Superheroes are very much ‘in’ at this moment in time; in fact I doubt there’s been a single week in the past few years in which there wasn’t some superhero flick showing at the cinema where man/boy x gains power y to defeat evil z whilst getting with girl b usually having an initial run of successes with his power then a major defeat which forces the hero to re-think/re-evaluate some part of his life or character which he then overcomes in a dramatic finale to beat the bad guy, win the girl and set up a sequel.
But this isn’t the time or place for a rant about the predictabilities of the genre. Instead I want to dig a bit deeper and investigate what superheroes represent in today’s culture. Fundamentally, superheroes are an admission of the powerlessness of the ordinary man. When faced with the big mad mess of the world that we live in then it is obvious that we are severely lacking in control.
To use an obvious example: there is precisely nothing that I can do to fight violent crime. This is because not only is it illegal for me to be a vigilante I also have none of the skills required to be a successful one. There is nothing I can do about the evil regimes of the world and their leaders. There is nothing I can do if an earthquake struck; I couldn’t for example turn back time by flying really fast around the world. I’m not Batman, Spiderman, Superman or any other man for that matter. It’s just me and my powerlessness against the world.
And that’s where superheroes come in. They are people with powers that affect the areas ordinary humans are most powerless in. This is why so many superheroes break the laws of physics because this is a constraint by the natural world on all of us. Superheroes do what we want to do but in reality can’t. Superheroes fight against evil and for justice, they save people’s lives, they ‘do good’ and save the world. Things that we can’t do; at least not so effectively.
To put it another way, we live in a broken world with evil, pain, suffering and disasters and superheroes are there to fight against it because in our imaginations that is what we want to do. But, and this is a big but, superheroes only ever fight against the external manifestation of evil. Crime, disasters, plots to destroy the world, these are all external actions. The flaw in superheroes is their inability to fight internal evil. That is to say, Superman can stop a bullet fired by a criminal at a hostage. But he can’t stop the criminal firing the bullet in the first place. Superheroes can stop the external actions of evil but they can’t stop men from being evil.
“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”
Matthew 15 v 19
Jesus talked about this very problem arguing that it was not that goes into a man that makes him evil but what comes out his heart. In biblical terms ‘heart’ means the centre of a man’s personality and identity. So the diagnosis is clear: external evil is the result of internal evil.
As any superhero movie will tell you superheroes will often end up being hated for being ‘super’. This perfectly encapsulates the problem that whilst a superhero might be great at saving mankind from external evil no superhero can save mankind from the evil within its own heart. And this is the same in real life as well. We can all to a very limited degree stop evil external actions from happening but we can’t stop other people or ourselves from having evil thoughts or desires. There is one resounding message from the collective imagination of man: we cannot save ourselves. There is not a single superhero out there who can change the heart of a man and turn it from evil to good. There is not a single human being who can change the heart of a man from evil to good.
“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”
Jeremiah 17 v 9
We all feel powerless when faced with the world at large and so we created superheroes to help deal with this. But we don’t all feel powerless when faced with our own hearts. We know we can’t change other people’s heart but we think our own heart is different. We are under the impression that we can, by dint of willpower, become good people, nice people who seek the best in others, better people. Yet if we think for a moment about every superhero ever invented then what else to they all have in common other than the fact that they are all flawed in character in some way?
Some are proud, some are cowards, some have drinking problems, some are jealous, some are betrayers, some are sexually immoral, some are manipulative, vindictive, cruel, naïve, mean, bickering, arrogant, thieves, murderers, liars or worse. And this is where the incompleteness of their admission of weakness comes in for in most superhero fiction is the idea that we can change our own hearts. Yet this is not true. Even the super-est superhero cannot isn’t perfect no matter what mind boggingling power they had at their disposal. And the same is true of ordinary man, no one is perfect, all are flawed and we are all powerless to fight the evil in our hearts.
Except for one man.
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
Romans 5 v 6
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”
2 Corinthians 5 v 17
The message of the gospel is this: Jesus Christ came to do that which man was powerless to do. Jesus Christ came to take away our heart which did evil, which hated God, which rebelled against our Creator and pursued sin rather than good and replace it with a new heart which loves God. Powerless to save ourselves from our own evil hearts God became man, in Jesus, to take our punishment on himself and to save all those who believe in him.
“When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness.”
Romans 6 v 20
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,”
Ephesians 2 v 1
Ultimately we as humans are extremely powerless. Left to ourselves we are enslaved by our own evil hearts and we rebel against God and in doing so rebel again all that is good. And we try and delude ourselves that we aren’t powerless and we can change our own hearts but this denial is hard to maintain and it creeps out from our minds and expresses itself in our imaginations. Superheroes are an admission of weakness both in our lack of control of external forces and in our inability to change people’s hearts.
What superhero fiction fails to grasp is the even more basic fact that we are powerless against ourselves and against our own evil hearts. In Jesus Christ we find the answer, that while we were powerless, he died for us so that we might be saved. You can try all you like to change that heart of yours but unless you look to Jesus you cannot help but fail.
Behold now the love of God that he should look upon us in our rebelliousness, take pity on our powerlessness and send his Son to die in our place so that we might be given a new heart.
“As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
Ephesians 2 v 1 - 10