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What American Epic Heroes Like Luke Cage Steal From The Ancients

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Last week, Achilles stepped out of his tent and onto the battlefield of the Harlem streets in Netflix’s latest collaboration with Marvel: Luke Cage.

Luke might as well be Achilles, anyway. All the markers are there. The titular character’s skin is impenetrable, his prowess in combat unmatched, and he is content to sit out the fight until the person nearest him dies trying to be the hero Luke should have been in the first place.

The spark struck, Luke flies into the fray with rage insatiable. Achilles, famous for his victories against the Trojans in Homer’s “Iliad,” has been remade as a defender of a new people for new meaning. Now in Harlem, he seeks to tear down the corrupt establishment responsible for his grief and to uphold the honor of heroes long past, Crispus Attucks standing in for the likes of Theseus, Perseus, and Hercules.

Ancient Epics Reborn

The reemergence of epic heroes in modern drapings is, of course, not original to the newest Netflix superhero show. The characters, tropes, and styles of ancient epics are integral to so many of our American epic heroes.

During the dramatic climax of “The Dark Knight Rises,” Batman wades through a battlefield filled with clashing criminals and cops. For the most part, the hero walks untouched and unengaged, despite his attention-grabbing raiment. He is unconcerned with the rank and file soldiers about him, and they have no interest in engaging an enemy who fights at a level far above their own. Batman’s focus is Bane, and Bane’s Batman. The war around them is beneath them. Their contest exists on a higher plane, and their clash is uninterrupted by smaller concerns.

It’s an odd moment in the film, seeing these two walk unscathed in such chaos as though they are some kind of demi-gods. But that is exactly what they are, and their small bubbles of seeming invincibility are the surest signs of their status as American epic heroes.

The heroes of Homer’s “Iliad” enjoy this same sort of luxury. When Diomedes and Glaucus meet in pitched combat, the war ceases to exist outside of them. They have time before their fight begins to exchange words—even to exchange gifts—at length. While they are busy gift-giving, the war rages around them, yet the poet’s lines are filled entirely with these two heroes.

In much the same way, Christopher Nolan’s camera centers on Batman and Bane. The rest of the combatants are marginalized and dismissed to elevate the stature of the true warriors. Homer wields his words like a camera, and the director of “The Dark Knight Rises” imitates his engaging, focused style.

Conveying What We Love, What We Hate

The elevating isolation of the hero in combat is only one vestige of ancient mythology in the modern superhero story, whether printed or projected. Other, larger pieces of the tradition have survived as well.

Most obviously, both story-telling devices instruct their audience in the values of the time: courage, honor, valor, justice, humaneness, proper expression of grief, love of friends and country, etc. Consider the underlying premise of “The Avengers.” Loki wants to enforce a totalitarian uniformity on humankind. Loki claims, just after gouging out the eyeball of a German museum curator, that humans, deep down, desire to be ruled.

Against him, the Avengers stand as a group of individuals united by a singular ideology. Humans do desire to be part of a coherent whole, to have their place and role. It is as distinct individuals, however, and not as guileless drones that they aspire to be part of a larger whole. The Avengers’ struggle to come together and their eventual success as a team over Loki’s grasp at tyranny are the culmination of that ideology.

Just as young Greek boys learned from Achilles’ strength and valor to be strong and valorous, so young American children learn to be daring and collaborative from the Avengers’ daring and collaboration. The superhero tradition is as interested in transmitting values as the ancient poets are.

Canonizing Disparate Works

Even the tortured history of canonizing heroes and stories is as inherently woven into the comic book tradition as it was (and still is) in ancient mythology. Homer drew his stories together from disparate myths, and so he was forced (as any author is) to select and neglect some details for the sake of others.

Homer had the distinct honor of creating and popularizing the “true” version of Odysseus’ journey, just as Marvel and Jon Favreau established the “true” version of Iron Man’s origin with their 2008 film. Other, earlier versions of the story exist, and there are and doubtless were those who would deny the validity of the new story in defense of the “original.” Homer was, in some sense, an aggregator of disparate tales and heroes, just as Marvel Studio executives compress hundreds of story lines into single-sitting story sessions.

Clearly the modern American epic hero has an ancestor. Without even considering the blatant airlifting of mythological characters into the modern world, we can easily trace characteristics of ancient stories in current superhero stories.

The American epic hero stands for the values of his day. Storytellers elevate his stature through tricks of focus, his movement and dialogue filling the storyteller’s attention as his inferiors are pushed to the margins. As the stories of ancient heroes were in constant flux, so to do these modern heroes undergo constant renewal and transformation, ever metamorphosing to their time’s values.