So you can imagine being the movie addict that I am, how much I truly love watching superhero movies. I've seen good (The Dark Knight), the bad (The Punisher) and the Ugly (Swamp Thing). But I have to say that I love most of them. I even defend the ones that others detest. I still think Ben Affleck's Daredevil is way underrated and Ryan Reynolds Green Lantern was a great deal of fun.
But I have noticed a shift in the superhero films that I did not realize had become pervasive until recently: the Jesus factor.
I am not saying that superhero movies are religious in nature or have a secret religious message. But once you look for it, you can see it very clearly. And this is a fairly recent trend in comic book movies. Yes, there are Christ-like similarities to the original Superman (the Only Son comes from on high to save us). But the key is how the hero engages in their own version of the Paschal Mystery.
The Paschal Mystery is the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It is the central event in the life of Christ and reveals His true nature to us all. Jesus takes up the cross despite His anxieties and fears and He willingly lays down His life for us.
(Apologies in advance, but I cannot continue the discussion without MAJOR SPOILERS to many super hero stories).
And this is what I have seen in many comic book films of the last decade or so. And it is something that is fairly new. In the original Superman, he does sacrifice, but never to the point of giving up his life. And even when he lose the woman he loves, he miraculously brings her back from the dead. Yet in the character's last outing, the flawed but earnest Superman Returns, he caries the weight of evil on his back and takes it away from the world. The process nearly kills him. He even falls to earth, arms spread like a cross. That exact same pose is also found in Spider-Man 2, where our hero is "crucified" to the runaway train and resists to the point of near dying.
Tim Burton's Batman never goes to a place where can sacrificing his life. He is a killer. He seeks vengeance against he one who killed his parents. Notice the difference between Burton's Batman and Nolan's Batman regarding their last moment with the Joker. Burton's Batman uses his grapple to latch onto the Joker's leg so that he can kill him. Nolan's Batman uses his grapple to latch onto the Joker's leg to save him. Even in his darkest moment, Nolan's Batman has compassion for his enemies, just as Jesus did on the cross.
And Nolan's Batman offers himself to become a scapegoat. Look to the words of Isaiah's suffering servant passage:
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
This is one of the great foreshadowings of Jesus. But it also aptly describes what Batman does at the end of The Dark Knight. He takes upon the sins of Harvey Dent in order to heal his city. The analogy is not perfect, since this burden he takes is predicated on a lie. This is why the truth has to come out in The Dark Knight Rises and everyone suffers for that lie. But Bruce continues to fight. Selena begs him to leave with her in safety. "You don't owe these people. You've already given them everything," she says.
He responds: "Not everything. Not yet."
Batman is willing to die so that others may live.
Over in the Marvel Movie Universe, the trend is the same. Thor only becomes worthy of his godhood when he offers his life to his brother for the sake of the innocent people in the town. He can only become a true hero after he dies.
Captain America has that heroic instinct from the beginning throwing himself on a grenade he thinks is live. But in the end, he has to make that choice for real as he says goodbye to the love of his life while crashing his plane into the icy wastes.
Iron Man is confronted with this when Cap says to him, "Your not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire for another." But when the time came, Iron Man took up the one way trip to save the city from death.
These acts of sacrifice aren't just another part of the heroes journey. It's what makes them heroes.
And while I don't think this is a conscious effort on the part of the screenwriters to infuse Christian theology into their movies, I do think there is a reason for this trend. We live in a world starving for heroes. We want people we can look up to. To many of our real life heroes let us down. When we found out that Lance Armstrong was doping, many of us asked "How could he?" What we were really asking was "How could he be so selfish?" Selfishness is not what makes a hero.
And this world tries to compartmentalize and segregate our religious faith from our every day life. It tries to ban religion from the public forum and polite conversation. But when we take out the model of manhood that is Jesus, it leaves a vacuum. We try to fill that vacuum with other types of idols: pleasure, money, technology, but they don't fit.
But when these new hero movies come along, it resonates. It is like the faded music of dream from our childhood. It strikes that deep chord of truth because beneath the capes and costumes is the echoing memory of Christ.