There are as many definitions of the word myth as there are myths. Aside from being a traditional story that explains some kind of natural or human phenomena, myths can also be considered to be types of stories that are retold again and again. In other words, their mythic quality isn’t so much dependent on what they are about so much as their ability to constantly find reimagination and revisitation.
The myth of the origin of humanity’s suffering, for example, could be considered to contain any number of unique but related stories: the Eden myth, the myth of Pandora, of Prometheus, etc. Each of those stories tells the same basic tale of what happened to bring humanity to its current state of being but the different cultures that tell them give the tales their own spin. The myth enables us as people to see different narrative answers to the same big questions: why are we here? why do we suffer? how did the world come to exist? why is there evil in the world? what does it mean to be mortal?
When scholars draw upon this definition of myth, the category of myth goes from being a type of story that most cultures no longer narrate to an eternal genre of stories that all cultures continue to narrate (but don’t necessarily count as being myths). I enjoy looking at each year’s new crop of hit movies (particularly the big summer blockbusters) because we can get a glimpse of the myths–field tested and marketed as they are in this day and age–that our culture is in the process of reviving and reimagining. Spoilers for all titles below.
This Summer’s Revived Myths:
1. The Anastasis and The Dark Knight Rises
The word anastasis is Greek for ‘resurrection’ or ‘rising up,’ and myths of resurrection certainly inform the narrative of The Dark Knight Rises. Of course, the act of rising occurs throughout the film in multiple forms but never so clearly as in the stretch of the film where a broken Batman/Bruce Wayne must literally pull himself back to life from a deep hole in the ground. The word resurrection and the phrase “Christ figure” seem to be never far from one another; Bruce’s pulling himself from the Lazarus pit-esque prison is certainly reminiscent of Christ’s descent and return from Hell following his crucifixion.
Myths of resurrection always ask the same question: can death be overcome? For Batman, it can be–by way of transforming Batman from a man into a symbol. And it’s Batman’s resurrection and death and re-resurrection that allows for the resurrection of Gotham itself.
Perhaps most intriguingly is that this resurrection mythic variant comes to us by way of another story that concerns itself with myths of resurrection: A Tale of Two Cities (Nolan’s admitted inspiration for much of the film). Like Rises, Cities asks if Paris can come back from the terror of its death, but Sydney Carton also seeks to overcome the failures of his life through the act of sacrifice, wherein he aims to be reborn as a symbol of courage and honor in the descendants of those he died to save.
Myths of heroic teamups formed to fight for a threatened populace existed long before Kurosawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai. One of the great stories of the Oedipus cycle of myths involves the story of Oedipus’s son Polyneices who gathers seven great heroes to take back the city of Thebes by force after his brother unlawfully takes control of it. I doubt that Whedon had a Polyneices/Eteocles retelling in mind when Thor and the Avengers had to retake New York from Thor’s brother Loki, but there’s no denying that the story of ‘gathering the world’s greatest heroes,’ which lies at the heart of The Seven Against Thebes has been told again and again since those days.
These myths are usually myths of community and heroism. Can individuals of great strength and individual talent put aside ego for the sake of unity? Can they combine forces to overcome what threatens the community, or will they remain islands unto themselves? Although the Seven Against Thebes is a dark and unrelenting tale that likely demonstrates the impossibility of unity in the face large scale human misery, other mythic retellings have presented alternative takes. Seven Samurai demonstrates the possibility of the group coalescing around a common purpose–only to see the people it saves ultimately mistreat it. The Avengers is very Thebes-like in that the ultimate enemy of the film seems more to be the human community. The Avengers themselves cause more trouble than the villains, and Loki’s threat is ultimately not as dangerous as the nuke sent to New York by Nick Fury’s overlords. Unlike Thebes, Avengers offers us the idea that one can come out of many, but the union is tenuous and will likely falter in future movies.
3. The Betrothed Princess and Brave
This is more a fairy tale myth, but it is a story we tell repeatedly nonetheless: the princess is forced to marry a man, but she is not sure that she can or wants to. The fairy tale version (and many modern versions) usually take the two on a symbolic adventure that ends in their union. Brave, however, turns this notion on its head–and rather than joining the husband and wife to be on a trip that will ultimately end with their wedded bliss (and the fantasy that betrothals are not so bad after all), the film sends Princess Merida on an adventure with the source of her unhappy lot in life: her mother. The idea that the problem of betrothal and romantic choice should be resolved between mother and daughter–rather than magically resolved between future husband and wife–is so simple as to seem obvious and yet why hasn’t it really been done before?
This version of the myth suggests that the myth of the princess who wants more can never be resolved by the lucky stroke of finding the perfect guy who just happens to be the one she’d end up with anyway–it must first be resolved between the women who pass on the tradition from mother to daughter.
4. The Heroic Leader and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Myths of old often told of ideal kings who led their people with the heroism of a super hero. Today, Superman is far more powerful than the President of the United States, who is usually depicted as a mere mortal of somewhat unimpressive traits. But what about King Arthur? Beowulf? David?
Enter Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which revives the myth of the ideal leader being also the great warrior of epics. We’ve seen this before in Independence Day, a fantasy of glorified military leadership and it’s certainly behind the idea that Lincoln not only freed the slaves–but also saved us from the mythical enemies that sought to destroy and enslave humanity!
In myth, Prometheus both creates man and steals fire for him. The latter act earns him an eternity of pain, suggesting that the creation of man is always fraught with destructive energies. Prometheus also seems to be concerned with both the creation of life and the destruction that we all must suffer from that creative act. Though the narrative of engineers and black goo and emergent Xenomorphs seems convoluted, there’s no doubt that the filmmakers hope to draw us into a story concerned with creation and life. And just as Pandora was felled by her curiosity to understand (as was Eve), the crew members seem to have been lured to their doom through curiosities left behind on earth.
Of the five, Prometheus is the most difficult to peg down, but it clearly drew people in with a story that was not only linked to Alien but was supposed to explore the origins of life (both in space and on Earth).