And lo, like a fiery portent streaking across the firmament, Avengers: Infinity War approacheth! Heroes will triumph, other heroes will die, money will rain down, and marketing will shake the very foundations of the Earth. It will be spectacular, amazing, titanic. It will be mythic. Right?
Superheroes are often referred to as our "modern mythology." The parallels with and borrowings from Greek or Norse myths are straightforward, and superhero stories generally concern beings with magical strength and amazing abilities who perform incredible feats and have unearthly adventures. Superman rocketed from his home planet Krypton as a baby; that narrative echoes the story of the infant Moses in the bulrushes. The Hulk pounding giant alien invaders in the Avengers is like Hercules capturing Cerebus, sort of! The parallels are close enough that many legendary gods have actually been re-tooled as superheroes. Thor and Odin and Loki and Hela from Norse mythology were reimagined in comic book form by Jack Kirby, and now appear regularly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ares, the Greek god of war, showed up to fight Wonder Woman in the 2017 film.
While the similarities between superheroes and myth are real, they're also superficial. Traditional myths in the West concern beings with great powers. Those beings, though, crucially, aren't human; they're gods and demigods and are usually outside of human control. The myths most cited as parallel with superhero stories—Greek myths, Norse myths, Biblical stories—aren't empowerment fantasies. They're stories about terrible forces that control the lives of puny humans, who have no choice but to acquiesce and then die and then, more often than not, go to hell. In contrast, superhero stories tend to be about how, in a godless universe, humans can don super armor, defeat evil, and save everybody while rock music plays. Superhero stories aren't myths. They're anti-myths.
Just about any Greek or Biblical story can illustrate the distinction. Take the myth of Iphigenia. King Agamemnon accidentally violates an arbitrary taboo by killing a deer in a grove that is sacred to the goddess Artemis. In retaliation, Artemis demands that he sacrifice his daughter, or else she will prevent him from sailing to the Trojan War.
In a superhero story, the invulnerable Achilles might go on an adventurous quest to find and defeat the nefarious Artemis (perhaps played by Malin Akerman or some such). But in the story, Iphigenia is generally either whisked away by Artemis at the last moment or, more often, killed. In Euripides' play, in fact, Iphigenia is portrayed as heroic not because she fights injustice, but because she accepts it, and eagerly goes to her death for the glory of Greece.
Bible narratives are also notably skeptical about human agency and empowerment. Jonah isn't bitten by a radioactive orca as a prologue to a thundering battle with the whale. The story of Job isn't about the protagonist self-actualizing by defeating an evil mastermind. It's about God ruining Job's life for no reason, because God can do that.
Like Iphigenia, Job is the plaything of forces beyond his comprehension. In the universe of myth, the existence of super-beings means that humans have less power, not more. "Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble." That's the subtext—or, in Job's case, the actual text—of the old stories about gods.
Superhero stories completely reverse this idea. It's not an accident that the first superhero lifted his name from Nietzsche's Superman. The whole premise of the superhero is that the Gods are dead and irrelevant, and that humans can, and should, expand to fill the space left in the cosmos by that divine absence.
The typical superhero film is about some flawed guy (it's usually a guy) who lacks self-confidence. But then he gains superpowers, finds his inner strength and humanity, and self-actualizes by saving the innocent and bringing evildoers to justice. Instead of Icarus flying too high and then plummeting to Earth, the superhero flaps those wings and whooshes up to bash that evil sun right in the snoot.
Films like Guardians of the Galaxy 2 are remarkably explicit in positioning superheroes not as heirs to myths, but as antidotes to them. The film's villain is Ego (Kurt Russell), a godlike being who behaves much like the Greek Gods of myth: He sleeps with lots of women, kills people for obscure reasons, and generally wields his power in an arbitrary and cruel manner because he's a god and can do whatever he wants.
In contrast, his son, Starlord (Chris Pratt), is a typical super-dude who believes that with great power comes great responsibility. Starlord fights his dad on behalf of his friends, innocent bystanders, and general human decency. And, of course, Starlord wins. Get rid of those old myths about human weakness and fate and tragedy. Post-enlightenment, post-Nietzsche, humans have the will, the technology, and the power to set the cosmos to rights.
It's difficult to regret the death of those old myths; no one wants to root for Ego. Destroying lots of planets because you feel like it and you're a jerk is no way to run a multiverse. Superhero stories appeal to our modern sense of justice and morality—which is precisely where they cease to be myths.
In comparison to selfish, philandering, all-powerful jerks like Ego or Zeus, superheroes start to look like a pretty good ethical model, Superheroes wouldn't just accept that Iphigenia has to be sacrificed for no reason. Instead they'd feel empowered to confront injustice and evil and to make the world a better place. Give Job a super-suit and let him grab Satan by the horns. If myths say that we should be powerless before injustice, then, yes, let's do away with them and make some anti-myths about getting empowered instead.
Those anti-myths do have some downsides of their own though. Myths once taught us that Gods were mysterious beings beyond our ken. They were often parables about the perils of hubris. Agamemnon was a king, but there were still rules and laws that he had to obey, or else.
The superheroes of anti-myth, though, experience setbacks only to make their ultimate, inevitable victory all the sweeter. The justice of God was insufficient; the justice of Captain America will be better and more satisfying. Superheroes promise: "God is dead—we will save you!" That's a relief. But only if you believe the myth that your fellow humans are kinder and wiser than the gods.