This weekend Marvel’s highly anticipated 22nd film Avengers, End Game is already projected for a record-breaking $900 million dollar box-office bombshell according to Hollywood Reporter. Releasing on the heels of Captain Marvel’s recent cross into the $1 billion dollar box office club, it’s undeniable Marvel has tapped into the biggest well-known secret of the century; America loves superheroes.
Marvel isn’t alone as DC to have taken incessant bites at the apple to win audiences and fill seats. Even in the face of the recent uptick in superhero films this past decade, the American romance with the genre has been ongoing since the early 1940s.
At face value, the notion that people love an entertaining story of good defeating evil is hardly novel. However, upon closer observation at the birth, rise and explication of America’s arguable obsession with superheroes, it begs the simple question, “why?”. Why are we so obsessed with superheroes? Does it actually speak into society’s desire for a Savior? It’s a subject begging to be explored.
Superheroes came at an uncertain, chaotic time in history.
To break apart America’s superhero fixation, it’s critical to understand the context in which they were first created.
As noted in Rolling Stones, the first superhero stories were born fresh out of the depression era around 1938. America just entered WWII and found themselves at a cultural crossroad. The country was ricocheting from the former financial and emotional ruination of the depression. Women were grappling with their place in society as millions stepped into new industrial roles to support the war. Not only that, millions of European immigrants fleeing the destruction of their homes poured into the country for refuge.
Americans and immigrants especially were sensitive to the uncertainty of the nation’s fate and desperate for a symbol of power to overcome adversity. Out of this chaos, it was within the immigrant communities the arguably most prolific and recognized superheroes were born; Superman and Batman. The co-creators of the early superheroes including Stan Lee were all children of immigrants.
When we see a superhero “lose” personally to save the fate of all, it unlocks a place that the gospel has already spoken into.
The influence of this culture is unmistakable as observed in the significant ties between the classic immigrant story to that of Superman. Superman is an alien from a faraway land that comes to a new planet for a new life, sound familiar? These creators unknowingly unearthed a collective desire for emotional catharsis that hasn’t slowed since. Year after year Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel and many more heroes continued to roll out of the “Golden Age” of comic books. With the popularization of film, superheroes were well-timed subjects to be projected on the big screen. Beginning in 1941 with Captain Marvel spanning across decades to the current Marvel/DC blitz we find ourselves in.
If we take a few steps back, it’s worth recognizing the birth and timing of Jesus. Remarkably familiar, Jesus was born and raised amidst intense political unrest. It was a time the Jews felt helpless and forgotten under harsh Roman rule, and Pharisees lorded their societal dominance over their people.
It’s no coincidence the strife and clamor of the era superhero fiction came to parallel the arrival of Christ. The world was ripe for a Savior then and this story continues to see its reflection expressed in these powerful caped figures.
Superheroes demonstrate significant personal sacrifice
Now armed with the context in which superheroes were created, we can dive into the creative tent-poles of superheroes and the close parallels to Jesus.
The classic superhero is a uniquely compelling figure. They are often born out of extreme adversity and faced with devastating hardships in childhood whether being orphaned, bullied or homeless.
Once they mature in their power, they are often met with tragic loss. The protection of the “greater good” is always at the expense of the hero’s personal happiness. Spiderman loses the love of his life to this very challenge. Even the abrasive and comical Deadpool suffers the same fate. Captain Marvel loses her “normal life” on Earth becoming a hybrid alien to save society, leaving her best friend and community behind her. I won’t delve into the spoiler-ridden devastation in Avengers: Infinity War, but the fact remains; Superheroes must always demonstrate significant personal sacrifice.
This element of selflessness in the face of personal tragedy has the scent of the gospel all over it. “Going a little farther, He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will'” (Matthew 26:39). As Jesus sat with God, admittedly with sorrow in His heart He meditated on the sacrifice that was to come.
Underneath the entertainment value, there is a longing for a Protector, someone that can stare death in the face and say “No.”
When we see a superhero “lose” personally to save the fate of all, it unlocks a place that the gospel has already spoken into. Jesus didn’t just extend Himself for us, He died for us.
Superheroes are villainized by the very people they came to save.
A sometimes frustrating reality of most superhero stories is the fact that not everyone welcomes their helpful presence. In fact, more often than not the actions of the hero are construed as acts of governmental defiance and therefore criminal. Batman goes about his entire work solely at night as he works in direct opposition of the Gotham City police. Spiderman has journalists constantly on his tail hungry to out his identity for his arrest.
It’s easy to see the foundational element here is the threat of power. The institutions that should be embracing these suited heroes are the very ones smothering their impact simply because they cannot control them. In Captain Marvel: Civil War an international edict is literally created by the UN to control and limit the Avengers sparking internal division at the ethics. The X-Men are forced to live in the margins of society for fear of being eradicated by the government.
It’s the sad irony, rejecting the very ones that came to save us. Again, we reveal a hidden parallel to Jesus’ story. The societal distrust and fear of new power speaks directly into human nature. Not only is it expressed in the Pharisees’ plot to kill Jesus, but His abandonment by the disciples at the time of His crucifixion.
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). The purity of Jesus’ sacrifice despite our willful, insidious ways allows us to wholly embrace our invitation into His eternal grace and forgiveness. It’s what makes Him utterly compelling.
Superheroes, put aside society’s hatred and continually sacrifice themselves for the very people they came to save. Again, we tap into a metaphor of the gospel that paints a picture of true unconditional love.
Superheroes make the impossible possible
Lastly, superheroes are exactly that, super. They fly, they can lift buildings, they can navigate the vast expanse of the universe without a helmet. The meaning of “marvel” itself—to be filled with astonishment.
There is something more to this genre than fantasy. Picture the iconic image of a superhero flying with rescued civilians in their arms. Superheroes may be the center of our culture’s obsession, however, the core of that is a longing for a Savior. Underneath the entertainment value, there is a longing for a Protector, someone that can stare death in the face and say “No.”
As we continue to enjoy iconic films like Avengers: End Game, it doesn’t hurt to recall from where it borrows its secret inspiration, the gospel.