Spider-Man, Ancient Greek Kings, Heroes and Monsters… spot the difference!

Author: Candy Chu

Sub-editor: Charlotte Allan

In Classical Mythologies, heroes often portray characteristics that are chaotic and destructive in nature. However, this reality does not prevent ancient Greeks and Romans from admiring these figures, nor does it prevent heroes’ motifs and themes from being incorporated into films today. Consequently, I will contend that heroes in mythologies are mostly a chaotic force that can bring about destruction; however, it is also precisely their chaotic force and their destructive potentials that can bring about a positive impact. Firstly, I will explore the unchecked and monster-like chaotic force that heroes possess, and the threat they can impose on the stability of civilisations. Following this, I will analyse the relationship between monsters and heroes, and how they both possess and can exhibit a chaotic force, but unlike monsters, heroes can use their chaotic force for good. Finally, I will explore how heroes and monsters as chaotic forces are portrayed in today’s film and pop culture. Undeniably, heroes are a chaotic force that can bring about destruction, yet if this chaotic force is checked and reviewed, they can bring about a positive impact.

The chaotic force that Greek heroes possess ask their audience to be cautious, and to interrogate how the authoritative figures in ancient cultures used their power. Authoritative figures in ancient Greece and Rome often associated themselves with mythological figures for associated purposes. For example, Commodus, and Caracalla likened themselves to Hercules by adorning their sculptures with Hercules’ iconographies such as his club. Heroes were extraordinary in looks and power, which explains why rulers and emperors associated themselves with them. Professor Charles Martindale argues that when these heroes are integrated into a culture, they encourage their audience to interrogate these heroes as well as the figures who adopt them. ​Heracles was not a perfect, beautiful man depicted in Disney’s version. Yes, he was beautiful but popular memory often forgets Heracles was sent into madness, and he killed his own children and wife. It could be argued that Heracles was innocent because he was sent into madness, but regardless, it was a reminder of the monster-like chaotic force he had within him, and the consequences of such power. A more extreme version of Heracles would be the hero, Achilles. In Homer’s The Iliad, Achilles was described in details of his savagery and ruthlessness on the battlefield. Achilles ruthlessly killed and tossed the bodies of Trojan warriors into the river of Xanthus, and publicly dishonoured Hector by dragging his head along the dust for his parents, wife and Trojans to see. All the while, Achilles was carrying the shield his mother gave him, and on it Homer elaborately describes the life of ordinary humans and peace. The engravings detail marriages, festivals, the changing seasons, harvest, dances, conflicts, women, beauty, youth and law. Life beyond the tragedy of war is engraved on the shield carried by a monster like hero. The difference in ideology between Achilles and his shield illustrates the tragedy of the chaotic force a powerful leader can impose on his subjects, thus highlighting how Achilles’ unchecked force led him to become like a monster.

Although heroes are mostly and if not all chaotic forces, they can also be a force for positive impact because of the order they enforce. In mythologies, order is desirable and positive because chaos represents the antithesis of civilisation and tyranny. Heroes and monsters are very similar like Achilles was, as mentioned previously. They are both chaotic forces that have extraordinary destructive powers and they exist in a limbo where they are neither mortal nor divine beings, yet are bound to test this boundary of divinity. Their main difference, however, lies in the hero’s agency to choose between order and chaos. In Book 4 of the Library of History, Theseus defeats the Minotaur, a hybrid monster which feeds on seven Athenian male youths and seven Athenian maidens every year. Although the Minotaur is born like a child through the mortal woman Pasiphae, it is still a monster because of its chaotic nature and feature of power. The head of the minotaur is described to be of a bull however the rest of its body is that of a human, suggesting its unnatural power and aggression. Its appetite of the seven youths and seven maidens, coupled with the fact that it lives inside the civilisation, suggests that the minotaur symbolises a severe threat to the Athenian civilisation. However, Theseus who is also a chaotic force, kills this monster and restores order and protects Athens from perishing. Similarly, Hercules goes on to finish the twelve labours in the hopes of attaining mortality and kleos. On his tenth labour, when he was asked to retrieve the cattle of Geryon, he slays the three-headed monster and releases the natives from Geryon’s oppression. In doing so, he unintentionally saves the natives and their civilisation. Hercules and Theseus demonstrate how their chaotic force can become a force for good, to save lives and preserve civilisations, even if their intentions are for personal gains or not. Although, heroes can be a chaotic force like that of a monster, unlike monsters, heroes can choose or unintentionally use their chaotic force for good. In some ways, this inspires a sense of hope that there is a force for good despite the chaos, a theme that is still apparent in today’s films.

In modern films, filmmakers often incorporate themes and motifs that exist in heroes’ tales, thus serving the same function as mythologies that are incorporated into ancient cultures.  This provides an attempt to ask their audiences to interrogate between their reality and culture. In the movie, ​Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse,the storyline consists of numerous motifs and themes that exist in Theseus’ journey to defeat the Minotaur. Miles Morales, the main character, gains superpower after getting bitten by a radioactive spider. By accident he runs into Peter Parker who was killed by Kingpin, a villain with an abnormally large body and small head. The death of Peter Parker and the emergence of this villain symbolises the disruption of order. Kingpin is building a Super-Collider underground in Miles’ city, a machine that can access alternate parallel universes to get his wife and son back but at the price of destabilising the city. Similarly, to how Theseus finds the Minotaur in a labyrinth at the heart of Crete, Miles finds a destructive force that threatens his city. Since the opening of the access of different parallel universes, every spider-man from different dimensions meet up in Miles’ dimension, and The spider-men’s absence from their own dimensions poses a threat to the order/peace of their respective dimensions. However, since the other spider-men do not belong in Miles’ dimension, they deteriorate if they stay for too long. Like Theseus who saved the seven youths and seven maidens, Miles too must save his friends and restore order in his and other dimensions. Therefore, Miles must defeat Kingpin and his minion, Octavius, and get his friends into the machine before destroying the machine.

More importantly, Miles contains the same chaotic force that Kingpin and Octavius do, an abnormal power given to them by technology which can both destroy or preserve order. Villains in the movie are also like the minotaur as they are hybrids. Octavius is a human with tentacles like that of an octopus, however those tentacles are made of machine. However, the ultimate enemy is Kingpin and the supercollider, a hybrid of human and technology. In Theseus’ tale of the Minotaur, a hybrid between man and bull represents the internal monstrosity of the King of Crete, and the threat he imposes upon Athenian civilisation. Following this logic the monsters in Spider-man are a hybrid between technology and human, making technology a threat to civilisation. However, Miles is also a hybrid and a by-product of advancement in technology, radiation. But unlike the villains, Miles can channel the same chaotic force into a positive force, to save and preserve civilisation. Although Miles and his anti-heroes are hybrid beings of technology that possess a chaotic force that can destroy civilisations, Miles uses his chaotic force for good and saves his city and civilisation. In this way, technology is both the hero and the monster of the story, just as the chaotic force can make a hero or a monster.

Ultimately, heroes are a chaotic force just like monsters are, however heroes have a potential of being a force for good, such as preserving peace and saving civilisations. Exploring their chaotic force as a weapon of destruction, I highlight the potential for good that the same chaotic force can bring about to humanity, because the heroes’ chaotic force can enforce order and civilisation. Finally, I analysed the heroes’ chaotic force and how its potential for destruction or good is incorporated into modern films to explore and ask its audience to question the future of technology. Technology is the modern-day hero and monster, it possesses a chaotic force that can be both a force that protects civilisation, or destroys it, and the audience should use their power to interrogate it and keep it in check.

Image credit

Bust of Commodus as Hercules, 192 AD, courtesy of Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Bibliography

Assoc. Prof. Lee-Stecum, Parshia. “Politics and Divinity: Lecture 8.4.” ANCW20015: Classical Mythology. (​Melbourne, University of Melbourne, April 28, 2020). Video.

DiodorusSiculus. ​Library of History (​BooksIII-VIII). Trans. Old father, C.H.(Cambridge, M.A., 1935).

Dr Webber Monique. “Mythology as Propaganda: Coinage: Lecture 8.6.” ​ANCW20015: Classical Mythology. (​Melbourne, University of Melbourne, April 28, 2020). Video.

Dr. Webber, Monique. “Myth and Social Identity: Portraiture: Lecture 8.5.” ​ANCW20015: Classical Mythology. (Melbourne, University of Melbourne, April 28, 2020), Video.

Dr. Webber, Monique. “Mythology as Propaganda: Coinage: Lecture 8.6”. ​ANCW20015: Classical Mythology. (Melbourne, University of Melbourne, April 28, 2020). Video.

Homer. ​The Iliad.​ London: Penguin Classics, 1999.

Johnson, Marguerite. “Black Out: Classicizing Indigeneity in Australia and New Zealand”. In Antipodean Antiquities: Classical Reception Down Under. London, Bloomsbury, 2019.

Posthumus, L., Ch. 5: ‘Agents of transformation: the function of hybrid monsters’, ​Hybrid monsters in the Classical World: the nature and function of hybrid monsters in Greek mythology, literature and art,​ Thesis (MPhil (Ancient Studies))—University of Stellenbosch, 2011, accessed September 23, 2013 ​http://hdl.handle.net/10019.1/6865​.

Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse​. Directed by Peter Ramsey, Bob Persichetti and Rodney Rothman. 2018; United States: Sony Pictures Releasing, 2018. DVD.

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