BBC Culture, 10 August 2015

Over the past few years, even the most ardent comic-book nerd might have wondered if there were a few too many superhero movies playing in the local multiplex. For every Iron Man, or Avengers, there have been a couple of less-than Fantastic Fours and enough dubious Hulks to smash the sternest spirit. Studios keep making these films because they know audiences will flock to see them, even if the heroes include a raccoon and a tree. So the question this proliferation poses is: why are we so drawn to superhero stories? And since when?

The answer to the second question is briefer than the first: since ever. Superheroes have existed for as long as stories, since before writing, and across every culture from which we can find evidence. Fionn mac Cumhaill built the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba in Mesopotamia. Rama was exiled from Ayodhya in India, while Beowulf slew Grendel and Grendel’s mother in Scandinavia. And that’s before you think about the ancient Greeks, who boasted a plethora of heroes to match any collection from Marvel or DC.

The rules about what makes a superhero are pretty flexible: Superman is an alien (pre-empted by almost two millennia by the Assyrian satirist Lucian, who wrote in his ‘True Stories’ of extra-terrestrial armies – belonging to the King of the Sun and the King of the Moon – engaged in a war). Spiderman was bitten by a radioactive spider, and Bruce Banner was dosed with gamma rays: in other words, they are ordinary human beings with an extra power imposed upon them. The ancients used a similar narrative device, but with semi-divinity as the explanation, rather than science: Perseus, for example, is a hero because his father is Zeus. Wonder-Woman, like Hippolyta and Penthesilea before her, is an Amazon, and so also semi-divine.

Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark’s superpowers are their limitless credit cards, which also explains why Agamemnon (least heroic of all heroes, surely) is so concerned about acquiring more booty than other Greek hero during the Trojan War: money is power. But perhaps my favourite subgroup of superheroes includes Hawkeye and Green Arrow, whose superpower is ‘being especially good with a bow and arrow.’ This ties them neatly to the wiliest of all ancient heroes, Odysseus. After a twenty year absence from his home of Ithaca, he proves his identity to those who thought him long dead by stringing a complex bow and shooting an arrow through twelve axe-heads.

Every superhero has his origin story, and a surprisingly large number of modern ones owe those origins to myths of gods and heroes who existed millennia before their cultural descendants. Even Antman isn’t a completely recent phenomenon: Zeus turned himself into an ant (as part of his scheme to have sex with every pretty girl in the ancient world while disguised as an array of different creatures. Leda was ravished by him in swan form; poor Eurymedusa was accosted by him as an ant). Achilles’ warriors, the Myrmidons, legendarily owe their name to this union (the Greek word for an ant is myrmex): they too are Antmen.

So that brings us back to the first question, which is rather more complicated: what is it about the superhero narrative which has such a primal appeal that we have been telling stories about men and women with super-powers for as long as we have told stories at all? For the ancients, heroes and gods acted as a kind of bridge between what they could understand and explain, and what they can’t. So, for example, ancient Greeks and Romans experienced large numbers of earthquakes. They knew the ground shook, but they could not possibly have guessed of the existence of tectonic plates. So they extrapolated: a light, wooden table would shake if you stamped your foot next to it, on a wooden floor. So when buildings shook, it made sense that something very powerful was stamping on the ground somewhere. Thus, Poseidon acquired his honorific title ‘Earth-shaker.’ The idea of a god lurking beneath the ocean smacking his trident into the seabed may seem like a fanciful explanation to us. But as a way of explaining the information available to the ancients, it’s not bad.

And heroes in the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid – the epic poems of the Trojan War and its aftermath – often have an intimate connection with the gods which shapes their heroic stories. Achilles is the son of Thetis (a sea-nymph for whom Zeus has an especially soft spot). Aeneas is the son of Venus, and though Odysseus boasts mortal parentage, he is the favourite of Athena (and bête-noire of Poseidon). Odysseus is described by Homer as ‘Polumetis’, which means ‘of many wiles’. But still, some of his best schemes are provided by one god or another: without the help of Hermes, for instance, he would not have the stratagem in place to defeat the witch, Circe.

This connection to a higher power which can influence the world around them (whether it is Zeus or S.H.I.E.L.D) is a crucial aspect of many heroes. And perhaps it is this particular characteristic which grants the superhero one of their more troubling tendencies: the excessive individualism which allows them to operate outside the rules of society and beyond or above the rule of law. It’s a common trope of modern superhero films: who is Batman to decide what kind of justice Gotham deserves? He’s a masked vigilante who sets himself above his fellow citizens and acts as judge, jury, and sometimes executioner on the villains who populate the city.

This question too is not a modern one. In Book 2 of The Iliad, a man named Thersites makes a brief cameo appearance. He is not described, as so many characters are, with reference to his father: whoever that is, he’s not important enough for a name-check. Thersites is also vulgar and misshapen: we are surely supposed to conclude that he is far from heroic material. More so when he begins to speak, and issues a trenchant critique of the character of Agamemnon, the king who oversees all the Greeks: Theristes accuses him of being greedy and cowardly (sentiments which echo those Achilles has made of Agamemnon earlier in the poem).

Thersites is then beaten by Odysseus, and he weeps at the pain and humiliation. But the question is now surely lodged in the audience’s mind: why should Agamemnon be treated as a great king, worthy of all the treasure he has claimed for himself (including that which belongs to Achilles: the incident which sparks the plot of The Iliad, as illustrated by its celebrated opening line, ‘Sing, muse, of the wrath of Achilles’)? What sets him above us, apart from his monstrous self-regard? Especially when all are agreed that Achilles is the greater warrior, a braver man.

And what happens when a hero turns completely away from the path which most of us would consider good? Magneto, for example, starts out fighting alongside Charles Xavier, before their choices place them on opposing sides. His story echoes that of Ajax, who fights alongside the other Greek heroes during the Trojan War. But after he is tricked out of what he sees to be his rightful reward (which is instead given to Odysseus), he turns on his erstwhile comrades. Only an enchantment from Athene (protecting Odysseus as always) clouds his mind, and convinces him that he is slaughtering Greek warriors when he is actually killing livestock. The humiliation is so terrible that he takes his own life when he realises what he has done.

We are surely drawn to heroes and superheroes because they illuminate the human condition, precisely because they operate at a slightly inhuman level. Heroes are like us, but more so: stronger, cleverer, faster. They suffer from the same human frailties as we do, but because of their superior powers, these struggles are played out in a more dramatic arena than our own (in Wanted, for example, an ordinary office-worker suddenly finds he has superpowers, which immediately force him out of his boring life and into a more heroic existence).

Superheroes impose order on a chaotic world, which can often seem to be filled with nefarious powers (from natural disasters to supervillains) that mere mortals cannot identify or hope to fight. We clearly prefer a world of lawless heroes to one with no heroics. And we always have.