(2 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

“Superhero movies are like fairy tales for older people,” continues Lee, whose voice envelops the listener with a raspy, lilting warmth. “All those things you imagined –if only I could fly or be the strongest — are about wish fulfillment. … And because of that, I don’t think they’ll ever go out of vogue.”

This is from article in today’s WaPo on Stan Lee’s take on super-hero films. The article is, as usual, puerile and unenlightening which is not the author’s fault who I know writes to the general standards of the WaPo that is militantly middle-brow-superficial. Still Lee’s insights say a lot.

Let me parse what he said just a little. First of all “fairy tales” are not just for children. I think it’s been pretty well-proven by now that these tales are the remnants of ancient teaching stories that go back millenia in one for or another. The most obvious of these stories (or collection of stories) are the Mahabharata, the Illiad and Odyssey, and the Bible are stories crafted over time to have resonance with children, average adults, and those that aspire to or have achieved a higher state of consciousness. These themes can be shown to have deep resonance in the human psyche. None of these stories were “wish fulfillment” stories though some contain elements of wish fulfillment. The modern super-hero myth, like the fractured modern version of fairy tales aimed at children, has no depth of wisdom. At best, as Lee later explains in the article the heroes have “personality” i.e., they are just like you and me with the usual life difficulties. This is a device to connect us viscerally with the characters and it works–but it is not wisdom it’s just a device.

Comic book superheroes are very dangerous from a psychic POV. They act as artificial substitutes for the real thing–the supernatural story, the myth, the wisdom story that gives us the sense of wonder that yes, another deeper world exists and it has boundaries and principles, lore, techniques. The constant stories of three brothers, for example, setting out and meeting some supernatural character or shaman. The elder brother always acts out selfishly but the younger brother always acts with compassion for no reason at all and that brother is, after going through some tribulations, rewarded. Each story often has much deeper meaning that is linked to spiritual practices, if you are familiar with these you’ll see them being alluded to in many of these stories in symbolic form.

Because of our fascination with all that lies on the surface we have moved away from understanding symbols and being able to read nature, situations, people, on principles that are not obvious. In my view most of life lies below the surface–poetry is a much closer representation of reality than is reportage–although reportage is clearly useful.

All the major action-movie characters are superheroes. Bullets fly, car crashes, driving the wrong way on a highway in major traffic, nothing seems to slow these dudes and dudettes down yet there is no reference in these stories to magic. At least in the superhero stories it established that these people have unusual powers yet these powers are not linked to spiritual practices (sidhis) or boons from divinities as all the other stories are. Seldom is there a reference to spirituality which almost as long as man has existed has been part and parcel of magic and shamanism. Shamanism over nearly all cultures shows remarkable similarity in terms of how these shamans actually get their powers and the cost, the deep cost of achieving (and it is a work and an achievement to get powers and this is abundantly clear).

Our superheroes and heroes are drugs that the entertainment industry provides for us to change our body chemistry. Action movies stimulate the production of dopamine and testosterone which makes us guys feel good. That’s fine, so did the action stories of old that I’m sure were acted out by the storyteller in a vivid way but, and I’m the stories always contained a moral level, and a spiritual level that could kick in at any time in someone’s life.

Wish-fulfillment as a value is the great tragedy of our time. To think that we should pursue such a course is perverse and irrational and should be obvious. That notion is the root of our consumer culture. The highest value touted in our society is to achieve our dream, fulfill our wishes, glorify and worship ourselves and, failing that, worship others like celebrities. We close our eyes and imagine we had super-powers and that somehow compensates for the reality that we are increasingly powerless in our society. As the fascination with comic-book action films dramatically increases so does our political liberty and the expansion of the national security state and a completely entrenched neo-feudal oligarchy.

This is why I always urge people away from mainstream entertainment which is created to entrap as well as entertain. People think it is just something to pass the time–but actually it is warping your mind to accept a rather flat world-view that makes tyranny more easily digestible. It conditions our unconscious to make us feel powerless as we await some superhero to rescue the situation. We may not rationally believe that but unconsciously we do because we also understand that our culture values wish-fulfillment and what is called magical thinking (which is quite different from real magic which I’ve directly seen in action). Besides, these stories distract us away from the perennial wisdom contained in the older stories and myths that go beyond the cultural conventions contained within and from those artists who have digested those stories and can bring them to life in new ways, for example a director like Ingmar Bergman. It is from these artists and myth “digesters” and re-tellers that we can again be grounded in the real nutrition of a living mythological reality. I particularly include here poetry and the arts which are, at the moment somewhat moribund by the weirdness of the marketplace but still exist in other parts of the world as part of a living wisdom tradition. One hopes the arts revive here because it is through them that we can begin to bring the deeper aspects of life into focus after what seems like a generation, at least in American culture.


    • banger on May 11, 2011 at 17:18

    Is there something more to the super-hero myth that lies deeper than wish fulfillment?  

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