“Thor: Ragnarok” is the sixteenth movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and “Justice League” is expected to take over $110 million at the box office on opening weekend. Counting from “Iron Man” (2008) and “Man of Steel” (2013), Marvel and DC Comics have raked in over $15 billion just at the box office, and the superhero train shows no signs of slowing down. Why do Americans (and indeed a global audience) show this much appetite for superhero movies?
The action, banter, character development, and villains go a long way toward explaining this success. Even so, Ben Affleck, who plays Bruce Wayne/Batman in “Justice League,” suggested a psychological — and perhaps even spiritual — reason.
“We certainly are in need of heroes in 2017,” Affleck told USA Today. “There’s a lot of stuff going on in the world, from natural to man-made disasters, and it’s really scary. Part of the appeal of this genre is wish fulfillment: Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somebody who can save us from all this, save us from ourselves, save us from the consequences of our actions and save us from people who are evil?”
Affleck, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, likely meant to lament the presidency of Donald Trump. Even so, people across the political spectrum can admit that this year hasn’t been the most heartening. In the past year, devastating hurricanes ravaged Texas and Puerto Rico, a church shooter killed 26 people, a deranged man shot up a congressional baseball practice, and a man whose motive remains unclear carried out the worst mass shooting in U.S. history.
In the midst of tragedy, political polarization, and murder, people everywhere want to look to the sky for hope — and Superman, the Avengers, the X-Men, and many others have temporarily filled that gap in their hearts.
Any Christian listening to Affleck’s lament can immediately pinpoint the source of the hope he’s looking for — and the ultimate answer isn’t fictional.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somebody who can save us from all this, save us from ourselves, save us from the consequences of our actions and save us from people who are evil?” Affleck asked. Who fits that job description?
The evil in the world is no surprise to Christians. The Bible teaches that all men and women have fallen short of the glory of God, but it goes further than that. According to Romans 1, humanity rejected God, turned to worship the creation (including the internal self) rather than the Creator, and “they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.”
Jesus gave His disciples the Golden Rule: “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matthew 7:12). It sounds simple enough, and nearly everyone agrees this is a basic moral principle. Even so, people distrust one another. Nation quarrels with nation, classes fight within nations, party rises against party, and even families are torn apart by selfish rivalries.
If everyone treated everyone else the way they would want to be treated, then war, prostitution, human trafficking, abortion, hateful political rhetoric, murder, theft, sexual assault — all these things would disappear. But people don’t follow Jesus’s commandment, even though they know it’s right.
As Ben Affleck said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if there was somebody who could save us from ourselves … from the consequences of our actions?”
Even without the Bible’s constant refrain that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), people instinctively know that if they give free rein to their selfish desires, they will hurt other people — and if everyone else did that to them, they too would be harmed. All humanity believes in the Golden Rule, but all humanity lives by the rule of dross, “looking out for number one.”
The good news of Christianity is that there is a cosmic superhero. Fallen humans cannot save themselves, and so they need a savior from above — someone more than human, someone truly “super.”Jesus is that superhero. Sure, he doesn’t dress in a cape, say a silly slogan, or fight this particular bad guy. In fact, from the ultimate superhero’s perspective, each fallen human being is the bad guy.
Jesus is like Batman, Superman, or Captain America, but instead of saving the innocent and catching the bad guy, He is the innocent and He saves the bad guy.
How else could a fully righteous being save people who hate one another? Republican and Democrat, secular and Christian, pro-Trump and anti-Trump, Americans have grown to fear, distrust, and even loathe one another.
Indeed, three-in-ten nonbelievers fear conservative Christians are a treat to their physical safety. Evangelical Christians noted that they fear Muslims and atheists in the same way. Is this culture of fear and mistrust what Jesus called for when He said to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44)?
Affleck is right — Americans (and humans in general) don’t just need a superhero to save them, they need a superhero to save them from themselves.
This is exactly what Jesus does, according to the Bible. The marks of a true Christian are humility (knowing that he is a sinner in God’s eyes), gratitude (knowing Jesus died on the cross to save him), and love (showing the same love for others that Jesus showed for him).
Jesus told His disciples, “For whoever would save his life [psyche, also a word for ‘soul’] will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and for the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Fallen men and women cannot love one another as they love themselves without the help of God. According to the Bible, this is the explanation behind murder, sexual assault, lying, and all other evils people unleash on one another.
But the Bible also makes a great promise. Jesus Christ didn’t just die on the cross and rise again so that people could go to heaven. He did it to fundamentally transform their hearts.
According to the gospel of John, those who believe in Jesus become children of God (John 1:12-13). This is not just lip service, but a full character transition. “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh,” (Ezekiel 36:26). The Holy Spirit, who dwells in the hearts of every Christian, fulfills this prophecy.
Christianity is not just about enabling sinful people to be forgiven by God and go to heaven — it is also about putting God and heaven into the hearts of wicked people. Every Christian is a sinner, but the closer each one comes to loving God, to memorizing the Bible and allowing it to transform the minds (Romans 12:2), the more God will enable him or her to love others.
This does not mean Christians must form a heaven on earth. No human social system can cure the evil in the hearts of selfish men and women. However, every heart truly enlivened by the love of God must bring one drop of heaven into this world.
Christians should take Affleck’s words as a challenge. Ben Affleck feels the deep need for God, and he points to superhero films as an entertaining answer. The more Christians live the life of love God calls them to live, the more people like Affleck will see Jesus’ answer to the world’s aching need.
Just like Superman, Batman, and the Avengers, God loved the world enough to save it — and He was willing to sacrifice His own life to transform the villains into heroes.