Understanding Heroism: A Look at Modern Mythology and the (Super) Appeal of Superheroes

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Why Societies Need Hero Stories

wheyweneedWhy Superheroes Matter: Understanding the Mythology of Now

Superheroes accomplish something outside of simply following mythic structure—they augment mythology itself.

The creation of superheroes and the books in which they are found function as part of our own modern mythology; just as folktales, fairy tales, and ancient myths say something about the cultures from whence they spring, superheroes are part of a uniquely American mythology. While comics and superheroes are no longer solely an American property, the invention of these things says a lot about the culture and attitude of our culture.

Comic books are the American mythology, and, much in the same way Zeus and Poseidon and Perseus come down to us from the Greeks, Superman and Batman and the X-Men represent the culture that birthed them.

These are our Gods and Heroes, our stories—and our commentary on our society.

The early days of comic books clearly show the aspiration and American idealism of the time in which they were written—the feel-good resolutions, the perfect heroes, the general attitude of optimism. Comic books have chronicled our history, and touched on World War II, the War on Drugs, the current climate of terrorism.

superman-logo-history-t-shirt-7Superheroes have changed with the times, as have their costumes and accessories—but not as much as their attitudes; and, in fact, that attitude of comics in general. No longer completely bright and shiny, comics and comic characters are sometimes cynical and sardonic, with the heroes themselves being presented as increasingly flawed.

Comics reflect the attitude and feeling of the society. This is our mythology, created and evolving decade after decade—and because of that, it’s our gift to the world, our mark on it.

If like all great empires that have come and gone, America were to fall into the ashes, these stories and legends would still survive. Superman will be here long after any of us—the idea of him and who he was, the embodiment of the highest concentration of Idealism and Virtue will outlast the nation that gave him life, and perhaps even its memory.

With the representation of these heroes, this is the mythology that we give to the world years after we disappear.

That is one of the many reasons why I have always been completely fascinated by superheroes – one of the reasons I have loved them since I was a child, one of the reasons why my birthday cake was shaped like Superman or Batman or Wolverine every year. Because, even as a child, though I was incapable of processing their importance on a conscious level, my very human psyche recognized the need for them, and was inspired by them.

Why We (All) Love Them: Understanding the Universal Appeal of Super Heroes

Going further with mythology, we can look at things in terms of storytelling, and how myths of Superheroes, like all heroes, appeal to us on a number of levels; certainly, they excite us and delight us because they are cool, but they also appeal to us on a deep psychological level, for reasons both obvious and subtle.

The prototypical journey of self-evolution, represented visually.

The subtle reasons are a bit beyond the scope of this post, as they primarily have to do with Mythic Structure and the Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell.

To give you a very brief description, Campbell was a mythologist who looked at myths across cultures, and focused not on how or where they diverged, but how they converged; that is, looking at what the myths from various cultures had in common.

What he discovered is that regardless of when they are written or how far apart geographically, myths from all cultures tend to follow a particular structure. Campbell came to call this the Monomyth, and it’s the defining idea behind his work.

Again, a full discussion of the Monomyth is a bit too large for this writing, but the important thing is the impact of the idea.

The fact that nearly every culture tells stories in the same way says something about the collective mindset of humans as a whole: the structure satisfies something innate in us. The way that heroes emerge, evolve, and complete their journey is more than a story—it’s an emotional need that every person is attracted to on a level deep within the psyche of humanity itself.

We need heroes—super and otherwise—and we need their stories to be told in a way that satisfies us on levels beyond our understanding.

The Hero Himself And The Hero Inside: Understanding Superheroes as a Reflection of Our Desire for Better Self

In all hero stories—particularly those told in the Monomythic tradition—the hero is identifiable, immediately, as an extension of the Self. As a reader, you are inexorably drawn to the hero, learn things as he learns them, see the story from his perspective. Eventually, you identify with him. 

We identify with the hero for a few reasons, not least of which is that, we want to be heroic: the hero is relatable because he stands for everything we would love to stand for, embodies everything we would like to see in ourselves.

However, most of us do not see ourselves as superheroes, initially; and so it would be hard to identify with a hero if he starts off that way. This is where mythic structure becomes more important, because the Hero’s Journey is less about getting from Point A to Point B than it is about the changes that occur to the hero along the way.

Therefore, the identification happens in part, by virtue of the way we tell stories. We can identify with them at the beginning, and we grow as they grow, cultivating that identification and carrying that identification all the way to the end.

When we watch their struggles, we feel like it is us, and we can identify with them overcoming these challenges. In other words, we inherently want to experience the Quest and the growth it brings. Looking at heroes allows the reader insight into how they might react in extraordinary situations, if and only if they had already gone through enough struggle, and had evolved to become something more; looking at them shows what we would like to be – the best version of ourselves.

Culturally, these stories give us a greater understanding of and context for conduct within our society, as well as an idealized version of what that society can achieve.

Personally, following the Hero on his journey allows us to realize the potential for own apotheotic moment: a moment wherein we become whole in the highest sense of the word; a moment wherein we could set aside fear and claim the ability to do what is right or needed.

And so, in a very true sense, Hero stories are not only inspirational, but aspirational; they allow to see the potential for change, first within ourselves, and in the world.

Or, perhaps better stated, these stories help us realize that striving for positive personal change places us in the best position to change the world for the better. 

Closing Out: Why We Do It

If I had to summarize all of this in a single sentence, it would be this: superheroes (and superhero movies) are universally appealing—and important—to us because, very simply, they inspire us to greater heights.

And being inspired is what it’s all about; superhero movies teach you to want to develop yourself so that you can help others; they encourage you to be a hero so that you can be heroic, for others. In the context of training, they encourage you to get better so that you can be better—for others.

I know that’s why I do it.

The single greatest joy I have ever gotten from being strong hasn’t been deadlifting 600 pounds, or benching four plates a side; it’s being strong enough to help where needed—to carry groceries for my mom, or help a friend move. It was the time a friend of mine was knocked unconscious at a music festival, and I had the strength to literally carry her, in my arms, nearly a mile to see a medic.

The biggest satisfaction that I ever had from having muscular endurance was not being fit enough to get through a workout without vomiting; it’s the ability to shovel cars out of snow for my neighbors without breaking down, and helping them get to work. It’s being able t to run a 5K for charity.

And although I currently have no reason to be truly fast, maintaining a high level of speed brings me satisfaction because I know that in the event I one day have to chase down a purse-snatcher, I’d be able to do it. (Perhaps unlikely, but, hey, I’d like to be ready.)

In other words, on a very real level, I train to be a superhero. That’s what I’ve always wanted to be. And of course, I’ve always trained to look like a superhero (I’d like to think I’d fill out a spandex costume very well, thankyouverymuch); but ultimately, I want to feel capable of great things. I want to know that I could help someone. I want to feel that, if called upon, I could save the day, save the girl, save the world.

Whatever it is, I would like to be able to perform in that moment—and I believe on some level, most of you do too. That is why superheroes speak to us.

And because they have always spoken to me, I have never been more excited than when I get to create things that will help people develop those qualities. When I get to take the knowledge that I have gained with training and nutrition over the last 10 years of my life, and marry them to everything that inspired me during the first 10 years.

The culmination of my quest to develop programs that will help people achieve a superhero body is the Superhero Workout program.

I know that so many of you want to be superheroes, and I’m so excited to help you do it.


This 12 week program, broken into 4 Phases–is exactly what you need to get into the best damn shape possible…

…and stay that way, all summer long.

Go to this page to check out all of the details

So many of you believe that you can be greater than you are now, that you have it in you to achieve these things. And it’s true: you do. I can’t wait to help you get there.

About the Author

John Romaniello is a level 70 orc wizard who spends his days lifting heavy shit and his nights fighting crime. When not doing that, he serves as the Chief Bro King of the Roman Empire and Executive Editor here on RFS. You can read his articles here, and rants on Facebook.

Comments for This Entry

  • dan_70J

    This descended into a fitness ad? Really? and yet it began so (Truly) intellectually. The Greek Gods are just superheroes of a bygone society. A society just as immature as ours. The Greek Gods are summer blockbuster popcorn films aimed at and meant for children. But, They are a window into the Ancient Greeks sensibility. It aint Shakespeare. It aint even Bob Dylan's "Shakespeare is in the Alley, with his pointed shoes and his curls, speaking to some french girl. who says she knows me well" . If you want to know our society well those low brow Comic books ( They are low brow and Juvenile, Don't deny it) are a good place to start. They May be the best place to start. It may be a bit of an over-simplification but you really only have to take the big 3 and compare and contrast them- Superman, Batman, and Spider-man and you will understand The USA. Batman is a nightmare- BUThe's winning the hearts and Minds, Superman is flawed by his flawless perfection, He's as outdated and out moded as "White Man's Burden" He's "Republican Jesus" ( Admit it, those two words have no business to conduct, they are in-congruent. That is Why Batman is winning) Spider-Man is the best we got- With Great Power comes great responsibility, And Like Achilles, Batman is flying too close to the sun. School children of the next empire will read these "Classics" AKA Popcorn Garbage. ( and it is Popcorn Garbage) But it is telling, because Einstein is the exception, FAR from being the rule.

    July 20, 2016 at 6:45 pm

  • MicVinny

    In honor of X-Men: First Class coming out tomorrow, I would have to go with my fav mutant, Nightcrawler's ability to teleport. Especially considering how long airport lines are these days!

    May 26, 2016 at 2:13 pm

  • » July 23rd – July 28th CrossFit Addiction Kennesaw Blog

    [...] The Strongest Man in the World Your Weight-Loss Will Suck Without This The 10 (+1) Best Strength Training Books Marathons Are Yawn Why Super Heroes Matter [...]

    September 26, 2013 at 1:32 pm

  • Alexander Juan Antonio Cortes

    Does the Force count at a power? The concept of the Force always appealed to me far more than an instantaneous power like super strength or flying or control of elements etc etc. The Force is powered partly by natural ability (midi chlorian), so you could say there is a sort of genetic component too it. But your powers are limited by what you invest time studying and developing, and the development of such abilities is an all encompassing spiritual/mental/physical practice.

    August 4, 2012 at 9:41 am

  • Patrick

    I would want to be able to reverse/stop/fast forward time.

    July 18, 2012 at 2:54 pm

  • Jacob Disley

    Control of an element generally comes in handy and has almost unlimited potential. Control and creation of fire would probably be my go to. Also means that the you still have to do the work for the body and the strength giving some humanity to it.

    July 18, 2012 at 2:26 pm

  • Saretta

    I would want to fly! I have in my dreams and that was already great . . . imagine in real life :-)

    July 18, 2012 at 2:08 pm

  • Brad Grant

    Well you are my superhero Roman! You have inspired me to achieve the goals I've reached and are the driving force behind the ones I'm still after! up up and away! :-)

    July 18, 2012 at 7:58 am

  • Rudy Rosas II

    Batman is my favorite but A super power would have to be the set of powers wolverine has. Health regeneration and heightened senses.Wolverine is my favorite Marvel Character.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:40 am

  • Rudy

    Batman is my favorite but A super power would have to be the set of powers wolverine has. Health regeneration and heightened senses.Wolverine is my favorite Marvel Character.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:40 am

  • Kedric

    Everything Batman would be the greatest super power of all

    July 18, 2012 at 5:15 am

  • Tpaul

    I know it's not a "single" power, but I'd pick Spidey's set of powers. Just being able to be super agile, with amazing reflexes and "Spider sense" would be sweet. That, and climbing on any surface would be too much fun to resist.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:22 am

  • Christian

    I agree, we all need to be able to look within and train ourselves to be the superhero, because like it or not, day in and day out we are ROLE models to others in our lives, we have to show them that something greater is possible and hopefully spark a change.

    July 18, 2012 at 3:37 am

  • Derek Doepker

    This makes a lot of sense. I've noticed one of the things that has really sustained my motivation for fitness over the years is not just for satisfying my personal ego, but being an inspiration to others. The ability to help others out not only physically, but also with the knowledge I've gained seems to fulfill that inherent desire to feel like a "hero." My super power would be "infinite knowledge" aka. the ability to get the answer to any question I could ever think of. I'd then be able to know how to defeat and outsmart any opponent.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:46 pm

  • Jbirdz

    I'd pick captain america's powers

    July 17, 2012 at 10:35 pm

  • Mike Aguilar

    If I could have a Super Power it would be to walk again.....

    July 17, 2012 at 10:28 pm

  • Cliff Kline


    July 17, 2012 at 10:19 pm

  • Robbie

    Using your imagination to create things is pretty rad so, essentially, Green Lantern-esque powers are the best. Vote Roman for your fav superhero!

    July 17, 2012 at 9:48 pm

  • Seth

    super healing - wolverine style

    July 17, 2012 at 9:09 pm

  • Raquel

    just one!! hehe, I would pick Aquaman's, I'd love to go under the sea for long periods of time without the inconvenience of air tanks and all the other stuff :P

    July 17, 2012 at 8:51 pm

  • Mark Wallace

    Hey Roman, I think you have a bug. The bar with tweet, FB etc follows you down the page and as you scroll down.. Mark

    July 17, 2012 at 8:02 pm

  • Margo Ragan

    Without a doubt, flying would be the one superpower I would choose. Not having to fly commercial or ever sit in traffic is a win win on all counts in my book.

    July 17, 2012 at 7:44 pm

  • Laura

    I think we're ready for grown up Roman in the costumes now - you know you want to.

    July 17, 2012 at 7:12 pm

  • John Balash

    I've always thought telekinesis would be bad ass--there's so much you can do with it! If you don't believe me check out the very cool movie Chronicle. I love these posts as I've always been fascinated by physique, power and heroism thanks to growing up a superhero fan. The Superhero Workout has a lot of fun exercises for fanboys and I'm sure the SHFL program will too.

    July 17, 2012 at 7:05 pm

  • Tyler Carter

    The bar of buttons for Like/Tweet/+1/Submit is right in the middle of the text, is that just me?

    July 17, 2012 at 6:17 pm

  • Warren (FitFinity)

    I want a poster of that last image. Sick.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:43 pm

  • Marie-Claire Gravel

    My super power would be to teleport so I could visit my family more often. We're so spread out across the globe and I miss them! Either that or fly super fast.

    July 17, 2012 at 5:20 pm

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