Modern superheroes are lacking in piety

The aim of this article is to distinguish a critical characteristic of heroism that was a central theme in the epics of ancient times which is now absent from the modern superhero tales of comic book origin. In these ancients epics such as The Epic of Gilgamesh, The Ramayana, The Mahabharata, The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, to name but a few, there is a dual struggle which is depicted: 1) the Earthly struggle against an enemy or a quest through trials and obstacles 2) the struggle of the hero with divine forces which rule over his fate. In these tales it is in the struggle with the divine where many of the moral lessons are taught, particularly through the demonstration of the hero as exhibiting piety and obedience to the divine. It is through his relationship to the divine where both his fortune and victory is justified as well as his adversities and afflictions. Thus, the heroes of old were the vehicles by which the cultural spirit of religious reverence was passed down and transmitted through generations.

In the 20th century, a new type of hero arose to popularity who existed in a godless context and who never prays, sacrifices or has any relationship to the divine. These comic book heroes of Marvel, DC and others, have supernatural powers, the origins of which vary tremendously, but in all cases they neither came upon them nor sustain them because of their relationship with the divine. This is not to say that these stories are entirely amoral, there is a definitive theme of “good” vs “evil” in almost all of them. “Good” usually being characterized by the altruistic motive of the hero to use his power to help others, while “evil” is usually characterized by the exploitive motive of the villain to use his power to dominate others. This same simplistic theme is nauseatingly repeated and never reaches a complexity that actually reflects real human struggle as did the epics of old.

In many of the ancient stories the hero is a king and has dominion over others, and is in many cases waring to extend that dominion or defend that dominion, and it is understood that the divine forces have granted him that dominion because his behavior was pleasing to them. The notion of “good” was not as focused on altruism and beneficence to others as much as it was on righteous action and honorable conduct. The idea was that the hero would prove themselves worthy of having received the favor of the divine by succeeding in their Earthly struggles without diminishing their dignity. When the heroes would perceive themselves as inadequate or too weak for the task set before them they would petition for help from the divine, who would grant them what they needed if they made due obeisance. It is by their fulfillment of duty and destiny through cooperation with divine forces that the moral lessons of persevering in virtue during life trials are illuminated.

The modern superhero will persevere in virtue just the same, and is quite often excellent in courage, honesty and fairness. As far as the Earthly struggle portion of the stories go, they are often equally as moral if not more perfect in behavior than their ancient counterparts, but it is an inimitable model because they seem to possess these qualities inherently without deriving them from a superior source. This is where these models fail in instructing the young men who are impressed by them on the path to greater virtue. Men do not have these qualities of virtue inherently, and are in fact very weak and morally corruptible without divine assistance. The path to heroic virtue is to seek favor from the divine, which is perfect and good, and by improving this relationship to the divine, the higher qualities of character will take form as demonstrated in the ancient epics.