Meet the Superhero

Meet the Superhero

You’re closer to a superhero than you think.

Cultural pundits and critics are waxing philosophical over the superhero genre, engaging in heavy thinking about its influence in movies and novels. I decided to explore the issue after my recent novel The Occupied was published and Foreword Review called it “Half modern crime drama, half Christian superhero origin story,” In retrospect, I can see the connection: a broken, down-and-out trial lawyer at the end of his rope whose leap-of-faith brings him a “gift” that feels, at least initially, more like a curse – the power to perceive and then do battle with a dark, supernatural empire.

The reason for the popularity of the superhero theme is debatable. One English professor has concluded that superhero stories get traction because they “satisfy a secret craving for authoritarianism in liberal democratic society.” Interesting, but unpersuasive. I say, forget the Nazi superman myth and Nietzschian übermensch comparisons, because, after all, when you look at characters like Batman, Tony Stark a/k/a Iron Man, and DeadPool, just to name a few, you see that they operate outside the traditional structures of law, order, and government. Even Superman, the guy I grew up with, skates on the very outer edges of conventional legal authority.

Smithsonian Magazine’s Robin Rosenberg, a psychologist, talks about two appealing theories for all of this: One from a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly who suggests that we like “superhero origin stories” because it gives us the chance to identify, in a fanciful way, with that moment when an ordinary human suddenly discovers super human abilities; Rosenberg, on the other hand, believes it’s all about that inner urge we have to be a hero in a troubled world.

But I have my own theory. According to Pew Research, spirituality is on the rise, even among those who consider themselves “atheists.” There is a spiritual longing that is inherent in the human heart. I think that even as we experience the natural order, the world of physical nature – there is a distant echo that reminds us, if we’re listening, that beyond what we perceive in our daily activities – the taste of coffee in the morning, the touch of a loved one, the street sounds and honking cars, and the three dimensional sights of regular life – there is an extraordinary world of super-nature, just beyond our fingertips.

And if there is super-nature, then there can be a superhero. Think about the elements of the superhero archetype. That myth we read about, or see in movies, is usually anchored in personal loss to the hero; a great suffering, brokenness or alienation. Also, there’s some form of supernatural (or at least, superhuman) power, that in the end is used for justice, rectification, or even redemption, and most salient of all and as a product of that struggle, is focused on the betterment – or the rescue – of others. JRR Tolkien, creator of The Lord of the Rings mega-myth, wrote intriguing about this in his essay On Fairy-Stories. “The Gospels,” he said, embody the hallmarks of great mythic stories, but with one astounding exception: “the story has entered History and the primary world.” It is the grandest superhero story, come to life. Equally profound, it invites us to personally encounter not just a superhero, but a hero of divine perfection who beckons us to participate in, and carry-on, his sacrificial heroism and his power. The Christ story, Tolkien said, “is supreme, and it is true.” Sounds audacious? Of course. But then, what else would you expect from a Deliverer, Redeemer and King, whose origin can be traced to the eternal realm of super-nature?



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