Box offices have been booming lately. Everyone seems to want to see the latest superhero movie- with their spectacular effects and non-stop action. They never cease to amaze, but what is it that comes away with us once the extra scene has ended? What is it that these films and by extension comics teach us about the world we live in? Although this new cultural phenomenon is enjoyable, superheroes as a concept and what they stand for is a topic that needs to be critically engaged with.
Superheroes at their core are familiar to Christians if we look beyond capes and tight pants. They are generally people who have acquired a power through their own skill or through providence, otherwise they carry a human identity that allows them to be a part of society when not saving the world. In many ways, the heroes are fully human, but there is another, more powerful side of them that advocates on the side of humanity. Sound familiar? In these movies, superheroes deal with the same struggles as the rest of us, but by their powers or extraordinary skills, they are able to overcome them and save the day. They fix the problems that humanity creates in their ignorance and greed, maintaining the belief that they are capable of goodness despite how they fall. In the introduction to the book The Gospel According to Superheroes, B.J. Oropeza writes, “Whenever the heroes put on their mask or costume, they take on their savior identity and willfully go through another episode of separation, transition, and reintegration as they battle wicked menaces. They point us to the realization that society cannot eradicate evil on its own; it needs the help of a powerful yet godly redeemer,” (8). The heroes on screen point us toward Jesus, the one who did become human and save us from the evils we created and could not correct on our own.
By working toward the redemption of the evils in the world, superheroes also remind us of our longing for a perfect place, a return to Eden or the Paradise that is to come. Many times, the men and women who become the heroes begin in an idyllic place free from suffering, but something happens that corrupts it and begins the hero’s mission for its restoration. Oropeza writes, “Most superheroes suffer tragic loss: Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Robin, and Toro all lose their parents, the Hulk loses his sanity, and Spawn his life. Yet despite their losses, or sometimes because of them, they gain a sense of great commission, forever trying to mend something that has been torn apart…By protecting the weak and upholding justice, they want to restore a little bit of Eden to the world…” (6). By fighting evil and preventing disaster, superheroes attempt to bring back the goodness that they knew before they realized the fallenness of the world around them. Like the rest of humanity, they have suffered losses and seek to restore what the evil has taken or corrupted.
In addition to pointing viewers and readers toward something greater than themselves, they also show us the state of our society- our hopes, our fears, and our values. For example, Iron Man has nothing inherently “super” about him, but his power is his use of technology in the digital age. In the Apple™ age, we value those who can use their intelligence to create the most advanced systems. But there is also the fear of what happens when it is put in the wrong hands- the premise of the first Iron Man movie. In a similar way, Captain America reflects our fears of a world that is changing quickly. We wonder if the past is the paradise that we sometimes think it was.Their fears are our fears, and often we hope together for a world free from the suffering that comes with evil.
What has been done well in recent movie versions of superhero comics is the handling of villains and the audience’s relationship to them. They are often ordinary people who experience something traumatic, and when given the power to get revenge, they do. They become sympathetic when they share our struggles- broken family relationships, hurting the people they love most, and being ridiculed by those they seek to emulate. It makes us as viewers think about our own worst moments and times that we have committed the same evils as them on a smaller scale. When we evaluate our own sins and failures, we begin to realize that we are the same as them, minus superpowers of course. Given the same circumstances, might we be the villains too? The creators of these characters force us to question ourselves. Loki from the Thor movies and The Avengers is one character who does this through his appearances. In Thor, he begins as a mischievous, but well meaning character trying to deflate his brother’s ego, but after finding out that he was adopted and not getting the support he looked for from his father, he tried ineffectively to prove that he was worthy of his family by turning Odin against Thor. Instead of proving his point, he meets only their disapproval, which pushes him further into his rage. What makes him relatable is that he finds the monster within himself, and by fighting it pushes away the people who could help him- namely Thor and Frigga. He is lost and looking for his place in the world, just like those who watch the movie.
What Loki and others also show audiences is their capability for good. Villains are not the embodiment of evil in these films, but they allow it into their lives. Loki was once one of the heroes, but he allowed his anger and hurt to control his decisions. Whether or not they chose a life of evil, there are many examples of villains who show redemptive qualities. In X-Men, Magneto once worked alongside Professor X, but his mission for revenge against those who discriminated against him directed his path away from the side of goodness. He seeks justice, even if his definition of it has been twisted. Tim Perry writes in his article “Mutants that are all too Human: The X-Men, Magneto, and Original Sin” that, “He knows also that it is good and right to act to prevent further acts of moral evil. He fails, however, in his preventive mission. He succeeds only in perpetuating the cycle of violence, only in becoming the original object of his hatred, the ideologically driven oppressor,” (184) In a similar way, the Winter Soldier is another character who began good, but is now fallen with the hope of redemption after the release of the newest Captain America movie. He did not choose the circumstances that he was faced with, but at the end is given the choice to maintain the status quo or fight back against his creators. Like these characters, we are given choices about how we react to the troubles we face. We could allow anger, hate, and fear to control us, or we could fight back and try to rise above.
Though there are many valuable qualities in the superhero genre, it is not completely without fault. There are many examples of superhero movies being exploited, characters being idealized, and character selection being discriminatory in its history. It is no secret that sometimes studios like to show off new technology, and superhero movies are a great vehicle for that purpose. In this genre, it is easy to get away with adding more fight sequences, making violence more realistic, and using special effects to create the biggest baddies that the creators can think of. When this happens, people show up to see the spectacle- to escape from realism and indulge in the violent fantasy displayed before them. We can lose our sense of reality for a couple hours to watch the heroes swoop in to save the day from the bad guy who is out to destroy the world.
At other times, the stories appear to be simplistic and maintain the status-quo. They fight for values that we stand behind, at times without challenging them. For the most part, the characters are American and uphold the “American dream” as an ideal to be imposed on the villains who challenge it. In Captain America, for example, we are confronted with an openly patriotic character who represents an idealized version of America’s past and a nostalgic return to the old values. What it does not confront is the ways that America used its powers against others (or universal fallenness)- just that of the antagonist and his or her own evil. Though the movies often do tie blame to humanity as a whole, it can also fall into the trap of putting the source of evil beyond ourselves, onto some distant outside force that seeks to create chaos, rather than stirring up what is already there.
In addition to this, there is also the issue of the lack of diversity among superheroes. There are few women, and even fewer minorities, among the realm of heroes. Think of the most popular superheroes of the moment. How many are women? How many are not white? It is obvious that a certain group is privileged above others in this genre. It is the white American males who are the saviors and everyone else is a villain or victim. In recent years, there has been some effort to address this problem by introducing new characters or changing the race of characters for the movie adaptation, but there is still a definite bias that limits the narratives available and discriminate against those who do not fit into the classification.
Even though the metaphors presented earlier are helpful for understanding how religion influences superheroes and the mythologies associated with them, they do not give a complete picture. Take Sufjan Stevens’ song “John Wayne Gacy Jr.”, which Stevens has said in an interview at Calvin was in part written as a rebuttal of the American superhero myth, for an example. In the song, he addresses the idea that everybody is capable of the same low level of depravity. If that held true with superheroes, it would be more apparent that they are capable of the same evil as the villains and that among humanity there are only villains. The superhero-as-savior-figure does not always hold up when investigated further. Jesus empowers humanity to confront evil for ourselves, but the superheroes swoop in to save the day, often leaving bystanders watching in fear as a huge battle takes place around them. Rather than this model, we are a part of the action with power to fight against evil or to join it. Instead of taking place around us, it involves us.
It is true, the superhero myths have their flaws. They do not always accomplish what they are capable of. But there is an attempt in these movies to point toward something bigger, even if it is sometimes hidden. We are a flawed creation with a flawed product, but within it, there is something worthwhile. Viewers can find recollections of a world lost to us, a savior figure who is human and hero, and the reassurance that the things we fear are not permanent. They challenge us not to flee and hide when faced with trouble, but to have faith that the hero can save us from any evil, even when its within us.
Perry, Tim. “Mutants That Are All Too Human: The X-Men, Magneto, and Original Sin.” The
Gospel According to Superheroes. Ed. B.J. Oropeza. New York: Peter Lang, 2005.