Trust and the Superhuman

19 09 2013

Written for a college course in the Fall of 2011, republished to the blog in 2013.

Trust and the Superhuman
What the obsession with superhero movies tells us about ourselves

I must admit that I’m a sucker for superheroes. Give me a darkened cinema, a glimpse of freakish physical powers, and 90 minutes of high-flying action and garish spandex outfits, and there’s a good chance I won’t be getting any work done for the rest of the night. Throw in a menacing super-villain and an epic climactic conflict and you’ve found my kryptonite. I simply cannot pass up a good superhero movie.

I am apparently far from alone. It seems every other Hollywood film follows a costumed crusader these days. Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises might be the most anticipated movie in years with a star-studded cast returning to finish the gritty Batman trilogy. And Marvel Studios’ set of interweaving hero films will grow to eight with the ongoing production of two more sequels (Ironman 3 and Thor 2) along with next spring’s The Avengers.

But what is it about these caped crusaders that we find so captivating? Eye-popping action sequences and eye-candy lead actors are always going to work in Hollywood, of course, but superhero movies do something more: they appeal to a society mired in sticky cynicism.

Since Watergate, American society has found it increasingly difficult to trust our once-hallowed public institutions. Scandal after scandal, controversy after public indignity has seemed to spring out of every establishment we once thought we could believe in. Superhero films tell us much about how we ourselves view America’s preeminent institutions. Batman’s Gotham City is seething with government and police corruption at the same time that our real-life Capitol cities are wracked by bribes and sex scandals. The Incredible Hulk (2008) battles a powerful super-villian in the U.S. military, which will stop at nothing to use the Hulk’s powers as a weapon. Misgivings about the military abound in a world of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo. Distrust of war industry? Check. Ironman’s villain is the military-industrial complex that creates wars to create profit. And alas, even journalists can’t escape distrust and disdain – who can forget Spiderman’s sensationalizing supervisor J. Jonah Jameson, who slants the news to sell papers and demonize the heroic webslinger? If costumed heroes act as a mirror, the reflection is a deeply cynical society with little willingness to trust in anything.

Yet we do trust in the heroes. And therein may lie the answer to our question of fascination. Yes, superheroes give us heart-pumping action scenes and fantastic heroes, but more than any of that, they give an intensely cynical society something to trust in. Spiderman’s straining to use his gift responsibly is a breath of fresh air for a generation all too familiar with abuse of power. When Tony Stark sacrifices his company in a refusal to build weapons of mass destruction, we finally see the conscience in Big Business we’ve so long yearned for. And when Batman refuses to kill the Joker in cold blood, we get a glimpse of a hero we can trust to act with integrity, even when no one else is watching. These redemptive figures of the superheroes start to take on a suddenly religious significance.

Ironman is a fascinating story of a genuinely nauseating creature, Tony Stark, brash and selfish, who somehow gains the sympathy of the audience as he strives to become a good person. Really, the narrative of a cripplingly flawed character yearning for goodness is the very picture of the Christian walk, aside from the fact that we must rely on the grace of God and not a robotic suit. When Batman takes the blame for Harvey Dent’s murders at the end of The Dark Knight, we can’t help but notice parallels in Christ’s sacrifice at Calvary to save the world and Batman’s to save Gotham. Police hunt a limping Dark Knight who just saved their city; we crucify a bleeding White Knight who just saved ours. My favorite superhero scene: Spiderman’s moment of triumph in Spiderman 3, when he finally shakes off the black parasitic villain Venom and the blackness in his own soul. Tellingly, it all happens in the tower of a church cathedral.

Living in a world without heroes to root for takes its toll on a people. Politicians, professional athletes, celebrities and even public servants have let us down time and time again. Burned one too many times by those we trusted, we often turn away from personal connections. We risk falling into a lonely, isolated existence, protecting ourselves from another letdown. Superheroes perform their most heroic act when they save us from this false reality – a world in which we cannot trust anyone – and give us, as The Dark Knight says, not the hero we deserve, but the hero we need right now: a hero we can trust.

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