In our house, we have recently watched through the entire Infinity Saga, Marvel's unique, groundbreaking, and financially incredible saga following the various heroes of the MCU as they prepare to, and eventually, attack the Mad Titan, Thanos himself. Besides the amazing achievement of the MCU in crafting a decade-long narrative that captivated cinema-goers of all demographics, there are some thoughts that struck my mind as I continue to reflect on these movies and the idea of superheroes as a whole.
Here are my seven reflections so far:
1) Our fascination with superheroes isn't anything new.
All you have to do to prove this is look at the history and mythological sections of your local library or book store; people from every tribe and nation have created stories of heroes. Whether it is Utnapishtim, Gilgamesh, Hercules, Hector, Cu Chulainn, Setna, Thor, or pick your big guy, our world has always sought to rejoice in the heroic.
Of course, these heroes emulate different things, depending on the culture they imbibe or hail from. Thus, for a country like ours, obsessed with technological marvel and development, a hero like Hector simply will not do. We want an Iron Man or a Black Panther (with all their gadgets and gizmos). Although seemingly obvious, this point really is very vital - if you want to understand the values of a culture, a critical and key way to do so is to study their legends, myths, religious stories, and their heroes.
Consider, for example, the Nordic Religion. Thor and Odin are heroic warriors who battle the Frost Giants, the Dark Elves, and who are preparing for the end of all things at Ragnarok. Now, consider the Vikings who worshipped such gods. They were warriors par excellence who emulated their gods, or more accurately, made their gods in their own image. To understand the fascination with war and violence, one only had to look at their gods who reveled in war and violence. Indeed, to die with your hand on a sword guaranteed you an afterlife eternity in Valhalla, the Hall of Odin, where you would eat your fill every day - after a full day of drunken fighting. In preparation for the final battle.
There is, within our human psyche and within every Zeitgeist, a need and yearning for the superheroic. Our retelling of these stories, and our eagerness to identify with them, prove it. We love the superhero that gives us a sense of validation. That our culture, our world, our ideals are good and have vindication.
Our stories, our fascination with heroes and the heroic in general, reveal a deep-seated human ideal and trait: we love a story of sacrifice and heroic behaviour that transcends the norm of human selfishness and self-focus.
2) Our fascination with superheroes reveals our culture's desire for heroic sacrifice.
Think about every modern superhero story you can. How many can you name that don't have some kind of exceptional sacrifice? Whether it's Iron Man going up into the Chitauri fleet with a nuclear missile, or Neo giving himself over to the machines, or Captain America choosing a risky experiment rather than doing his part on home soil, or Superman laying everything on the line time and again, there is something within our generation that values the heroic sacrifice: We love knowing that there is someone out there willing to give up everything for the greater good.
Part of this, I think, is the realization that most of us probably wouldn't be willing to make that sacrifice. Or. At least we aren't certain we would. I know that I would like to think that I would. That I'd stand in the way of the evil one, the enemy, the bad guy. But I also know that, in the moment, I could freeze, or I could let myself down, or...any number or things that would delay and diminish my own action.
Thus, when we immerse ourselves into the stories of our heroes, we often picture ourselves as participating with the heroes. A famous Irish comedian tells a joke about how men see ourselves. We like to think of ourselves as the heroes in our own stories. Our minds, he says, are filled with how we would handle a missile coming out of that alley right over there. Or we spend time daydreaming about how we would take down a bad guy in a train. And yet, in reality, we are the type of idiot who calls up customer service and yells at the acne-covered teen about a shirt we bought that shrank in the wash.
We love heroic sacrifice because, in reality, most of us know that it isn't us who would do it.
And yet. And yet there are many, many true stories of heroes. People who do place their body in the line of fire, who do accept their own death to save others. Just google it, and countless stories will come up. Stories of young people and old people, men and women, from all nations, who take the punishment and damage of violence for standing up for the good.
Of course, the very fact that these real stories are heralded is part of the reality that they aren't the norm. They prove the point. We do love a hero story. And when they happen in reality, we are thrilled by them, celebrate them (as we should), and cling to them with the hope that there is basically 'good' in our world. But the very fact that they are special reveals they aren't the norm.
This heroic sacrifice, therefore, requires more than merely a sacrifice. We need someone who is willing to make that sacrifice. We need a hero. Someone who does more than we are willing to do. Someone who is willing to give up everything. For everyone.
3) Our fascination with superheroes demonstrates our need for a hero.
It should be somewhat obvious, but the fact that there are so many hero stories in every single culture throughout human history demonstrates that within our human psyche there is a yearning for a hero figure who will protect us. Whether that stems from a need for security, a fear of uncertainty, or a hope that, ultimately, someone will choose the sacrifice on our behalf, is not the point.
We all love, and we all admire, a real hero. Superheroes are simply a stronger version of that reality, right? And, within the Christian realm, the reason why we need a hero is because of sin. The hero is Christ, whose death on the cross provides that safety and security and confidence that we all hope for. You can find an entire book on this topic right: here.
And it is this motif that springs through our modern stories. Whether it's Neo and the machines, or Iron Man with the nuke, Superman flying into an island of kryptonite, or even Uhtred charging a shield wall, the idea is that someone is willing to die for someone else. After all, greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for a friend. And so there is another aspect to this superhero motif; we want to feel that the hero cares for us, or loves us. His action isn't merely 'duty' but it is an act that matters because of some kind of relationship. This is why Iron Man tries to call Pepper, Superman seeks to say goodbye to Lois, and so on. The emotional connection is not merely a cinematic trope; it is a human need. Our heroes are not robotic defenders, they act out of a common charity. A real love.
4) Our fascination with superheroes hides the heroic in front of us.
One of the funny cliches that have become common in these movies, especially when Hulk is involved, is to have police officers firing their weapons to ill effect. And then the real hero steps up to relieve the terrified police and firemen from their post and save the day. And the unintentional, but very real, message here is this: you aren't good enough.
And, yes, it is probably true that a common pistol won't do much to a superevolved scary alien monster thing. But that isn't the point; the superhero acts out of courage to stand against the foe. But so did the regular old copper Joe. And this is where I have an issue with those scenes; we are made to laugh at the normal people, yet the normal people are right there, maintaining their position even though they are terrified.
It may be that they would fail; but their failure doesn't negate their observance of the duty, or their courage in the face of that failure or death. It is clear that they are perhaps even more courageous than the specially armoured, or supernaturally protected, hero. They face their own mortality and remain at the post. Iron Man has a nice big suit. Superman is basically an indestructible alien. But Joe Bloggs? He has a uniform and maybe a bullet proof vest.
This matters because an unexpected consequence is that we hide behind the superhero, the leader, the charismatic one, not seeing, or caring, that there are heroes all around us. Men and women who suit up and walk into the flames of a burning building. Doctors and nurses who mask up and enter into an infectious disease ward. Teenagers who take down a school shooter. Our fascination with the big Messiah figure often obscures the heroism of the lesser men and women around us. And that is a really sad thing.
5) Our fascination with superheroes such as Spiderman reveal our innermost yearning to be a hero.
Of course, it has to be noted that many of us want to be the superhero. At least in our imagination. When I was a kid, I used to dress up as Batman, then it became Superman, and eventually it even became James Bond. Why? Because I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to have the moral, physical, emotional courage and strength to do the right thing, against all the odds. And, just like you, I fail. I'm not the hero.
This is why Marvel makes so many movies about normal people. Peter Parker is a typical nerdy dweeb at high school. But he becomes something so much more. It's no wonder that many comic book aficionados, in their first love of the superhero, finds their favourite because they can empathise with a specific part of their mystique. It may be the moral courage and unwavering goodness of Superman, or the confidence of Iron Man, or the ability to overcome the challenges of loss and pain like Batman, but there's a reason why we gravitate towards certain heroes and care less for others: it's to do with how we view ourselves.
We want to be a superhero, and so we tend to gravitate towards those who appeal to what we value, or want to value, in ourselves.
6) Our fascination with superheroes can show us our true insecurities.
Thus, we can see our own frailty in our superheroes. We can look to them and see ourselves in all of our fear and uncertainty. Would I have the willingness to sacrifice everything? I sure hope so. But. I just don't know.
We all have insecurities, and this is where superhero movies can be so helpful and powerful; they reveal to us what we fear about ourselves. And then it gives us two options; we can be like the bad guy, who takes the hand he has been dealt and becomes evil. Or we can see the challenge, like Stark gives to Spiderman, are you worthy of wearing the suit?
7) Our fascination with superheroes can encourage us to be that which we admire.
Which is why, I think, these superhero movies and comics and books are so powerful. They are a medium for challenging entire generations to strive for what is right, good, honourable, and appropriate within our world. To take a spotty, snot-nosed kid and tell him, 'You can be better than you think. You can make an impact for good on this world.' And not sugar coating it; after all, no superhero movie is complete without a major ass-whoopin' first!
The lessons from these comic book heroes are that there will be adversity and trial and difficulty, but it can be overcome. You can face it. And you can come through them better and stronger. Such advice is fatherly, tender, firm, clear, and needed. We all need to feel that we can do, and be, better. Whether it comes from our father at home, or Alfred on the page, we all are in desperate need of that affirmation.
Superhero movies have the potential to inspire and encourage, even as they remind us of our innate weaknesses and insecurities. And that is a powerful thing.