, the puritan worldview of the Protestant colonists, and American exceptionalism have all contributed to the creation of this new type of hero (Mills 2013, 5). The superhero character is highly individualistic, yet is driven by strong moral values. The puritan work ethic is what characterizes these heroes, who risk their lives for saving others without any compensation.
Chris Gavaler argues that the periodic nature of the comic book medium was also an important factor for the formation of this narrative model for superheroes (Gavaler 2018, 18). This is what differentiates superhero comics from myths and folktales: the hero of the folktale usually settles down, gets married, and/or becomes the ruler of the kingdom, putting an end to his story. Meanwhile, superhero comics are released monthly, or even weekly, therefore, their creators have to come up with new stories constantly. Because of this, the superhero can never settle down, and can never fulfill the third step of the Campbellian monomyth. This aligns with what Lang and Trimble say about the lack of relationships in the superhero narrative, and how absence of emotional connections was a contributing factor to the serialization of superhero comics (Lang and Trimble 1988, 162). This is slightly different in the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the heroes usually have some kind of relationship with “mortals”, but these relationships are presented as the hero’s weaknesses. In the Spider-Man films, for example, the main reason for Peter Parker to keep his superhero identity in secret is to protect his family from villains.
In his 2013 book, Captain America and the Nationalist Superhero, Jason Dittmer proposes the archetype of the ‘nationalist superhero’ in order to describe the character of Captain America. He states that while Captain America is arguably the best known one, many other similar superheroes have seen the light of the day under the aegis of Marvel Comics, citing the Irish character Shamrock, the Egyptian Scarlet Scarab, and the Soviet/Russian Red Guardian as examples among others (Dittmer 2013, 21). In the text, the ‘nationalist superhero’ narratives are described as “superhero narratives in which hero (or very rarely, the heroine) explicitly identifies himself or herself as representative and defender of a specific nation-state, often through his or her name, uniform, and mission” (Dittmer 2013, 7).
In their 2019 paper, A Mythological Approach to Transmedia Storytelling, Dan Popa and Nicoleta Popa Blanariu discuss the connection between the mythological origins of modern mass cinema and transmedia storytelling. According to the authors, “beyond the elements of mythological inspiration, there is still a connection between mythical narrative and transmedia storytelling: their performative dimension” (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 453). This observation is essentially the reason why I find it important to analyze the framework of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a transmedia franchise beyond just examining the archetypal characters when searching for mythological connections. A myth is not merely a story: it serves as a basis of identity. The performative function of transmedial franchises and the archetypal characters are both central ingredients for the creation of a modern mythos. The consumer of transmedial products is an active participant. Thanks to the appearance of internet forums and social media, thousands of fans can get the opportunity to create and share their own iterations of their favorite characters through fanfiction. They are no longer merely consumers, but also producers of media. Furthermore, enthusiasts of blockbuster franchises often become creators of officially licensed, canonical products. Because of this, it is easy to draw parallels between the creation of mythological stories and these new transmedia franchises. Unlike one-part films, which usually just tell a self-contained story, transmedia franchises create a living breathing world with its own rules and characters that can be used for many stories – just like ancient mythologies.
The authors compare the performative dimension to traditional communities, where telling exemplary stories was a ritual act (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 455). As an example, we can mention Dionysias from ancient Athens, when they organized a festival in honor of the Greek god Dionysus. There, the participants dressed up as gods, took part in singing and dancing contests, performed plays, and had huge feasts.
The authors explain that the cognitive patterns that manifest in myths serve as a “hypotext” in culture, with the stories that are conceived in the process acting as “hypertexts” (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 447). They also add the concept of the “mythemes” by Claude Lévi-Strauss, describing them as basic variant units from which myths are built. This concept is utilized to explain the constant reappearance of the Jungian archetypes in transmedia franchises. Their main examples are Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 448), where the main protagonists, Harry Potter and Frodo serve as the “Child Hero”, and characters like Dumbledore and Gandalf represent the “Wise Old Man”. The authors also point out that there is a link between the antagonistic characters that represent the “Trickster” archetype, and the Jungian concept of the “individual Shadow” (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 448), which is a manifestation of the main protagonist’s inferior traits. This claim is reinforced by pointing out the ambiguous relationship that connects Harry Potter to Voldemort, and Frodo to Gollum. We can observe the same in Marvel films too: the villain is in many cases an evil version, or a “Shadow” of the main protagonist. In Iron Man, the titular character’s business partner steals the Iron Man technology, and turns himself into the Iron Monger. In The Incredible Hulk, the antagonist uses the same serum that turned Bruce Banner into the Hulk, and turns himself into the Abomination.
The authors of the text also discuss the bardic function of transmedia storytelling (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 449). Transmedia narratives, just like myths, should articulate historical, physical, and psychological “truth” and cultural consensus, not necessarily through a religious meaning (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 449-450). They bring up the Japanese anime series Kamichu! as an example, pointing out how the bardic function of this series aims to process the trauma of World War II.
At the beginning of the 21st century, we experienced a sudden influx of high-budget superhero blockbusters in Hollywood. While the rapid advancement of digital filmmaking technologies was definitely a major contributor to the genre’s newfound popularity, we cannot overlook the cultural environment of that era. The most popular superhero films of the pre-MCU era, such as The Dark Knight (2008, dir. Christopher Nolan) and Spider Man (2002, dir. Sam Raimi), all share an important common feature: they were all heavily impacted by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This was the event that fundamentally shook American society’s trust towards the establishment, and created a sense of need for a higher power. As Christine Muller argues, traumatic events amplify the feeling of powerlessness in the individual (Muller 2011, 46). Culture is the site where the shared meanings of life are produced, and trauma leads to the re-negotiation of cultural values, even the most fundamental ones like the opposition of good and evil (Muller 2011, 46-47). The superhero of 21st century cinema is no longer a sublime, “perfect” character, but a human being with flaws and often questionable acts. Muller brings up the morally ambiguous acts of Batman from DC’s The Dark Knight as an example, but this phenomenon is present in the Marvel films as well. I will talk about this in more detail in my analysis of Captain America.
In his analysis of the superhero mythos, James F. Iaccino also approaches the superhero archetypes from a Jungian perspective, although from a slightly different one. He argues that superhero characters can generally be associated with two archetypes: the Shadow and the Persona (Iaccino 1998, 93). The Persona represents the everyday face of the hero. In the case of the characters analyzed in my paper, these “faces” are Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner. Iaccino compares this Persona to a “mask”, then explains that the Shadow side lies underneath this mask. The Shadow contains the hidden strengths of the hero, and is also a source of a constant internal struggle, leading to a fragmented personality.
As we can see from this theoretical background, there are several layers that we can analyze in order to determine whether we can consider a transmedia franchise a modern mythos. The performative function of these franchises, the archetypal characters, and the relationship between the narrative and the cultural environment are all important elements. In the following parts of the paper, my focus will be mainly on the characters of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Captain America as the Archetypal Hero
The character of Captain America is nearly eight decades old. What started off as a representation of American nationalism on the home front during World War II (McNamara 2015), became a central figure of worldwide popular culture and mass cinema in the 2010s. But what exactly is the reason behind this character’s longevity and ability to maintain relevance for such an extended period of time? How could the storytellers – whether it is the comic writers and pencilers, or the creators of the film – create and evolve a character that resonates with millions of people from the 1940s to the 2010s as well on such a high level?
It can be argued that Captain America mirrors DC Comics’ Superman in many senses. They were both created with the intention of producing a “perfect” character for their respective universes. They both embody morally pure, nearly undefeatable characters and leader figures who protect their people and help innocents whenever and wherever they can. Furthermore, their stories in the comic books have always been written to reflect on the reality of the age they were released in. For example, while Captain America mostly fought Nazis and Nazi-related villains on the pages of his early 1940s comics, a vast majority of his enemies in the 1950s were Soviets and communists.
Just like the comic books, Captain America’s film adaptations were also actualized to the trends of their age. In the first film, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), the titular character is more directly adapted from the earliest comics, and shown as a super soldier created in World War II to lead the Allied forces against the Nazis. He is depicted as an icon for America who inspires all Americans both on the frontline and the home front. However, his next two solo films, Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) feature an increasing disillusionment with the American ideal and mistrust towards the establishment. This type of character development is one of the main factors that contributed to the persisting popularity of the character. In this part of my paper, I will analyze the filmic version of Captain America from a mythological perspective.
Since the comic book series has been going on since the 1940s, with many different writers applying different approaches to the narrative, it would have been an impossible task to create a direct film adaptation. Instead, the creators took three well-known story arcs, and adapted them in a cinema-friendly, but faithful way that contains many hidden Easter Eggs and references to the source materials. Looking at old Captain America comics from the 1940s, one could easily notice the radical differences between the filmic representation of the character and the original comic books. Needless to say, a hundred percent faithful adaptation of the Captain America-mythos could have easily fallen into the trap of becoming too old-fashioned and kitschy. However, Captain America: The First Avenger successfully tackles this issue, and manages to reflect on the character’s place in a post-9/11 culture appropriately. The ridiculousness of the original Captain America costume with the “wing ears” is acknowledged in the diegetic world of the film. Before taking part in the World War, Captain America takes part in revue shows which leads to him being made fun by soldiers. The film does not ignore the fact that it is no longer possible to create a pathos around the character the same way they did in 1940s. The filmic version of Captain America is flawed and often questions authority and the American Dream itself. This can partly be traced back to the September 11 terrorist attacks, which had a significant effect on the representation of superheroes. This new depiction of Captain America is a result of the re-negotiation of cultural values following a trauma (Mueller 2011, 46). Just like other modern superheroes, who “have human frailties and weaknesses more indicative of normal people” (Indick 2004, 2), the filmic version Captain America is no longer the perfect, flawless hero from the comic books. A mythos must take the timeless archetypes and put them into the context of the society, and the Captain America films succeed at this. As Mills argues, the main factors that make him a great leader are his selflessness, humility, and courage (Mills 2013, 183), and these don’t change during his monomythic journey (184).
The narrative of Captain America in the Marvel Cinematic Universe contains elements from both the Campbellian monomyth and the American monomyth. Throughout the films, we witness the main character’s journey from being an ordinary street boy to becoming a hero, but the final step of reintegration is missing. It can be argued that the story of Captain America in the film adaptations is a mixture of the two archetypal monomyth narratives.
The first stage of the hero’s journey in Campbell’s monomyth is the departure, which begins with a call to adventure (Campbell 1949, 45). This is the part where the main character – who is usually an ordinary person, living in an ordinary world – receives a call from an unknown, peculiar realm. The call often appears in a novel environment from a mentor-like character, and it initiates the transformation of the young protagonist to the ideal hero (Campbell 1949, 50-51). It also involves an otherworldly, often repulsive creature that represents the “other side” (Campbell 1949, 48-49). Campbell’s example for this creature is the Questing Beast from Arthurian legends, a monster that heralds the beginning of Arthur’s transition towards the unknown, fantasy world. The call is usually refused, only to be reconsidered and accepted later. A more modern example of this is from Star Wars, when Luke Skywalker receives a distress call from Princess Leia. He first refuses to go, but after the Galactic Empire kills his aunt and uncle, he changes his mind.
At the beginning of Captain America: The First Avenger, we encounter Steve Rogers, a young man from New York City, who is trying to join the U.S. Army to fight the Germans in World War II. He is quickly dismissed by the military recruiter because of his weak physique and several chronic illnesses. However, he later meets Dr. Erskine, a scientist who is working on a super soldier serum for the American military. Steve agrees eagerly to take part in the experiment, because he feels a heavy desire to fight for his country. Thanks to the experiment, which is equivalent of the “supernatural aid” in Campbellian terminology (Campbell 1949, 63), he gains superhuman abilities, and becomes Captain America, a figurehead for the U.S. Army in World War II. According to Campbell, in mythological stories, the supernatural aid comes usually in the form of artifacts such as dragon amulets or mystic lanterns (Campbell 1949, 63-64). In Greek mythology, it is usually divine intervention and help from gods, like Pallas Athene in Odysseus’ story. However, in the modern environment of Captain America and the Marvel Films in general, these are replaced with syringes, chemicals, and laboratory equipment. Instead of Pallas Athene, the mentor figure for Steve is Dr. Erskine. Thanks to modern technology, Steve Rogers becomes a superhero and completes his first step from ordinary life towards the unknown world.
The next step in Campbell’s monomyth is the crossing of the first threshold (Campbell 1949, 71). This is the part where the hero faces the first real challenge in the supernatural world. In the film, a Nazi spy kills Dr. Erskine after Steve’s successful transformation. Steve rushes through the city to catch him, however, the spy kills himself. This scene shows the first time Steve faces the horrors of war, which is another important step in the hero’s journey. For Odysseus, the first threshold is the war of Troy, it is where he begins his initiation into the mystic world (Spiegel 1998, 3).
At this point, the first main stage of Campbell’s monomyth, the departure ends. Steve Rogers has departed New York, his home, and ventured into the “supernatural”, unknown world. Now, he has to face his trials in order to complete his entrance into this new world (Campbell 1949, 89). Campbell calls the second stage of the hero’s journey the ‘initiation’. This stage can be understood as a rite of passage, where the hero becomes one with the supernatural world. The initiation begins with the ‘road of trials’, the part where the hero faces his enemies, meets his helpers, and acquires various mystic trinkets. In the film, we see a montage of Captain America participating in the war, presented in a World War II propaganda film style. This is the scene where he becomes the iconic leader figure who leads the U.S. military. While Odysseus faces creatures such as the Cyclops or the Sirens, Captain America fights the Red Skull, and a secret Nazi organization, the HYDRA. Instead of treasures or talismans, the protagonists and the antagonists fight over the Tesseract, an Infinity Stone, which gives unlimited energy to its users.
Captain America himself, according to Jason Dittmer, is a manifestation of American exceptionalism, and represents the United States’ distance from other countries (Dittmer 2013, 10). Dittmer discusses Jewett’s and Lawrence’s American monomyth, and argues that the lack of integration and the desire for liberation is linked to American exceptionalism (Dittmer 2013, 11). His book was released in 2013, three years before the release of the third Captain America movie, Captain America: Civil War. This film was based on the 2006 comic book story Civil War, which, according to Dittmer, was heavily influenced by the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (Dittmer 2013, 12). The dilemma between security and civil liberties is the main question of both the film and its source material. In the film, following a mass catastrophe caused by a battle between the Avengers and a villain group, the United Nations establishes the Sokovia Accords to regulate superhero activity. It causes a rift between the heroes who support this law (led by Iron Man) and those (led by Captain America) who oppose the law. Captain America, the living, breathing symbol of the United States, turns against American authorities. Although it might be surprising to some, this turn is encoded in the essence of the character. Independent action is a defining trait of the American monomythic hero (Dittmer 2013, 14). If independence is violated by the state, the hero must protect American ideals even against authorities. After the events of the Civil War film, Captain America goes into hiding, and returns only when an extra-terrestrial force, Thanos, threatens humanity in Avengers: Infinity War. His story arch, which is told through several transmedial platforms, is a very vivid example of the American monomyth, where the hero comes out of isolation, saves the day, and then returns to obscurity.
From this analysis, I have drawn the conclusion that the story arc of Captain America indeed shares a lot of characteristics with the archetypal hero character, whether it is Odysseus or King Arthur. Yet, he is perfectly adjusted to the expectations of the information age, and fits the transmedia franchise well. His fast-paced, eventful films are full of quotable one-liners and pop cultural references introduce the character well, and put him into the pantheon of heroes that would be used by the directors of the later entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His character represents the American ideals of independent action, protecting the innocent, and the puritan work ethic.
Iron Man is one of the most popular films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe for several reasons. Firstly, it is the first film in the franchise, therefore it is a much easier and much more accessible entry point for new fans than, for example, The Avengers, which builds on characters that had been established in five previous movies. Iron Man was the movie that laid down the whole storyworld, which has since been inhabited by hundreds of characters. Secondly, it is indeed a well put-together movie that is held in a high regard by both fans and critics. At the moment, both its audience score and “tomatometer” (indicating the average score given by professional critics) stand above 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com). On IMDb (www.imdb.com), it is currently on 7,9 out of 10 stars, which makes it the fifth highest ranked Marvel film. Robert Downey Jr., the actor who portrayed the titular character (and his real-life alter ego, Tony Stark), played a particularly important part in the movie’s success. Thanks to his outstanding performance, which has been cited by critics as “terrific” (French 2008) and “special” (Ebert 2008), he instantly became a fan-favorite, who went on to reprise the role in many other Marvel movies, including the second and the third entries of the Iron Man series. The film’s overwhelming success has made it possible for Marvel Studios to keep experimenting with lesser-known comic book characters, which eventually led to the Marvel Cinematic Universe in its current form. Had it not been for the success of this movie, bringing more minor characters, such as Doctor Strange or the Guardians of Galaxy to the big screen in high-budget blockbusters would never have been possible.
An iconic scene of the first Iron Man movie is the shot where Tony Stark is lifting up the blacksmith hammer while working on his first Iron Man armor. This scene contains a striking resemblance to depictions of Hephaestus, the Greek god of metalwork, blacksmiths, and crafting. He is often represented the same way as Tony in the aforementioned scene, with a hammer in his hand, working on some kind of metal piece on an anvil. Although this connection might not be significant in itself, it is quite symbolic as it marks Tony Stark’s place among other superheroes. However, this is not the only similarity between the two characters. In this part of my paper, I would like to compare the character of Tony Stark/Iron Man from the Marvel Cinematic Universe to Hephaestus from Greek mythology. Their depictions, personal stories, attributes, and places in their own respective storyworlds all give a perfect basis for this comparison I would argue. Connecting back to my argument about technology replacing divine intervention in modern mythologies, Iron Man is indeed one of the most important characters in Marvel movies in this regard. As the head of a tech company, his inventions define a great part of the storyworld, and show the unlimited power of science in it.
Rinon describes Hephaestus as a tragic, lonely character, who greatly differs from other Olympian gods (Rinon 2006, 1). While other gods on Mount Olympus devote themselves to pleasure, Hephaestus spends his time alone, occupied with physical work. He is the blacksmith of the gods who manufactures their weapons. As the god of metalwork, craftmanship, and artisanship, he displays a high level of competence in these fields. Yet, he is a reclusive and tragic god who has a lot of pain in his life. He struggles with human issues, including his weakness and his physical disability, and his characterization makes him far more humane than the other Greek gods (Rinon 2006, 2).
The character of Iron Man in Marvel films shares a lot of these attributes. Although Tony Stark is first presented in the movie as a genius with exceptional scientific knowledge, and a billionaire who attends conference after conference and party after party, we later find out that he is only truly happy when he is on his own, working on armors and weaponry. Yes, he might seem different from Hephaestus in the sense that he is not a completely antisocial character, but as his story progresses, it becomes more and more apparent that his playboy persona is merely a façade. Behind this mask, he is a rather isolated person (Mills 2013, 177). His true personality is the eccentric, depressed man. In Iron Man and Iron Man 2, he spends a lot of time in his basement, tinkering with his Iron Man suit. His story has a lot of suffering and pain, all of which have led to his cynical attitude towards people. His parents were murdered when he was at a young age, and he inherited a multinational tech company, Stark Industries from them. He was later kidnapped by a terrorist group in Afghanistan during a weapons test, and was forced to manufacture his first Iron Man armor in dire circumstances to escape his captivity. This trauma marks a turning point in his life, and he decides to become a hero instead of a tycoon who makes billions out of selling weapons to terrorists.
As I mentioned earlier in my paper, an important aspect of mythology is that it is always actualized to the society it speaks to. The original Iron Man comics from the 1960s were released in the middle of the Cold War. In the comics, Tony was kidnapped by a communist tyrant in Vietnam, and was forced to create his first Iron Man suit there (Genter 2007, 966). However, when the story was adapted to film in 2008, the theme of the Cold War was obviously no longer relevant, so the origin point of Iron Man was moved from Vietnam to Afghanistan. Recurring themes involving his character in Marvel films include moral dilemmas related to weapons industry, the war on terror, the question of how far humanity should advance in science, and the problems of too much or too little government control. His adversaries in his solo films are either terrorist groups or corrupt industrial tycoons and scientists such as Obadiah Stane or Justin Hammer. These villains represent the issue of advanced technology getting into the wrong hands. Thus, we can argue that the character of Iron Man displays both sides of the coin: humanity’s faith in technology, and humanity’s techno-skepticism (Saunders 2011, 106).
It is important to note that Hephaestus is much weaker than other Olympian gods (Rinon 2006, 14). In a similar vein, Tony Stark is merely an ordinary man (although one with a very high intelligence level and a lot of money) without his Iron Man armor. They are both important to their storyworlds because of the tools they create with their exceptional craftmanship. Hephaestus created Eros’ bow, Achilles’ armor, and Heracles’ bronze clappers among others. Tony Stark created his own armor, and also Spider-Man’s suit, War Machine’s armor, many other weapons and gadgets used by the Avengers, and he also repaired Captain America’s shield, which was, by the way, created by his father. While gods and heroes in Greek mythology get their magical tools from Hephaestus, superheroes in Marvel movies acquire their own high-tech tools from Tony Stark.
Another important trait of both characters that I have not really explored yet is that they both have some kind of major disability that is one of their most defining traits and separates them from other characters of their own respective storyworlds. Rinon remarks that part of Hephaestus’ tragedy is the fact that he is the laughing stock among gods due to his weakness and handicap (Rinon 2006, 3). This is also present in the story of Iron Man. In an often-quoted quarrel between Captain America and Tony in The Avengers, Steve taunts Tony by asking him what he is without his Iron Man suit. “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist”, Tony answers.
Hephaestus walks with a limp, which is a unique trait among the gods who are almost always depicted as ideal human beings with perfect physique. Iron Man also has to live with his own disability. When he was captured in Afghanistan, he was wounded by a shrapnel. Should he remove the Arc Reactor in his chest, he would instantly die from the shrapnel reaching his heart. This puts him in a handicapped position among other superheroes, and this condition is a recurring source of conflict during the films. In Iron Man 2, he finds out that the Arc Reactor is poisoning his body, so he has to develop a new one with different elements in order to save his life. However, he manages to turn this burden into an advantage. The Arc Reactor in his chest serves as a limitless power source, and it is responsible for powering his Iron Man suit. In my opinion, this reflects on how scientific progress is the fastest during times of crises even in our real life. However, in the process of this transformation, it is possible, that the “human” itself is lost. Saunders proposes the question whether Tony Stark can even be considered an autonomous human being, or a man-machine hybrid instead (Saunders 2011, 119). This dilemma is also applicable to the 21st century human experience, as we are constantly surrounded by electric devices that we use every day to keep in touch with others, monitor our heart rate, or control other electric tools in our homes. We live a huge part of our lives on social media, and real-life interactions are getting less relevant as digital technology advances. We are becoming more and more dependent on technology, and I think Iron Man explores this issue in a spectacular way. His life is literally dependent on technology, and without it, he would be dead.
Mills argues that Tony Stark’s journey throughout the films is mainly a psychological one. (Mills 2013, 176). Tony goes from selling weapons in the Middle East to protecting civilians from terrorists. He starts questioning the military-industrial complex, and fights his own Jungian Shadow, Obadiah Stane. Stane, who is Stark’s business partner in the weapon industry, steals one of Tony’s prototype Iron Man suits, and tries to turn it against him. This ties back to the text that discusses the relationship between the Hero and the Trickster: the villainous character, Trickster, is a Shadow reflection of the Hero’s inferior traits (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 448). By defeating his Shadow reflection, he symbolically leaves his old self behind, and becomes this new, morally sensitive character.
The case of Iron Man is also one of the most revealing instances where the usefulness of a transmedia narrative is apparent. In his own films, where he is the central hero, we learn his personal tragedy. However, in other films, such as Spider-Man: Homecoming, where Downey Jr. stars as a supporting actor, Iron Man is presented as more of a mentor figure. Unlike in the Iron Man films, where he is the Hero in the Jungian sense, he takes on the mantle of the Wise Old Man archetype in Spider-Man: Homecoming. In previous film adaptations, Spider-Man was a “grassroots” superhero who created his own tools. However, in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the iconic Spider-Man costume is manufactured by Tony Stark, and is enhanced with hi-tech tools that are completely new to the character. This reinforces his position as the equivalent of Hephaestus in Marvel films. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, it is Tony who is responsible for the creation of the artificial intelligence that goes haywire and tries to take over the Earth. And finally, in Avengers: Endgame, Tony is the one who discovers time travel, which is pivotal to the victory of the heroes. These inventions are usually only partly explained, leaving it to the audience’s imagination to complete the picture. Even in cases where he does not appear on screen, he is an omnipresent figure through his inventions that are being used by almost every superhero at some point.
To summarize this part of my paper, I have analyzed the character of Iron Man, and examined how he fits into the mythology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I compared him to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths and artisans from ancient Greek mythology, because they display many important common attributes, such as their expert craftmanship, and their physical disability that is complemented by their mental skills. Iron Man is one of the strongest reasons why we can consider Marvel superheroes the modern-day equivalent of the pantheon of gods in Greek mythology. His character itself is a manifestation of humanity’s faith in technology, while also giving a lot of room to skepticism towards this faith. In the following part, where I am going to analyze the Hulk, I will move into more detail regarding this skepticism.
The Incredible Hulk
As I already argued in the previous parts of my paper, science is portrayed as an almost omnipotent force that replaces divine intervention in modern mythologies like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Instead of serving as a basis for religion and faith in certain gods, these stories are based on humanity’s faith in technological advancement and how new innovations would eventually make our lives better. Instead of gods, titans, and celestial beings, their main characters are heroes created through scientific means. In the previous two chapters, I have explored two instances of this phenomenon. Captain America is the archetypal hero, who was created through scientific means instead of the aid of the gods. He got his powers as a result of an experiment, unlike ancient mythological heroes, who received their powers from the gods. Iron Man is a half-human, half-machine hero who owes his life to technology. Although at some instances he also presents a darker side of the coin, overall, technological advancement is generally presented in a positive light in his stories. However, there is a character, who is literally the embodiment of what happens when science “goes wrong”.
This character is the Incredible Hulk. Although both his filmic portrayal and its comic book counterpart have undergone certain transformations over the years, he is generally perceived as a giant, green, raging monster, who emerges when the peaceful scientist, Bruce Banner gets angry. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he has been portrayed by two actors: Edward Norton in The Incredible Hulk (2008), and Mark Ruffalo in the four Avengers films and Thor: Ragnarok (2017). Since the 2008 film is the only one which is fully devoted to the character of the Hulk (with him only appearing as a supporting character in the other movies), I will mainly focus on this film in this part of my paper. It is also the film that contains the character’s most archetypal, most quintessential version. As opposed to later movies, it is a mostly faithful adaptation of the character from the comic books, so the attributes that I would like to analyze are the most prevalent in it. In this part of my paper, building upon the idea that mythology is a representation of a society’s fears, desires, and experiences, I will analyze the character of Bruce Banner/Hulk as a modern manifestation of the mythological story of Prometheus.
The control of fire in the Early Stone Age was one of the first and most important scientific innovations in human history. Fire provided warmth, safety, and made it possible for humans to cook food. It was also a catalyst that enabled further development both culturally and scientifically. Therefore, we can argue that it was humanity’s first step towards “playing god”. In Greek mythology, the greatest sin of the gods is hubris: excessive ambition, self-confidence, and pride (Trousson 1996, 970). Hubris often results in overreaching, when a god or other divine being commits sinful acts due to their own over-confidence. The sin that Prometheus committed was stealing fire from the gods, and giving it to humanity, which resulted in the development of human civilization. Although humanity benefitted from this act, he got punished for it by the gods.
The human “host” of the Hulk, Bruce Banner, is a scientist, whose hubris also leads to negative consequences. At the beginning of The Incredible Hulk, we are shown an introductory montage, in which we see Banner conduct a gamma-ray experiment on himself. The aim of the experiment is to recreate the super-soldier serum that is responsible for the creation of Captain America. However, the experiment goes wrong, and Banner turns into a huge, green monster, who destroys the laboratory. The case of the Hulk can be viewed as a cautionary tale (Genter 2007, 961): even in our reality, there are many moral dilemmas regarding certain scientific fields, such as nuclear technology, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. These dilemmas pose us certain questions: for example, should we steal the “fire” of creating life from God, and tinker with the DNA of human beings and animals? Questions like this have been debated by philosophers for centuries, and have inspired countless literary works. The Hulk, both as a comic book character and a film character, is the result of these dilemmas too, following a tradition that goes back to the story of Prometheus. Here, we can once again go back to Ben Saunders, who looks at the character of Iron Man as a display of both techno-faith and techno-skepticism at times (Saunders 2011, 119). It can easily be argued that the story of the Hulk takes this skepticism to an even higher level. The dangers and possible negative consequences of rapid scientific advancement are getting more and more persistent in our lives, making the Hulk-mythos even more relevant. The bardic function of transmedia storytelling is present here, it articulates or at least attempts to articulate a cultural consensus (Popa and Popa Blanariu 2018, 450).
This interpretation of the character is slightly different from the more popular, psychological one. James F. Iaccino looks at the Hulk as the Jungian Shadow side of the Bruce Banner persona (Iaccino 1998, 168). He also considers Banner’s shapeshifting ability as an aspect of the Trickster archetype (Iaccino 1998, 169), which aligns with the classification of Prometheus as a Trickster god. In his human form, Banner has the ability to blend in with the crowd and hide from authorities. His subconscious, Shadow side comes to the forefront when he is angry, causing pain and destruction.
According to Robert Genter, the story of the Hulk draws a huge amount of inspiration from Victorian tradition (Genter 2007, 961). Although his research is restricted to the comic book version of the character, the same observations can be made about the film version too. In 19th century Britain, as new sciences and pseudo-sciences rose, people started feeling an increasing concern with the rapid advancement of scientific innovations. Genter identifies The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson and Frankenstein (1823) by Mary Shelley as the main inspiration behind the original Incredible Hulk comics (Genter 2007, 961). Both works feature monsters that are related to science in some way. The former features Dr. Jekyll, and English doctor, who accidentally develops a serum that turns him into Mr. Hyde, a manifestation of his evil urges. The latter involves a monster that was created through the means of galvanism, a popular pseudo-science in 19th century Britain.
It is no wonder that in the middle of the 1960s nuclear scare, many science fiction authors wrote stories influenced by nuclear experiments and gamma rays. Capitanio calls the Hulk the Mr. Hyde of the atomic age (Capitanio 2010, 249). He builds on Genter’s theories, and states that “the relationship between the scientific community and the interests of national security is shown as a Faustian one at best” (Capitanio 2010, 258) in the comics. This is present in the movie too, when Emil Blonsky, an elite soldier who is also the main antagonist, injects himself with a variation of the Hulk serum, and turns himself into an even more repulsive monstrosity. He does all of this in order to capture Banner as the government gets more and more desperate due to constant failure doing so.
Since the 2008 film was created well after the end of the Cold War, the issue of nuclear catastrophes was not as imminent as in the 1960s. Therefore, it is best to view the gamma ray as a cautionary tale element, since it has more of a symbolic value. However, the film also discusses other topics in the context of the Hulk which are still extremely relevant. These topics include globalization and the issue of exploitation of workforce in third-world countries. At the beginning of The Incredible Hulk, Banner is working at a Brazilian soft drink bottling factory under dire circumstances. He accidentally cuts himself, and a drip of his gamma ray-infused blood falls into one of the bottles. The contaminated drink gets shipped into the United States, where an elderly man drinks it. His actual fate is never fully revealed. According to one of the police officers, he got “a little more kick than he was looking for”.
A recurring theme in the narratives of both the Hulk and Prometheus is punishment. Prometheus is punished by the god for giving fire to humans, and is chained to the mountain for thirty years. This makes him a martyr in the eyes of mankind (Trousson 1996, 971), and his sin is viewed as a sacrifice. In a similar vein, to the character of Bruce Banner, being the Hulk is a great burden. Throughout the movie, we witness his desperate escape from government authorities who treat him as a criminal. He has to wear a heart rate monitor in order to be able to constantly check his heart rate and avoid turning into the raging green monster. He has to break up with his girlfriend, Betty Ross, whose father serves as a general in the US army, leading the hunt for the Hulk. Even in the following films, capturing the Hulk is a problem that often comes back, but it never really lasts long due to obvious reasons. However, we can conclude that Banner is punished both by nature and the government as a consequence of tinkering with science.
The Incredible Hulk is considered to be one of the weaker films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It had many problems during its production, including quarrels between leading actor Edward Norton and the studio. The film has also been criticized by many critics, including Roger Ebert, who emphasized its lack of introspectiveness (Ebert 2008). Although it is not necessarily considered to be a huge failure or a bad film, it was greatly overshadowed by the success of Iron Man, which was released in the same year. Due to the mixed reception of the movie and Norton quitting the franchise, it could easily have been the end of the Hulk on the big screen. However, the transmedia storyworld that was laid down in Iron Man, and the interconnectedness of the Marvel films made it possible for Marvel Studios to continue telling the tale of Bruce Banner. Four years after The Incredible Hulk, in 2012, the green monster returned as a member of the titular group in The Avengers. An important part of creating a filmic mythos with the tools of transmedia storytelling is what Jenkins calls ‘synergistic storytelling’ (Jenkins 2006, 101-103). In order for a character’s story arc to be believable even when presented through different platforms and/or film entries, the different authors need to keep up a sense of continuity very strictly, in terms of the character’s depiction, narrative, and message as well.
The character of Ultron is a good example of this continuity in terms of a character arc’s underlying themes. The first sequel to the Avengers, Age of Ultron was released in 2015, three years after the first film. The motif of science anxiety comes to the forefront in this movie once again. In the film, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner create Ultron, an artificial intelligence designed with the purpose of protecting Earth from alien invasions. However, Ultron gets loose, and tries to take over the planet instead. The topic of the dangers posed by artificial intelligence is a very relevant and not completely unrealistic issue that has been explored in many works, including Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot (1950), Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968), and the Terminator film series. Here, again, we see an example of the same hubris that led to Prometheus stealing the fire. Stark and Banner believed that they were the only ones who were capable of creating an adequate defense system for humanity, and it led to grave consequences. Interestingly, the punishment of Prometheus in Works and Days is carried out by Hephaestus (who I compared to Tony Stark/Iron Man in the previous chapter), who creates Pandora, a female human. Pandora opens a jar, which unleashes all evils of humanity (Trousson 1996, 969). In Age of Ultron, the artificial intelligence created by Iron Man and Hulk (the superhero equivalents of Hephaestus and Prometheus) also “opens a jar”, and unleashes a robotic army on humanity.
To summarize this chapter of my paper, I have analyzed the character of Bruce Banner and his superhero alter-ego, the Hulk from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I compared him to the titan Prometheus from Greek mythology, because the theft of fire can be seen a metaphor for humanity’s concern with too rapid scientific progress. I also discussed his likeness to Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde and Frankenstein’s monster from Gothic literature, since this concern was also a recurring theme in 19th century English literature. As for the Hulk, I concentrated mainly on his appearance in the Louis Leterrier-directed movie, The Incredible Hulk (2008), because it is the only film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that concentrates fully on this character. However, I also discussed his appearance in the Avengers series, especially the second one, Age of Ultron. I found it important because of the analogy that could be drawn between the punishment of Prometheus with Pandora’s jar, and the portrayal of artificial intelligence in the film. As a conclusion, I would argue that the story of the Hulk is a cautionary tale that displays the same archetype as Prometheus or the aforementioned Gothic characters. Therefore, it fits into the pantheon of Marvel superheroes well, and adds further complexity to their story.
To summarize my paper, I have analyzed the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and compared it to ancient mythology. I have chosen three characters from Marvel films, examined their similarities to mythological characters, and searched for the presence of archetypes and monomythic narrative structures in their transmedial story arcs:
Firstly, I analyzed the character of Captain America. He is the archetypal Hero character, who starts off as an ordinary boy, and ends up becoming an iconic American figure. His story arch is a mixture of the Campbellian traditional monomyth and the American monomyth. He goes through the first two steps of the traditional monomyth: the departure, and the initiation. However, he does not become part of society again, he fades into obscurity and returns only when society is threatened.
Secondly, I compared Iron Man to Hephaestus. As they both serve as the manufacturers of the tools and weapons of the characters of their own worlds, they provided a perfect basis for this comparison. Also, while Iron Man has to deal with his failing heart, Hephaestus walks with a limp: both of these traits make them weaker than the rest of the superheroes/gods. Thus, they both have to stand out with their creations instead of their true powers.
Thirdly, I compared the Hulk to Prometheus. Both characters’ stories serve as cautionary tales that symbolize humanity’s fear of science. While Prometheus steals the fire of the gods and gives it to humanity, Bruce Banner tinkers with gamma rays which accidentally turns him into the giant green monster. Both get punished for playing with something they should not. I also pointed out that this phenomenon was also popular in 19th century Gothic literature with characters such as Frankenstein’s monster and Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde.
As a result of my research, I would argue that while there are different circumstances, the essence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe still has many aspects in common with ancient mythologies. As they were created before the Enlightenment, ancient mythologies tell the stories of gods people truly believed in. Meanwhile, as a modern mythology, Marvel Cinematic Universe replaces gods with superheroes who were created through means of science. Therefore, while people do not believe in the existence of these superheroes religiously, they believe in science, which is the major creative force behind them. Science in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is a universal, near-godlike force that makes everything, including time-travel and dimensional travel possible. In real life, people also believe that the progress of science will eventually lead to the solution of most of our problems.
Furthermore, the way Marvel films are presented is also very similar to Greek mythology. Both created transmedia universes which tell their own stories through several different platforms. Greek mythology was told through epic poems and plays, and the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been told through films, series, and comics. As I pointed out earlier in my paper, Jenkins argues that in order for a film to become a cult artifact, it needs to reflect on the community’s real-life, and contain references and quotes that connect it to its audience’s real experiences (Jenkins 2006, 97). The Marvel Cinematic Universe is full of references, songs from real life, real historic events, and many other factors that cement it as a modern mythos. It resonates well with internet culture too, and has been an inspiration for thousands of online memes.
Fan culture also bears many similarities. Cosplayers dress up as superheroes during fan gatherings like how people dressed up as gods in ancient Athens during gatherings. Toys, posters, and other merchandise depicting superheroes are produced like how icons, vases, and statuettes were created for ancient Greek and Roman gods.
Therefore, as a conclusion, I argue that the Marvel Cinematic Universe can indeed be considered the mythology of the digital age. It contains manifestations of the archetypal characters that are present in some form in most mythologies, and the fan culture around it is also akin to how ancient societies treated mythologies. Obviously, different ages have different expectations and ways of representation, but the essence of the two phenomena is the same.
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