The Rise of the Superhero Myth

The Rise of the Superhero Myth

Box offices have been booming lately. Everyone wants to see the latest superhero movie with its spectacular effects and non-stop action. Superhero movies never cease to amaze, but what is it that we take 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, we need to engage critically with it.

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, but they also 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 they use to protect the rest 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 his introduction to “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. 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…”

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, superheroes show us the state of our society — our hopes, our fears and our values. For example, Iron Man has nothing inherently “super” about him. His power lies in his use of technology in the digital age. In this era of Apple, 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.

However, superhero stories are often simplistic and maintain the status quo. They fight for values that we stand behind, usually 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 idea of universal fallenness, specifically that America itself, like the villains, has used its power to do harm to others. Though the movies often do tie blame to humanity as a whole, they can also fall into the trap of assigning the source of evil to a distant force beyond ourselves that seeks to create chaos.

Lack of diversity is also an issue in superhero media. There are few women and even fewer minorities among the realms 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. 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 movie adaptations, but there is still a definite bias that limits the narratives available and discriminates against those who do not fit into the right categories.

It is true; 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 flawed creations, and we produce flawed products, but within those products, there is something worthwhile. In superhero movies, viewers can find recollections of a world lost to us, a savior figure who is both human and hero, and the reassurance that the things we fear are not permanent. These stories 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 it comes from within us.