Like many other moviegoers, I felt ALL of the feelings when I saw Avengers: Infinity War earlier this year. When I got home from my screening of it in late April, my brother (who had seen it earlier that day with a friend) asked me what I thought of it. I told him, “That was upsetting.” After all, I’d been invested in these characters for nearly a decade, and I just had to sit there and watch them suffer for over two hours. And yet I still love the series, and I will gladly re-watch my favorite installments every so often.
Writers like Angela Watercutter at Wired seem to believe that Marvel’s grand success with their Cinematic Universe is that they got people to follow a large cast of characters for a decade and watch them come together to fight a huge threat that had been implied and hinted at for years. While Watercutter has a point that the MCU’s success in that area is unprecedented for films, that approach is not new to other realms of fiction. After all, both Marvel and DC have been churning out event comics for decades. The MCU also rose to pop cultural dominance during the same decade as HBO’s Game of Thrones, the smash-hit adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s door-stopper A Song of Ice and Fire series. Additionally, we have to consider that a good chunk of the young people in the audience are Millennials (Hi, that’s me!), and our generation waited a good decade to find out what happened to Harry Potter and the Wizarding World. Also, Star Wars exists. People can and will follow characters over decades. This should no longer surprise anyone.
These epic franchises have their roots in much older storytelling traditions, mainly the mythological cycles. The mythological cycle you’re probably most familiar with is the Trojan Cycle, which was made up of several installments. Only two full installment survived to the modern age: The Iliad and The Odyssey. The rest we know about because they survived in fragments or quotations.
Other mythological cycles include the Fenian Cycle and the Red Branch Cycle in Irish Mythology, each of which chronicles the tales of different heroes. The Fenian Cycle follows Finn and the Fianna, a band of heroes who rove around Munster (Southwest Ireland) have different adventures. In these stories, Finn sometimes has to suck his thumb to access special knowledge he gained when he burned his thumb while cooking the Salmon of Knowledge for his mentor. Also, Finn fathered his son Oisin (pronounced “Uh-SHEEN”) on a deer that a sorcerer turned into a woman. The Red Branch Cycle follow Cuchulainn (pronounced “Cuh-HOO-lin”) in Ulster (Northern Ireland), and his biggest adventure is “The Cattle Raid of Cooley”, where he has to retrieve a stolen cow while the rest of the men of Ulster experience labor pains because of a curse laid on them by the goddess Macha. Yes, these stories sound quite bonkers. Well, superhero stories are bonkers, too, with tales of supermen falling from the stars and being weakened by green rocks, young men getting bitten by special spiders, and billionaires who spend too much time in caves. People were following these types of stories thousands of years ago. Watercutter shouldn’t be asking, “Why do people enjoy these types of stories?” The real question is, “Why would they ever have stopped enjoying these stories?”
I think about the parallels between the MCU and older mythologies a lot. Probably too much. After all, aren’t the Avengers just a bit like the Fianna, with the way they run around, having adventures and enjoying friendly relationships with each other? Also, both Captain America and Star-Lord are men out of time, one returning to a world that moved on with out him, and the other remaining stuck as a human homage to the 1980s. Their predicaments are similar to those of Oisin (yes, the son of Finn and the deer-woman; his name means “little deer”) and Bran in Irish mythology. Both of these heroes venture to the Otherworld (the land of the sidhe–the fairies, essentially), and they stay there a year. When each hero returns, he finds that he has missed hundreds of years in the mortal world, and everyone he loves is dead. Poor Oisin even turns into an old man when he touches the ground upon his return. Thank goodness Captain America avoided that fate! Super-soldier serum works all kinds of wonders!
To sum all of this babbling up: we love superhero movies and shows because they are a modern incarnation of the sorts of stories that humans have always loved. Modern incarnations that come with merchandising, intellectual property rights, and copyright issues, but at they’re core, they’re the larger-than-life stories that have followed humanity through the ages.