Five Reasons Our Culture Craves Superheroes (Part 2)

Yesterday I talked about our culture’s obsession with superhero movies, and two possible reasons why.  Here are the final three.

3. We need to see flaws—of humanity and ourselves.

Even as we know their stories aren’t true, we still want to be able to relate to these crazy heroes who run around cities and fight crime.  I don’t want to see too much of myself in a superhero (because I’d be a boring superhero), but it’d be nice if they had some humanoid tendencies.  Mostly these human tendencies are manifested through angst.  We’ve all been to middle school; we all know our fair share of angst.

At the same time, through the mask of a superhero, we are able to see a corrupt and broken society.  It’s okay; it’s just Gotham.  It’s not New York City, or Los Angeles.  Or Portland.  It’s fictional.  But it’s not, and that’s why it affects us so much.

I say the same thing about science fiction: the subjects and characters of these stories give us psychological distance.  With these kinds of movies, we are able to step back and say, those characters aren’t me.  This world is not mine.  And yet, through those worlds, we can discuss issues that we ourselves are dealing with, moral and personal struggles.  We can give ourselves some space to deal with someone else’s problems…and then realize we’re working out our own.

It’s not just society’s problems; it’s personal issues too.  These heroes struggle with calling, with accepting what life has given them, with responsibility.  They wonder how their dreams or their work will affect those they love.  They wish that they could be stronger, that they could save everyone.  We’re not superheroes, but we can empathize.  We don’t have the answers; neither do they.  But at some point, they show us just how to move on.

4. We need to see how to deal with tragedy.

Look at these folks!  Tragedy out the wazoo.  Batman: orphan.  Spider-man: orphan, plus he’s responsible for his uncle’s death.  Thor: brother and father issues.  Iron Man: well, he’s got a energy thing in his chest.  Captain America doesn’t know what decade he’s in.  And Hulk?  Well, obviously.

As part of humanity, we’re all going to face tragedy.  We’re all going to lose what we love.  It’s a terrible by-product of loving something.  It’s going to be taken from us.  Even if you’re a lucky one who has all she loves around her, it will be stolen at some point.

Depressing so far, right?  Sorry.

But the trick–the concept the whole human race is anticipating or dealing with–is how to go on after tragedy.  How to pick up the pieces.  How to become whole again, or just whole enough to hold yourself together.

Superheroes respond differently according to their personalities.  You can’t expect them to all be the same.  But they all, whether through anger, acceptance, or guilt, get to the place where they realize they have a responsibility.  They have a goal and a purpose to work towards.  They have a job to do, and they’re the only ones to do it.  Wallowing won’t help; neither will shutting down.

Our culture, especially in America, is good at expressing, but not repairing.  We scream and cry, but it’s hard work to heal and so sometimes we’d rather not.  A crucial part of healing is understanding that you are not alone.  That you are part of a community, a cog in a great wheel.  And that others rely on you.  Perhaps the pillar you rely on has fallen.  You must stay upright so that others do not fall as well.

Superheroes are often strong or fast or powerful.  They don’t usually have emotional powers.  They’re not remarkably well-adjusted.  They’re trying to figure out how to let go and move forward.

5. We need saving.

Yup.  That’s number five.

Can you deny it?  Can you look at the world and say we don’t?  Remember last Friday.  Remember what happened.  And the massacres happening in Syria and Iraq.  Car accidents.  Cancer.  Nuclear weapons.  We’re broken.  This world is broken.

And we really need to be saved.

We look for our jobs and our goals to save us. Or our art.  Physical fitness.  Organic food.  We want to live forever.  We don’t want to lose the things we love.  So we clutch and we grab, and we pray for someone to save us: a lover. A therapist. A pastor. A child.  Some reason to keep moving forward.

It’s a messy world out there, and we should be grasping for the beautiful things in life.  We should look for the wonder amongst the pain, the loveliness amidst the chaos.  Life is made wonderful in those little moments of music and joy and excitement.

But we still want to be saved from it.  To be snagged by a web as we fall off of a building.  To swoop over the Daily Planet.  To be rushed to safety in the Batmobile.

You probably know me and what I believe.  Here’s where I’m not going to go: Jesus is the ultimate superhero!  That’s an oversimplication of a complicated faith life that I try to follow.  Declaring it, stamping it, and leaving the rest of the world to burn isn’t the way to fix anything.

And yet I really believe that we need our superheroes.  We need to be saved, to save, and to believe in things beyond ourselves.  This I believe for not only me; I believe it for everyone.  And that’s why I am a fan of silly, action-y movies where actors wear tights and quip while using their brains or brawn or both to capture the bad guys, because it partially fills a need we all feel to be protected and safe in a constantly shifting and unbalanced world.

I believe the bad guys can be caught.  I believe that there is hope, there is life, and there is a savior.  And I believe that superheroes aren’t just for children.  Our culture is faced with scary stuff, and it’s okay to watch movies and see that things will turn out okay…even if they’re fiction.

My dad is a big hit with the under five-year-old set, and he recently spoke (very seriously, I’m sure) to a little boy at church day camp .  This little boy has decided that when he grows up, he wants to be a hero.  He wants to be a hero because he doesn’t like it when people are sad or in trouble.

I think that’s a valid and admirable life plan.  One that we grown-ups should think about.  So there aren’t superpowers.  Oh well.  Let’s just shoot for being kind and decent human beings, who help others and love those who don’t know how.  Let’s work on having strong ethics and a faith base that stands strong and speaks up for those who cannot do either.  And let’s keep learning about each others’ hopes and fears, dreams and realities, whether that’s through movies, Twitter, or a good ole fashioned coffee date.  Let’s try to be a human version of the superhero our culture so badly craves.

Up, up, and away.


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