Superhero Theology

I’m a Jesuit priest. And I love superhero films. I love them because of the action, the nerve-wracking twists and turn, the spectacular special effects. But I also love them because more often than not, they reveal to us, under the guise of a modern day parable, a portion of Truth about the deepest longings, desires and temptations we all carry within us.

I was recently reflecting on the fact that in many of these superhero movies, we can easily identify four types of characters: the hero/s, the villain/s, the victim/s and coward/s.

The hero is the one who saves the day, the one who snatches victory from the jaws of defeat, more often than not single-handedly and at great personal cost. He or she is the one who takes a principled stand when faced with injustice, in full knowledge of the near impossibility of escaping unscathed in the battle ahead.

Although the villain is classically presented as the nemesis of the hero and his or her complete opposite, if we look closely, villains have a lot in common with heroes. After all, Harvey Dent in the Dark Knight warns us that “You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain”. Both the villain and the hero follow a clear set of principles, albeit different ones; they both react to injustices, in different ways; they stand out from the crowd, for different reasons. Apart from the aims and means which in the case of the villain can be very different from the hero’s, one of the most recurring pitfalls which most easily transforms potential heroes into villains is the temptation of mirroring the evil being faced, by for example responding to violence with violence. Once that line is crossed, there isn’t much separating the hero from the villain.

When instead of participating actively in the effort to overcome the crises, people just cry over themselves, the line between victim and coward is seriously blurred.

The victims and cowards are of course much more easily identifiable. The cowards are the bystanders who prefer to watch others sort out the mess, keeping their fingers crossed that the hero will save them in the nick of time, even though they refuse to lift up a finger to contribute to the endeavour. The victims are of course all those who suffer at the hands of the villains through no fault of their own. Far different is the case of those who prefer to play the victims. When instead of participating actively in the effort to overcome the crises, people just cry over themselves, the line between victim and coward is seriously blurred.

Now what does all this tell us about a proper Christian response to the multiple environmental, social and moral crises we are facing on a local and international level? How did Jesus react when confronted with the multiple injustices afflicting the society of His time? A coward, he certainly was not. Even when facing death, He never backtracked on what He knew was his mission. Even when fearful, He remained faithful to the Truth, in full knowledge that this faithfulness would cost Him His life. He was obviously a victim of the greatest injustice ever committed in human history. But He never played the victim or indulge in pity parties. Jesus didn’t seek His own death and escaped from his enemies on numerous occasions. Till the very end, Jesus challenges with unqualified dignity and resolve His own torturers: “Why did you strike me?” (Jn 18, 23). Jesus had also numerous occasions to turn into a villain and respond to violence with violence. He instead invited His disciples to sheath their swords (Jn 18, 11) and to those who took away everything from Him, he responded proactively by giving Himself completely to us (Last Supper).

Jesus also avoided the temptation of being self-referential and never sought his own glory.

The obvious conclusion would be to categorize Jesus as the greatest Superhero to have ever existed. Although there are several parallels to modern day superheroes, we must remember that unlike many comic books and movies, Jesus’ life on earth did not have a Hollywood-like happy ending. It was only in and through the tragedy of Good Friday that God’s glory, love and faithfulness were fully revealed. Furthermore, from the very beginning of his public ministry Christ never wanted to be a lonesome hero but called others to be with Him (Mt 4, 18-22). He also avoided the temptation of being self-referential and never sought his own glory. He repeatedly ran away from those who wanted to make him King (Jn 6, 15) and publicly declared that everything He was and had, came from the Father (Jn 16).

More than a hero, Christ was a free man. Free to stand up to the bullies of His time without fear and favour; Free to take action and speak out in defence of the victims of His time; Free to avoid the temptation of seeking glory and success at all cost; Free to lay down his life and let go of everything. In short, Christ was free to love. And that is the mark of a true hero.

2 thoughts on “Superhero Theology

  • Reply Pete Farrugia 25th January 2018 at 10:15 am

    Agreed! Christ is “the greatest superhero that ever lived” for the simple reason that his message of radical freedom and dignity is the same conceptual centre, around which all of these other mythical narratives revolve!

  • Reply Theresa Naudi 3rd February 2018 at 6:28 pm

    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought provoking post. I loved your sentence….”they reveal to us a portion of Truth about the deepest longings we all carry within us”

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