Superheroes and Greek Tragedy

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“A hero is someone who looks like a hero,” says film critic Robert Warshow, but in fact, we do not know who looks heroic to viewers other than ourselves. This study uses theories of affect and spectatorship to show how dramatic productions arouse pre-cognitive responses, such as pity and fear. These responses are tied to ideological frameworks: viewers root for Spiderman, but not for his arch-nemesis, the Green Goblin. In that case, affects arise from the value constructs of their cultures, and a comparison of heroes, modern films from Shane to Spiderman with stories of ancient Greek superheroes such as Antigone and Achilles, shows that each culture maintains a stereotype within which a range of responses to heroes can be defined. An ancient spectator, therefore, would not be concerned about whether Spiderman could save every innocent victim, for example, while a modern spectator does not admire Achilles when he demands respect before he saves his community. This study examines primary texts like the Iliad and Cryopaedia to set the viewing parameters of Athenian ideology, then considers how heroes, for example, like Oedipus and Iphigenia, might “look like heroes” to their original audience. This “affective hero,” unlike the structuralist hero, reflects the audience’s self-image back at itself and reveals surprising insights into culture.


“This book is a magnum opusmagnum in several senses. Its length, scope, and ambition are epic. It is the work of a lifetime of reading and thinking about classical texts, history, culture, and values, as well as about American films, their historical context, and their meanings. It raises big questions–about mimesis, fantasy, identification, ideology, affect, and much more–and offers bold answers. It is a magnanimous book that reaches out to a broad audience, a most unusual undertaking in an era of specialized studies. Most important, it accomplishes great things ... Since both classicists and general readers have so much to learn from and enjoy in this book, I hope the audience this opus gets is maximum.” (from the Foreword) Professor Mary-Kay Gamel, University of California-Santa Cruz

“ ... The book is valuable on several levels: as a lucid introduction to Spectator Theory; as a survey of the socio-cultural value system of the Greeks of the classical period; as a commentary on the hero ethos in Euro-American cinema and, to get to the meat of the book, as a commentary on the way in which Greek tragedy reflects and interpolates the cultural and historical cruces of fifth-century Athens. Dr. MacEwen’s point is that Athenian drama ‘demonstrates changes in ideology through changes in its view of the hero’ ... This is a book that anyone serious about Greek tragedy will want to own and one that contributes handsomely to our understanding of American values as reflected in the Hollywood hero.” – Professor William K. Freiert, Gustavus Adolphus College

“This engaging book presents a complex analysis of ‘meaning making’ by 5th century b.c.e. Athenians through the interactions of dramatic productions and the audiences which experienced them. The book also contains a comparison of this process of integration through heroic characters acting in congruence with fate and mutually understood mythic plots and superheroes in modern films, especially classic westerns and action films. Dr. MacEwen uses an interdisciplinary approach to examine these representations of reality, revealing a depth of scholarship which allows the reader to absorb her enthusiasm for the enterprise of understanding the conflict between heroic individualism and life in an evolving ‘democratic’ community of those who are theoretically equal ...” – Virginia Kent Anderson Leslie, Professor Emerita, Oglethorpe University

Table of Contents

Author’s Foreword
Part I
1. Introduction, or, The Affective Fallacy Redeemed
2. A Short Social History of Athens, or, Pallikari Meets “Father Knows Best”
3. The Affective Hero, or, Why Shane Can’t Come Back but Oedipus Has To
Part II
4. The Triumph of Dikê, or, The Heroic Choice
5. Falling Heroes, or, When Heroes Come Home
6. Fallen Heroes, or, The Hero Goes Home
7. The Triumph of Tychê, or, Clytemnestra’s Vision
Epilogue: “Heroes: The Final Chapter”, or, The Rule of the Muscle Shirt
Works Cited

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