Revisiting Umberto Eco’s “The Myth of the Superhero”

The idea of the hero is, I suppose, found in just about every culture in one form or another, and with it superheroes in the broad sense of people whose abilities and achievements were in some way more than merely human. Yet the idea of the superhero as we know it, the DC/Marvel Comics-type superhero — the superhero with a colorful public persona apart from their private identity, existent not in some mythic, settled past but as a figure whose adventures are ongoing in the present day, etc. — is more distinctly American (if, in a global age in which American pop culture is received everywhere, enjoyed everywhere, as the box office receipts demonstrate).

In considering that possibility I find myself thinking of Umberto Eco’s essay “The Myth of Superman.” The piece offers a great many ideas on the subject, some of which seem to me more plausible, others less so. Perhaps the most significant is his idea that the superhero is a response to the experience people have in modern times of being powerless, and feeling that they are mediocre, and hoping that somehow they will transcend their ordinary human limitations to redeem that.

Of course, individual powerlessness, and the sense of being a mediocrity, are unpleasant features of human social life generally for the vast majority of people, given the scale and complexity of that life, the constraints on us and the demands on us, the standards by which we judge ourselves in an age of mass media, and there is nothing uniquely American about them. But all the same I wonder if the pain of them is felt as severely everywhere — if being powerless and “mediocre” is experienced as so much of a humiliating defeat as in a society which makes so much of the rhetoric of freedom and choice and empowerment, which incessantly tells its members that they and no one else are in control of their lives; as in a society so given to the worship of the powerful individual, and enthralled with their exercise of their power for even the stupidest and most selfish ends; as in a society which so fervently sings the ideal of meritocracy, and its claim to actually living by it; as in a society where life is lived on “winner take all” terms; and in light of all of the foregoing, as in a society where the “losers,” left with that much less than they otherwise might be, are also told every moment of every day that they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves for their unhappiness.

I wonder, too, if the response to that unhappiness with fantasies of somehow going from “zero to hero,” from powerless mediocrity to super-empowered superlativeness, is so great in a society where the value system is less vehement about this particular brand of “loser-humiliating” individualism; where people are less inclined to coping, or failing to cope, with their frustrations and miseries in intensely private ways.

And I wonder if it is not relevant that all this took off as it did in recent decades, in a neoliberal, neoconservative era where those deemed losers are told to not dream of other worlds.

Originally published at https://raritania.blogspot.com.

Nader Elhefnawy is the author of the thriller The Shadows of Olympus. Besides Medium, you can find him online at his personal blog, Raritania.