Receptions of the Ancient Past: Superheroes at the Cinema.


It’s been a very busy week at work and with the glorious weather set to continue I’d imagine it’ll be equally full on for the days ahead. I’ve been short on time this past week and feel like I’ve been in a constant battle with the clock, having had some long awaited DIY tasks to complete over the weekend, plus the creeping anxiety of module results that are fast approaching, I’ve had little time to devote to anything else! It’s for those reasons I’m continuing last week’s Classical Reception thread for this post and having now had the chance to sit down and relax I’m keeping it quite light hearted, but I hope, still interesting and useful.

So, as I was trawling through this week’s run down of classics related news which I have to say was particularly varied, ranging from the origins of racism to the discovery of a golden hand at Vindolanda, (many of which articles and weekly updates can be found at and I found myself reading through a post from 2015 titled Before Marvel & DC: Superheroes of the Ancient World (Haynes, 2015) and being a bit of a film nut it really peaked my interest and got me thinking! I have to say that what follows is by no means original, this is an area of Reception Studies that has probably been done to death but nevertheless I still find it fascinating that antiquity has such an impact on modern media and make no apologies for this. But before we look into specifics, here’s a definition from the Classical World of the Greeks and Romans that I want to think about when we consider some of the various superheroes of the DC & Marvel cinematic universe.

‘Demigods are another class of superhuman beings, or better, a superior kind of human being – that is, supermen and superwomen. They are the offspring of mixed parentage, the union of a god with a mortal, who may or may not be extraordinary’

Morford, Lenardon & Sham (2011, p.136)

Now please correct me if I’ve overlooked someone, but so far as I can recall there are no characters in the CINEMATIC (that’s important, because the comics are another animal altogether) Marvel or DC universe that fall into the parameters of a demigod in the strictest of senses, specifically the part about having one divine parent. There are some fully fledged gods particularly in the Marvel world such as Thor and Loki, from Norse mythology but no demigods. There are however, some very close contenders for the title! These larger than life individuals are in many ways elevated to the status of demigods through modern means and interpretations of classical ideas, which in part emphasise the tragedy of their respective situations; take for example Spider-Man, Hulk and more recently, Black Panther.

Spider-Man began as an ordinary kid, Peter Parker, who whilst going about life in New York was bitten by a radioactive spider that transformed him into a superhuman with spider related abilities and strength. In the most recent incarnation of Spider-man entitled Homecoming, the young Peter Parker is taken under the wing of the equally heroic Tony Stark AKA Iron Man and the relatiob4fec1ff-f17a-409a-ad96-8ab4bae6fdc7nship that develops is akin to the god / mortal or perhaps teacher / student relationship that Haynes (2015) cites from antiquity. As for the Hulk, in a similar twist of fate, Dr Bruce Banner is bombarded with gamma radiation which unleashes an unstable yet super-charged alter-ego and therefore a superhero in his own right. In contrast to Spider-man and Hulk who gained their abilities unintentionally there’s the Black Panther, the African king T’Challa and ruler of the technologically advanced Wakanda. Unlike the previous two examBlack_Panther_Featured-1ples, Black Panthers’ ability and status as a superhuman are by choice (by ingesting the heart shaped herb) albeit a choice that is necessitated by Wakandan tradition. All three cases, Spider-man, Hulk and Black Panther are in my view closely aligned with the idea of a modern demigod,  they are both powerful yet flawed at the same time and although none conform to the ancient parameters of semi-divine status in the strictest of senses, I would argue they represent a modern scientific incarnation of the demigod one in which the human state is altered and enhanced by scientific means rather than supernatural one.

Fallen Heroes

I want to finish this week’s post with a specific example from the ancient past and to do so I’m drawing on an old favourite of mine – yes he’s back again, I give you Ajax! Now at the risk of flogging a dead horse I think this example used in the 2015 BBC post is a great one, I’m honestly not obsessed with Ajax, I just think he makes my point well, so here it is. Think about the X-Men, now think about Erik Lehnsherr or Magneto as he is more often called.magnetofassbender Magneto falls from grace when his ideology diverges from that of the pacifist Charles Xavier and what was initially a great partnership fighting for what’s right results in the powerful Magneto going rogue. Compare this with Ajax. As a mighty warrior he fought side by side with the Greeks in the Trojan war and did so admirably, it wasn’t until after the fighting had ceased that the gifting of Achillies’ arms to Odysseus literally drove him mad and this resulted in him turning his anger on his former allies, of course there was more to the story and Athena had her own part to play, but nevertheless the parallels between the ancient and modern examples are intriguing.

So, I’ll leave this one with you…

What other examples of modern superheroes can be traced back to antiquity?

I look forward to hearing some ideas and thanks for reading.



Haynes, N. (2015) ‘Before Marvel & DC: Superheroes of the Ancient World’. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed on 1st July 2018).

Morford, M.P.O, Lenardon, R.J & Sham, M (2011) Classical Mythology, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p.136.

3 thoughts on “Receptions of the Ancient Past: Superheroes at the Cinema.

  1. I always like reading Classics/superhero stuff; it appeals to my inner geek! Actually I often use the comparison in Latin tutorials (if you’re interested, check out ‘Pietas and the Hero’ here: I think the development of pietas, or a sense of obligation, by Livy and Virgil was a crucial Roman addition to the concept of heroism, which went on to become a fundamental part of our cinematic superheroes. However, I’m always a bit biased towards the Romans…!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s a really interesting example, I will have to look at that one in more depth. I too am attracted to superheroes and their roots in classical mythology. Actually, I find the whole sci-fi / classics relationship fascinating especially the ways in which myths have been used to create larger than life characters. When I was younger I used to watch the Stargate series and that was all about the reception of myth.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s