The popularity of superhero stories and movies in our present culture is an intriguing phenomenon. I have noticed that the more secular we get, the more popular “superhero” stories there are. Human nature is such that we admire virtue and justice, even when we live in a society which is leaving traditional mores and beliefs in the dust. The human spirit longs for purpose and meaning, which is simply a reflection of our innate understanding that there is objective truth, right and wrong, good and evil. Superheroes don’t just catch the bad guy: they sacrificially perform acts which help to transform the community for the better. Their commitment is – extreme. Some give up relationships with family and potential spouses in order to accomplish their missions; some willingly offer their lives in the causes they have committed themselves to.
Superheroes’ “special powers” can be viewed as literary “tropes” – vehicles through which the author highlights these protagonists’ moral qualities. The powers are not good in and of themselves, but are only valuable when the virtuous superhero chooses to use them well. The evil “nemesis” characters who attempt to foil the superheroes use their powers for destruction; this seemingly simplistic story pattern never grows old because inside all of us is the desire to triumph over the struggles and conflicts inherent in our world and in ourselves. There was a period of time in the 1960’s and most of the 1970’s when “anti-hero” movies were pretty much all that were being produced (other than musicals). If you wanted to watch a movie with a redemptive storyline, it was hard to come by. When the first “Star Wars” movie came out in 1977, its popularity was beyond belief. People returned to watch the movie 10, 12, 20 times, and lines in the theater parking lots snaked back and forth – and this went on for months. It’s true that the special effects techniques were new, but the most important aspect of the film was that there were good guys and bad guys, and there was right and wrong and there were heroes, not anti-heroes, as the protagonists. Audiences, starved for such fair for over almost two decades, clamored for more of the same.
It is interesting to contrast the modern superheroes to the Greek gods and goddesses. While the Greek gods did have many powers, their universe was essentially an amoral universe. The gods were selfish and self-oriented. They were capricious, and their actions were not predicated on the concept of a moral universe where virtue is rewarded and fulfilling, and evil is punished. However, the superheroes popular today are selfless and hold to the traditions of western values and justice. Their role is to help others, not to craftily scheme against their fellow gods or humans.
Another reason superheroes are popular is that so often now, children are not taught about important leaders of the past, or if they are, only the leaders’ faults are highlighted, without focusing on the greatness of their deeds and their character strengths. So – there is a vacuum there. This is a cultural shift: even back in the 1950’s, there were books and movies about great figures of history and their accomplishments; epic films such as “The Ten Commandments” and others highlighting saints such as Joan of Arc. Most or all of you who are reading this newsletter are already aware of the importance of highlighting great and good historical figures, and that need is all the more true today. The great popularity of superheroes is a “sign” of the cry of the human spirit for lives of honor, sacrifice, and goodness, rather than just being an entertainment phenomenon.