In the movie The Avengers, Captain America is about to jump out of a plane to interfere in a fight between Thor and Loki. The Black Widow tries to stop him, saying, “These guys come from legend. They’re basically gods.” In one of the many clever lines in the script, Cap replies, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn't dress like that.”
In the past few years, movie audiences have rediscovered the superhero genre. Marvel- and DC-based films have raked in a combined $8.3 billion at the box office, in addition to rising sales of comics and superhero merchandise such as T-shirts—not to mention the new mainstream popularity of fan expos like Comic Con, at which people dress up as their favorite heroes. (Full disclosure: I’ve attended a Comic Con dressed as Joss Whedon’s “Captain Hammer,” a fact my 9-year-old son finds “totally embarrassing, Dad.”)
There has been a lot of speculation about what’s behind the current popularity of superheroes. Some point to the rise of “geek” culture celebrated in television shows like “Big Bang Theory.” Others see darker forces at work.
The 2011 documentary The Replacement gODS by Scott Mayer describes the genre as a direct attack on Christianity. In the film, Mayer suggests that artists, authors, and studio executives have been conspiring to replace traditional worship with superhero worship, undermining faith as a result.
While some may see the superhero phenomenon as the work of spiritual forces, others see market forces at work. Historians point out that the first wave of superhero popularity occurred during World War II, the second during the tumult of the 1960s, and the third during the late Cold War 1980s. In a recent PBS special, Michael Kantor points out that a faltering economy and concern about America’s declining influence in the world is probably behind this latest wave.
It seems clear that when times get tough, people look for symbols of hope. So, while it might be tempting to attack the icon of the superhero, that’s a bit like shooting the (caped) messenger of a deeper, more profound cultural anxiety. Perhaps it is that deeper problem that Christians should seek to address.