When superheroes aren’t so super

My family watches a lot of superhero TV shows and movies. Just about every Marvel and DC release is consumed with relish, even the schlocky ones.

We need heroes. They embody our desires for ourselves. And our superheroes are the same. They are extensions of ourselves, magnified many times over.

For many years, they have been images of the best in humanity as they confront the worst in humanity, embodied in super-villains. But more recently, the line between hero and villain has been erased bit by bit. My 14-year-old son and I were talking about this and especially with the popularity of the movie Deadpool among his friends. Ever since, he’s been urging me to write about it.

Deadpool is anti-heroic protagonist who uses his powers for revenge and not for justice only, which my son found disturbing. But the things is that a villainous hero like Deadpool didn’t just show up overnight. The loss of innocence in our superheroes has been a gradual descent.

Frank Miller’s 1986 reboot of the Batman mythos in The Dark Knight Returns gave us a broken Bruce Wayne. Descending into an alcoholic stupor and retirement from do-gooding after a tragedy I won’t spoil, he only takes up his cowl and stealthy identity again a decade later. But this time with a harsher and much darker edge.

There’s a realism to this shift that is welcome.

As the brilliant Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote in The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”

Yes, the line dividing good and evil does cut through every human heart. The reflection on this in the American psyche truly began when we started to take seriously our role in the Vietnam war. With World War II, we considered ourselves the heroes and great liberators of the world. But with Vietnam, we found ourselves complicit with all kinds of evil, even as we sought to be liberators yet again. And so, as we rehashed that doomed war in a list of movies from Apocalypse Now to Platoon and others, we lost our sense of self-proclaimed heroism.

And our superheroes suffered, as our national identity crisis has increased. In our post-9/11 world, we’ve discovered that we were masters of self-deception, talking ourselves into believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction so that we could justify a vengeful invasion that really had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks at all. And as we watch the rise of not just ISIS, but of other forms of regional and Islamic hatred toward the United States, we find ourselves complicit. We are hated, because we’ve done hateful things.

We aren’t the heroes we thought we were. The slip of our superheroes from moral giants to amoral dealers in revenge echoes our national lostness.

Showing this to ourselves is the role of the arts. The arts don’t often lead the way in shaping who we are. More often, they show us a window into what we have become. They are reflections on the state of our souls.

So, I do not blame the creators of Deadpool for giving us an amoral anti-hero, just like I don’t blame Quentin Tarantino for his revenge-themed movies. They aren’t making us into amoral creatures. They are merely giving us a mirror to show us what we’ve already become.

But I do blame our artists for giving up hope, for not giving us a new imagination for what the good, the true, and the beautiful look like in the face of what’s wrong in the world and in us. The Lord of the Rings movies did that in a way, but they were so over-shadowed by 9/11 and the war in Iraq that Tolkien’s Scripture-soaked imagination hasn’t had the impact it could have had.

And so, I look to the Scriptures themselves to provide that imagination.

Walter Brueggemann refers to a biblical imagination as one of hopeful realism. Its realism is grounded in human sinfulness, and its hope is grounded in God’s gracious presence and relentless pursuit of redemption. And so we read the Scriptures and find not a single hero in its pages other than God himself. We aren’t so super, but God is and, like the best of our superheroes, he has bent his will toward saving us.

It is only through this kind of imagination that we enabled to set aside our cynicism, find our place in the world, and believe in the reality of goodness, truth, and beauty. And in a day when Deadpool fills the imagination of my son’s peers, I want him to have an imagination for something much, much better.