Over the past five years, superhero films have been not only among the most popular movies in America, but in some cases, also some of the most theologically and spiritually-profound movies in our cinemas. I know this is quite a claim, but at their heart, superhero films are able to deal directly with some of our most important spiritual themes ”those of justice, good and evil, violence, redemption and heroism.
A movie like “Batman Begins” (2005) offers a profound investigation of the various meanings of justice; not only does it explore retributive justice (and, refreshingly, condemn it), it also suggests more ancient understandings of justice as a positive practice instead of a punishment in reaction to some committed crime. “Spider-Man III” (2007), while it had its narrative flaws, foregrounded issues of ego, power, and the desire for revenge. Other superhero films deal with the possibilities of human good and evil and the true definition of heroism as self-sacrifice. If you pay attention at the multiplex, these films suggest, you might even learn something.
This summer, Will Smith, past King of Memorial Day Blockbusters, is starring as a flawed superhero in “Hancock,” and while this movie isn’t directly based on a character from the comics, it offers some typical superhero themes. Smith’s character is deeply-flawed, and the movie looks as though it will examine the nature of heroism in a culture of celebrity.
Heroes are more interesting when they’re flawed, as the successful Spider-Man and Batman films suggest (and the ongoing difficulty in making Superman dramatically interesting affirms). Director Peter Berg notes that “Hancock” “does as much damage as good” ”perhaps an analogue for the current American superheroic mania to try and resolve every issue with force. But one doesn’t have to get too deeply into cultural readings to enjoy the idea of a flawed character trying to do the right thing, since for people of faith (and all people of good will), that is a deeply-familiar story, one that looks back at them from the mirror every morning.
“Iron Man,” due out in early May, is another film with a deeply-flawed hero that could open a dialogue with current events, since its hero, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is an arms magnate/industrialist who finds himself using his technology to fight evildoers. Stark has long been one of comics’ most troubled heroes (his battles with alcoholism brought a real-life issue to life for many young readers), and this film too will resonate with viewers for its exploration of good and evil within the person of its hero.
“Iron Man” also suggests our ongoing ambivalence toward technology and science: Will they solve all our problems, or make them worse? The Modern myth of progress has always told us that we could invent our way toward perfection, but some of the uses of science and technology in the last century ”at Auschwitz and Hiroshima, to name just two ”showed that we might simply have found a better way to destroy ourselves. “Iron Man” compels our attention since its main character uses science to become a human weapon; a less-heroic figure using similar technology would ”and does ”become a force for evil rather than good.
This summer’s installment of the Batman story, “The Dark Knight,” follows perhaps the most-acclaimed of superhero films, Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” The figure of the Joker (Heath Ledger) is one of the most interesting elements of this film. Where does this kind of primeval evil come from? Has Batman in some way brought him into being? And are Batman and the Joker alike in anything more than adopting costumes and over-the-top methods?
Batman stories also always revolve around the question of justice; ever since Bruce Wayne’s (Christian Bale) parents were killed by a gunman when he was young, he has devoted his entire life to battling evil. How much of that is impartial justice ”a desire not to see others suffer as he has suffered? And how much of that grows out of resentment and the desire for revenge? The first is clearly healthier and more laudable, yet in American narratives and history, the second often takes precedence. The archetypal narrative of violence in American history is that of Pearl Harbor ”if you throw the first punch, we’ll come after you with overwhelming force ”but it’s also present in our stories of vigilante justice ”like superhero films.
Finally, following up the cult success of “Hellboy” (2004), director Guillermo del Toro and “Hellboy” creator Mike Mignola give us “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” another apocalyptic epic centering on the red-skinned character (played by Ron Perlman) who is the son of a demon prince and a human witch, an unlikely servant of Good against the cosmic forces of Evil.
“Hellboy” raises questions about choice and free will, about our ability to choose good over evil, and, as in the first film, revels in apocalyptic discourse. How and why will the world end? Should we struggle against that end or accept it? While popular culture typically gives us different answers than Jewish and Christian faith, they both suggest that on the other side of the cataclysm is a better world, which should give us hope in the face of looming destruction.
Superhero films distill many of our central spiritual questions into dramatic morality plays. They explore the conflict between good and evil, and the difficulty sometimes of knowing which is which. They play out our continuing quest for justice, desire for a better tomorrow, and hope that something larger than we are might step in and save us. And when they do these things with skill ”or even, in some cases, with beauty ”they move from being simply pop entertainment and actually begin to do the things that art does ”move us, shake us, and inspire us.
Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University and author of Holy Superheroes and The Gospel according to Hollywood. Visit his blog at http://theotherjesus.com/.