In 2012 article on this website, "Super Gods," Eric Kuiper offered his thoughts on why superhero films and their protagonists were dominating the box office and attracting the imagination of so many of us. Building upon the thesis of comic book author Grant Morrison, Eric avers that comic book superhero stories and their cinematic adaptations are not only stories of cosmic hope, communal redemption, and personal aspiration to believe in—i.e., our “orthodoxy”—but these characters, at their best, also demonstrate what we could be as individuals and a society, i.e., our “orthopraxy.” Towards the end of his article, Eric begins to asks an intriguing question: What kind of gods, or models, do these films offer us?
Since we can’t consider the whole cinematic canon of the genre, we have to be selective. Considering the films that have been well received by fans and critics alike might be a good place to start. If we begin there, Film scholars (such as John Cawelti, Tom Schatz, and Liam Burke) who focus on Genre studies, would point to the “classical” stage of the genre’s “life cycle” as the place we should look to find films that are critically self-aware and revisionary. Typically, once a genre reaches the “classical” stage, it eventually plateaus both narratively and cinematically. Then we begin to see parodic and satiric films which usher the genre into a stage of decline. With reboots like The Amazing Spider-Man, redundant films like the The Dark Knight Rises, and parodic films like Kick-Ass, we must be somewhere in between the plateau and the initial decline of the genre this year.
So, we should initially consider films like Iron Man, X2: X-Men United, and The Dark Knight, right? After spending some time with The Avengers for a podcast episode with Elijah Davidson, however, I realized that the film did more than simply Hulk-smash box office records and anticipate a slew of more superhero films; it also reenergized the genre’s life cycle by baptizing the “supergods” into the world of its audience. The superhero films before The Avengers invited us to interpret their stories through our experiences and hopes. With The Avengers, we see these characters take on our experiences and share our hopes and fears. Unlike its predecessors, The Avengers doesn’t just provide a way to (re)process 9/11, it is a story of heroines and heroes who suffer a 9/11-esque event. This extension of the “life cycle” ushers us into a new chapter where superheroes enter our world and cultural narratives more explicitly than before, and with this comes more opportunity for the genre to improve cinematically and narratively. So what kind of gods have we been offered since the release of The Avengers and how have filmmakers portrayed these gods to us?
With regard to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, our heroines and heroes’ lives become more fraught and dynamic after the catastrophic event in NYC. Tony Stark struggles with PTSD, Steve Rogers loses his faith in the political structures, Black Widow’s past catches up with her, Asgard is portrayed as another fallible nation with dysfunctional families, not a haven for perfect gods. All of this struggle and dysfunction comes to a climax in Captain America: Civil War with the Avengers divided over political and ethical principles that our country grapples with as well. Marvel and Netflix have given us stories about heroines and heroes who live in communities irrevocably damaged by the “incident” a.k.a. the attack on New York in The Avengers. In Daredevil, Jessica Jones, and Luke Cage, protagonists suffer spiritual angst, shame from sexual abuse, and systemic racism and gang violence; and Marvel has given us morally ambiguous antagonists who evoke our empathy more than fear at times.
With these complex, dynamic narratives we have also seen an overall improvement in the cinematic style in which these stories are portrayed, accentuating the humanity of these heroes and heroines. In CA:CW the third act does not end with a cosmic battle framed in mostly extreme long shots with CGI versions of our heroes fighting faceless CGI minions. Instead the closest of friends have a brutal brawl framed in medium and close-up shots, which occasionally achieve the broader images of comic book aesthetics. In Luke Cage, we are not dependent on the dialogue alone to make us feel like we are living with the black community in Harlem. Its diegetic and non-diegetic music imbue its episodes with Black culture. The vibrant color grading and culturally specific backgrounds contribute to the show’s attempts to root Luke and his friends in a world that is like ours. Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange remind us that spectacle does not have to eclipse a believable story.*
Returning to the central question of this article, “What kinds of gods has the genre been offering us?” it appears that these gods and goddess are more like us. However, I’m not suggesting that these metahumans are, in the end, only human. I’m not suggesting that all we need is orthopraxy. Our heroines and heroes are still super; they have “abilities” as Luke Cage calls them. And while they are super, they are not beyond us. They have identified with us in our struggle and consequently have incorporated us into their triumph. In the last four to five years of the comic book genre, we have seen our heroes undergo an incarnation of sorts. For the Christian faith, the incarnation is the glue that holds our orthodoxy and orthopraxy together, or, better, it is the cornerstone of both. In Jesus of Nazareth, the early Church saw both the face of God (orthodoxy) and the second Adam (orthopraxy), and for centuries Christian communities have strived to maintain and live into this paradox. Hebrews 2. 11, 14, 17-18 articulates this paradox well:
This is because the one who makes people holy and the people who are being made holy all come from one source. That is why Jesus isn't ashamed to call them brothers and sisters . . . Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death-- the devil-- by dying . . . Therefore, he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way. This was so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, in order to wipe away the sins of the people… He's able to help those who are being tempted, since he himself experienced suffering when he was tempted.
I think the continued proliferation and success of the comic book genre is due to the fact that our supergods have been narratively and cinematically incarnated. They are the god-women and god-men, the emmanuelles and emmanuels of our “secular, scientific, rational culture,” to use Grant Morrison’s words. These characters and their stories inspire us to believe in and enact hope, magnanimity, and redemption because they are both like and not like us.
I’m not sure how long the genre can keep revisioning this style of story-telling though. Christian orthodoxy and orthopraxy also have the Resurrection, Ascension, and the Second coming as its cornerstones. Can the comic book genre follow suit? To remain only in the story of the incarnation risks obscuring the transcendent, rendering the superhero story an ironic farce – superheroes who can neither save nor inspire us, i.e., Deadpool. The “Merc with a Mouth” is so rooted in our human brokenness that he is content to remain in it with us. In Deadpool's case, superhero orthopraxy dissipates and orthodoxy is made irrelevant.
*Despite the overall less successful attempts of Fox and Warner Brothers Studios to expand their superhero universes and humanize their heroes, there are still moments in these others films where we see, hear, and feel that our superheroes can identify with our human struggles and triumphs, not least with regard to the problem of Evil and the search for Goodness in Batman V Superman.
Chris Lopez is a masters of divinity student at Fuller Theological Seminary with an emphasis in Theology and the Arts, primarily focused on film and comic books. After finishing his degree at Fuller, he hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in Cinema and Media studies. He is co-authoring a graphic novel in addition to studying the comic book aesthetic. When not pursuing his own creative interests, he prefers to take on a pastoral role in encouraging his wife (a local actress) and his other creative friends to hone their craft and flourish as artists.