Finding Meaning in Modern Mythology: From Sherlock to Spiderman; from The Rocket to Star Wars.
How does New York City connect to modern-day Laos or to a galaxy far, far away? They are all the settings for movies that portray different aspects of modern humanity’s quest for significance in a post-religious era. They demonstrate that humanism, not heroism, provides the inspiration for modern mythologies.
I’m old enough to remember when Spiderman was some vaguely adult-aged superhero, running around to the tune: “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can”. Gone are those days. Now, he is a modern-day affluent teenaged American dude, imparting his white saviour complex upon the denizens of Europe while simultaneously worrying about whether or not to pack his Spiderman cozzie in his suitcase for his trip to Italy.
It is this human duality that contextualises the movie, Spiderman: Far From Home (SFFH), and the underlying philosophy that can be found in this film (and I presume in the companion movies of the modern Spiderman series). In SFFH, teenaged Spidie spends as much time worrying about girls as he does fighting the super-villain. Meanwhile, his school friends protect his secret and appear almost equally able to confront many types of change that range from puberty to possible armageddon.
SFFH is not a superhero movie so much as a teenage drama set in a superhero universe, almost a bowdlerised version of Heartstopper. Its feel-good nature is reminiscent of the adolescent energy from the Back to the Future movies. But it extends the superhero empowerment to all teenagers: you are future citizens who can change the world, starting today.
This touches upon themes in another unrelated film, the charming Australian movie, The Rocket (2013), which is about a young Laotian boy (Ahlo) and his family as they struggle against the intergenerational after-effects of the Vietnam war and the lingering pollution of imperialism from both the USA and Australia. One character (“Uncle Purple”) lives as a Laotian version of a fanboy from US culture, and viewers are left to decide for themselves whether such cultural influence is beautiful or ugly. The Australian imperialist influence comprises the capitalist exploitation of environment and the forced displacement of whole villages of disempowered people in the name of corporate profits. It seems no wonder Hollywood ignored this covert rewriting and cultural terraforming of themes from the first Star Wars movie, and that Laos banned it. But its ultimate climax testifies to the power of human nobility and triumph in the face of adversity.
Similarly, forget the bland villain plot in the Spiderman movie, which is dominated by special effects and vacuous scripting. In Spiderman, as in The Rocket, not all heroes wear a cape, but they all play their part in changing the world. Their message is that if their audiences want to implement positive change in their local community (fight climate change, promote science and STEM, or whatever) then it is up to them to take the lead.
Here we see that, possibly despite themselves, the creators of modern mythology have transcended their own craft. The trend for pop culture movies, initiated by the runaway success of the first Star Wars movie – wherein modern movies now often rely more heavily upon special effects than they do upon a coherent script – has evolved into something more. In trying to capture modern paying audiences, movie makers have been forced to resort to common human existential tropes, and in doing so, have transformed modern movie mythology from mindless capitalist consumerism into more thoughtful human inner reflection. Whereas traditional mythology focussed upon gods, demons, angels and other supernatural agency, modern mythology finds the same inspiration through the better angels within our own humanity.
And while some audience members today bewail the rebooting of Doctor Who or James Bond movies, the rewriting of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton novels, or the reworking of traditional straight white male hero stereotypes to be more inclusive and diverse – “god save us from censorship and the cancelling of old, white people!” – the reality is that cultures have been rewriting and reinventing heroes since forever. Zeus became Jupiter, and Jesus became Superman, while Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer became Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, and the Famous Five became Scooby Doo. Romeo and Juliet were copies of pre-Shakesperean versions of themselves. The original story of Robin Hood and his domestic partner Little John evolved into a heterosexualised series of Sherwood Forest tales featuring heroic outlaws who were eventually rebooted as the space age Blake’s Seven. We can even document how medieval France became the setting for a cultural reboot of the Camelot mythology – transforming King Arthur’s court from rebellious, anti-imperialist, post-Roman, Saxon England into a more refined medieval setting that introduced modern understandings of chivalry, courtly romance and nobility.
Similarly, we can understand Spiderman to be a modern-day Beowolf reboot that puts the ‘human’ back into ‘superhuman’.
But even more than that: modern Hollywood reboots of ancient mythologies demonstrate that our common humanity and existential angst provide deeper meanings than modern mindless consumerism: go to watch a seemingly mindless movie, and come out inspired or transformed into being more than you were at the start of that movie. It’s a philosophy that encapsulates fan fiction and fandom such as that found in the world of Sherlock Holmes over a century ago – fans who were transformed by their culture, and who in turn appropriated, reshaped and transformed that culture.
Modern-day activism does not involve attending lectures in a public library and then enjoying an oh-so-polite cuppa tea; it involves more than angrily marching down public streets while chanting slogans in support of some worthy cause or another. It is not exclusively donating to your favourite charity by painless monthly credit card payments if you want your life to represent more than tokenism. Activism is a way of life and it involves wholistic enactment of change. It hurts, it challenges, and it transforms its practitioners. Ahlo, Peter Parker and Rey Skywalker are role models for how to change the world: change begins with ourselves. Just ask their real-life superhero counterparts: Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai or X González.
Thanks for the reminder, Spiderman.
©2023 Geoff Allshorn