The Cause of Superhero Culture

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Who will rise up for me against the wicked?
    Who will take a stand for me against evildoers?
Unless the Lord had given me help,
    I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. (Psalm 94:16-17)

Last week I presented on Ministering to Millennials at a conference in Phoenix. One of the last questions I received was about the superhero culture so prevalent with young adults. It’s become big business. Actually, it’s become the BIGGEST genre in the entertainment business.

To date, in 2016 the highest grossing films around the world are superhero/fantasy films. Currently the order looks like this – #1 Captain America: Civil War ($1.1 bil), #4 Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice ($872 mil), #5 Deadpool ($778 mil), #8 X-Men Apocalypse ($509 mil). Further telling is the fact that none of the top 10 movies in revenue are even remotely based in reality.

Thus, the fascinating trend that Hollywood has fallen into in recent years is that the Academy Award for Best Picture each year ends up going to a film deeply rooted in painful realism, yet the movies that make the most at the box office are anything but reality. So we have this tension, as though the cultural elites, the arbiters of quality film-making, are trying to continuously bring us back to the harsh realities of life, all while the general populace is showing (with their attendance and dollars) that they’re yearning for something far greater than the present reality.

None of this, at least in retrospect, is surprising for Christians who take the Bible seriously. In the 20th century, higher academia did it’s best to refute the supernatural. But you simply can’t suppress the truth forever. Often, it’s like trying to press down a bubble under cellophane, it’s going to pop up elsewhere. And you certainly cannot suppress a supernatural God. The 20th century was a good try. But it seems as though the cultural corner has been turned. Even famous scientists, in somewhat controversial fashion, are now claiming to prove God’s existence.

But the rise of superhero culture in the 20th century serves as evidence of mankind’s collective subconscious acknowledging the truth that there exists a being who can surpass mere human capabilities.

C.S. Lewis, following previous theologians who had argued for the existence of God on the basis of something they called the sensus divinitatis (a sense of the divine), echoed,

“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex.” (Mere Christianity)

So, why is Wolverine’s ability to heal so compelling? Because there really is someone who can cure all wounds (Luke 17:19). Why is Superwoman’s ability to speak in any language so compelling? Because there really is a Spirit who works in every language (Acts 2:5-6). Why is Superman’s ability to fly so compelling? Because there really is someone who can be everywhere at any time (Jer. 23:24). Why is his X-ray vision so compelling? Because there really is someone who sees all things (Job 34:21). Why is Spiderman’s ability to swing between buildings of a congested city so compelling? Because there really is someone who can move through huge crowds without problem (Luke 4:30). Why is Nightcrawler’s ability to pop in and out anywhere so compelling? Because there really has been someone who did the same (Luke 24:31). Why is the Hulk so compelling? Because there really is actually someone strong enough to move mountains (Matt. 17:20) and cause the sun to stand still (Josh 10:12-13).Why is Professor X’s mind-reading so compelling? Because there really is someone who knows your deepest thoughts (Psalm 139:2). Why is Aquaman’s ability to influence sea creatures so compelling? Well….he’s really not all that compelling. I’ve always been sympathetic towards Aquaman’s relative lameness – but, truth be told, there really is someone who can control the fish for his purposes (Jon. 1:17).

Now what would you have if one person embodied all of these abilities and more? His name is Jesus. And he showed up to overcome the darkness of our present reality. You can only suppress his truth for so long.

I believe the undeniable superhero culture in which we currently live is only one of many indicators of a society longing for supernatural truth. For instance, as society rebuked not only supernatural talk of God, but also angels and demons in the 20th century, we experienced the rise of alien phenomena. So, if I said… “Mysterious extraterrestrial beings, less than ‘God’ but more than man, who though they do not fully dwell on this planet, interact with this planet using unexplainable advanced powers greater than those seen from the beings of this planet. And these beings typically either bring messages to the people of this planet or remove people from this planet and take them into a different realm (cf. Luke 16:22).” Am I describing aliens….or angels and demons? I’m convinced the former currently serves as a placeholder for the latter.

Or consider the fact that dark matter is the current theory for why the observable matter of the universe doesn’t either collapse upon itself or expand to stretch itself as uninhabitable for life. Somehow it’s okay that “dark matter,” which we cannot observe by any instrument, only by the effects it has on observable matter, is accepted by faith in the scientific community, while God, whose effects are also observed on everything, is denied. I believe the former, in a sense, is a placeholder for the latter. “(Jesus) is before all things, and in him all things HOLD TOGETHER.(Col. 1:17)

So what if a superhero actually existed? What if all superhero powers were actually placed into one person? What if all the great stories about heroes who come from far away to earth to struggle, sacrifice, and use otherworldly power to conquer our deepest villains – what if these great stories were merely leeching off the richness of the greatest, truest story ever told?

And what if our hero’s Spirit actually lives inside us now? If we work together as people whom the Spirit dwells in, the Church, what kind of healing power could we bring into the world?

Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.(Eph. 3:20-21)

 

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2 thoughts on “The Cause of Superhero Culture

  1. Gene Hunder says:

    Great discussion. I haven’t been able to understand why such powerful, yet shallow superheroes have been so popular.

  2. Christians yearn to bring reality to their faith — and look away from the Holy Spirit and focus on the temporal (e.g. traditions). When people are desperate for reality and true hope apart from Christ they cling to other forms of reality (gaming or super-hero movies] as a reprieve. Millennials are looking for reality — and the church is not providing.

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