During the height of the New Atheism shout contest Richard Dawkins used to quip that Christianity had reduced the number of gods from hundreds down to one, and he all he wanted to do was go one god further. However, it seems that the current spate of superhero films reveals a hankering to reverse that trend. The same instincts that gave humanity Zeus, Poseidon, Hermes and Pluto, are the same instincts that give us Hulk, Batman, Superman, Antman, Wonder Woman, Black Widow and Black Panther.
Part of this is the hankering for a decent story.
By this view, the world (or let’s use the word ‘universe’ so beloved of the genre) of monotheism is too sterile, too virtuous, too consistent to permit any good stories. However with a pantheon of heroes you can have capricious gods, amoral gods, vengeful gods, strong gods; bound by a noble sense of duty and justice, eager to wreck vengeance on behalf of deceased family members (usually a parent). You can get them attacking each other, finding out if there is anyway that Batman would have a chance against Superman, or if Spiderman’s web was stronger than Captain America’s shield.
But the other thing behind this Superhero thing is the whole essence of what it is to be a hero. Because Jesus is too weak, too sensitive to really save the world.
These superheroes do look a little like Jesus – superpowers, somehow aloof from the world, brought up by parents who weren’t quite his own, hints of a secretly identity. But they are tellingly different. Particularly in the dreadful Superman vs Batman movie – where the two central characters seem utterly burdened with their sense of importance, motivated to huge acts of violence through duty or revenge, willing to ascribe the worst motives to each other without the hint of wanting to make sure of the facts, and ridiculously deciding to befriend each other after discovering their mother’s shared the same name. There is a temptation to believe that Jesus was a bit like that – permanently doleful and portentous, overwhelmed by the importance of his vision, isolate through the way his super powers separate him from those around him, unbothered by the trivial (especially guilty is Batman who has a mansion and butler to take care of all that stuff), in a contest of strength to get the bad guys. This false Jesus was the Jesus of the Gnostics – an early sect whose Jesus was this distant magical figure; the Jesus that some critics find in John’s gospel (the German scholar Kasemann who wrote of “God striding the face of the earth” – in a famous discussion on John 1:14 with his counterpart Bultmannn, he emphasised the “we have seen his GLORY” bit of the verse, whereas Bultmannn was keener to emphasise “the Word became FLESH”). This is the Jesus of the films – think of deeply dull Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth, Max Von Sydow in the The Greatest Story Ever Told, or Jim Caviezel in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of The Christ”.
This is in some ways how we want our gods, our heroes, our Jesus to be. We want them to be other than us, so they can fix our problems but not necessarily fix us, so that we in a curiously passive way can let them do the work, and also they confirm what we fear about our ordinary lives – that there is little of worth in them, that our own story is quaint and worthy but of no real interest to the bigger gods. And this is a God who promises us little in the way of transformation, because unless we were born on Krypton or have access to the resources of Tony Stark or the misfortune to be bitten by a radioactive spider, we can never be like them.
These are also gods without grace, and increasingly without any moral code other than a warped sense of honour, or a hatred of the bad guys (and the bad guys in these stories are irredeemably bad, their tortured past a back story but rarely an excuse, and not something shared with the ordinary ‘decent’ folks). “Justice League” and “Avengers” gives the game away when it comes to motivation. I loved the ending of the far superior “Captain America: Civil War” because it contained a rare moment of gentleness and grace – when one of the heroes decides there comes a point when you need to forgive. Too often this is missing – it’s guys (in the words of my daughter) “getting madder and madder and wanting to kill each other”.
These stories do reveal the genius of the actual Jesus by the contrast. He just wasn’t like this: the way he wrong foots us with his humanity – his love of the mundane, his gentle use of his powers, his willingness to die a slave’s death with the continued potential for anonymity. He didn’t run into a phone box to become powerful, he was powerfully gentle as he was. And these films also reveal the genius of the canonical gospels (“Canon” is another interesting concept that comic devotees have borrowed from the scriptures) – because they didn’t turn Jesus into Superman, they told us that we are saved by someone who looked a lot more like Clerk Kent. We can actually become like this authentic Jesus, not by being a hero, but by becoming something far more fragile and flawed, by becoming a saint.