October 2012 – In New Jersey, police arrested Matthew Argintar for disorderly conduct after he was seen at Home Depot dressed in a self-made superhero costume. When asked by police why he was dressed like that, the man replied that he and others had been doing it for months. “We are out there to try and inspire hope because that’s what the people need right now: Hope,” he said.
Why would a man dressed like a superhero inspire hope?
Over the years, superheroes have brought in impressive box office numbers for Hollywood, but this year three such films have been especially lucrative.
According to Box Office Mojo, as of this writing, the worldwide box office total for the latest superhero movies – The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-man and The Dark Knight Rises – was a combined $2,872,129,000. That’s right – nearly three billion dollars since May.
So why would tales about superheroes encourage us to cough up that much dough?
Some of the attraction might simply be that people enjoy action movies with good stories, amazing special effects and great acting.
But maybe there is more to it than that. When there is a declining belief in God, His sovereignty and the power of divine purpose in the world, it might just be that people still cry out for salvation from someone stronger and better than themselves.
After all, someone has to save the day, especially as the depth of our social problems becomes ever clearer and more desperate. Cultural institutions such as government, science and religion – more and more viewed as inept, corrupt, impotent or at best irrelevant – hold no promise as rescuers.
Superheroes are therefore a symbol. They represent a cultural hunger for salvation, even when the people have turned their backs on God.
These characters have powers or abilities the rest of us don’t have, and that gives them the ability to do more. It’s what makes them able to save us when no one else can.
Moreover, they are superheroes because they give sacrificially. In The Dark Knight Rises, for example, Bruce Wayne perseveres through injury and imprisonment for one reason – he must save his beloved Gotham City from the threat of annihilation at the hands of the villain Bane.
Still, these characters are often flawed, like Iron Man’s alter-ego Tony Stark, a narcissistic womanizer. Sometimes they are tormented souls. Scientist Bruce Banner, for example, suffered a laboratory disaster and now is afflicted with a rage he cannot control, becoming the Hulk, a destructive behemoth.
Even when they are not human beings, they often act like us. Thor starts out in the 2011 commercial hit of the same name as an arrogant and ambitious warmonger who dishonors his father. At the end – and in his reappearance in The Avengers – he is humbled and wiser.
Humility, love of fellow man, the impulse toward self-sacrifice – these are admirable qualities to find in the heroic characters of any film.
Yet in admitting that our superheroes also have imperfections and weaknesses, aren’t we risking all on men and women who are flawed like us? This is the hazard of staking all on a salvation without God.
The message of the gospel should be aimed squarely at that lingering doubt, when we leave the theater and realize there are no such things as superheroes; when we walk out into the dark night and understand that institutions such as government, science and religion are the best that we – as broken human beings – can put forth in the face of our desperate troubles.
What Argintar is presumably looking for – and what he thinks others are looking for – is the hope that is found in only one Person.
And to paraphrase a line from The Avengers, He doesn’t wear a mask and a cape.