Classical heroes, both in their characteristics and their missions, heavily influence contemporary superheroes. Like most modern works of literature, comics are also influenced by some of the greatest sagas ever told. Many comic authors base their hero’s and villains off of ancient Greek and Roman stories. The stories are very easy to adapt to modern circumstances because they all deal with ageless lessons.
Although the ancient authors created their characters hundreds of years ago, they were used to teach the people of ancient Greek and Rome the same lessons that are needed even today, such as humility and duty to the state. One of the most famous Greek mythological characters is Achilles. His character has directly influenced the creation of multiple contemporary characters. However, the most famous hero that he influenced is Superman, the most commonly known comic book hero. They both have many similarities, from the very obvious weaknesses to the minutest details, such as their archrivals. However, the similarities that are deeper than the visual observations are the ones that have made both characters timeless. Through their adventures, both Achilles and Superman are able to demonstrate some of the most sought after characters, which can also be seen in almost every successful human being. Both fictional characters also have a few, but fatal weaknesses, which leads to their constant struggle to stay in power.
At the most basic level of comparison, both Achilles and Superman are very similar in their near perfect anatomical construction. Achilles is at the peak of human fitness, with the added mythological power of being invincible, except in his heel. Similarly, Superman is more perfect than any human being can be, due to his birth parents being form a different planet. Although he looks human, Superman is actually Kryptonian, allowing him to fly, have laser vision, and be invincible to physical damage. However, he also has a fatal flaw, which come in the form of radioactive shards from his home planet of Krypton. Another obvious similarity between them is their desire to improve the world around them with their superpowers, instead of using their powers for personal gain. It is very easy for either one of them to choose to do bad, considering that they are nearly immortal, but they decide to gain fame instead.
Going beyond their personal and physical similarities, are the similarities in their parents and upbringing. Both Achilles and Superman have two sets of guardians, their birth parents, and the generous people who raised them. Achilles has an immortal mother, the nymph Thetis, and a mortal father, King Peleus. His mixed status as an immortal makes him a demigod, which means he has some power, but is not fully accepted on Mount Olympus. Due to his parent’s time constraints, he was entrusted to Chiron to raise and train him. Chiron can be considered his adopted parents because he does everything that a parent is supposed to for a child. There are some similarities with Superman’s parentage and upbringing, but there are also stark differences. Superman’s biological parents are immortals from the planet of Krypton who left him on Earth for unrelated reasons. Once on Earth, mortals on Earth adopted him; who raised him and instilled American values in him. Both hero’s upbringings can be directly attributed to their choice of doing good for the community, rather than misusing their special powers.
The combination of their upbringings and physical prowess leads to their goal in life, which is similar for both Achilles and Superman. Achilles reason to live is to obtain kleos, which is honor. The only way that can be done is through enduring and winning wars, which he is adept at. The reason Achilles wants to obtain kleos is for personal fame, making him slightly selfish and contributing to his ultimate demise. However, many scholars argue that it is almost impossible to achieve kleos without the death of the achiever. Superman is similarly selfish because he chooses to fight crime to gain fame. Unlike other Marvel heroes who attempt to conceal their identity, Superman does not use a facemask because he wants the general public to know who their savior is.
Also, his bright costume draws attention to himself, in contrast to Batman’s dark costume, which helps to conceal his identity during his nighttime crime fighting sprees. With their inflated ego’s, it is easy to manipulate them, however the creators of both character chose to have a single downfall factor. The reason behind this is to portray a better picture in the mind’s of the reader, rather than a slightly flawed person. Most modern heroes, except superheroes, are more humanlike and have flaws, in order to be easier to relate to.
Another deeper similarity is how their respective worlds view them. In Superman’s modern world, he is never fully accepted by society due to his unnatural powers. HE is displaced in the human society because he is something that no human can achieve, making him an outcast, no matter how much of a positive influence he is on the world. Superman himself feels exiled by the human race because he knows that he is immortal, and no one else can live with him forever. Similarly, Achilles is an outsider in his Ancient world for similar reasons. The fact that he is a demigod puts him in an elite group, held to a higher standard of conduct than normal humans. Combined with the fact that he is one of the few that can change the tides of war in his people’s favor, he is almost required to fight in the conflict.
Just like they both have contributing factors that help them become inhumanely strong, they both have antagonists who match their strength and wit. The antagonists are very similar in their characteristics with the heroes; however, their single purpose for existence is to impede the heroes’ progress. Achilles antagonist is often debated, but it is almost generally accepted that Apollo, the god of war, eventually killed him. However, unlike Superman’s villain, Apollo is stronger and has limitless power when compared to Achilles. The difference in power could be the reason Achilles dies in his encounter with Apollo, while Superman survives his encounter with Bizzaro. Bizzaro’s similarities with Superman are striking, but understandable because he is from the same planet as Superman, with the single difference of not being raised by parents who instilled good qualities in him.
Neither Superman nor Achilles have perfect morals, as can be evidenced by the multiple times the break laws. Being superheroes gives them the favor of the public, who willingly bend any law to accommodate all the mistakes they make in their pursuit for good. The early versions of Superman are more likely to break the law in order to serve justice. Superman says multiple times, “You know the deal, Metropolis. Treat people right or expect a visit from me” (Superman). He does not define what is considered right or wrong, which causes initial resistance from the city leaders because he serves vigilante justice, undermining the complex judicial system that the government runs on.
Achilles is also depicted as a villain initially when he watches his people die. Although Achilles realizes that his troops need him to defeat the Trojans, he refuses to help until the come begging to him. He reasons that this is acceptable so that he gains more fame and comes out looking like a hero, rather than a soldier who happened to have performed extraordinarily. His actions are very self-centered and law-breaking, however the people still applaud him in the end because he is a hero.
By far, the most similar part of both Superman and Achilles is their single weakness. The only thing that can kill Superman is Kryptonite, making him invincible to any force that man can throw at him. However that single weakness is exploited and almost kills him, but being a modern superhero, he survives the nearly fatal encounter with Bizzaro. On the other hand, Achilles has a single weak spot, which is his heel, where his mother held him when dipping him in the River Styx. Their single weakness is the only true way to overpower and kill the hero, which is exposed in Achilles adventures. This weakness is probably to make the person more human-like and relatable, without losing their status as a hero.
The large number of similarities between ancient and modern day heroes shows how influential the ancient heroes are. In some cases, the hero similarities are not as identical as in the case between Superman and Achilles; nonetheless, they would have borrowed some aspects from an ancient reference. The shared characteristics also shows the creators respect and awe of ancient writers, and are, in a way, honoring them by surviving their characters through modern day, popular comics.