Gods vs. Supermen: 10 reasons Neil Gaiman’s American Gods beat the superhero pantheon

Every civilization has its gods. Zack Snyder once remarked that superheroes “are our gods and goddesses,” an American pantheon we worship at the bookstore and the box office, jumping out of colorfully inked comic book pages and movie screens to rescue us from our own issues. 

With all due respect to the director of Man of Steel and Batman vs. Superman, something is missing. While superheroes may be heroes —caped, masked, genetically mutated heroes — they fall short of being deities.

But there is a new breed of higher beings that might just have enough power to convert us from our devotion to caped crusaders and men of steel. Bryan Fuller, who will be directing the upcoming TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, believes that the book creates “a Marvel Universe, not with superheroes but with gods.” They have powers the men and women in spandex could only begin to fathom, while at the same time being (ironically) more relatable because of their blatant humanity.

Here are 10 possibly sacrilegious reasons why you’ll want to worship Gaiman’s Gods in place of the classic American idols.

They have cooler names

Think about it. Would you rather idolize someone named The Hulk or Czernobog? Spider-Man or Anansi? Superman or Mr. Wednesday? Of course, Wednesday is really Odin, the one-eyed All-Father of the Norse pantheon, and the name he shares with the fourth day of the week is actually a warped version of “Odin’s day.” Names can have just as many supernatural powers as superheroes themselves. Call on Czernobog to crush an enemy and you’re summoning the Slavic “black god” whose moniker alone can scare the living daylights out of a supervillain just as much as his skull-smashing hammer. The Hulk would be jealous.

They aren’t underwear models

Ever notice how most of the Marvel and DC Universe could easily advertise boxer briefs or lingerie on a billboard? Most of the Gods (maybe with the exception of Bilquis, the Queen of Sheba) aren’t exactly headed to a casting call for a Calvin Klein ad — which is why we can relate to them. Wednesday is introduced to us in the image of a graying man with a glass eye wearing a '70s-era cream suit. The Zorya don’t do bikini tops. The scrawny Mr. Nancy, aka Anansi, would be pretty easy to miss in a crowd if it wasn’t for his checked jacket and garish yellow gloves. Gaiman redefines these superhuman beings by making them look remarkably human.

They’re (very) flawed. Like us.

Bruce Wayne may brood away in his mansion when he’s not in his batsuit, but the triumphs of superheroes usually outweigh their flaws to the point of making their image (almost) immaculate. From Wednesday the conman to Bilquis the prostitute, to the chronically drunk Mad Sweeney, the Gods don’t deny being just about as far from flawless as a several-thousand-year-old deity can get. While most of us would rather not be involved in a bank heist, we can relate to the temperamental Czernobog or the sometimes judgmental Nancy because their shortcomings are all too common. Case in point: immortal doesn’t always mean infallible.

They don’t need help with superpowers

Spider-Man needs to be bitten by a genetically engineered spider before he can swing from skyscrapers. Iron Man engineers his own super-powered suit. Batman has no paranormal powers. The American Gods have been able to shoot thunderbolts, morph into animals and decide the outcome of a battle since time immemorial. No outside intervention is needed for Mad Sweeney the leprechaun to pluck glittering gold coins out of thin air or one of the Thunderbirds to electrify a storm with lightning. Wednesday effortlessly shifts fate. Even Shadow, who is half-god, can change the weather just by thinking hard enough.

They think and dream in HD

Professor X may be a mutant telepath, but even he isn’t able to enter and exist in someone else’s thoughts like the Gods do. This nebulous realm of “Backstage” is first revealed at the House on the Rock, when they ride their carousel mounts into Wednesday’s stream of thought. Shadow later enters Mr. Town’s musings for an unsettling look at the brainwashed “worship” of modern society. His IMAX-quality dreams are closer to out-of-body experiences than sleep. Shadow often passes into Backstage in his semiconscious state, where he has real brushes with death and receives pointed advice from a mysterious buffalo-headed creature.

They get away with everything

Batman always has Gotham City law enforcement on his trail. Spider-Man is hounded by paparazzi trying to capture him in action for the front page. Meanwhile, Wednesday is a professional grifter who has never seen the flash of a camera or the back of a police car. Whiskey-soaked Mad Sweeney drunkenly stumbles under the radar however many times he gets plastered in public. Low-Key Lyesmith (who else but Loki the lie-smith) literally gets away with murder. Is it cleverness? Trickery? Magic? Some strange inexplicable force? The only one who has spent the night in a jail cell is ex-con Shadow, but he is half mortal after all.

They can be everywhere (and everyone) at once

Ever heard of a Superman sighting in two cities at once? How about several countries? The Gods are everywhere people still believe in them, which means that it is entirely possible for one iteration of Wednesday to be driving on I-80 while the other wanders the streets of Reykjavik. They also have enough shapeshifting powers to rival Mystique. She can only go to blue and back while the Gods keep their human forms Backstage, but also unmask all the versions of themselves. Mr. Nancy is still an odd old man — and an eight-limbed warrior, a raggedy little boy, a tiny brown spider and a glittering jeweled arachnid all at once. 

They don’t just fight villains, they fight social ills

Exterminate a villain, any villain at all, and the world will be one less a Joker or a Venom or a Lex Luthor. Whatever malaise that might have poisoned them will still be lingering in the back alleys of humanity. The villains the Gods fight are social ills. The Spookshow (Mr. Town, Mr. Wood, Mr. Stone and Mr. World), Media, the Intangibles and Technical Boy are only a few incarnations of America’s obsession with materialism and everything shiny. Losing to them in the minds of the American people would mean the dawn of an era that worships TV, drugs, fleeting technology, government conspiracies and the “invisible hand” of the stock market.

They can raise the dead.

When the Joker snarls “kill the Batman,” he’s positive his arch-nemesis won’t be rising from the grave anytime soon, and Spider-Man isn’t able to swoop in and bring back the murdered Gwen Stacey. It is a little different when your friends are divine celestial beings. Shadow’s freshly buried wife Laura is reanimated twice, albeit as a revenant (basically a walking, talking, still-rotting corpse), and stays a glorified zombie so long as she wears Mad Sweeney’s magical coin around her neck. Shadow is brought back from the underworld after he sacrifices himself in Odin’s name for the fallen Wednesday, who doesn’t stay fallen for long because…

They can live forever. Sort of.

There’s a reason Iron Man sweats it out in almost impenetrable armor and Captain America deflects bullets with his shield. Superheroes are still mortal, no matter how revered they are on comic book pages and movie screens. Gods can cheat. Even when Mad Sweeney is supposed to be a cadaver in Jacquel & Ibis’ embalming room after the police find him clutching a bottle of whiskey with lifeless hands, his blue lips keep talking to Shadow. Wednesday is offed by a fatal shot to the head only to live again after Shadow’s sacrifice. The transcendent power of belief is the elixir of life for dead and dying gods. As Mr. Nancy admits, “we’re kind of hard to kill.”

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