Why We Love Earth’s MIghtiest Heroes

Yesterday, I became the gazillionth person to catch The Avengers. As the climatic chapter in an arc that Marvel had been developing through a number of individual hero films, the ensemble effort of The Avengers is perhaps the most ambitious comic book film treatment ever attempted.

Judging from the reaction of both critics and audiences, the film is a pyrotechnic success. It scored an impressive 93% positive rating on critic aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, and shattered the record for an opening weekend box office haul (previously set by Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2) by pulling in over $200 million. 

Rather than offer you a recap or review of the film, I thought I’d use this post to reflect a bit about the larger cultural popularity of super heroes. The Avengers is, after all, the latest in a string of hits for Marvel, and it’s not even their only big release of the summer (The Amazing Spider-Man opens July 3). Likewise, DC Comics, the other heavy hitter in the industry, is set to unveil the much-anticipated final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy later this summer. And it’s poised to follow that next year with Man of Steel, the latest movie iteration of the world’s most famous super hero. 

All of this poses the question: why are these films—their characters, stories, even “mythology,” so to speak—so popular? Comics convention fanboys alone can’t generate $200 million in revenue over one weekend (I say this as a lifelong comics devotee). 

Answering that question has actually become popular in its own right, but I’ll hazard a few thoughts to throw into the mix. No doubt they’re far from the last word, but here goes:

1. Going above and beyond (or up, up, and away).

It’s a curious human inclination. We run, but we wonder what it would be like to run faster…faster even than speeding bullets. We jump, but we want to fly. And what if we could swim like a fish? Or read people’s thoughts?  What might it be like to have “the proportional speed, strength, and agility of a spider”?

There’s something about human beings that isn’t content with the mundane. We love the thought of being able to rise above our limitations, of doing what we know can’t be done. Super heroes provide us with a thousand avenues to imagine something beyond usual boundaries of humanity. 

2. “I need a hero.”

The world presents us with any number of challenges. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re painfully aware of our limitations in meeting them. There is so much that we can’t prevent, or even get a handle on. Is it any wonder that we’re captivated by the thought of a few who could stand in the proverbial gap, face these things, and triumph?

Simply put, we love the idea of a champion. We love the idea of someone capable of facing what needs to be faced, fighting those who need to be fought, saving those who need to be saved. If we can’t be that person, we’d love to think he or she is still out there. 

3. Good guys vs. bad guys.

There’s something to be said for ambiguity. Human beings are complex, and none of us is either completely pristine or totally reprehensible. Much contemporary art, including filmmaking, revels in our contradictions. Such art understandably favors moral shades of gray.  And when it somehow acknowledges what Pascal called the “greatness and wretchedness of man,” it can be great because of it. 

Yet with all of this, we still have strong attraction to the most fundamental of conflicts: good versus evil. Even more, we want to be on the side of the guys in the white hats. Ironically, what some characterize as simplicity is often one of the greatest strengths of beloved and enduring heroes, whether in the super hero genre or any other: we know they’re fundamentally on the side of good. And that’s why we want them to win. 

4. Oh, the humanity!

As we’ve noted, super heroes are by definition exceptional in their abilities and often in their character traits. But the best characters of the genre remain decidedly human in important respects. Kryptonite isn’t the only thing that makes Superman “mortal.”  His love of family and friends also makes him surprisingly vulnerable.  Spiderman’s sense of responsibility is fueled by the guilt of what he once failed to do. Batman’s drive for justice is also rooted in tragic loss of his parents. Interestingly, all three of these most iconic of heroes happen to be orphans, forced to find new “families” of one kind or another.

We could go on, but suffice it to say that, even though these heroes often soar above normal human heights, they’re still firmly rooted in our common experience. And this, too, helps them be a vehicle for compelling stories. 

………

Having said all this, I’ll end with another question for you to ponder: in what ways, whether related to the above or otherwise, might super heroes and their stories resonate with particular aspects of the Christian faith?

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