For most of my (now getting a little long-ish) life, I’ve been a fan of comics. In fact, at any number of points in my life, I could have been described as a bit of a comic geek. That doesn’t necessarily mean that I liked all comics (I didn’t), but I was very conscious of loving that artistic medium.
It certainly didn’t end with childhood; quite the contrary. Into my college years and beyond, the increase in disposable income only led to a deeper appreciation.
It also helped that my university years in the mid- to late 80s coincided with one of the most fruitful times for comics. Independent and underground publishers like Dark Horse, Eclipse, Epic, and even the more mainstream publishers Marvel and DC were putting out incredible literature- deep, dark, complex, funny, disturbing, and absurd.
So it’d be perfectly natural to assume that I’m enjoying the huge amounts of superhero movies that have come out over the past few years- the vast interlocking sagas involving the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, as well as the Batman ‘Dark Knight’ franchise and the ongoing attempts to make a decent Superman flick.
Perhaps surprisingly, I’m not.
The main reason for that is, as much as I like comics, I’ve never been that interested in superheroes. ‘Superheroes’ and ‘comics’ are often conflated, but there are innumerable examples of the latter that have nothing to do with the former. Aside from a brief, childhood fling with Spider Man, superheroes have never loomed large in my legend.
But the rise of the current crop of big-budget Disney blockbusters cluttering up the multiplexes, as well as the Dark Knight series and the recent Superman films, has got me thinking.
One thing that I noticed is the type of narrative many of these films set up, and how it relates to the rest of our culture and politics.
For instance, while I’d never attribute the rise of, say, Donald Trump solely to these films, the broad stroke narratives are certainly a bit similar.
Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, Batman's Bruce Wayne, and the Fantastic Four all involve billionaires who seem to exist in a world where any crisis can be overcome with seemingly-limitless financial and technical resources and sheer force of will… Oh, and one supposes, no corporate regulation.
Beyond that, the adversaries that the heroes must overcome (particularly in the Marvel sagas) are always nearly-godlike galactic or other-dimensional entities, against which the combat skills of the heroes are perfectly suited. It’s worth noting that many of the most visible candidates in the most recent election cycle (Trump being only the most forthright) have built their campaigns around adversaries that they see as emerging from ‘outside’- Mexicans, China, Muslims, etc.
Trump augments this litany of outside dangers and enemies with a pronounced monomania; since he is beholden to no interests and is openly disdainful of his own party, the message he puts forth is that he- alone, personally- has the power to overcome danger and evil on behalf of us all.
In Marvel’s theology- and presumably in Trump’s, whatever sops he throws to the Evangelical religious right- we are protected by wealthy, god-like captains of industry with unlimited technology and a huge force of personal will.
However, in real life, many of the most critical problems that we face- nuclear proliferation, economic inequality, systemic poverty, environmental collapse, climate change, religious and political fundamentalism- come not from outside forces, but are of our own making, and cannot be solved by one person, no matter their personal powers or resources.
Standing opposite the Marvel theology is the Christian one, where the Son of God comes, not as a superman, but as a man, a poor man, Jesus.
Interestingly, Jesus’s miraculous deeds are not spectacular and far reaching, but ordinary, local, personal...
He does not end global hunger; he makes wine at a wedding and multiplies a five-loaf and two-fish lunch;
He does not cure all disease; he heals a woman with the faith and courage to touch him; he spits and makes clay to restore sight;
He doesn’t raise all the dead; he raises a friend and one man’s beloved daughter;
He doesn’t lead a revolution; he finds his tax payment in the mouth of a fish;
He does not defeat his enemies; he surrenders to them;
He does not bring down the Emperor in a great heroic battle; but he urges his followers to love one another, to not repay evil with evil, to be humble, to do good works, and to lift up one’s enemies in the sight of God… and in doing so, he sows the seeds of the fall of all empires, everywhere…
The man Jesus stands in utter contrast to Marvel’s pantheon, and to any political or religious leaders who would seek to emulate them or be thought of in conventional heroic terms.
Jesus is the antithesis of the ‘super-hero’; he is the ‘anti’-hero, the ‘un’-hero.
He came not to save the world, but to point us to salvation- love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness…
Trying to square this with political power- and what it takes to get it- is impossible.
No one who aspires to hold the launch codes of the greatest nuclear arsenal on Earth, brags of their personal fortune, or mocks and belittles their adversaries can claim to be like Jesus, to know him, or to follow him.
Anyone can be a superhero;
Disciples are much rarer…