For many people, the familiar Marvel and DC superheroes are the most obvious Christ figures because they are, in their essence, saviors. Countless comic-book protagonists exist on a spectrum from the merely human to the virtually omnipotent, and therefore they provide us with a convenient map of the different ways of thinking about savior figures. In fact, they can be used to talk about the different ways in which people have historically understood Christ Himself.
Superhero stories tend to be a blend of science fiction and fantasy. This is the nature of the serial comic, and it’s arguably necessary to keep the story going. In other words, in a story based on the archetype of the hero’s journey, we would normally expect there is an overall story arc that ends with the antagonist or the source of evil fully and completely vanquished once and for all. But you can’t do that in a comic book if you want to be able to keep publishing future volumes.
So, instead of the more linear hero’s journey, we get a seemingly endless cycle of what Timothy Peters calls an “essentially ‘pagan’ cosmology” of purge and conflagration, very much like the Anakin-Darth-Anakin cycle in Star Wars. Within this context, the situations, villains, and explanations in the superhero stories apparently have to become increasingly “fabulous” — in the literal sense of being the stuff of fables. But the real problem is that evil is never fully conquered, and it necessarily becomes more like the equal opposite of good, fighting in an endless battle in which balance is maintained as long as neither one wins once and for all.
Therefore, the heroes battle evil, not to conquer it, but to keep it at bay, to keep the balance and prevent evil from taking over. That’s not a bad thing, but in the big picture it can seem to be an exercise in futility. And even the superheroes can become discouraged. But, of course, they can’t quit (though some have tried) because, as Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben has famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” This is reminiscent of Luke 12:48, in which Jesus said, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more.” Whether or not a superhero has chosen to become a hero (most have not), the fact is that every superhero is in some way, “super,” that is, enhanced. And that enhancement obligates the hero to use his powers for the greater good.
So it’s very interesting (and seems like too much of a coincidence to be a coincidence) that both of the “civil war” films released in 2016 were, on one level, about collateral damage and the backlash that is caused when innocent people die on the fringes of the superheroes’ epic battles. Both Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) and Captain America: Civil War (2016) begin with popular fear and anger rising against the superheroes, even to the point of referring to them collectively as weapons of mass destruction.
In Batman v Superman, a woman grieving over the destruction of her village and the loss of family members in the aftermath of Superman’s rescue of Lois Lane, says of him, “He answers to no one — not even, I think, God.” As in other stories, superheroes are scapegoated, turned into “the other,” and subsequently dehumanized — but isn’t this the point? In their lack of trust, the common people (the unenhanced) were pointing out exactly the ways in which the superhuman are not human. Anti-Superman protesters are depicted carrying signs that say “no aliens” and burning his effigy.
Even among the superheroes there was distrust. Superman worried that Batman could drift even further outside the law than he already is. Batman (and Lex Luthor) worried that Superman could become a dictator. Batman proposes a preemptive strike against Superman, saying, “If there’s even a 1 percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty.” In other words, while we’ve got some kryptonite to work with, let’s use it, because we might not get another chance. The parallels to the Cold War are obvious, when it was feared that our enemies might apply the same logic to their nuclear weapons. But in the context of the film, the idea that Batman would advocate for a preemptive attack on Superman just didn’t ring true.
Both Civil War and Batman v Superman highlight the coming together of groups of superheroes into teams: in the Marvel world, it’s the Avengers; in the DC universe, it’s the Justice League. And in both cases, it’s implied that if superheroes are dangerous individually, they are even more dangerous as a group. The conclusion is that these teams of superheroes need oversight: a higher authority (presumably an international governing agency) that would provide supervision (super vision). In a scene in Batman v Superman, during their fight there is a graffito on the wall of a broken-down building: the Latin slogan Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? which means, “Who watches the watchmen?” It’s application here is a kind of theme for the film. Given that superheroes — especially when they team up — are virtually omnipotent (unless, of course, you are a supervillain), should the people of Gotham and Metropolis be worried that the superheroes are their own highest authority? Or should there be another higher authority to which they must answer, especially if their decisions and their actions have unexpected consequences?
The point is that there are two kinds of limitation proposed in the story: limitation by an outside force, a higher authority, and self-limitation. Iron Man argues, “If we can’t accept limitations, we’re boundary-less; we’re no better than the bad guys.” But ultimately the solution is not to give up free will to another, but to use free will to choose to limit oneself based on a higher moral code. Thus, the superheroes choose to refrain from killing for revenge. In fact, it could be said that morality is self-limitation. But to be truly moral, it has to be chosen by free will, for limitation without free will is simply coercion.
Jesus Christ, though He is eternally equal to God the Father (“though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped”), was willing to limit Himself in the Incarnation and take on the human condition (“he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness”) (Phil. 2:6–7). In other words, although His divine nature meant that He did not have to accept any limitations, He voluntarily limited Himself in the Incarnation, so that He could become one of us, come to live among us, and be our Savior. And this limitation itself is in many ways the very definition of what it means to be human.
In Batman v Superman, Clark Kent’s adoptive father tells him a story that becomes a parable for the theme of collateral damage. In saving their farm from a flood, they unknowingly diverted the water to another farm, and that farm was ruined. The flood waters, representing evil in the analogy, were going to go somewhere. No matter how good people are, or how hard they work, they cannot stop evil; they can only divert it. But in diverting it, they unintentionally unleash it on someone else who is equally innocent and helpless to stop it.
In all superhero stories, mere humans cannot save themselves (not even with nukes). Some superhuman is required. Over the years, the threats have changed, from Nazis, to Communists, to terrorists. For example, the Christian Bale Batman films, beginning with Batman Begins (2005), and especially The Dark Knight (2008), were dealing with the fear of terrorism: a seemingly unsolvable problem. The point is that salvation (however defined) requires some kind of intervention from someone who is not a mere human, but is at least an enhanced human, if not superhuman. That necessarily makes that super savior an outsider to humanity, at least on some level.
It is a pessimistic anthropology that assumes humans cannot solve their own problems. Then again, the Christian faith is based on just that kind of anthropology. We need a savior because, left to our own devices, we tend toward selfishness, and so we are powerless to save ourselves, as sin only escalates. In Batman v Superman, Batman says, “Criminals are like weeds, Alfred. Pull one up, and another grows in its place.” Of course, Bruce Wayne is pessimistic about humanity because of the tragic and meaningless death of his parents. Nevertheless, Batman still wants to protect people. (I am reminded of Abraham’s negotiation with God over Sodom and Gomorrah: “What if there are at least ten [innocent people] there?” [see Genesis 18:16–32].) Batman sees his mission as protecting the innocent from the criminal element. At the end of the day, people are still worth saving — even the guilty.
So Batman avoids killing whenever he can. In Batman Begins, Batman chooses not to kill Ra’s al Ghul (though he does let him die, which is arguably the same thing). Even Superman, ever the optimist, goes through a transformation in which he loses his optimism about humanity, and he doesn’t seem to have the same aversion to killing the bad guys that Batman has. In Man of Steel, it’s only because of Lois Lane’s trust in him that he comes to trust humanity again.
Both Batman and Superman ultimately conclude that saving people is worth the effort, though I think the difference between Batman and Superman is that Batman does what he does because he hates the guilty, while Superman does what he does because he loves the innocent.
Like Bruce Wayne, Lex Luthor is also struggling with the apparent meaninglessness of the human condition. Luthor is angry with God because God didn’t protect him from his father’s abuse (a misuse of free will). This led him to stumble into the classic problem of evil. If God is great and God is good, why is there evil in the world? The assumption is that if God can eradicate evil, and God wants a world without evil, then God would eradicate evil. Since there is evil in the world, Lex Luthor reasons (as others have before him) that God is either incapable of doing away with evil or doesn’t want to. Regardless of which one he decides, in his mind God becomes responsible for evil. Luthor’s solution to the problem is to manipulate Bruce Wayne to begin a war between Superman and Batman — “god versus man” — in which Superman will be killed, and thus Luthor will have succeeded in judging God and exacting retribution.
Of course, this logic fails to recognize the necessity of free will. The reason that there is evil in the world is not because God isn’t powerful enough to get rid of it or because He doesn’t want to, but because He gives humans free will. Presumably, God wants people to love their neighbor voluntarily, because if love is not voluntary, it isn’t real love. But that means that in order for free will to truly be free, people have to have the freedom to choose evil. The man who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents (in the Tim Burton films, it’s the Joker) chose to do so by the free will that God gave him. Lex Luthor’s father chose to abuse him by the free will that God gave him. But this does not mean that God is responsible for these acts. It only means that God lets fallen people choose.
It’s interesting to note that in Man of Steel (2013), we find out that on Krypton, children were told what job they would have when they grew up — a kind of communism that takes away their freedom to act — and this is part of the reason Krypton fell. So taking away people’s freedom doesn’t solve the problem, because then the question becomes: Who will make a person’s choices for him? If not the individual, then who? If oversight takes away the freedom of a superhero, then that superhero is no longer morally responsible. Take away moral responsibility, and all hell breaks loose.
No, the solution to the problem does not lie in controlling the will of others, because that leads only to fascism or communism. The solution must be in an individual’s free choice to be morally responsible. But this brings us back to the pessimistic anthropology, for mere humans cannot be trusted to choose well. Therefore, our hope is placed in a moral agent who is superhuman — literally above humanity in the sense of being above reproach. The solution to the problem of evil must be a form of divine intervention.
Evil is just too big a problem for human solutions. We need more than a great human, more than a good example to follow: we need someone who has superhuman power and is (theoretically) immune to temptation. And so the superheroes come to be the saviors of (mere) humanity. In the DC universe, we are introduced to “The Metahuman Thesis” that “gods among men” live on earth, walk among us, and often remain anonymous until they are needed to save the day. Ironically, though, the existence of the metahuman makes some ordinary humans feel less than special, and some react to this by hating and resenting the superheroes. In Man of Steel, Superman says, “My father believed that if the world found out who I really was they would reject me out of fear.” One can’t help but be reminded of the apostle John’s comments about Jesus: “He was in the world, and the world came to be through him, but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10–11).
So into our world come the superhumans, to save the ordinary humans who cannot save themselves. The exotic (and sometimes alien) stranger comes to live in the ordinary world of ordinary people and, when called upon, does extraordinary things. Someone of great significance comes, often to an insignificant place like Smallville (or Bethlehem) — and often his significance is not revealed until a time of great need.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films, which is available from Sophia Institute Press.