Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.

Up, Up and Away

OurSuperheroesIntellectuals often have difficulty, it seems, taking popular culture seriously.  I remember feeling slightly guilty taking a class on Science Fiction in college and actually getting credit for it.  At the time—I remember the Dark Ages—a course on comic books, or even superheroes, would’ve been laughed out of the academy.  And not in a good way.  Monsters, likewise, were considered the opiate of the small-minded.  I’m not sure what happened to turn all of this around, but I think my generation growing up may have had something to do with it.  Scholars began to pay attention to more than the cheap paper and eye-catching, if impractical, costumes.  There were, unnoticed by standard readers, messages embedded in comics.  Superheroes may have been telling us something about ourselves.  Now tenured professors can write about various caped crusaders without fear of ridicule.  Some of the books are quite good.

Robin S. Rosenberg’s Our Superheroes, Ourselves, is a rare example of a uniformly fascinating edited volume.  Contributions from a variety of psychologists and psychologists explore several of the deeper aspects of  the superhero phenomenon.  Insightful and thought-provoking, this little book gives the lie to the frequent admonition of my youth that reading such things was a waste of time.  Anything but.  Now, I didn’t have the level of commitment to comics that Big Bang Theorists do, but I recall being entranced by much of what I read.  Some comic panels are still vivid in my head, although I haven’t seen the original in more decades than I’d like to admit.  They are, as one of the essays suggests, a form of modern mythology.  Another form of modern mythology is the movie.  Superhero movies are discussed as well as the print versions.  These cheap, easily read books were more, it seems, than meets the eye.  I’ve fallen a little behind in my superhero movies, but perhaps it is time to start trying to catch up with Superman.

What is really striking, to me, is the discussion of super-villains.  As more than one contributor points out, you can’t have a superhero without the nemesis of an arch-criminal.  This quite naturally leads to the discussion of abstracts: good and evil.  Early comics tended to be Manichaean in this regard.  In our world evil may be much more subtle than it appears on the outside. The book appropriately ends with a reflection on morality. More than one ethical system may be found in superhero tales. Super-villains, apart from becoming role models for some political candidates, allow us to explore our own dark sides. In the end, however, we know that Batman must overcome the Joker, no matter how appealing he may be.

Heroic Gestures

It seems like superheroes have been around forever. They are really, however, the product of comic books from the 1930s on. Adapting well to the big screen, a generation of kids is growing up that may have had their first taste of caped crusaders on the silver screen. I haven’t seen Batman V Superman, only the latest of a long string of the recent procession of such movies. Even so, the character of Superman—among the first superheroes—is less than a century old. Since the meme was conceived, however, it has mushroomed out into all kinds of outsiders offering deliverance. Superheroes are clearly about salvation. Even the anti-heroes. Otherwise they’re a hard lot to classify. Some have super powers. Others have only a lot of money and highly honed physical abilities. Or exceptional intelligence. The one thing they all offer is some kind of salvation. You might have to look for it, but it’s there.

Comic books in general, and superheroes in particular, have recently gained academic credibility. The ivory tower is often a location from which to look down on popular culture—the unwashed crowd—and seek more rarified topics of investigation. Superheroes, however, have proven resilient enough to this academic kryptonite to garner some attention. Comic books can be works of art. More than that, if a meme won’t let go, well, that itch should be telling us something. Sociologically, in a world of near constant uncertainty (who’d have guessed Trump would ever be where he is today?) superheroes seem to offer a stability that daily life lacks. Call it escapism, but what is salvation if not a form of escape? Let somebody else don the cowl and take care of the dangers we never even knew existed.

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Like many kids, I grew up making my own comic books. I invented a couple of superheroes that never found any adoring audiences, but the process taught me something. Looking back at those times in my life, they were periods of extreme crisis. My own superheroes were coping mechanisms. We couldn’t afford a lot of comic books, but once I started working, during junior high school, I started buying Doc Savage novels and consuming them like popcorn. I was trying to get through difficult times. I’ve seen editorials suggesting that the era of superhero movies is dwindling. I doubt that it is. They may eventually fade from the silver screen, but they will still lurk in the graphic novels and recesses of the internet. We need our heroes. We need deliverance.

Supergod

ManofSteelThis weekend the most-seen UFO in the skies was the Man of Steel. I didn’t see the new Superman movie, partly because, I suppose, of my own inadequacy issues. Also partly because I’ve always had trouble warming up to Superman. He’s just got too much going for him. Don’t get me wrong—I love heroes. But heroes are vulnerable. In fact, their vulnerability is the key to their strength. Superman, truly threatened only by kryptonite, is maybe just a little too perfect. A little too… messianic? So it would seem, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. According to a post by Eric Marrapodi, Warner Brothers is pushing hard on the Christian imagery of Man of Steel, encouraging church discussion groups, and even providing a study packet of Jesusesque tropes to discuss with the faithful. All this for a hero dreamed up by a couple of Jewish kids in the 1930s.

A telling observation appears somewhere in the middle of the article, where Ted Baehr is quoted as saying “I think it’s a very good thing that Hollywood is paying attention to the Christian marketplace.” Did you catch it? Christian marketplace? No surprises here, really. Christianity has “been good” to many who advocate the prosperity gospel—god wants the good to be rich. And since I haven’t been able to walk through Times Square for two weeks without seeing the Man of Steel, larger than life, flying off of massive billboards into the crowds of tourists and locals, I have no doubt the movie did very well over the weekend. Some may have even had their faith restored. Others will have had their pockets lined.

A few years back I was asked to present a program for adult education for a church in Princeton. They wanted someone to talk about religion and movies, and this is something I’d often addressed in my classes. I selected movies to discuss that were not “religious”—no films premised on religious characters or situations—and had no difficulty filling an hour with example after example. Movie makers have long known the benefits of movies based on Christian concepts. Self-sacrifice, redemption, and resurrection permeate the movie industry. This is a Christian culture. The parallels between Superman and Jesus have long been noted by critics of religious imagery in both films and comic books. And those who make films have also realized that Christianity is more than just a belief system. Indeed, it is a marketplace. And with enough money, even a regular mortal can bend steel.

Holding out for a Hero

Over at Religion Link, a story about superheroes and spirituality was posted recently. I guess it should’ve been clearer to me as a child with his head in the clouds that the superheroes buzzing around up there were really gods. Well, in an ultra-thou-shalt-have-no-other-gods setting, that wasn’t really a possibility my young mind could even comprehend. They were just guys (almost always) with super powers. In the Bible they would have been miracle workers. I dared not think of Samson in the same thought as the Incredible Hulk. Heroes, after all, are about wish-fulfillment. We all want to be more than we are—I can imagine a better me (speaking strictly for myself), so why not present that self in the form of a hero? The Greeks, and before them the Mesopotamians did it. Heracles was a Europeanized Gilgamesh, perhaps through the mediation of a Levantine Melqart, after all.

Gods or heroes?

Gods or heroes?

The brief article on Religion Link points out that young people identify with gods in popular culture more than a God in the pew. A veteran of many, many hours in church, I think I can understand that. What adults say is going on in the service is arcane and not prone to any empirical verification. What child sitting in church hasn’t wanted to be home watching real superheroes fight evil on television instead? The movies of the past decade or so have shown us flawed gods. Heroes with troubles. These are the gods for the twenty-first century. Omnipotence isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

Scholars of religion are beginning to pay serious attention to superheroes. Books are beginning to appear offering analyses of these god-men, and a few god-women, among us. Funnily enough, some people find them more believable than the traditional gods. Perhaps that is the draw of heroes from the very beginning. Gilgamesh, after all, is asking the very human questions we still ask today. Where can I find a true companion? Why can’t it last forever? Why must we die? To find the answer Gilgamesh is sent off on an impossible task. He has fought monsters, he has defied the very gods. And when he finds the plant that offers a kind of immortality, it is stolen away by a snake. The story clearly influenced the tale of Eve and Adam in Eden. It has also inspired the more recent incarnations of superheroes, and we are beginning to realize that they often fly in the face of the divine.