Of the 50 top-grossing movies of the past 20 years, 48 can be classified under the fantasy or animated genres. Most of these movies are about people who can be considered superhuman or at least super-heroic (Spiderman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Batman, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.). Or look at many of the popular movies of the past few summers – knowledge of the comic world is indispensable to keep up with all the heroes who are making their movie debuts (Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, Iron Man, Superman).
So why am I calling attention to this trend in pop culture? What does it matter that people are interested in superheroes, in the supernatural? I think this interest expresses humanity’s inborn desire for God. We want something more than this world. We desire virtue. We desire the heroic.
Superheroes seem to be one of the few areas of culture where virtue is still seen as something desirable. When the hero refuses to act virtuously, he denies what it means to be a hero. Heroes have to make sacrifices to be worthy of the powers they possess. They have to think of others before themselves. They must strive for justice. And, ultimately, they need to learn how to love in order to be effective. Those with superpowers or heightened abilities who are not virtuous have a different name: villains.
The popularity of superheroes reflects the yearning of the human heart for the transcendent Good, the transcendent God. We want more than the banality that secularism sets before us as the end of human life. We are created for more!
The Church has seen this truth in action throughout its history. The institutes of religious life best reflect this desire for radical and heroic goodness. The desert fathers and other hermits are the equivalent of supermen with their heroic fasting, vigils, and other ascetic practices; just as the cenobites, or monks, are with their radical self-giving through communal prayer and work; or the mendicants with their itinerant poverty and proclamation of the Good News; or the apostolic congregations with their missionary zeal.
Religious life, the life of the Church in general, thrives when its members are truly striving to live a supernatural life, a heroic life. In such a life, virtue is as attractive and integral to what it means to be a person as it is for superheroes. In fact, it should be more obvious and necessary than in the culture of superheroes, because the power of God Himself is with us, not just some glowing ring or magic hammer.
The life of grace, the true supernatural life, is what we yearn for: a life lived in and with God as an offering for others. We want a life where we take our place in the Crucified Christ and seek mercy for the world, where we beg the world to come back to Him who loves us, where we show the world the goodness and mercy of our God. If this is not heroism, what is?
Image: Bernardino Parenzano, Temptation of Saint Anthony