Spider-Man 2, which opens this week, is just the latest comic book story to hit your local cineplex.
Comic book movies seem to be the hot ticket these days. In the last couple of years we've seen X-Men and The Hulk, Daredevil and Spider-Man, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hellboy and The Punisher, to name a few. It's Spidey 2 this week, and Catwoman later this summer. On the drawing board—no pun intended—are The Fantastic Four, The Green Hornet, Green Lantern, The Flash, Superman, Supergirl, Wonder Woman and a handful of sequels—Spidey 3, Daredevil 2, X-Men 3. And the list keeps growing.
Why this sudden passion for comic book movies? Why are films about mutants, giant green behemoths and dark avengers suddenly as hot as the Human Torch?
The easy answer would be to say it's because now—with the advancement of computer graphic imaging (CGI) technology—we can finally do them right. And there's a lot to that argument. Remember all the hype surrounding 1978's Superman: The Motion Picture? "You will believe a man can fly." That movie broke box office records partly because after years of watching pudgy George Reeves pretend to whoosh over a grainy Metropolis, people couldn't wait to see Christopher Reeve accomplishing the real thing. And he did.
Now, a quarter of a century later, Hollywood's mantra is that all things are possible with CGI … and a lot of money. And the results can be jaw-dropping. Who could have predicted that the most fascinating figure in the Lord of the Rings trilogy would be a character that didn't even exist, except on a computer? And who wouldn't want to see those same special effects employed to bring their own childhood favorites to life?
But as a comic book collector from way back, I think there's more to these movies' popularity than effects (or nostalgia) alone. As exciting as CGI can be, the bloom has definitely begun to leave the rose. We're not as easily wowed anymore; we expect moviemaking miracles. People will no longer pay just to see special effects. They want story—tales peopled with flesh-and-blood characters, weathering real emotions and embroiled in genuine conflict—to go along with their orcs and Doc Ocks.
For proof, look no further than 1999's The Phantom Menace and 2002's Attack of the Clones. Amazing special effects, but lame storytelling. The resumption of the Star Wars saga had been anticipated literally for decades, giving those two films one of the greatest built-in audiences of all time. But while they made a ton of money—Star Wars fanatics are nothing if not loyal—they were critical and audience disappointments. Wooden acting, plodding direction and a lack of the heart so present in the first trilogy trumped the most expensive CGI effects money could buy.
So, there's something more behind this passion for comic book movies. And I think it's the lowly comic books themselves.
While not belittled as much as they once were (hey, money talks!), comic books are still scoffed at in many circles. The image of the basement-dwelling, glasses-wearing geek surrounded by stacks of X-Men issues dies hard, maybe because we've met (or been) him ourselves.
But there's more to the genre than X-ray vision and billowing capes. Comic book heroes are flesh and blood, not the plastic, pun-spouting caricatures one might expect. Since the mid-1960s, they've explored deep emotions and even deeper issues on their adventures. While still action-oriented, they present insights into the human condition—and the fallen human heart—as compelling as those offered in many other forums. In fact, the comic book's blending of both verbal and visual communication often brings a visceral understanding that other mediums lack, and when well-written, their stories connect with people and leave them thinking, and talking, for some time. They make for a good read and a good movie.
People want to see gripping adventures on the screen, peopled with flesh-and-blood protagonists embroiled in genuine conflict. Comic books have been delivering on those fronts for years. Their characters, as memorable in their own way as those of Homer or Milton, battle great opponents both without and within—wrestling with the same joys and pains, the same temporary triumphs and the same tragic results of the Fall as do we ourselves.
Sometimes their struggles are even deeper. Take, for instance, the scene in one of the movie posters for Spider-Man 2 (shown here). Spider-Man, unmasked and with his back to us, stands high on a windswept ledge, overlooking the city as the dawn breaks. Its title, "Choice," shows us—through Peter Parker's eyes—the possibilities that lie before him. He can wield his great powers against evil, though this may well cost him his own life. He can use those powers to his own gain, for who could stand against him? Or he can simply walk away from the fight, and lead the long, happy, normal life for which he longs.
Does this picture seem familiar? Those choices? If not, then check out Luke 4:5-13.
Spider-Man struggles with the responsibility that accompanied powers for which he never asked. The X-Men, hounded for being different, nevertheless attempt to defend the same humanity that hunts them down. Batman watched his parents gunned down in an alley and now wages a fierce battle on two fronts: to protect the innocent from criminals, and to avoid slipping into the black holes of revenge and despair. Do these protagonists remind you of anyone? Can you identify with them?
These characters may have super strength. They may be able to turn invisible, or even invulnerable. But their inner battles (and their struggles in spite of them) to right wrongs and take up the challenge of evil, are our own—albeit writ large, colorful and on a grand scale.
It's this aspect of the comic book that brings me to the second, more compelling reason behind its popularity. A line from The Matrix (ironically, a movie that was made into a comic book!) puts it into focus. Morpheus asks Neo, "Haven't you had a feeling … that there's something wrong with the world? You've felt it your entire life. You don't know what it is, but it's there, everywhere- (something) pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth?"
We all nod with Neo, because we've felt it our entire lives as well. We know, deep within our souls, that we are more than a haphazard collection of molecules. We know that Someone far greater than ourselves exists, and that mankind cannot be the measure of all things. Despite the best efforts of postmodern culture, the flesh and the Devil himself, we know that good and evil are not relative, interchangeable concepts born of a selfish instinct for survival. We know there's a daily, invisible battle going on around us, pitting humanity against inhumanity. And we sense, deep inside, that we must ultimately choose the side on which we will serve.
To borrow a wonderful illustration from John White's The Fight, people resonate with these truths, like the string in a piano that vibrates when a note is struck close by. Whether they're described in a tale by the fireside, written in a comic book or projected onto the wide screen, these deeper truths fire our imaginations. They wake us up, if only temporarily and vicariously, to something much greater than ourselves. And once awakened? We shed our "lives of quiet desperation" like Clark Kent's blue suit and glasses, and our hearts take to the sky. And we come out afterward longing to do it again.
Is this resonance wrong? Not in and of itself. White says, "There is no harm in vibrating. The cord was made to vibrate, and vibrate powerfully." And as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien have noted, this resonance bears witness to the spiritual reality that exists "behind the scenes." We long to draw our swords for Aslan because it's in our nature to do so. We were made for the heroic, the fight for truth, the battle against evil. And so when we see Superman fly, part of us naturally longs to spring into action and leap into the cosmic battle beside him.
This is the deeper appeal of the comic book universe—where good and evil are named, and where mighty beings battle with us, side by side, to free a world enslaved by darkness. It's the world of the superhero and the supervillain: Luke Skywalker vs. Darth Vader, the Fantastic Four battling Galactus, Superman laying down his life in a desperate stand to save Metropolis. It paints for us a picture of heroism and grandeur that is, more and more often, conspicuously absent from other literary and cinema offerings. So it should come as no wonder when people are drawn to it in any form.
So, as believers, what are we to make of this phenomenon? Is this popularity harmless, even understandable? Should we be concerned that Spider-Man 2 is merely a vehicle for the sinister machinations of the enemy?
As Christians we know these films only tell part of the story. While we long to join the comic book characters to fight the good fight against evil, we must first admit that its lair lies within ourselves: "We have met the enemy and he is us," as Pogo once said. Only the one true Captain in the cosmic battle, Jesus Christ, can vanquish the enemy, leading us out of illusion and into the day.
I'm often reminded of George MacDonald's dictum on "playing the hero": "What have creatures like us to do with heroism, who are not yet barely honest? (from "Life," Unspoken Sermons)"
And yet, as Lewis and Tolkien often reminded their readers, the world of the fantastic can often say things best. In a New York Times Book Review essay, Lewis wrote: "Supposing by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained glass and Sunday-school associations, one could make them appear in their real potency? Could not one thus steal past those watchful dragons … that paralyze so much (discussion of) religion?" The astounding success, on every level, of the Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings answers his question. If all fiction might be described as "telling the truth with lies," surely the truths that moviegoers walk away with can lead them to deeper investigation and discussion … and, perhaps, ultimately to their Savior.
I should know. My first year in college, I struggled with despair, wondering if there really was a God, wondering if all the professors were right when they scoffed at the reality of good and evil. Then God used Star Wars—in essence, a comic book movie—to prepare my heart and lead me first to his Word and then to himself. Who's to say he can't work similarly through the comic book movies of today?
Frank Smith is old enough to remember those classic 1960s races between Superman and the Flash, to determine the title of "World's Fastest Mortal"! He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with wife Judy and children Mary Lynne and Sam, where he is preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church of America.
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