“They’re very important, these comic book movies, because they’re our modern myths.”—Bryan Singer, SUPERMAN RETURNS: THE COMPLETE SHOOTING SCRIPT.It goes without saying that when Singer made this statement, he certainly didn't mean it in any functionalist sense. Not even the most jaded Hollywood hypester would claim that a fictional character like Superman had ever served any of the purposes of myth cited by Joseph Fontenrose, such as citing the precedent for a festival or a ritual.
It would be easy to dismiss this statement and many like it as simple hype. It's quite possible that if Singer was honest about what he meant about the "importance" of a "comic book movie," it might have come down to persuading more people to go see SUPERMAN RETURNS.
And yet, why should the most manipulative entertainer make such a claim? Why not simply claim that the movie's going to be entertaining? What emotions does Singer hope to inculcate, by reading Superman as "myth?"
Similar statements evolve even in the absence of specific pecuniary motives. By the time Ursula LeGuin wrote her 1976 essay MYTH AND ARCHETYPE IN SCIENCE FICTION, she was reacting to an attempt by science fiction's defenders to promote science fiction as a "modern mythology."
I won't go into LeGuin's take on the matter in detail. I'll confine myself to stating that I disagree with the logic of her verdict, since her definition of myth reduces down to "the literary myths that I happen to like." In logical terms this is no better than "the stuff Mister Comic Book Film Director is trying to promote." LeGuin does offer something of an affirmation of the question as to whether literary creations can be myths, though, and seems to do so as an expression of her own philosophy, not because such a definition helps her promote her own work.
I've yet to find a dictionary definition that satisfactorily takes in this contemporary application of the word "myth" to literary productions. The only definition that comes close appears in Wiktionary:
A person or thing held in excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration based on popular legendEven so, this definition seems predicated on the sense that the persons experiencing this "quasi-religious awe" are responding to a "person or thing" in the real world. The person or thing may have had its original qualities amped up thanks to the "legend-izing" process, the same process that *may* have made a 5th-century Romano-British military leader into King Arthur.
Literary fiction, be it high or low, is never thought to have had any existential reality, be it Tarzan (whom LeGuin regards as a "true myth") or Superman (whom she disdainfully terms a "submyth.")
Still, the process seems analogous. Despite the fact that the readers of Superman and Tarzan know that the characters were never real, the term "myth" is clearly applied to them as approbation.
But why, if the characters are just made-up figures out of some writer's imagination?
It would seem to me conclusive that in this "essentialist" sense, myth is used to denote an "excessive or quasi-religious awe or admiration."
Further, this "awe or admiration," in order to be fit the sense of being essential to both literature and religion, would also have to extend into all those those constructs that are supposed to possess some existential reality, be it Milton's God or England's Arthur.