On May 4, the groundwork laid by half a dozen previous movies will culminate when The Avengers hits the multiplexes, and Iron Man, Thor, The Hulk, Captain America, Loki and others assemble for what’s being trumpeted as the greatest superhero film of all time. For dyed-in-the-tights superhero fanatics, one movie with all those personalities is no small cinematic event.
(Listen to the episode of The Sun Also Rises about this topic.)
Since the year 2000, a hulking 50 big-budget superhero movies have been released at the box office. There were also 30 major vampire movies, eight Harry Potter films, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, two Star Wars films, and two Matrix movies. All together, that makes almost 100 big-budget movies featuring characters with various superhuman abilities, released just since 2000—from an industry that releases only 50 or fewer big-budget movies per year. And they are consistently among the highest grossing movies.
Superheroes have taken charge of the theaters; vampires, like Star Trek’s Tribble creatures, are multiplying so quickly they threaten to overwhelm the whole enterprise. And a glance at bookstores, tv shows, magazines and video games reveals that the trend spills over the cinema’s banks to saturate the floodplains of the entire entertainment industry.
So, what is it about these creations that makes consumers want to put on a brightly colored leotard and yell “Flame on!”? Why are they so massively popular?
The common thread is that these characters all possess superhuman abilities. Common powers include telekinesis, super strength, invisibility, esp, weather manipulation, astounding speed, teleportation, immortality, x-ray vision, elasticity, telepathy, power to regenerate or resurrect, kinetic energy manipulation and, of course, the ability to fly. Even the few superheroes that are technically just human (Batman, Iron Man, Sherlock Holmes, etc.) are larger than life and display superhuman traits—astounding fortitude and martial skills, bewildering intelligence, apparently divine protection, and advanced technology that differs from magic simply because the author says so. Despite the absence of radioactive spider venom or super-soldier serum coursing through their veins, these “real world” characters consistently perform at a level far beyond the ability of even the most testosterone-fueled and brilliant real-life man, so they are superheroes.
Cineplex = Our Modern Campfire
Turning these larger-than-life characters into hyperrealistic, special-effects-laden blockbuster movies is a relatively recent trend. But mankind’s fascination with superbeings is an ancient and ubiquitous idea that has left a herculean footprint on nearly every culture since Eden.
After all, how is the Marvel Comics universe different from the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses? What fundamental disparities lie between DC’s heroes and the beings of Roman, Mesopotamian or Norse mythologies? It’s actually common for modern comic authors to lift characters directly from the pantheons of ancient cultures—Thor, Loki, Hercules, etc. Sometimes the personalities they create are based heavily on famous ancient deities: Wonder Woman on Athena, or The Flash on Hermes, for example. The archetypical sky-god, Superman, is an amalgam of powerful warriors like Zeus, Hercules and Achilles.
Though comic books have only been around since The Adventures of Obadiah Oldbuck was printed in 1842, the type of superhuman characters they feature have roamed the scene since time immemorial. The second-oldest work of literature known to mankind is the Legend of Etana (dating to 2,600 b.c.), which details the heroics of a Sumerian king who “ascended to heaven and consolidated all the foreign countries,” and who ruled for 1,560 years. Sound like an ordinary man? One of the next-earliest surviving documents is the Epic of Gilgamesh, still widely read today, which recounts the adventures of the king of Urak, who met every modern criterion of the superhero. Part god and part man? Check. Strong enough to move mountains? Sure was. Able to swim to the deepest part of the ocean and back to the surface with a single breath? No problem. And Gilgamesh was also pitted against a superhuman arch nemesis, at least until the two reconciled their differences, became comrades, and teamed up to carouse and slay demigods. The plotline would hold up against any modern X-Men movie.
Other early “superhero” folklore accounts include ancient Egypt’s Tale of Sinuhe, the Babylonians’ EnûmaEliš, India’s epics about Krishna, China’s What Confucius Didn’t Speak Of, the Japanese Nihon Shoki, the Anglo-Saxons’ epic poem about superhuman Beowulf—and the list goes “to infinity and beyond!”
As soon as a society would outgrow its fascination with its pantheon of mountaintop-dwelling sociopaths who toy with people for fun, it would reinvent those superbeings in new forms. In the West, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table came to fill the superhero’s role, before handing the baton off to explorer legends and Musketeers, who then passed it along to supercowboys and Tall Tale heroes. During the interval between gods and superheroes, Eastern culture invented Samurai and Ninja myths in which heroes could control weather, walk on water, become invisible and so on. A set of gods or heroes may be slain by the capricious kryptonite of pop cultural fads, but, like a phoenix rising from the ashes of its old self, the idea of superhuman characters is reborn and recreated again and again.
Why So Universal?
Why is the fascination with immortality and superhuman ability so universal? It seems that people through the ages and across the globe have wished to break free of the limits of our human existence. Some of that reflects a simple desire to escape from the challenges that ordinary mortal life brings. But in many cases there may be more behind it.
King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “has put eternity into man’s heart” (English Standard Version).
About this verse, Barnes’ Notes on the Bible says, “God has placed in the inborn constitution of man the capability of conceiving of eternity, the struggle to apprehend the everlasting ….” Our Creator planted within us a longing for something beyond ourselves, something transcendent—something superhuman. This yearning is actually a longing for God, and a desire to realize our potential with Him. And the human potential is truly incredible.
At present, we are mere men and women—mortal, physical, earthbound, and sustained for a few decades by food, water and the air we breathe. We can’t pick up objects with mindpower, though few are the Star Wars fans who have not tried. Yet our hearts are “filled with eternity”—a longing to be exceptional, immortal and superhuman—but our bodies are bound by reality. Superhero tales, in a sense, attempt to peer into the great gulf between the two.
In Hebrews 2:7, Paul explains this massive gulf between man’s current state and our incredible potential: God created man to be “for a little while lower than the angels” and “crowned him with glory and honor, and appointed him over the works of [God’s] hands” (New American Standard). In verse 8, Paul continues, saying God has “put everything in subjection under [mankind’s] feet. For this subjecting of the universe to man implies the leaving nothing not subject to him“ (Weymouth New Testament).
Can you grasp that mind-boggling truth? God created men to start off as physical beings—less powerful than the angels. But we are to be in this physical state only “for a little while.” Our long-term, eternal purpose is to be born into His Family, to become more powerful than angels—one day to rule over the entire, infinite universe!
That breathtaking future, however, is reserved for born sons of God. Man is not yet born into God’s Family, as Paul explains in the next sentence: “But we do not as yet [in our present physical, mortal state] see the universe subject to [men].”
This truth has vexed many who have heard it. The Jews of Christ’s day were irate when Jesus said He was the Son of God. Christ answered their wrath by quoting a passage from Psalm 82, which the Jews would have been well acquainted with: “Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?” (John 10:34). Trumpet editor in chief Gerald Flurry wrote about this landmark scripture, saying, “Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh—said, Why are you so upset when I tell you that I am the Son of God? Look—it’s right there in your own Bible that you are Gods! You all have the potential to be God—with a capital ‘G’!” (John’s Gospel: The Love of God; request your free copy).
The Apostle John got specific about this transcendent human potential: “It doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that, when [Christ] shall appear [at His Second Coming to Earth], we shall be like Him …” (1 John 3:2). We will look like the glorified, eternal, spirit Being, Jesus Christ!
What does the glorified Christ look like? His eyes blaze like flames of fire. His feet glow like brass in the refiner’s fire. His face shines like the sun in full strength—so brilliant it would blind a man’s eyes and kill him if he looked upon it (Revelation 1:14-16; 19:12-13; Matthew 17:2; Exodus 33:20). God is infinitely more powerful than any fantasy creation from the imagination of men! And He has perfect godly character instead of the deeply flawed, human character these fictional personalities are governed by.
If and when we are finally born into God’s eternal Family, we will have God’s glorious appearance and power, and also His perfect character.
Part of the reason cultures of the world continuously create superheroes springs from the longing for eternity God planted in man’s heart—a capacity to ponder the infinite and superhuman. But of course, fantasy characters are missing the key dimension of character. The adolescent fascination with fantasy tends to focus on the power while overlooking the perfect, righteous and godly character that God requires an individual to develop before He will give that power. Every man has the dazzling potential to be born into the God Family—to become a God who rules the universe with ineffable power for eternity. But to do so, we must strive to develop perfect, godly character.
Consider skipping the fantasy world of The Avengers, and instead set your heart on the reality of your true potential! That potential is infinitely beyond anything that can spring from a man’s imagination. Remember that “Ye are Gods”!