I love comic books. I love the storylines. I love the history behind the stories. I love the characters—most of them anyways. So, ever since the tidal wave of superhero movies flooded the past two decades, I have been all in.
Sure, there were superhero movies before the year 2000, but well-made movies were few and far between. It should also be said that not all comic book movies made since then are worth watching. (I’m still bitter about the 105 minutes I will never get back thanks to Green Lantern.) However, comic book movies have seen unprecedented success in recent years.
With the advent of believable CGI, brilliant casting, and skillful adaptation of classic storylines, long-time enthusiasts like myself have welcomed multitudes of new fans.
Furthermore, with box office records broken annually, it does not seem like the flood will be receding any time soon. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has grossed over $18 billion with solid production plans well into the 2020s. Superhero movies are a dominant presence on the list of the highest-earning movie franchises of all time.
With that many movies, making that much money, over that amount of time, there must be something that makes them that popular with that many people. I believe there are several themes common among superhero movies that connect to the heart of the human experience.
Here’s the thing…
I love superhero stories, and you probably do too.
Here are three reasons why:
They explore our biggest ideas.
Ideas have consequences, and as John Stonestreet is well-known for saying, “Bad ideas have victims.”
In history, we are frequently lured into following bad ideas based on their immediate promises to solve our problems and improve our lives. What is worse, we are just as likely to reject good ideas because the solutions are difficult, and the gratification is delayed. Often, we do not realize how bad an idea is until we are suffering the consequences of following it. Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and we are left wishing we had chosen a different course.
Over the years, superhero stories have adapted the biggest ideas in the real world to be played out on the printed page and the big screen. Superman grappled with nuclear disarmament. The X-Men mirrored the Civil Rights movements of the 1960s. The Avengers attempted to stop Thanos from exacting a Malthusian holocaust. What we see in superhero stories is a retelling of history with some superpowers mixed in.
Superhuman abilities notwithstanding, we know that those stories are at their best when they hit so realistically close to home. As we observe our heroes’ plights, we may stand to learn a thing or two. Even if we can’t punch through or fly over our dilemmas, a thought-provoking storyline could help us consider the pivotal moments of our story.
Superhero stories present us with the opportunity to explore the logical ends of our biggest ideas without experiencing the consequences of them. However, we must be active in identifying those ideas and thinking through their implications.
They confirm our sincerest convictions.
For most of human history, right and wrong have been determined by divine revelation. In the Christian worldview, God reveals His nature by way of His law and demonstrates fulfillment of that law in the person of Jesus Christ. For centuries, Judeo-Christian ethics formed the Western tradition, establishing moral ideals such as human dignity, individual worth, and equality.
Over the past couple of centuries, however, that tradition has been challenged and profoundly rejected in many ways. Right and wrong no longer come from above. They are found inside and determined by each of us. Consequently, our postmodern world is awash with moral relativism.
In steps Captain America. Of all the enemies defeated and evil deterred, his greatest challenge is standing up for what is right, even when other “good guys” disagree. Cap confirmed that what is right is right, no matter how unpopular it is, and the truth is true no matter how unpleasant it is.
In the greatest quote in all of superhero history (in my opinion anyway) Captain America implores:
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right….When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree besides the river of truth, and tell the whole world—’No, you move.’
With each superhero story revisited, ethical norms are revisited. These stories remind us that there is a real-world battle between right and wrong. They reaffirm that might does not necessarily make right—and often makes wrong. They remind us that justice is worth every effort. They reiterate that right should always win, even if sometimes it doesn’t. They reassure us that right and wrong are more objective than our culture often assumes.
Superhero stories present us with the opportunity to confirm the basis for our most sincere convictions as we hold to them in real life. However, we must be aware of the reality of those convictions and wonder where they came from.
They express our deepest longings.
Why is it that superhero stories have received such unprecedented popularity in recent decades?
Reflecting on his role as Batman in recent years, actor Ben Affleck candidly offers an explanation:
There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, from natural to man-made disasters, and it’s really scary. Part of the appeal of this genre is wish fulfillment: Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somebody who can save us from all this, save us from ourselves, save us from the consequences of our actions and save us from people who are evil?
This is a sentiment we all have in common. No matter how different we may be from one another, we all can agree on at least a couple of things. First, the world is not as it should be. Second, we do not seem to be capable of an ultimate solution because, as Affleck says, we are part of the problem.
The strength of Superman, the nobility of Captain America, the virtue of Wonder Woman, the ingenuity of Iron Man, the cunning of Batman—these all echo hope for salvation in the real world.
Superhero stories present us with the opportunity to express that for which we ultimately long and to which we guide our lives. However, we must be honest in considering the longings which make these stories so appealing.
Sacrifice Saves the Day
One of the prevailing themes in comics and their corresponding movies is that of salvation through sacrifice. Timothy Paul Jones writes, “Whatever the reason, nearly every comic-book hero is part of an overarching metanarrative that requires supernatural sacrifice to save the world.” It is here that we cannot help but see reflections of Christ.
Whatever works in these superpowered metanarratives works precisely because the artist has borrowed remnants from the comprehensive coherence of a biblical worldview. The unbeliever sees these world-saving wonders and may experience a passing sense of awe or appreciation. And yet, any goodness or truth that the unbeliever glimpses becomes, in the words of John Calvin, like “a flash of lightning that enables a bewildered traveler to see far and wide for an instant, but then the light vanishes…before the traveler can take a single step in the right direction.”
Sacrificial salvation is a common theme throughout superhero mythology because it is a common need of the human condition. Superheroes are at their best when they fix what is broken by giving themselves to be broken, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves.
Sound familiar? If you are a Christian, it should.
If you are not a Christian, I pray you soon see the reality of what C.S. Lewis called the “true myth.” After all the ancient mythology that Lewis studied, he concluded:
Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with this tremendous difference that it really happened.
We know many superhero stories. But, the story of Jesus is a true superhero story. It is a story that works on us in the same way all the others do. However, the story of Jesus has this tremendous difference: it really happened!
 Brian Truitt, “How ‘Justice League’ weathered supersized setbacks to assemble DC’s greatest heroes” (https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2017/11/13/how-justice-league-weathered-supersized-setbacks-assemble-dcs-greatest-heroes/856019001/)
 Timothy Paul Jones, “Comic-Book Heroes in a Christain Worldview” (http://www.timothypauljones.com/comics-biblical-worldview-comic/)
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