Odysseus…Aeneas…Gilgamesh…King Aurthur…Paul Bunyan…Superman. Why are the stories of Odysseus and Aeneas considered some of the greatest literature of history and Superman considered disposable pulp? Why are guys who make a living in superhero movies, claim they are dumbing us down? Utter geek that I am (my comic book collection reaches to about 8000 books and don’t even ask about the decor of my office) I cannot entirely disagree with the the assessment if for no other reason than of those thousands of comic books only a precious few rise to the level of greatness. History is what makes the difference.
Surely Homer did not sit down and write “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” from scratch. The stories had been told over and over and over again. Homer simple took the legends and distilled them and rendered the best tellings. Likewise Virgil and “The Aeneid.” The stories were, until they were so carefully refined, disposable pulp. Thousands of years from now the thousands of Superman/Batman/Captain America/Iron Man… stories that are utter drivel will be gone, but the good ones will remain. They are pulp now because the refining process has not yet occurred. But they are vastly important to our culture.
The legends survive because they capture what is great about the culture from which they spring. If they do not define the values of the culture they sanctify them. The cultural values are encapsulated, chronicled, rendered accessible and as such the are drilled into the minds of all. These legends are valuable things if we are smart enough to manage them properly.
Since my boyhood I have learned so much from these characters. From Spider-Man I learned that heroism does not always come from heroic types. From Superman I learned that great power does not make right, it is how that power is used. From Captain America I learned that it is not corny to love America. I could go on all day descending into characters that only the writer and I know about.
But that does not mean the movies are all good. For every great exchange about leadership between Loki and Thor in “Marvel’s The Avengers” there are the banal “witticisms” of Ultron in the latest Avengers film. That’s why history has to distill the legend. That is why we have a choice on which ones we remember and which ones we quickly discard to the rubbish heap.
If something is dumbing us down as Simon Pegg claims in the link above it is not superheroes. They reflect us, they do not define us. So the question put before us by the spectacle that is these movies is are we, by our habits of consumption and our chatter, going to allow them to become our gladiators, that which we consume while our civilization shrinks? Or are we going to look to the better tellings and use them for inspiration to maintain and prosper our society. It is indeed up to us.