Wednesday, October 3, 2012

What Superheroes and Fairy Tales Have in Common

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“Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
It seems like superheroes and fairy tales are dominating our media. With movies like The Avengers, TV shows like Once Upon a Time, no less than two Snow White adaptations in 2012, and an upcoming Sleeping Beauty film, this trend is going to hang around for a while. Next year we'll see at least two super hero films, and since 2000 we've had over twenty-three Marvel and DC superhero films. 2011 alone saw a total of five superhero films released in theaters.

Why are these stories so popular now? I don't know if I can answer that question, but I do know that they are very similar. In a way, superhero stories are our modern day fairy tales. Here are five things that the two genres have in common.

1. The Princess
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Standing for all that is sweet and right and good in the story, the princess (or girlfriend) is sometimes the main object of desire, sometimes the reward, sometimes the voice of reason, and sometimes the heroine of the plot herself. Not always a literal princess, she is nevertheless usually placed in danger by the villain. Mary Jane is kidnapped in every single movie in the Spider-Man trilogy. Sleeping Beauty is put under a spell by the evil queen. Pepper Potts is threatened by the Iron Monger and Justin Hammer (in two separate movies).

With some exceptions, the princess is the one who must be rescued by...

2. The Hero
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The hero attempts to do what he knows is right. He may start out selfish and reckless (like Tony Stark or Hal Jordan), but eventually learns to live for others, because that is the burden of a hero. He meets and falls in love with the princess, but his destiny as a hero usually conflicts with his desire to be with her. Peter Parker breaks up with Mary Jane to protect her. Aladdin cannot marry the princess because he's just a beggar. Bruce Banner transforms into the Incredible Hulk. The frog prince is - well, a frog.

The hero's selflessness or initial recklessness leads him to inevitably collide with...

3. The Dragon
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The dragon has no moral compass like the hero and lives only for himself. When the hero gets in his way, he will do everything he can to bring the hero down - not only to get what he wants, but also to take pleasure in the hero's suffering. Loki's plan to take down the Avengers is motivated by both ambition, and a sheer love of evil. The evil queen Maleficent was slighted by the king and wants revenge.

Because he hates the hero, the dragon is usually the one who brings...

4. The Temptation
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The dragon offers riches, power, fame, revenge, pleasure, comfort. The dragon tempts the hero to do something that he was told he must not do, or places the temptation in the way so that the hero is tempted without the dragon's prompting. Cinderella must not stay past midnight. Peter Parker must not reveal that he's Spider-Man. Finn mac Cumhaill must not eat the salmon of knowledge.

Trouble always follows when the hero succumbs to temptation. When Tony Stark reveals that he's Iron Man,  Ivan Vanko is able to track him down. When Snow White eats the apple she falls into the deathly sleep. When Finn mac Cumhaill accidentally tastes the salmon he must suffer the rage of Finnecces.

But normally the hero is forewarned of temptation by...

5. The Actual Fairy 
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How can it be a fairy tale without a fairy? And how can it be a superhero story without superpowers? And none of this can happen without an origin story.

In most fairy tale origins the plucky young hero meets a fairy, witch, sorcerer, or other magical creature that he rescues from a dire situation. In gratitude, the magical being gives the hero one magical gift that will help him defeat the dragon and save the princess - and also delivers a warning against the temptation.

In most superhero stories the plucky young (or young-ish) hero is involved in a freak accident that endows him with a magical power that will help him defeat the dragon and save the princess. Sometimes the power itself is the warning against temptation, like Tony Stark's freak accident involving weapons that he made, or Spider-Man's spider sense. Though superhero stories explain the superpower with science, it really isn't very much more plausible than the magic in fairy tales.

via Fandango
Superhero stories and comic books are our modern take on the classic fairy tale stories. The classics had knights in shining armor and beautiful princesses, or plucky peasant boys and fair-haired maidens. Our stories have knights in technological armor and hard-working secretary girlfriends, or skinny science geeks and redhead model girlfriends. Instead of dragons we have Jokers and Green Goblins. Instead of magic, science. But they follow the same patterns, and that is why we love them.


  1. I love this post! I'm total sucker for these stories and you've laid out exactly why. <3

  2. I love this trend - as far as I am concerned it can just keep right on coming! In addition to having a combo pack of 'Avengers' (YAY!), I also own the first season of 'Once' and I really enjoyed it.

    There is also going to be a new Beauty and the Beast adaptation which has me excited. It sounds so cool!

  3. I think I saw an article once that said basically that the reason for the return to fairy tales was because people were tired of shopaholics and drunken billionaires as the main hero (and, ultimately, the role model) and they wanted someone they could identify with,Look up to,(like Jesus) and watch prevail against all odds, and win the fight
    Dunno if that is the reason, but their you have it I suppose...
    Great post!! I've been thinking about this alot lately ...

  4. While reading your post, I kept thinking "Holy crap! This is totally true!" It's probably also the key to why they're so addicting. Awesome job pointing everything out. And yes, I did watch Once Upon a Time last Sunday, though I haven't purchased a copy of The Avengers. I really should.

  5. Oh, I didn't know there was a Sleeping Beauty movie coming out! Looks like we have to wait a while for it ... 2014.
    Anyway, I have a great love for superheroes and fairy tales! Bring on the magic!

  6. Excellent analogy! And every man needs a dragon to slay.
    I have my Bluray 3D copy of the Avengers and will watch it this weekend!



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