What superhero films teach us about heroism

May 15, 2018 by

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Over the weekend, I watched the new blockbuster, Avengers: Infinity War. Although I enjoyed it, I am puzzled by — and a bit concerned about — the massive and continuous popularity of superhero movies.

Part of their obvious appeal is their fantastical action and mythic themes. Superhero movies allow us to escape to an imaginative reality filled with awesome good guys and bad guys who battle each other in clever and eye-popping ways. The fate of the universe (or at least the earth) usually hangs in the balance. Why don’t we get tired of this repeated formula? It is the primordial story of the hero — a story each of us internalizes during the process of maturation, helping us cope with and find direction in the adult world. Superhero movies are the modern fairy tales.

I suppose their current popularity also has something to do with the war on terrorism and our age of anxiety. Americans live, by and large, a very stable and prosperous life. But all of that is constantly threatened by forces we cannot see: terrorism, corruption, recessions, hackers, supposed conspiracies, endless foreign wars and dysfunctional governments (including our own). Superheroes hold out the promise that our prosperous, stable American way of life can be protected and restored (the locus of the ultimate battle is usually in America).

And that is what most troubles me about most of the superhero movies. The implicit message is that America always stands for the good guys, and our salvation is dependent on advanced technology from an endless store of wealth (e.g. Iron Man, Black Panther), superior strength (e.g. Thor, Hulk) and superhuman abilities. But are we always the good guys in this world? And will superior abilities and resources save us?

This is where most superhero movies and the Christian faith collide. The subversive Christian message is that we are all bad guys and we cannot save ourselves — no matter how rich or clever or strong we are. The wholeness and well-being of the human race and our planet depend on our recognizing our own selfish tendencies and therefore relying on humility and the “soft power” of self-giving love. We do not believe in ourselves; we believe in that which is greater than us and is eternal: the source of all grace.

For Christians, the power that transforms and heals is embodied in one who was nonviolent, gentle and inclusive. Enemies are not destroyed; they are valued, engaged, forgiven, transformed and reconciled. Evil is defeated by being absorbed on a cross in an act of divine love. As soon as we congratulate ourselves on our superior goodness or ability, we slide into becoming the enemy — and then it is we who need to be rescued.

The superhero movies are not totally bereft of these themes. At their best, these movies reveal the foibles and weaknesses of their superheroes, gently poking fun at them. Avengers: Infinity War is particularly adept at seeing the flaws and humor in some of its beloved protagonists. It also features a more complex villain who is motivated not simply by power-hunger but also by a well-meaning but horribly misdirected desire to solve the problem of environmental degradation. The superhero movies are most satisfying when the superhero comes to terms with his or her own foibles and limitations, and the solution to the hopeless situation comes through selflessness.

Overall, I think superhero movies are probably a positive influence on our culture. But they could be better. They could be more honest about where destructive forces come from: not an alien monster or madman from another galaxy, but from our own selfish and discriminatory systems and personalities that produce poverty and injustice and tribal fear. And instead of glamorizing wealth and warfare, they could find hope in simplicity and creativity.

The blockbuster movie itself is part of the problem. Because of its humongous budget and mass appeal, it squeezes out of production more thoughtful, riskier movies that would help us see ourselves more honestly and find solutions that don’t involve pummeling a fantasy monster.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.

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