Superhero Mythology and Religion

By Steven Martins/ June 22, 2016

Topic  Culture

Scripture  Mark 10:18

The surging popularity of the superhero genre testifies to man's innate recognition of his own fallenness, as well as the humanistic impulse to improve ourselves on our own terms, effecting our own salvation.

Superhero Genre Craze

The past decade has shown a growing interest in superhero mythology on the big and small screens, with the cinematic giants of The Avengers, X-Men, and Dawn of Justice, to the television shows of Gotham, Flash, and Arrow. Considering that the two major comic book companies, Marvel and DC, have announced a whole line-up of movies for the next five years in their partnerships with film studios, we can expect to see much more of this popular genre in the coming years.[1]

As producers have discovered, instead of writing new fiction, adapting existing comic book narratives has proven an easier and more profitable venture, since the source material already carries a vast following amongst millennials. This is why superhero mythology has continued to break box office records, while surging through social media outlets.[2] There is a diversity of comic book companies, though the two major giants, Marvel and DC, both communicate similar themes through their narratives, but differ from each other in their character emphasis.

Marvel tends to emphasize the weaknesses of its protagonists, such as Iron Man, Tony Stark, who is traditionally pictured as a struggling alcoholic, or Thor who struggles with his pride, or, perhaps most obviously, the Hulk, Bruce Banner, who is defined by his struggle to control his rage. But despite these personal weaknesses, they overcome their own faults and become heroes who are supposedly worthy of our admiration.[3] DC, on the other hand, emphasizes the symbolism of each hero, such as Superman, who symbolizes hope, Batman who symbolizes justice, Wonder Woman, who symbolizes feminism, to name just a few. But what makes both Marvel and DC so popular with our humanistic culture is the message they convey, that man can save himself, that he can be good in spite of his evil.

Depictions of Depravity & Saviour Figures

There are two fundamental elements in both Marvel and DC narratives that remain relevant in any age:  the depravity of mankind, and the need for a saviour.

Consider Batman, the Dark Knight, who testifies to the depravity of man with his iconic phrase “Crime never sleeps.”[4] His fictional city, Gotham, is described as “a breeding ground for suffering and injustice…beyond saving.”[5] His arch-villain, the Joker, explains the fragile world we live in, saying, “I’ve demonstrated there’s no difference between me and everyone else! All it takes is one bad day to reduce the sanest man alive to lunacy. That’s how far the world is from where I am… When I saw what a black, awful joke the world was, I went crazy as a coot!”[6] It’s the same model for every story. Throughout every comic book series, the hero rises to face the world’s evils, but no matter how many times they vanquish the foe, they never vanquish evil itself. It persists, it takes on different forms, but ultimately the final picture portrays man as his own enemy. As journalist Peter Bebergal writes, “For many of the writers, Batman offers a window into profound real-world issues, particularly in the realm of ethics.”[7]

The wizard Shazam, searching for a person worthy of being raised up into a demigod for the protection of the universe, summons with his magic a variety of persons in hopes of finding a perfectly good person, but despite his attempts to find a worthy champion, he states to his final candidate Billy Batson, “I looked into your life choices as I have many others, searching for a pure good person. But you are as imperfect as every other soul I’ve brought here.” Billy accurately replies, “You’re searching for something that doesn’t really exist.”[8] Despite his depravity, the wizard went ahead and imbued young Billy with magical powers, in hope that one day he would be worthy of such power by becoming the embodiment of goodness, Captain Marvel. As the comic panel reveals: “You said you tried to be good? Do you have the embers of good inside you then…? Yes, you do have potential…”[9]

But the burden that this places on man is unbearable, for man to become inherently good while being weighed down by his own sin is impossible by his own means. He must live up to a standard that cannot be met.

In the recent feature film, Dawn of Justice, Batman encourages Wonder Woman that “Man is still good. We fight, we kill, we betray one another, but we can rebuild. We can do better. We will, we have to.”[10] But what is good? The heroes never actually tell us. Is goodness a feeling? Is it what most benefits the self? Is it what brings most pleasure to the majority? Without an objective moral law to differentiate between good and evil, goodness would be nothing more than an illusion, a meaningless social construct in a chance-oriented universe, malleable to our whims and desires. However, contrary to popular belief that man is good, Jesus taught that “No one is good except God alone” (Mark 10:18), and Paul wrote to the Romans that “None is righteous, no not one” (Rom. 3:10).

Man in his depravity will continue to suppress his guilt by redefining the nature and conditions of morality, playing god in the re-creation of moral principles. But no matter the extent of his self-deception, guilt will remain inescapable as he fails to live up to God’s perfect standard. As Paul writes, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” and as commentator Leon Morris rightly states, “Not only did all sin in the past, but they continually come short of God’s glory.”[11]

The comic book universe manages to capture the reality of our world’s fallen state, and recognizes man’s struggle with his fallen condition, without explicitly stating what or why that is. It also accurately portrays our need for a saviour, who can save him from himself, and ultimately, deliver him from evil. This is why superheroes have experienced growing popularity, a fictional embodiment of hope for mankind, a symbol of man’s salvation, effected through fallible, yet good, characters.

Consider, for example, the messianic symbolism of Superman in the recent blockbusters Man of Steel and Dawn of Justice. In the first movie the lone son of Krypton adopts a universal saviour role for humanity.[12] In the second movie, after giving up his life to destroy the villain Doomsday, Superman is lowered from the battlefield in the same pose that artists depict Jesus being lowered from the cross.[13] Even in the previous movie Superman Returns, which does not form part of the greater DC cinematic universe, the son of Krypton is sent to earth by his father Jor-El to be “its saviour.” Jor-El states that man lacks “the light to show the way. For this reason above all – their capacity for good – I have sent them you, my only son.”[14]

This messianic symbolism is not a coincidence; historically the character has served as an exemplar of a particular morality or ideology. In the 1940s Superman’s motto was “Truth and Justice,” a hero fit for the time period of the second world war against Nazism and Japanese imperialism. In the 1950s, the conflicts on the comic book panels with tech-savvy criminals followed a distinctly “Cold War theme.”[15]

Heroes like Superman tend to evolve with world issues, sometimes associated with political ideologies, other times seeking to detach themselves from political associations, but in every case it has been a manifestation of humanism, depicting man as his own saviour.

A Medium for Humanist Propaganda

It’s clear that these movies are hitting all the right notes to be a “perfect vehicle for entertainment,”[16] but we must also ask, what is being communicated through this medium? Not only do we find a depiction of man’s depravity, and the need for a saviour figure, but we also find cultural expressions, that is to say, how and what people think and believe.

Consider the X-Men, super-powered mutants brought about by Darwinian evolution. These Marvel characters are hated and feared by most ordinary human beings, regardless of all the good they accomplish in saving the world. It appears innocent enough to many, but Bryan Singer’s X-Men films were always meant to advance pansexuality in public culture. Singer took on the project of bringing comic book characters to the big screen because he found in the isolation theme of the mutants something that “resonated with him and the way he felt when he realized he was homosexual as a teenager.”[17]

Those of the LGBTQ community are the mutants in the X-men universe, while Christians and all others who disagree with homosexuality are the mutant-phobic majority. We also find that the supremely powerful villain, Apocalypse, is identified as the biblical god Yahweh, an oppressive mutant who brings about judgment day. When coupling the strong LGBTQ resonance, and associating Yahweh and the “son of God” with a personal force of evil, the X-Men franchise demonstrates a strong antagonism towards the biblical worldview, feeding the cultural hostility against biblical truth.[18]

We can take Wonder Woman as another example of cultural expression. The DC heroine is the creation of William M. Marston, “a psychology professor and lawyer who invented the lie detector.”[19] In the book The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore reveals the various influences behind the creation of Wonder Woman, one of whom was the aunt of Marston’s mistress, Margaret Sanger, a feminist pioneer, and the founder of Planned Parenthood.[20] According to Marston, the heroine was heavily influenced by “feminist utopian literature,” and as per Elisabeth Donnelly, a symbol of “feminism, sex radicalism, free love, and androgyny.”[21] The superhero genre is not just a vehicle of entertainment, it’s a medium for changing public opinion, a propagandistic influence for cultural change, and given its humanistic foundation, it’s hostile to the gospel. As scholar Nancy Pearcey writes:

We need to debunk the stereotype that art has nothing to do with ideas or worldviews… The truth is that artists interact deeply with the thought of their day, translating worldviews into stories and images.[22]

In many respects the superhero genre expresses man’s desire to be like God, the original temptation in Eden, to determine for himself good and evil, redefining norms and values, seeking moral, existential and epistemological independence from his creator. In an interview with the editors of Batman and Philosophy: The Dark Knight of the Soul, the interviewer comments that “We often think of ethics as having to be grounded in some idea of God, but we don’t see that with Batman.”[23] Robert Arp of the National Center for Biomedical Ontology responded that “In Batman’s universe there is no God. We have to make our meaning, make our own way. Batman becomes the new god, the superhuman that steps up to the plate and metes out justice the way in which God would.”[24]

In Marvel’s 2003 Hulk movie, Bruce Banner’s father, also a scientist, unveils the underlying motivation of man’s sinful disposition, his pursuit of godhood, when he states:

I tried to improve on the limits in myself. Myself, not [Bruce]. Can you understand? To improve on nature, MY nature, knowledge of one’s self. It’s the only path to the truth that gives men the power to go beyond God’s boundaries.[25]

The superhero genre is a reflection of human culture, the beliefs and values of the modern consensus, and although it depicts the human condition and the need for salvation, it is humanistic in identifying man as his own saviour and liberator.

Communicating the Truth

These fictional narratives indicate the cultural direction of thought; they give popular voice to the questions being asked by the West relating to morality, epistemology and existence. Given that the superhero genre is a reflection of human culture, we can deconstruct the humanist’s worldview to demonstrate that things like goodness, justice, and truth are relative and essentially meaningless outside of the biblical worldview. Additionally, we can demonstrate that we are no different than these fictional heroes in that we all struggle with our human condition, and regardless of the good we may be able to do in society, we cannot vanquish evil by our own means. Yes, we need a saviour figure, yes, we need to be rescued from our depravity, but it’s not found in a fictional superhero, and it’s not man and his goodness (he is in fact “not” good), whether individually or collectively, it’s found in the truth of the Christian worldview. As Jay Lee of the Center for Gospel and Culture writes:

[Jesus] doesn’t merely do things better than Superman. Jesus comes to save and redeem eternally. He doesn’t pull someone from a burning building, but rather takes someone who is dead in sin and gives them eternal life (Eph. 2:5). This is the work, not of a superhero, but of a redeemer and saviour.[26]

The betterment of society, the redemption and renewal of man and creation, can only be possible in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, who is both Saviour and Lord.

 


[1] Jay H. Lee, "God is not a Superhero," The Center for Gospel Culture, last modified August 7, 2012, http://www.centerforgospelculture.org/2012/08/god-is-not-a-superhero/.

[2] Tom DiChristopher, "Is superhero movie fatigue a myth?" CNBC, last modified February 4, 2016, http://www.cnbc.com/2016/05/14/is-superhero-movie-fatigue-a-myth.html.

[3] Lee, “God is not a Superhero.”              

[4] Laurie S. Sutton, The Dark Knight: Batman vs the Penguin (Edina, MN: Stone Arch Books, 2013), Kindle Edition.

[5] Batman Begins directed by Christopher Nolan, Warner Bros, 2005.

[6] Alan Moore, Batman: The Killing Joke (USA: DC Comics, 1988).

[7] Peter Bebergal, "What Batman teaches us about philosophy," The Boston Globe, last modified July 13, 2008, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2008/07/13/a_talk_with_robert_arp_and_mark_d_white/?page=full.

[8] Geoff Johns, Gary Frank, and Ethan Van Sciver, Justice League (New 52), Chapter 000 (USA: DC Comics, 2012), 9-10.

[9] Ibid, 10-11.

  1. Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, directed by Zack Snyder, Warner Bros, 2016.

[11] Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 177.

[12] Man of Steel, directed by Zach Snyder, Warner Bros, 2013.

[13] Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, 2016.

[14] As cited in A.C. Grayling, "The philosophy of Superman," The Spectator, last modified July 5, 2006, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2006/07/the-philosophy-of-superman/.

[15] Grayling, "The philosophy of Superman".                                        

[16] Lee, “God is not a Superhero.”

[17] “Bryan Singer: I Identified with the X-Men Because I’m Gay,” The List, last modified April 20, 2016, https://www.list.co.uk/article/80133-bryan-singer-i-identified-with-the-x-men-because-im-gay/.

[18] Czarina Ong, “X-men: Apocalypse depicts villain as the son of god, sparking uproar in Christian community,” Christianity Today, last modified March 19, 2016, http://www.christiantoday.com/article/x.men.apocalypse.depicts.villain.as.the.son.of.god.sparking.uproar.within.christian.community/82119.htm.

[19] Elisabeth Donnelly, “Discover Wonder Woman’s queer, kinky feminist history in Jill Lepore’s ‘The Secret History of Wonder Woman,’” Flavorwire, last modified October 29, 2014, http://flavorwire.com/485267/discover-wonder-womans-queer-kinky-feminist-history-in-jill-lepores-the-secret-history-of-wonder-woman.

[20] Donnelly, “Discover Wonder Woman;” See Jill Lepore, The Secret History of Wonder Woman (New York: Vintage Books, 2014).

[21] Donnelly, “Discover Wonder Woman.”                                             

[22] Nancy Pearcey, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals and Meaning (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2010), 76.

[23] Bebergal, “What Batman teaches us about philosophy.”

[24] Bebergal, “What Batman teaches us about philosophy.”           

[25] Hulk, directed by Ang Lee, Universal Pictures, 2003.

[26] Lee, “God is not a Superhero.”