This article originally appeared in the April 20, 1979 issue of Christianity Today.
* * *
If the 1960s and early 1970s became an age without heroes, an age of the antihero in literature and on the stage and the screen, the past few years have seen the emergence of a new and somewhat perplexing phenomenon, the superhero. Since" superheroes" are confined in large measure to the pages of children's comics, it may seem out of place to take them seriously enough to discuss them in Christianity Today. Yet what children are taught to a large extent determines how they will act as adults, and what adults teach children tells us a great deal about how adults thinkor, as the case may be, fail to think. Of what significance is it that true heroes have disappeared, to be replaced by superheroes?
A hero is a human being who through discipline, bravery, determination, and perhaps divine assistance accomplishes seemingly incredible feats. Heroes generally must be good and serve a good cause, though sometimes brave and generous men in the service of an evil cause are deemed to be heroes-usually tragic but noble figures. Thus Robert E. Lee is honored by most of those who disapproved the cause of the South, and Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the "Desert Fox," appears as one of the last heroes of modern times, though the cause he served was truly evil.
A superhero, by contrast, is not a real human being, but a fantasy creatureSuperman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, et al. Superheroes, unlike the heroes of Greek mythology, have no Achilles' heel. Superman himself is vulnerable to the mineral kryptonite, but of course, he will never be killed by it. Unlike the great Achilles. Unlike the more traditional heroes of folklore and of reality, modern superheroes have no moral context. They are generally in the service of "good" and against "evil," of course. But the good that they serve is undefined, undistinguished, unmotivated, and the evil they oppose is likewise.
It is no doubt significant that one of the most successful novelists today, Mario Puzo, whose massive tales (such as The Godfather) have no heroes, but only cynicism and anti-heroes, was engaged to write the screenplay for Superman. It is due to Puzo's ability that the details of an essentially trivial and incredible tale hang together in such a way as to make it all vaguely believable. But it is probably also due to Puzo's basically cynical orientation that the good in Superman-which is abundantly evident-is without origin, frame, reference, or goal. In this it resembles the good of another modern counterfeit, Close Encountersit is alien good, good simply by being alien. And there is a serious moral problem here: if it is the alien power, the infant stranger from the planet Krypton, who is good by virtue of his origin, then the implication is that we human beings, who do not share that origin, are under no obligation to be good, not to speak of being heroic.
There are many parallelsand they cannot all be accidentalbetween the infant who comes to earth from the heavens (outer space) and the One who came from heaven. Marlon Brando, the wise Kryptonian who sends his son to earth to escape the destruction of his planet, speaks of his hopes for mankind, and of "giving them my only son." But the parallels are defective, for there is nothing divine and good about being Kryptonian. The movie's first scene involves the "eternal" judgmentitself a literally blasphemous conceptof Kryptonians who are not good but criminal. This itself may be a kind of parallel to the fall and banishment of Satan before the creation. In any event, Kryptonians are not good by virtue of being Kryptonian. In fact, they do not seem to be good for any reason at all.
Superman happens to be good, was good even as Superboy. But he can afford to be good, for no one can harm him, no one can touch him. It takes no special effort of will or courage for him to do the right thing, as for a human hero. The fact that he is not tyrannical is, of course, in some way commendable-yet it seems to tie in with his deep naiveté that makes good seem rather foolish by comparison with evil. What the impact of Superman's good on small viewers will be is hard to predict. Perhaps the fact that he, with his superpowers, is unequivocally committed to the good will impress them and encourage them to imitate him in doing good. Will older viewers get the message that good is a luxury possible only for those with impossible superpowers?
The Superman phenomenon is a mystifying one, and I must confess to being perplexed by it. If Star Wars was an old-fashioned heroic tale not unlike Homer's Iliad, showing uncomplicated good in virtuous (manly) and successful combat with uncomplicated evil, and Close Encounters a drama of enlightenment through contact with alien good, it 'is not clear what Superman is. It would be convenient to say that it is a satire on true heroism and on the good; that may be true, but it seems unlikely that it is a deliberate satire. It is more likely to be a true reflection of the situation of modern man, in which manwith the image of God ineradicably planted within himsomehow longs for something and someone good, but has become so cynical that he can postulate good only in an impossible person and situation.
If the anti-hero was a denial of the claim that any human acts like a hero, Superman and the superheroes, which show heroic qualities only in superhumans, may be a denial that heroic qualities exist at all. If they can manifest only in unreal persons, then they can hardly exist.
Perhaps the fundamental difference between heroes and superheroes lies in this: The tales of heroes, from Homer to the present, have been told by bards who knew men they regarded as heroes and honored them for it, who believed in heroism, and who hoped that their hearers, young and not so young, might one day perform heroic deeds themselves. The superhero phenomenon seems to be a catering to the deep-rooted human desire to have heroes and heroic qualities to admire and emulate. The catering is done by those who are fundamentally cynical and who do not believe in what they are presenting. Soren Kierkegaard once wrote that the way to destroy true gospel preaching was not to prohibit it, but to subsidize a thousand bad preachers in a thousand pulpits. Is it inconceivable that one way to destroy any stirrings of true heroism is to spread fundamentally unbelievable examples, impossible to imitate, on tens of thousands of movie screens and eventually on millions of television screens?
There is another aspect of unreality in the Superman story that is worthy of some thought, particularly by those concerned for the deteriorating relationship between the sexes. In Superman, as in Star Wars and Close Encounters, there is a modern, liberated womanessentially, a very sympathetic character. Yet, unlike Helen of Troy and Andromache in the Iliad, or even Princess Leia in Star Wars, Lois Lane's independent, individual life seems almost extinguished as she takes on the role of Superman's votary. Lois makes this quite explicit when, after her celestial piggyback ride, she speaks of having been "with a god." Even Hercules was but a demigod, and Achilles a mortal man. Confronted with supermanliness, the tough, cynical, and liberated Lois Lane is speechless with a wonder that seems less like sexual love than reverential awe. Why has Lois's conduct and attitude not been mocked in the circles of women's liberation? Can it be that a large part of women's ire at men stems not from male prerogatives but from the pretense on which those prerogatives are based? In other words, that if there were some substance undangirding themas there is in Superman's casewomen would not refuse to admire admirable qualities? Lois Lane's reaction to Superman may be seen as the expression of the way men, even less than super-men, wish women would react to them. On the other hand, the lack of outcry at the figure of Lois Lane indicates that women can recognize genuine virtue and admire it.
Virtue, the reader may recall, is from the Latin vir, man, and corresponds roughly to the English manliness; to be virtuous is to be what a real man should be. The fact that "virtue" and "virtuous" have come to be terms of disdain or ridicule in modern usage may merely express the fact that there are so few true men who are virtuous and possess virtues. Virtue nevertheless still has its admirers, even when exemplified in an unreal man, a Superman. The deep question that Superman poses is this: does it tell us, and will we believe, that virtue is to be admired and emulatedor that virtue is an impossible dream, to be found only in a man who can fly?
Although Superman is an unreal tale, told by those with a far less Christian view of reality than the far more fantastic J. R. R. Tolkein, it does provide us with a real moral. Strength, exercised in a good cause, is not ridiculous but admirable; and virtue, if real, will be respected-perhaps even imitated. The early Christians challenged the idealized humanity of Greek statuary not with ideal pictures of saints, but with real lives of human beings who were not only "called saints," in Paul's language, but acted like them. They exhibited Christian virtues that were not only worthy of admiration, but found imitators. The fantastic, nostalgic response of Americans, and indeed of people all over the world, to the somewhat simple, even simple-minded virtues of Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobe, and now of Superman should encourage us to try to exhibit not unreal virtues, but real ones. We may be greeted with derisionbut inevitably also with imitation.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Christianity Today published an obituary on July 9.
Harold O.J. Brown's articles for Christianity Today include:
The Passivity Of American Christians | The myths that are intimidating those who hold forth a biblical heritage, and what can be done about them. (January 16, 1976 issue)
The Importance of Being Western | Why are we so embarrassed that Columbus ever set foot in the New World? (October 5, 1992 issue)
A Decisive Turn to Paganism | Has the nation finally abandoned its Judeo-Christian heritage, or is there still hope? (August 1, 2004)
The Book Report: Things We Ought to Know | Charles Colson's apologeticand call to actionis in the tradition of Francis Schaeffer. (January 10, 2000)
Abortion and the Failure of Democracy | A review of James Davison Hunter's Before The Shooting Begins: Searching For Democracy In America's Culture War. (August 15, 1994)
The Link Interview: An Evangelical Appraisal | The strength of Orthodoxy, it turns out, is also its greatest temptation. (Christian History & Biography, April 1, 1997)
The Dissatisfaction of Francis Schaeffer | Thirteen years after his death, Schaeffer's vision and frustrations continue to haunt evangelicalism. (March 3, 1997)