For each day of Twelvetide, Christ and Pop Culture writers will point to some of the cultural goodness that gives hope in the midst of life’s messyness. It’s our version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” song, filled with things our writers have found to be life-giving. Some entries are 2018 artifacts, some are from years past. All of them point us to hope.
Comic lovers, rejoice! Not that it’s new news at this point, over ten years into the renaissance of geek culture, but people who grew up reading stories of superheroes, watching cartoons of favorite caped crusaders, and collecting fan paraphernalia are finally out of the shadows and accepted as normal — even cool. The welcoming of Marvel and DC into the mainstream has shined a light on more than just a literal treasure trove for movie executives to exploit. It’s revealed to the general public and story lovers of all stripes what comic lovers have known for decades: that stories of super-powered people are excellent vehicles for examining truth in empathetic ways. Certain timeless patterns emerge in comic book stories — patterns that critics of the genre dismiss as predictable, but those of us who love the genre laud as part of what makes it great, specifically the pattern of good fighting evil.
This is the beauty of superhero stories. As a subgenre of science fiction and fantasy, it’s one of the few spaces in the artistic realm where it’s permissible to baldly examine what’s right and what’s wrong — to draw a line in the sand and say, “Over there is where evil resides, and over here is where there’s good. Choose good.” In such stories, when people become superpowered, they don’t become less human but more so, allowing viewers to ask themselves what they would do, given the same powers and opportunities. Choose good or evil? Fight or walk away? In some ways, we all face a battlefield of minute, infinitesimally important choices every day, for good and evil. As C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “Good and evil both increase at compound interest. That is why the little decisions you and I make every day are of such infinite importance.”
For the 10th Day of Christmas, therefore, I chose to list — in no particular order — ten moments of “superheroes saving” from recent cinema and TV. I could’ve plumbed the last ten years, but I restricted my choices to 2017 and 2018 because I think we’re in a unique cultural period and our entertainment reflects that. Some of these will be grand and obvious, but others will be small — the moments where saving grace is found in mere glances, conversations, and sometimes even submission. I hope reflecting on these scenes is not only fun, but helps you see the importance of the superhero genre as personally edifying and culturally significant.#1
Daredevil Season 3: Daredevil Refuses to Kill Fisk
Marvel’s Daredevil contains several moments I could include on this list, and 2018’s third season was rife with both overt and implicit spiritual meaning. But one moment stood out above all the rest. In a season about the redemption of the soul of the hero, not the villain, the grand showdown between Kingpin/Wilson Fisk and Daredevil/Matt Murdock could have turned either way. Watching the final fight, you long for Murdock to kill Fisk and finally be done with him while also understanding that killing Fisk is exactly what Fisk wants Murdock to do. When Murdock finally refuses to kill Fisk, it’s a severe mercy for Murdock’s own soul, not Fisk’s, and one of the greatest moments in television I’ve ever seen. “You don’t get to destroy who I am,” Murdock shouts at Fisk, and his redemption is achieved.#2
Wonder Woman: An Act of Undeserved Pity
As I wrote in 2017, I know most people cite the No Man’s Land scene in Wonder Woman as the most affecting, and while it’s a great scene, for me it was eclipsed by one far more meaningful. When Diana, while fighting Ares near the end of the film, sees the face of Dr. Maru for the first time — when she sees the woman responsible for killing not only Steve Trevor, her love, but thousands of others — her rage is stayed by a pity Maru does not deserve. As Gandalf says to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings when Frodo scorns Gollum, “You have not seen him… Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life… Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment,” so Diana does not kill Maru when her pity is stirred. The result is a burgeoning power of love that allows her to defeat the god of war.#3
Black Panther: “What can a nation of farmers have to offer the rest of the world?”
I could have chosen any number of spectacularly “super” saving moments from Black Panther to highlight in this list, but I chose the one that brought tears to my eyes: the first post-credit scene. This small scene, and this one line — spoken at the United Nations to King T’Challa after he has just announced he will open Wakanda to the world — is heart-wrenchingly poignant on so many levels. T’Challa and his entourage do not respond to the question, but merely smile in knowing ways, because of course they have so much to offer the world, more than the world has ever known or can even guess. The scene is a perfect bookmark for a movie that flipped the script on how black people are portrayed in film, not to mention African peoples and nations. T’Challa’s knowing smile in response to an ignorant question is a moment of superhero glory.#4
Thor: Ragnarok: Thor Steps over His Own Fallen Icon
In a movie that’s all about sin and reckoning (really, I know it’s quite a funny film, but this is what it’s about), the greatest moment comes when Thor returns to Asgard and has to step over the fallen icon of his own face. Beneath the destroyed icon is Hela, goddess of death, the embodiment of the utter depravity of Thor’s kingdom and family. It doesn’t matter that Thor never knew she existed. Now that he does, as the leader of his people, he has to decide what sort of leader he will be, and what sort of nation Asgard will be. In that moment, Thor knows that not only is he not innocent, but his people as well can no longer ignore the sins of their past.#5
Captain Marvel Trailer: Carol Danvers Gets up Again, and Again, and Again…
That’s right, I’m giving one spot on this list to a moment in a movie trailer. Marvel fans have been waiting (and waiting and waiting…) for a standalone female superhero movie from the MCU, and Marvel is finally delivering one this coming March with Captain Marvel. In a moment of brilliant trailer editing, though, Marvel already delivered a moment with the titular character that so fits the cultural climate with an offering of hope that it deserves inclusion on this list. Marvel cut into a two-minute trailer Carol Danvers falling on the ground over and over at various points in her life and three times getting up again. Thus Danvers became all girls in pain, all women who have raised their hands and said, “Me too.” Danvers, who becomes Captain Marvel in the story, demonstrates in just this moment in the trailer that a lifetime of pain can also mean a lifetime of perseverance — not because she’s superpowered or because she fights, but because she got back up.#6
Avengers:Infinity War: Thor’s Glorious Arrival and the Turning of the Tide
I know I’ve already featured Thor on this list, but Infinity War offered up a moment with him so super I can’t ignore it. In every great battle, you have to have a “turning of the tide” when everything looks bleakest just before some glorious hero appears to save the day. It happened in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers when Gandalf arrives at Helm’s Deep at dawn to relieve the beleaguered Theoden King, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Russo brothers channeled a little Helm’s Deep when Thor appeared in Wakanda to turn the battle tide with his new hammer (axe? It’s a little unclear). If you were in a theater where nobody cheered at that moment, were people even alive? I’ll remember Thor’s arrival in Wakanda as one of the great moviegoing experiences of my life, and the awesome visual of good prevailing against all odds in the darkest of moments will always carry not only cinematic weight, but emotional and spiritual weight, as well. Because despite that snap, Sunday is coming…#7
Ant-Man and the Wasp: Conversation with Cassie
In Marvel’s recent iterations of Ant-Man, Scott Lang may be the primary hero behind the suit but he rarely has all his ducks in a row. A burglar and absentee father in the first film, Lang isn’t traditional “hero material,” and he’s always a little bemused that he’s even included in the Avengers at all. He enjoys wearing his suit and fighting bad guys, but Lang’s priorities are ordered differently than the rest of the superheroes on the screen, and this not only makes him extraordinarily special, but quite possibly the key to defeating Thanos in End Game. Lang as Ant-Man isn’t “burdened with glorious purpose”; he sees the value in the small, the internal, the intimate, and the personal. For Lang, family matters more than being a hero, and putting one family back together is just as important as saving the world. In Ant-Man and the Wasp, he takes the time to sit and talk with his daughter, Cassie, about just that — about the cost, about what he has to do, and about what he’s willing to sacrifice to help his friends. In that conversation, he demonstrates love for his own family, but he also refuses to elevate his family as an idol over his friends’ family.#8
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: Leap of Faith
I was really tempted to use the first leap of faith from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as my choice on this list, because as with Thor’s arrival on the battlefield in Wakanda, that was one of the great cinematic experiences of my life. Alas, I think Miles Morales’ fantastic leap off a skyscraper lacks ultimate meaning unless paired with its mirror leap of faith. From the moment Miles discovers his powers, he seeks mentorship and guidance to manage his world that has suddenly been turned rather violently on end. When Peter B. Parker (aka Spider-Man) arrives from an alternate universe and tumbles into Miles’ life, therefore, Miles clings to him — sometimes literally. It’s Peter who tells Miles that becoming Spider-Man will take a leap of faith, and it’s also Peter who is willing to give up his own life to save Miles’s world. But Miles, at the end of the film, forces Peter to take his own leap of faith back into his own world, giving up his mentor so his mentor could live. It’s not as exciting as a leap off a skyscraper, but it’s still a letting go into a scary unknown, and the second time around, Miles acts to save a friend, rather than to self-actualize into a superhero.#9
Iron Fist 2: Danny Rand Gives the Iron Fist to Colleen Wing
This is a moment the second season of Marvel’s Iron Fist teased and built up to, and up until the last episode, it was unclear if the writers were really going to take this bold step. Part of me wanted to say it was unsatisfactory because I wanted Danny to get his power back. Danny Rand, the billionaire who is the Iron Fist, spent most of the season without his power after it was stolen from him. But along way, Danny comes to realize the power of the fist is a power he’s perhaps unworthy to wield. Corrosive and addictive, he admits he doesn’t like who he is when wielding it, and so he asks his girlfriend, Colleen Wing, to take the power instead, whenever they can get it back. This humble admission that the power was corrupting him, and then the way in which Danny follows through with an act of deference and submission to a woman is a timely message about how to strengthen our character.#10
Avengers: Infinity War: Captain America’s Enigmatic Shadow on the Train Platform
I will end this list with a symbol of hope, because I think that’s probably a good way to leave things as we head into a new year. In the MCU, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) has probably always been the most hopeful superhero. He’s the little guy from Brooklyn who doesn’t like bullies, the only man deserving of the super serum that could have turned a lesser man into a monster. If Steve Rogers ever gives up, you know we’re in trouble. When Infinity War opens, Steve Rogers is absent at first because of the estrangement between him and Tony Stark — an estrangement carrying over from the events of Captain America: Civil War. So when aliens invade New York again, Tony has a real hard time reaching for his phone to call in Steve to help. But Bruce Banner has no such qualms, and when Steve first appears, it’s in Edinburgh on a train platform as an enigmatic shadow. But from the first glimpse of Steve Rogers geared up as Captain America, and the knowledge that when his friends called, he answered without hesitation, every ounce of hope and promise he represents is present with him, as well — before he even lifts a finger. I will admit it was a bit of an emotional moment for me, and I think a challenge for all of us to let our hope and promise be present like Steve Rogers on a train platform.