By Joe Boyd
Summer means many things. Long days. Beach vacations. Baseball games and family reunions, neighborhood block parties and community fireworks—traditions that make summer great year after year.
And, of course, the most consistent summer theme of all: the blockbuster superhero movie.
2016 continues the trend. Just look at the lineup: Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, X-Men Apocalypse, Suicide Squad, and more.
It begs the question. Why do we love superhero movies so much?
I mean, we clearly do. Year after year, Hollywood spends millions of dollars making these films, and we respond by giving them billions of dollars to consume them. There are many surface reasons for why these movies do well, but can deeper insights be drawn from culture to help explain our love of superheroes? I think so.
Superheroes create a world of virtues.
Most superheroes have a deep sense of virtue. That’s attractive in a culture that can seem virtuously adrift. You could argue that the modern superhero movie obsession started in 1978 with the film Superman starring Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder as Lois Lane. In a memorable, iconic scene, Lois asks Superman, “Why are you here? There must be a reason for you to be here.”
The Man of Steel doesn’t hesitate: “I’m here to fight for truth and justice and the American way.”
Lois laughs and says, “You’re gonna end up fighting every elected official in this country.”
That’s a not-so-subtle cultural statement in 1978 that could be made just as easily today. Part of why we love these mythic benevolent characters is because we need to believe that despite all of the political corruption, self-centered greed, and religious hypocrisy, there is still the possibility of true virtue. We long for justice. We long equally for someone like us, but stronger than us, to come and rescue us from an unjust world gone mad. That’s the plot of nearly every superhero movie ever produced.
Superheroes are outsiders, overcomers, and orphans.
No other film genre is so concerned with origin stories as the superhero movies. Nearly every superhero has this in common: they were once outsiders who overcame great odds to return to rescue other outsiders.
Superman is literally from another planet—an outsider to earth sent here by his father in what many see as clear Christological typography. Bruce Wayne (Batman) became an orphan when he witnessed a mugger shooting and killing his parents. Peter Parker (Spiderman), also an orphan, was painfully shy and socially awkward until the whole spider-biting incident.
Maybe there’s something orphan-like in all of us, something that makes us feel like outsiders. Maybe we all feel like the chips are stacked against us. In these strikingly similar American pop-culture myths, maybe subconsciously we see ourselves for what we could become—hurting, broken, orphaned children who can overcome the odds and return home to rescue others like us who need a little help.
Superheroes remind us that we need to be saved.
At the heart of all of these stories is the idea that there are things in the world we can’t control. Natural disasters, freak accidents, and, of course, evil villains out to get us at every turn. The world, as it turns out, isn’t a very safe place for human beings. Danger lurks. And when all hope is lost, our hero flies in. He rescues us, defeats the enemy, and restores order. It’s magical. It’s mythic. It’s unbelievable. It is, after all, just a movie.
Unless . . .
There really is someone like us, but stronger than us.
There really is an orphan from another world who came to ours, sent by his Father.
There really is a mystery man with unfathomable power from a source beyond all scientific understanding.
There really is someone so purely virtuous that truth and justice radiate from him.
There really is someone who, when we are about to fall into the abyss, flies in to rescue us, not because of any great thing we’ve done, but simply because of who he is . . . our hero.
Joe Boyd is founder and president of Rebel Pilgrim Productions, Cincinnati, Ohio.