By Armond Boudreaux
It is easy to think of superheroes as a uniquely American and uniquely modern creation. Their eagerness to go out into the world and punch bad guys certainly appeals to American sensibilities, and the sci-fi origins that characterize many of them certainly speaks to modern preoccupations with science and technology. And of course the medium that popularized them is, like jazz, one of the few art forms for which America can credibly take credit.
But the truth is that the idea of heroes is older than any of us can remember. They have been a part of literature for as long as we have been telling stories. Gilgamesh, Samson, Herakles, Theseus, Odysseus, Akhilleus, Beowulf––we have always dreamed about people who could do things that no ordinary person could do.
Almost always, those heroes have had an important place in the religious thought of the cultures in which they arose. Gilgamesh was so powerful because he was two-thirds god––just divine enough to give him enormous strength and just human enough to make him mortal like us, in other words. Akhilleus and Herakles were also demigods, inheriting their strength from their divine parents. And though he was not a demigod, Samson’s strength depended upon his faithfulness to a religious vow (one that included not cutting his hair).
To be human is to be painfully aware of our weakness and limitation, so we’ve always dreamed about ways in which some people could be exceptional and escape those limitations. In the past, when human culture was saturated with the supernatural, the miraculous, the divine, it was natural for us to imagine that heroes who could transcend the frailty of men would come from the gods.
Today in a culture that has been undergoing a relentless process of secularization for at long time, we no longer believe in Herakles or Gilgamesh. Instead, we make up heroes we think our modern sensibilities will find more palatable. Yes, we still have gods and demigods among our comic book heroes (we even have Gilgamesh and Hercules), but often their divine and supernatural origins are demythologized. Ours is a culture of disenchantment.
Still, try as we might, we can’t quite escape the divine origins of heroes. Even though the early appearances of Thor in the MCU always stressed that he was a superpowered alien and tried to minimize the idea of the supernatural, Thor: Ragnarok places his godhood front and center. Both Wonder Woman and Justice League lean heavily on the role of the Greek pantheon in the DC Universe. And most recently, Black Panther fully embraces the role of the goddess Bast in Wakanda’s origin.
But while superhero movies have frequently drawn upon pagan stories, it has been striking just how much of the Gospel is woven into the DNA of those movies––even the ones whose heroes come from the pagan pantheons. In other words, superhero movies seem to be Christ-haunted (to steal a term from the great Southern writer Flannery O’Connor) in ways that many films are not. Probably the most obvious recent examples of this has been the Zack Snyder films Man of Steel and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both of which cast Superman as a Christ-figure sent by his father to save the earth from itself.
But the fact that superhero cinema has been “Christ-haunted” has never been more apparent than it was in 2017. Logan, Wonder Woman, and Thor: Ragnarok each showed just how much superhero mythology depends upon the Christian story.
Now at first glance, Logan might strike audiences as about as far from Christianity as a superhero movie can get. It’s brutally violent and never flinches from shots of Wolverine’s claws piercing a villain’s skull or severing limbs. But as I have argued elsewhere, the movie offers a surprisingly powerful argument for the dignity and sanctity of the human body. More importantly, however, it takes the tale of the powerful hero triumphing over his enemies by brute strength and transforms it into a story that might be familiar to the martyrs of Christian history. It’s the story of a man who––however reluctantly at first––gives his body and soul over to torture, punishment, and death for the good of others. A casual viewer might say that the world of Logan is about as devoid of God as it could get, but that is not really true. Though He is hidden, Christ is there in Logan’s last act because what he does is the supreme act of love. Logan is not unlike the fiction of Flannery O’Connor in that way: it shows us the divine that is concealed even in the brutal.
While Logan is entirely devoid of the supernatural, both Wonder Woman and Thor: Ragnarok fully embrace the divine origins of their title characters. Oddly enough, though, both movies alter the mythological origins of their heroes and give them a strikingly Christian flavor. Indeed, “flavor” is not quite the right word. In some ways, both movies simply adapt the Gospel story and substitute pagan names for the Christian ones.
For example, in Wonder Woman, Diana’s original origin from the comics (that she was formed from clay by her mother and brought to life by Zeus, a story whose similarity to the creation of Adam is difficult to miss) becomes a lie meant to conceal the truth from her. In truth, she is the daughter of Zeus and Hippolyta. Now this alone simply makes Diana one more demigod like Herakles or Akhilleus, but the movie goes on to more closely identify her with Christ than with her mythological kin. In a scene that is beautifully depicted in the style of Renaissance art, we learn that the god of war Ares hated Zeus’ prized creation, mankind, and wanted to destroy them. But Zeus created a “weapon” called the Godkiller that would defeat Ares once and for all. That weapon turns out to be Diana herself. Like Christ, her very reason for being on earth is to defeat the mortal enemy of all that is good. And in case the point was made too subtly earlier in the movie, the filmmakers have Diana hover above the ground in a cruciform position just before she finally defeats Ares.
Even the odd line that gets repeated as a theme in the movie––“It’s not about what you deserve. It’s what you believe”––could be seen as a reformulation of the Gospel message that no one deserves salvation, but that it comes to those who have faith.
Similarly, Thor: Ragnarok casts its hero in terms of the Gospel story and iconography. Here Thor becomes the Christ figure and his sister, Hela, becomes a Satanic figure. Dispossessed of what she believes is her rightful inheritance, Hela seeks vengeance on Thor and Asgard, her resentment at her brother and Father having become a hellish rage ready to destroy everything that she once loved. This is all very much based on a Christian template, and again, in case the point is made too subtly, the film drops some fairly obvious hints. For example, twice on the movie we see paintings on the ceiling of the Asgardian citadel that strongly resemble Renaissance Christian art such as the painting on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and at the climactic moment of the story, we see Thor placed into a position that strongly resembles crucifixion—this time he’s on his back with his arms outstretched, the full power of Hela bearing down on him. Even Odin’s insistence that “Asgard is not a place; it’s a people” resonates with the Christian message, since “Church” most properly refers to the people of God and not to the buildings in which they worship.
One might argue that the similarity between the heroes of these movies and the Gospel story is simply an accident of the culture. Even though the West has become secularized, it still has Christianity at its heart, so it is no wonder that the stories we tell ourselves are often Christ-haunted. But this explanation is only part of the answer to why a carpenter who lived in Palestine two millennia ago would still stimulate our imaginations when we invent stories about superheroes. The more fundamental reason is that the One who came to earth in the form of that carpenter added something to the very idea of what it means to be a hero. Where the heroes of ancient times were defined by their abilities and their pursuit of legacy, Christ made heroism about self-giving and self-sacrifice.
The point is perhaps best illustrated by a comparison of Gilgamesh, whose story was written long before Christ, and Beowulf, who appeared several centuries after. The Sumerian hero is known primarily for his strength, impressive feats, and doomed pursuit of immortality, but Beowulf is known for using his strength to benefit others and for dying in order to protect his people from an enraged dragon. It’s not that Beowulf is something entirely different from Gilgamesh, of course. He still pursues honor and a lasting reputation, but his story blends the pagan ideal of the hero (and all the associated values) with the Christian ideal of self-giving love in order to create a hero who bears a strong resemblance to modern superheroes like Thor, Spider-Man, or Wonder Woman. (I sometimes tell my students that I consider Beowulf to be the first superhero story.)
So it should be no surprise, then, that so many of our superhero stories—both in film and on the page—seem to hide Christ under a facade of brightly-colored costumes. As He did with everything else that He touched, Jesus changed the very idea of what it means to be a hero.
Armond Boudreaux is a writer and assistant professor of English who lives in Georgia. He is the author of Titans: How Superheroes Can Help Us Make Sense of a Polarized World, as well as the novels That He May Raise and Animus: Little Gods. He writes about superheroes, politics, and philosophy at http://www.aclashofheroes.wordpress.com. You can read more about him at http://www.armondboudreaux.com.