As the release of Avengers: Endgame drew near this year, my family made use of every resource—library DVD rentals, Redbox, online streaming, the theater—to refresh on what would ultimately become a whopping 22 total movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). We piled up in our basement TV room, haggling over the good chairs, cuddling under blankets, and passing around snacks and candy while the familiar bright red and yellow comic pages fluttered to the resounding MCU opening fanfare. But in the same month that the finale of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes surpassed James Cameron’s Avatar to become the highest grossing movie of all time, Amazon successfully released their super dark, super bloody genre deconstructing The Boys, showing that there is an appetite for other perspectives on the Superhero theme besides fanboy adoration.
Whether you think superhero movies are a blight on the earth or the reason God made popcorn, there’s no denying it—the superhero movie is the monolithic, defining cultural phenomenon of our time. From the MCU to DC and beyond, this will undoubtedly be a cultural phenomenon remembered long after the trend wanes. There’s no shortage of think pieces asking why this genre and why now? Is it just good, dumb, popcorn fun? Is it that better special effects today help us enjoy the genre more? Is it simply because we like watching explosions and good-looking people perform cool stunts?
I’m sure many interwoven factors have converged to cause this to become so big for so long. I can see how my own enjoyment of these films has been shaped by influences from my familial and national backgrounds, as well as by inner yearnings and questions I think all people share. Thinking about these influences has convinced me that our collective superhero fascination reveals a lot about how we define ourselves, Jesus, and our relationship to him.
Super Dad: He Is Strong
No doubt, I come by my love of the hero honestly. It goes back to my upbringing. My dad has always been my first hero. He’s a square-jawed, solid block of a man, and a former national champion wrestler. He’s the nicest guy you ever met… until you decide you can make someone else feel small or abuse the power you hold over another.
From the schoolyard to the workplace, he’s always prided himself on being a bully-stopper. My brother and I grew up hearing many, many stories of confrontations where he stuck up for the little guy and put bullies in their place. No matter how many times I heard Dad’s stories, I loved them. I held an idealized view of him without wavering.
One instance stands out above the others. In middle school, I had a long-term substitute teacher and my dad recognized his name. “Hey, I used to go to school with him,” he said one night, “Tell him I said hi.”Our collective superhero fascination reveals a lot about how we define ourselves, Jesus, and our relationship to him.
This substitute’s name was “Mr. T.” Despite his name, he was a small-statured, young-faced Italian guy who wore Wranglers and a big belt buckle. When I told him my dad’s greeting in class the next day, his eyes widened. “Your dad is Ron Singleton?! Oh man! When we were kids, these guys would always pick on me, but he wouldn’t let ’em!” He went on and on in front of the class, animatedly telling how my dad stuck up for him. I always knew my dad was a hero, but to now have this public affirmation—with my entire class as witness—meant that other people knew it, too. “He was HUGE!” Mr. T continued, throwing his arms out wide in emphasis. You have never seen a little girl swell with pride like I did that day.
The impact my dad’s example and values had on me is hard to overstate. Even now in my 30s, most of my daydreams are about saving people from fires, dog attacks, active shooters, tornadoes, and driving off bridges. I’ve always wanted to be a hero, brave and compassionate, sacrificially standing up for the picked on and the vulnerable, not afraid to stand up to injustice and oppression. So, though my dad has always favored heroes who wear cowboy hats over those in colorful spandex, when Steve Rogers said in Captain America: The First Avenger, “I don’t want to kill anyone. I don’t like bullies. I don’t care where they’re from,” I couldn’t help but smile and think of my dad.
The hero ethos has been cemented in my identity as the daughter of someone strong and caring enough to intervene and help those in need.
Hurting Nation: They Are Weak
My personal love for the hero story may have sprung from a perceived inheritance of strength and courage from my dad. But as a nation, our current superhero trend likely originates from someplace entirely different. It may signal our deeper, collective need for reassurance and protection against a larger, more sinister threat than a school yard bully. But it’s easy to overlook this in the blockbuster fun, as Todd VanDerWerff asserts in Vox:
Superhero films are the dominant cinematic force right now. They make money hand over fist, and their releases turn into genuine pop culture events. But we miss their point —we miss the why of them. These films are pop culture’s most sustained response to tragedy.
America has long turned to superheroes in troubled times. In “Superhero Popularity in Past and Present America,” Talia Smart explains that how and when many of our A-list heroes emerged corresponds strikingly well with the drama playing out on the national stage at the time: “In the past, the reason for superhero popularity has been fairly clear: driven by external or internal crises and social climates, the costumed protectors have emerged to save our society,” such as during surges in superhero popularity following the Depression, during World War II, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights era.
From my perspective, the current pervasive reign of the superhero movie era started with Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, starring Tobey Maguire. And it’s not just me—this film is often credited with reviving the genre and initiating the deluge of movies that continues today, almost two decades later. Just nine months after 9/11, the movie’s release date was so soon after this pivotal tragedy that promotional materials, including a teaser trailer and a poster, had to be yanked because they depicted the Twin Towers. It likely would have already been a success based purely on its own merits as a blockbuster film, but no one anticipated the record-breaking success Spider-Man would achieve, largely as a result of the tragedy, according to Cassandra Hsiao in the Los Angeles Times:
The nation, still reeling from the horrors of 9/11, flooded the theaters the following year, hitting a record high for U.S. admissions—1.64 billion moviegoers—in 2002…. Spider-man ranked in the highest domestic growth of 2002, beating well-established franchises “Lord of the Rings” and “Star Wars”…. The nation clearly hungered for a figure who could save the country—or, in this case, at least defend New York.
In the wake of a freshly realized weakness and vulnerability within the most powerful country in the world, the depictions of heroes saving the day has played out as a kind of collective catharsis. The movies are a safe place to work through our fears and insecurities, like one big therapy session after a national trauma.
If any more proof is needed that superhero movies give voice to those who feel the need for justice and safety, consider this: Wonder Woman and Black Panther were two of the most successful, most talked about superhero movies during what have become two of the biggest reckonings of our time—#MeToo and Black Lives Matter. It’s not just that these two are exceptionally powerful individuals who resemble traditionally marginalized populations in our world. Both Wonder Woman and Black Panther emerge from places where even the idea of their people being oppressed is a ridiculous and foreign notion. It’s not just that their bodies are strong; their psyches are unwounded, and their homes are microcosmic depictions of a world unspoiled by the cruelty and devastation caused by sin and the fall.
A large part of why we love superheroes the way we do is because we’re all hurting so dang much, and we lean into these stories most when our pain and fear are felt most deeply.
Collective Human Dilemma: Little Ones to Him Belong
The current American superhero movie trend is just one of countless iterations of the human tendency to make up stories about people with superhuman strength and skills, as Natalie Haynes points out in “Before Marvel and DC: Superheroes of the Ancient World”:
Superheroes have existed for as long as stories, before writing and across every culture from which we can find evidence. Fionn mac Cumhaill built the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and Gilgamesh defeated Humbaba in Mesopotamia. Rama was exiled from Ayodhya in India, while Beowulf slew Grendel and Grendel’s mother in Scandinavia. And that’s before you think about the ancient Greeks, who boasted a plethora of heroes to match any collection from Marvel or DC.
Alongside the drama and action in these ancient stories, another recurring theme they share with today’s superhero movies is the question, if such a person existed, how would they fit into our world, interacting with us regular humans? From the absent to the apathetic, the heroes of fables and myths often don’t really care much about humans, unless they happen to fall in love with them or are irritated by them. And even if they did care, it’s hard to say how much that would help. These guys are powerful, but not especially moral, after all.Heroism as most cultures celebrates it is big, brawny, and domineering; heroism as Jesus portrayed it centered around submission to the Father and even submission to death.
As a Christian, I think this is one of the most fascinating themes explored in the superhero movies in recent years: If we’re weak and they’re strong, then what are the implications regarding our relationship with them? Should Wonder Woman even bother to help human beings, who have shown the capacity for such depravity? Is Superman an otherworldly threat to be held in check? Is it morally righteous for the Avengers to submit to government oversight, or to act on their own, outside the influence of potentially corrupt human institutions?
If heroes really existed in this world, would they be just as vulnerable to corruption and depravity as the rest of us… possibly even more so because of their surpassing strength?
I find this fascinating because the issues raised closely reflect the dilemma humans have always faced regarding our relationship with God and Jesus. Obviously, we’re drawn to the rescuer with superhuman strength and skills, and we certainly recognize our need for him. But we struggle to grapple with the questions that raises about our relationships with such a rescuer. Can we trust such an individual, so high above us, to really understand us and act favorably on our behalf? Can we trust him enough to submit to his authority? Can’t we have the hero we want and need, but on our terms, in a way that allows us to retain our autonomy? (I’m reminded of what Ultron, the supposed embodiment of Tony Stark’s “suit of armor around the world,” said when he saw how the Avengers had repurposed the body he was making for himself, to instead create Vision: “Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.”)
The truth of our relationship with Jesus, according to the Bible, is that he’s both our Brother and our King.
Hebrews 2 says that “both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” Like a reverse instance of Captain America’s super-soldier treatment, Jesus had to be made like us in every way, laying down his rightful glory and taking on our frailty instead (Philippians 2:5–11). This was what made him the right man for the job of rescuing us in the way we really needed:
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
Christ didn’t just care for us in our weakness. He took it upon himself so that he could reckon with it on our behalf.
This is also the reason he alone is worthy to be our King, but that’s always been problematic for us to understand. That’s partly because one of the key contrasts between Jesus and the hero narrative is that Jesus didn’t become our champion in the typical, expected way. For ages, the Israelites waited on the promised Messiah to lead them. They wanted someone who, like my dad, had the muscle and power they lacked against their enemies, to stand up for them. And they might not have minded the swaggering, city demolishing archetypal hero depicted in our movies to show up and wreck shop on the Romans (or the Babylonians, or the Philistines, or whomever they viewed as enemy at the time). They wanted a roaring lion. What they got was a bloody lamb.
Heroism as most cultures celebrates it is big, brawny, and domineering; heroism as Jesus portrayed it centered around submission to the Father and even submission to death.
But surprisingly, this submission was the ultimate fulfillment of Christ’s unique and superior authority (related side note: I just love John 18:1–8—it’s so obvious who’s in control there, and it’s not the mob with torches and weapons). Only through this submission to God the Father’s plan for him could Jesus engage the real enemy, the enemy whom he alone had the authority and power to conquer. It’s not just a schoolyard bully, a terrorist, or even an intergalactic alien army he contended with. It’s inescapable sin and death that threatens all of us, the very thing that makes us so weak, that he defeated. And he did defeat it, as evidenced by the fact that he didn’t stay dead, but was resurrected.
This is the linchpin of Christ’s message: he fought sin and death, won, and when that victory has spread to everyone who it will spread to, we will see him reign, with everything and everyone subject to him as King: “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:24–26).
If today’s superhero love signals our collective, perhaps subconscious recognition of our inherent weakness and our craving for a hero, the Christian claim is that we have found that Champion. See, it’s not just that he is powerful and we aren’t. It’s that he’s taken our need in his hands. He’s powerful, but not indifferent. We’re vulnerable, but not forsaken.
In other words, it’s not enough to recognize that we are weak but he is strong—it’s also critical to understand that little ones to him belong.
More Than Entertainment
Superheroes don’t just help us deal with questions about how we define ourselves in relation to Jesus. They also provide fantastic illustrations to help us understand him accurately.
In his book Superheroes Can’t Save You, author Todd Miles explores how Jesus differs from specific superheroes, providing a fun, accessible way of understanding common heresies about Jesus—and how to avoid them. For example, you might not be familiar with what the term Docetism means, but by comparing Jesus with Superman, we can better understand that Jesus was not an otherworldly being who just resembled humans, but was in fact fully human. Understanding these truths is important, Miles explains, because what you believe about Jesus matters. We must understand rightly to be saved.
All this is more than just a comforting and entertaining escape from life’s troubles, and it’s not just a theological exercise. Just as my dad impacted me as a little girl, shaping my values, goals, and very identity, the truth of God’s plan for our rescue through his Son should radically impact us, defining what drives us and informing the choices we make.
For example, it should be a “family value” to care for the vulnerable and fight injustice, just as our Father in heaven delights to do. And as adoring children, our deepest desire should be for other people to see what we already know—that our Father is the true hero. Jesus is the hero we need, despite what we deserve, achieving the ultimate heroic, sacrificial act and rescuing the helpless and hopeless—which is all of us.