I just came from seeing the movie “Thor” this afternoon. Being a superhero fan from way back, watching the characters’ transition from comic books to live action on the big screen always fascinates me.
Witness “Thor,” which featured quite a lot of action taking place in the otherworldly realms of Asgard and Jotuheim (the homes of the Norse Gods and the Frost Giants, respectively). To say that Asgard looked like the penultimate Realm Eternal is like saying that Miss Universe is pretty… it was jaw-droppingly beautiful, went on for miles and miles, and was placed in the most incredible celestial backdrop ever conceived by man.
There were creatures as well, including the fire-breathing Destroyer (as seen on TV) and the sort of junior-Craken monster in Jotuheim. We’ve seen similar creatures in other movies, but the level of realism captured by computer graphics is amazing… just a decade ago, such effects creatures wouldn’t have been nearly as believable.
And, of course, the battles: Superhero-worthy impacts that would shatter the bones of ordinary mortals, and create thunderclaps of released energy that would flatten buildings. All incredible. And all thanks to computer graphics (and a lot of massaging by very human operators and artists).
As I came out of the movie (which I thoroughly enjoyed), I thought about the irony of superhero movies: Brightly-costumed superheros are the myths of the 20th century, beginning with Superman in the 1930s and developing forward; all of the characters who are getting big budget movie treatments are characters that had the height of their popularity in the 20th century; yet it took 21st century computer graphics effects to finally give them the power and spectacle that the characters needed to look good on the silver screen. They may be late to the party, therefore… but they were worth the wait.
This makes me think about myths… specifically, what will be the predominant myths of the 21st century? The superhero, the costumed vigilante, the robot, among the most prevalent of 20th century myths, have at their cores a significant connection to science and the industrial revolution (Thor, of course, being a notable exception; and which it can be speculated would never have been made a movie if the character was not a major part of the other 20th century myth, the Superhero Team… in this case the Avengers, whose movie is due out next year).
It can be argued that we haven’t completely left the Industrial Revolution behind; but we are looking at it in a different way, as the IR has proven to be very hard on ecosystems, and we are becoming increasingly more desperate to find ways to reverse much of its effects on the environment. Science is the primary tool we have been applying to reversing said effects, so we haven’t left science behind either. Should we expect a 21st century dominated by these same tropes? Unless we suffer a complete societal breakdown and the beginnings of the next dark age, it seems likely that we will.
But as the new century turns, we are realizing that science and technology may not be the answer to everything that we assumed it was in the 20th century. We may see nature taking on a greater emphasis in our daily lives, or a need to bypass technology and depend more on self-reliance to solve problems. Whether or not society breaks down some day, we can expect a resurgence in the concepts of nature and self-reliance over science and technology, or at least in a more balanced partnership.
Another change we’ve seen in the new century is the new dynamic created by the web and various “social media” to bring groups together—both disparate groups, and larger collections of like groups. In the 20th century, the bad guy was usually vanquished by the lone hero, or a small group of heroes working together. Perhaps the 21st century bad guy will be taken down by flash mobs and organized denial of service attacks.
And what might be coming up in this century that we haven’t anticipated? Might some unexpected man-machine interface surface, or perhaps a significant alteration to evolution, or a new skill that transforms individuals into something… not quite human? There may be signs of the change around us right now, or it might yet arise from some unexpected source.
As a writer, naturally I hope to be the one to discover the 21st century’s hero archetype and develop a story for it (preferably before anyone else). But even if someone else should discover it first, I look forward to stories about it, and I hope I’ll be involved.