Why are we so obsessed with guys in tights, fighting for truth and justice?
In the last decade, we’ve been inundated with a relentless output of superhero films. In 2018 alone, Marvel has released four flicks, two of which are now among the 10 highest grossing films of all time: Avengers: Infinity War made over $2 billion at the box office—the fourth most profitable film of all time. Not to mention Black Panther’s $1.3 billion in earnings, now the ninth most profitable film of all time. To put it in perspective, these two movies have earned more than any of the films released by the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises.
Millions of us have a love and obsession with these cape-wielding characters. But what is it about these kinds of fictional heroes that compels us to sit in a dark room for two hours on an almost monthly basis? Traditionally, many of these characters were marketed for kids, yet the genre is now almost exclusively produced for adults. In fact the two Deadpool films were, unsurprisingly, rated R16.
In many ways, it seems obvious both adults and children are drawn to characters that strive to fight for peace and justice in a world gone mad. We’re drawn to stories that showcase people fighting to make the world a better place.
A Tale as Old as Time
The concept of a superhero, or character with superhuman abilities, is as old as humanity itself—some of the earliest works of fiction portrayed characters with god-like abilities. The Epic of Gilgamesh, for example, dates back to 2100 BC and follows a demigod king with superior strength and beauty. Greek and Roman mythology was filled with heroes, such as Achilles and Hercules, who were worshipped as gods. Here in New Zealand, we have Māui—a mythological hero best known for fishing up the North Island.
Superheroes have an appeal that’s timeless and universal, regardless of race and culture. This is because they embody an idealised version of ourselves—not only do they have superhuman powers, but they’re pretty easy on the eye. Who wouldn’t want the toned, muscular body of Captain America, or the lush, dark hair of Wonder Woman?
Yet, despite these god-like qualities, superheroes are almost always presented with their own flaws and struggles. It’s this human side that makes them relatable—an aspect that usually becomes a central part of their narratives. It’s their humanity that inspires our deep longing to be a force for good in the world. To quote BBC writer Natalie Haynes, superheroes ‘illuminate the human condition’.
Thor and Theology
Superheroes also bring out a side of us that wants to believe there is someone or something looking out for us when things go wrong. The heart of the Christian story portrays a loving God who cares about his people. And while it’s probably not very helpful to picture God as looking like Superman, the Bible states clearly that he is a source of hope and comfort. Psalm 23:4 says: ‘Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.’ This verse isn’t saying life will be easy and things will never go wrong. But it is clear there is a loving creator behind us who hears our needs and desires.
Our attraction to superheroes also links to the idea of a ‘God-shaped hole’. This is the idea that eternity, and something greater than ourselves, is instilled in the heart of our being. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, ‘He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart; yet no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end.’
Timeless and Traditional Values
In a recent article in the Australian edition of War Cry, writer David Goodwin explores the relationship between the DC and Marvel superhero brands and what it tells us about traditional values. The ‘Coke v. Pepsi’ of modern cinema, Marvel and DC are in a constant battle for box office figures. However, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is significantly more successful, with more films and bigger takings.
Goodwin looked at the relationship between the two franchises and how they’ve both taken different directions in how they present their heroes. While both studios examine what it means to be a hero and the values they represent, their conclusions have started to look quite different.
Traditionally, a majority of superheroes looked more or less the same and were clearly distinguishable from their enemies in the fight for truth and justice. Yet as society has changed, so have ideas about who the good guy is—audiences wanted characters that were more complex. Stories like The Dark Knight and Watchmen gave us heroes with blatant flaws and villains that audiences could sympathise with.
Some stories started to depict ‘heroes’ that don’t really stand for anything, reflects Goodwin. DC creative Zack Snyder was on record saying he wasn’t a fan of the traditional approach to superheroes.
But for audiences, superheroes started to become a bit too dark. DC’s uber violent Batman Vs. Superman didn’t even crack $900 million at the box office. In contrast, Marvel’s Captain America, who embodies old-fashioned superhero values, grossed $1.153 billion.
In fact, DC’s most successful films have been Wonder Woman and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films—two characters that simply want to fight for good in a world of darkness. Goodwin says that regardless of spiritual views, audiences are still drawn to these values.
An Offering of Hope
In a broken world, hope is central to the human condition. This is a theme that all superhero films offer—that there is goodness in the world that will work to make all things right in the end. Regardless of whether we are Christian, atheist or Muslim, most of us hold on to hope of some kind.
There are plenty of parallels between a traditional superhero like Superman, and Jesus. Not only do they both originate from heaven and possess qualities of self-sacrifice, but they are both characters that offer a different way of being in the world. Instead of changing themselves to fit society, they strive to change society themselves.
It was Christ’s countercultural approach to living that inspired our founders Catherine and William Booth to start The Salvation Army. Our beliefs in The Salvation Army are what drive us to be a different kind of superhero. While we won’t be flying or driving batmobiles anytime soon, we have the power to make a difference in other people’s worlds through compassionate giving, love and sacrifice. Perhaps this is a ‘superpower’ more effective than anything a Marvel writer could ever conjure up.