Come, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
To say that superheroes are popular in America would be like saying the desert is dry or the ocean is wet. But why is that? What is it about Superman and Batman that people can’t get enough of? Why is it that comic book lore is becoming stronger and stronger in mainstream media, and that which used to be relegated to guy teens and bums in their mother’s basement has become a staple of the culture? I want to take a few minutes to look at the reasons for this obsession, show the ancient history of “superheroes,” and end by examining how this all fits with a Christian’s worldview.
Why Do People Like Superheroes?
I see three reasons why people like superheroes, and the first is that superheroes are human. That might seem surprising, but I believe a big part of the appeal of superheroes is that people can relate to them. Some heroes are always human (Iron Man, Batman, Green Arrow). Many at least start off as a normal human (Spiderman, Captain America, Green Lantern). Even the ones that aren’t human at all still act very human (Thor, Superman). If superheroes were cold, sterile, and lifeless, they wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. If they didn’t show emotion, have weaknesses, or make mistakes we might be less attracted to them. Superheroes appeal to us because they remind us of us. We can look at superheroes and relate to them.
But superheroes are more than human. Superheroes are similar to us, and that allows us to relate to them, but obviously their main appeal is that they can do so much more than we can. They do things we wish we could. They can leap tall buildings in a single bound and fly through the sky. They can swing through the skyscrapers of New York and crawl up walls. They can run faster than the speed of sound, or turn into a giant green rage monster.
Man desires to be more than he is. The first temptation in the history of mankind was the promise to be like God. We are creatures, and frankly we don’t like that. Man’s proud, sinful heart wants to be God, or at the very least to be more than God has made him to be. Of course, we were made to be more than we are right now. The fall has marred us and made us less than God intended for us to be. So partly due to ingratitude with our creaturehood and partly due to a legitimate desire to recover what we have lost, we look to superheroes as what we wish were true of us – more than just humanity.
Superheroes live exciting lives. In the end, though, the ultimate reason for our attraction to superheroes is that we feel bored with this life. Superheroes live the lives we wish we could, lives that are exciting and fulfilling. They push the limits of human achievement, going beyond the droll and everyday to experience the thrilling and the spectacular. They fight in epic battles and accomplish great things. Superheroes live lives that are significant and make a difference. They are loved and lauded. They are noble and just. They represent everything we wish we were and had. Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God “has put eternity into man’s heart.” While a bit tricky to understand, in context the idea seems to be that God has created this cycle of life that we are living in, but has included in our DNA a desire for something greater, for something more.
A famous evangelical leader once made the observation that even secular people long for three things:
- transcendence (the desire for something beyond),
- significance (the desire to have individual purpose and meaning),
- and loving community.
“God is dead,” Nietzsche proudly declared. Then Nietzsche went insane and died. Secular culture in America has made the same pronouncement, if not in belief at least in practice. The result is that it too has been left with feeling empty. The hole left when God is removed is too great to be ignored, and the meaning, purpose, and transcendence that God brings must be filled by something. Enter the age old solution of superheroes, which brings me to my next observation. . .
Superheroes Are Nothing New
“Who are we?”
“Gods, angels. . . Different cultures call us by different names. Now all of a sudden its superhero.”
So goes the line from a recent movie. It poses an interesting idea: what if superheroes are just the modern, secular, humanist counterpart of what civilizations through all of history have been looking to for fulfillment? Growing up I had a simplified version of the Greek myths, and I found them fascinating. I read the entire book multiple times. As I reflect back, I realize that a lot of the Greek myths sounded a lot like superhero stories.
Granted there are significant differences. After all, we don’t literally worship our heroes, but the parallels are uncanny. Powerful beings who look like humans, act like humans, but can do so much more than humans. Some are good and some are evil. They have epic battles in which ordinary people are often caught in the crosshairs. The legends and history of many a pagan pantheon and the stories of the Justice League or the Avengers indeed seem eerily similar.
If you think this is grasping at straws, consider this. Both Marvel and DC comics have seen the very same connection, and incorporated pagan deities of ancient cultures among their heroes. The most obvious example of this is Thor and the entire host of heroes and villains that come with him, many of which are ripped straight from Norse mythology. DC doesn’t have such a publicly known hero yet, but that will change very quickly once they start dipping into their second tier heroes and do a Captain Marvel/Shazam movie (Yes, you read that right – Captain Marvel, also known as Shazam, is a DC hero. How they have gotten away with this is beyond me, but DC has given one of their more popular heroes the name of their rival studio. Hats off DC, well done). Captain Marvel was given his powers by the Roman/Greek gods and his primary nemesis, Black Adam, received his powers from the gods of Egypt.
The difference between us and previous civilizations is that now people don’t actually believe in the supernatural. So evolution, alien life, parallel dimensions, and science is the tool used to create these superhumans. We don’t believe they truly exist, of course, but we still look to them as the fulfillment of what we wish we could be. Whether it’s dressing up as them, or playing video games as them, or sitting in front of a giant screen for 2 hours watching their exploits and wishing we were them, I think it’s hard to argue that America looks to her heroes for fulfillment and vicarious transcendence.
Human nature doesn’t change. Cultures change. Technology changes. The expression of our human nature changes. But what we are at our core has remain unchanged for thousands of years. The same empty solutions that ancient civilizations used to fix the hopelessness caused by forsaking God have simply been tweaked and adapted for our atheistic culture, but the underlying structure looks remarkably similar.
The Real Solution
As is hopefully obvious and has been hinted at throughout this piece, the true answer for man’s emptiness is the gospel. God is the One to Whom we should look for satisfaction, meaning, purpose, and transcendence. God fills these needs in several ways. First, by restoring in us His image that was marred by the fall, thus making us back to what we were originally intended to be. What we have lost in the fall can be regained as we come to Christ and allow His Spirit to change us back into the image of God’s Son (Romans 8:29), until one day we see Him face to face and finally, totally become like Him, for we shall see Him as He is (1 John 3:2).
God also does this by giving us the mission to serve Him in the greatest cosmic battle of the ages, a battle far greater than anything Stan Lee could come up with. We are privileged to be given a role to fight for the King and His Kingdom by building His church (Matthew 16:18). We enjoy the thrill of having God use us to convert sinners; encourage, exhort, and disciple fellow believers; and tell and display to a lost and dying world the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Peter 2:6).
And God does this by giving us fulfillment when we engage in our ultimate calling: worshipping Him. Once we give up our empty, fleeting desire to be god and allow God to be God we find all the meaning and purpose we could have ever dreamed of. Paradoxically, the creature is at his highest when He is prostrate before His Maker. Humility is the path to exaltation (James 4:10). Until we learn to die to ourselves, we will never find true life (Matthew 16:25). All of history is leading to the climatic day when men will either live apart from God forever in hell in total deprivation or worship Him forever in heaven in total satisfaction (Revelation 20-22).
Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against superheroes, and I’m not saying that Christians should come out against superheroes or boycott all things super. Growing up I was a huge fan of Superman, Batman, and Spiderman and my inner nerd rejoiced with great joy at the prospect that there would be 30 new super hero movies in the next five years! My goal in writing this piece is simply to point out that America’s newfound obsession is symptomatic of a much deeper problem – the emptiness all of us feel when we turn away from the One Who brings us meaning and purpose and try to replace Him. And this is by no means a new problem; it’s one that mankind has struggled with through its entire history.
So how should this impact Christians? Well, you could try explaining to your unsaved friends the reason they are excited about the new Batman vs. Superman movie is because they really are hungry for Christ, but that probably won’t get you very far. However, as I look at America today, I can’t help but hear Christ’s words to His disciples at the well in Samaria ringing through my ear: “lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest” (John 4:35). People are hungry, and we have the only thing that will satisfy them. Smug atheists may proclaim God’s death all they want, but you can’t kill God without drastic consequences.
America’s newfound obsession should really be termed America’s newly refound obsession, for man has always turned to cheap substitutes when God is removed. Let this encourage and motivate us to make sure we ourselves are running to Christ when we feel empty and not to superheroes, money, friends, addictions, or any other worthless idol. And let this remind us that people are empty and are looking in all the wrong places to fill up as we go out with the foolish message of a crucified and risen Savior crying out to all who are thirsting to come and be filled (John 7:37).
Written by Ben Hicks