Captain Marvel is well on her way to becoming one of the most successful superhero films of all time (at least concerning box office gross earnings). Her film debuts as the 21st feature film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (yes 21 films all set in the same story line – with at least 8 more that have yet to be released).
With this film doing well coming off the heals of Aquaman being released a few months ago, with Shazam about to be released, and with Avengers: End Game on the way, it is still worth talking about why there is such a fascination with super hero movies.
In recent times it has been shown that people love heroes who are a mix of different ethnicity and without regard to being a specific gender (this is seen in how well Black Panther and Wonder Woman performed).
Our fascination with super heroes really began with the creation of Superman back in the mid 1930s. He was developed by two Jewish writings who were attempting to create someone with messianic qualities to provide hope for people living in persecution. Clearly they succeeded.
Both Superman and Batman saw their first serial releases to film in the 1940s. Since the 1960s, super hero shows and films have been a staple in Hollywood, but it was not until the early 2000s that they became viewed as something serious.
When M. Knight Shyamalan filmed “Unbreakable,” he intended for that to be a type of super hero movie. He was specifically asked not to call it that because of the negative stigma associated with those kinds of films–namely the campy, goofy, unrealistic, nature of the genre. One such movie that pokes fun of itself and all other super hero movies is Mystery Men.
However, it was around that time that the X-Men and Christopher Nolan Batman films began to gain some traction. By the time the Marvel Cinematic Universe came debuted studios were spending an inordinate amount of money funding these films with all their special effects, etc. This has also lead to much more scrutiny of films. We see people being overly critical of the genre, but despite critics, large profits tend to be made on most of the films. The studios seem to be justified in their expenses because returns on investment are like nothing before seen in Hollywood.
This is what leads us to ask why people love these kinds of movies so much.
I propose three major reasons why we love super hero films:
We love seeing people who have personal struggles, but who look beyond themselves to do what is best for all those around them. We like seeing people making choices for the greater good. We like seeing people sacrifice themselves for others. We would like to think that we would do the same thing if we had the opportunity. People are programmed to love the good. Because our heroes have flaws, we also find them somewhat relatable. We can see part of ourselves in the characters an we can see better versions of ourselves in them as well.
We have an innate desire to be more than we are. Humans are frail, life is a vapor, and we are finite. We desire the infinite-we desire the eternal. Heroes point towards the eternal. Ultimately we desire to be better because God designed us to desire to be like Christ.
We like to see justice, redemption, salvation, and judgment. In super hero films we find evil being vanquished, we find justice for those who suffer, we find salvation for our heroes, we find redemption for those who are given a second chance. In essence, people love the Gospel. They desire to see wrong made right. They desire to see an end to suffering. They desire to see the wicked brought to justice. Etc. (Sure, some people don’t accept the Gospel because it requires them to change how they live since it entails accountability, but the idea of what the Gospel brings – life to the fullest – is in fact a desirable thing).
Next time you watch a super hero film, think about how the characters struggle. Think about how you relate to their issues. Think about what they rise above. Think about how they learn and become better. Think about what they sacrifice. Think about how wrongs are made right. Think about how the story points to the Gospel and to the God who will one day make all things right because of the Sacrifice his Son made 2,000 years ago.
Dr. Scott Shiffer has a Ph.D. in Christian Theology from the B.H. Carroll Theological Institute and has been teaching religion classes since 2006. He leads Transformation Media Ministries, an organization to help believers think biblically about culture in America. Scott has given numerous presentations including one at Oxford. He has spoken at church retreats, youth retreats, conferences, and has taught discipleship classes for over 10 years. Scott is married and has three children. He has a heart for helping believers draw closer to God and for aiding them as they are faced with new challenges in America every day.