Mar 14, 2019 | Erin Pebesma
It seems that we’re living in the age of superheroes. And I, for one, am all for it! The action, the adventure, the classic battle of good vs evil; what more could one want? We appear to be addicted to this formula. Marvel’s track record of box office success over the last decade is hard proof of this. The question is: why? Why is it that we keep coming back for more?
Let’s go back to the beginning. Action Comics #1, the very first appearance of Superman, came out in 1938. This little comic is what laid the groundwork for the hundreds of superhumans (and super humans) who have emerged on the page over the decades. But note the date: 1938. That was only a year before the start of World War II. Hitler was making some very crucial moves at this point, and the threat of German expansion was looming large. Mussolini was likewise shaping circumstances to his will, and the Soviet Union was beginning its campaign against religious groups and peasant farmers.
Amidst all of this, Superman was born. Coincidence? I think not.
The 1940s and early 1950s would come to be known as the Golden Age of comics and superheroes. Characters with special abilities exploded in the media, going from nonexistent to extremely popular in a relatively short time. And it’s no surprise that WWII was the backdrop for many of the stories that came out of this period. When the world seemed to be falling apart, comic book heroes promised that the evil enemy could be overcome and peace could be restored.
We want change
Pop culture has long been the outlet through which societal concerns are expressed and addressed. Think about the way that science fiction is used to talk about what it means to be human, or what consequences we might face as a result of new technologies. Right now, in this time, the superhero genre is one of the best mediums through which we can communicate our wish for society to be better.
We may not be fighting another World War, but there has been a great deal of cultural turmoil surrounding issues of racism, misogyny, homophobia, class division, and shifting political landscapes. There is still injustice being done, but it somehow seems more shadowy and feels harder to defeat than ever before.
It seems that these issues have contributed greatly to the rise of superheroes over the past decade. As our eyes are opened to the brokenness of our world—the evil and the hurt—we are searching for someone to fix the problems and defend all that is good.
It’s hard to ignore all of the issues in our world; it’s even harder to fix them. We long for a saviour who has the power to rise above, the ability to be better and to defeat the evil forces behind it all. Deep down, we know that our own human faults are at the root of the problem, leaving us unable to correct the situation on our own. Thus, we invent characters who are more than human, and therefore more capable.
We want escape
The stories that are written about these characters provide us with an opportunity to escape. Within these fantasies, all of the evil in the world can be simplified into the embodiment of a single character, or group of people, and an equally symbolic figure of goodness (one who is often better than us mere humans) who brings hope and justice. Exposing and exploring the depth of the world’s brokenness this way feels okay because it can’t actually harm us. There is room for more optimism and idealism within the fictional world, where we can imagine an end to all that is wrong with the world. Superheroes give us—if even for a few hours—a chance to believe that there could be someone out there who could truly make a difference in the world.
We want justice
Superheroes stand for goodness, justice, and morality. Yet there has been a real shift recently towards vigilante justice, and heroes (even the idealistic ones, like Captain America) who operate outside of the law. This has become so common in superhero storytelling that I think it begs consideration.
Superheroes give us—if even for a few hours—a chance to believe that there could be someone out there who could truly make a difference in the world.
Our heroes are becoming more human, in spite of whatever powers they might have. The great struggle of today’s hero is trying to find the right course of action amongst a muddle of choices. Figures like the Flash and Daredevil, to name a few, constantly question how far is too far: is it wrong to kill the villains? Are their actions helping the police, or making things worse? Is violence really the best weapon against violence?
As Batman v Superman so clearly illustrates, these heroes are not gods. They aren’t perfect people. They are ruled by their emotions, and are therefore prone to make mistakes. We expect them to be bearers of salvation, rescuers from destruction and despair, but sometimes they push boundaries and walk the line between right and wrong, and it doesn’t always work out for them. In fact, it’s these flaws that often make them so relatably human.
If our masked vigilantes are supposed to be the ones who make things right, then why do even they struggle with making good choices?
When we are forced to consider the humanity of our heroes, we realize that even they have flaws. Each one operates on their own moral code. And that’s not a bad thing; it means that we’re coming to a place where we can clearly see that human efforts alone can’t save us—even superhuman efforts. There is no one out there whose moral standards are completely objective. Our heroes still succeed, but only because they are a fantasy. They now make more mistakes and face more struggles than Superman could have ever imagined for himself when he saved his first damsel in distress.
We need something more
I believe our love for superheroes reveals our awareness that we are incapable of fixing the world through our own efforts, so we fantasize about having someone who is more than human, someone good and perfect, to come and be our saviour.
What we are starting to realize now is that even our imagined heroes don’t have the level of integrity necessary to save our world. We need something more than a metahuman or a rich genius. We need someone who is beyond reproach, beyond the reach of the brokenness of our world, and who won’t fall into the same patterns of moral compromise. What we need is someone who has far more power, enough to take on all of the evil that pervades our lives, enough to change everything.
We need Jesus
Jesus is the perfect saviour. He may not have a slick suit, and his identity was far from hidden, but he is exactly the superhero our hearts deeply yearn for.
Jesus promises to take away all of the brokenness, and all of the evil that plagues humanity, and to restore the world to its intended, perfect state. In fact, he already fought the fight, and he was victorious! He took on all the brokenness of the world, and died because of it. But he overcame death and was resurrected, so that we could be freed from the grasp of sin and death, and one day he will rid the world of those things for good. And it didn’t take any special powers (well, except for maybe the odd miracle here and there).
It didn’t take any violence either, though violence was done to him when he was beaten and crucified. All it took was kindness, love, and the sacrifice of his own life for the world. He won the fight against evil and he is working, even now, to make everything good again.
And it doesn’t stop there. In the same way that we are forced to face the fact that our superheroes are human, we are given the opportunity to see the humanity of Jesus too. As with our superheroes, Jesus becomes more relatable because of his human experience. He knows what it is like to be in our place. He experienced all of the pain, suffering, and brokenness of the world, just as we do. But while the humanity of fictional heroes highlights their flaws, the humanity of Jesus Christ reveals his holiness. He faced temptation too, but he never faltered. Although he came in the form of a fallible human, he was still the infallible God of the universe. And that’s why he is the only one who can save us. It is only because of his sinlessness that he is able to carry the weight of all the world’s brokenness on his shoulders.
But while the humanity of fictional heroes highlights their flaws, the humanity of Jesus Christ reveals his holiness.
Your inexplicable interest in superheroes actually makes a lot of sense when considering Jesus. Your longing for some supernatural solution to all that is wrong in the world—that is Jesus at work. He’s inviting you to know him and discover him: the saviour who truly can rescue it all.