Our five-year-old son recently broke his arm and had to undergo surgery. During the 24 hours or so that he was in the hospital, he got to watch a lot of videos. Once, when I asked him what he was watching, he managed to tear himself away from the phone long enough to answer, “Iron Man.”
My first thought when I heard that was, “Iron Man? That sounds too big for him.” We are always a little watchful about what our kids are watching. But the movie checked out fine.
This interaction at the hospital got me thinking: when I was a kid there would have been no doubt whatsoever that a show called Iron Man—or any other superhero show—was for kids only. But when my son mentioned that he was watching this superhero movie, I assumed it was something for adults.
How much has changed in the last 30-40 years since I was a kid. I cannot imagine my parents watching Iron Man, Spider-Man or Batman, but nowadays this is standard viewing fare for adults.
I could not help but wonder what has changed over the course of my lifetime. Why are more adults watching superhero shows and movies now?
I am no psychologist or cultural anthropologist. So I am certainly not qualified to give a full explanation for this cultural phenomenon and change. Besides, the themes in superhero movies have become much more complex and mature.
From the simple ‘kabooming’ of bad guys when I was a kid, they now also deal with things like childhood trauma, complex identity, relational issues, and so on. These films also have the backing of studios which pour in hundreds of millions of dollars for their dazzling productions.
But as I thought about it, it seemed clear that there is something deeper going on here. Our contemporary obsession with superheroes goes down to the deepest longings of the human heart.
Firstly, our modern fascination with superheroes reveals our longing for a saviour. We all know that the world is a messed up place: it’s broken, evil, and not the way it is supposed to be.
We long for someone strong and powerful, and at the same time good and compassionate—to rescue us, save us, and make things right again.
The superhero phenomenon in our world today echoes our longing for the true Saviour of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Secondly, there is inside each one of us not only a natural yearning for rescue by a superhero or saviour but also to do something great for God ourselves. God created us with a desire to “bear much fruit” (John 15:8).
Superhero movies enable us to feel great vicariously. But God created us to also do great things for his glory.
And now, God is also calling us to “save others by snatching them out of the fire” (Jude 23), to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2), and to see God “crush Satan under your feet” (Rom. 16:20).
As C. S. Lewis once said, we are to be “little Christs”—regenerated people filled with the Holy Spirit and actively engaged in God’s plan of salvation for the world.
There is more to the superhero phenomenon than just big-budget productions and high octane entertainment. Superheroes tap into our deepest longings—for a saviour, and to our redeemed instinct to engage in God’s plan for the salvation of others.