Superhero films: a search for moral greatness

With summer just around the corner, there’s already buzz about what this season’s blockbuster films will be. At the top of the list of sure-fire hits are the superhero movies: “Iron Man 3” hits theaters May 3; “Man of Steel” (Superman) will be released June 14; and “The Wolverine” comes to the big screen July 26. It’s clear Hollywood has found success in showcasing movie heroes who fly. Or scale tall buildings. Or wield mystical hammers. Basically, they fill the screen with super-powered heroes, then watch the money flow in. 

Why is that? Why do films like these never fail to attract moviegoers of all ages, sexes and socioeconomic demographics? What explains our culture’s perennial love of superheroes, a love that only has seemed to grow in recent years with the popularity of the latest Batman trilogy, the Iron Man films and even television series such as “Smallville”? 

Recently Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Jonathan Sanford, professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville and the editor of “Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry” (Wiley, $17.95), about that love and about what it says about our culture and human nature. 

Our Sunday Visitor: Let’s start by talking about “Spider-Man and Philosophy: The Web of Inquiry.” How can a web-spinning superhero shed light on a serious academic discipline? 

Jonathan Sanford: The book is part of a series of books that look to popular culture in order to reflect upon basic philosophical issues. The goal of this book in the series was to orient readers to significant areas in moral philosophy. Talking about Spider-Man was a great way to do that because part of the intent of comic book series or movies like Spider-Man is to bring moral and philosophical questions to the fore — questions about sin and redemption, the power we have and the responsibility we bear. 

OSV: What do you think explains our culture’s ongoing fascination with superheroes? 

Sanford: Part of it is that the movies and comic books tend to be really well made. I think a lot of it, however, also has to do with the plot that drives the comic books and movies. It’s a plot that starkly contrasts good with evil. Every superhero has his or her super villain, and the contrast between the two is part of what makes these movies appealing, particularly in an age of relativism. Today we’re inundated with the message not to judge, not to apply black and white standards of morality, that the world is far too gray for such absolutes. But that offends the sense of natural law that is an eradicable part of every human heart. In a way, the stories about superheroes are a celebration of the moral fiber of the universe. 

OSV: That appeal is a diverse one, spanning generations. Is that a good thing? 

Sanford: I think it is. Not too long ago, I came across an article on a conservative blog site, where the writer was contending that the popularity of these movies signifies that there is something juvenile about our culture. I recognize there is a strong juvenile mindset within segments of our culture, but I don’t think the popularity of superhero movies has much to do with that. Many of these movies are, in fact, coming-of-age stories. The X-Men films, for example, track a number of mutants who are coming to terms with newfound powers and learning how to control them. Peter Parker in Spider-Man is the perennial teenager struggling to grow up. And Kenneth Branagh did a masterful job in the direction of “Thor” — developing the relationship between father and son, and showing Thor coming to terms with his own juvenile behavior while having to master his passions. 

I actually think many of these stories appeal to our sense of what it means to be an adult. They’re not stories about the perpetuation of the teenage years, but rather stories about moving into adult roles and embracing a life of responsibility. Our culture has extended the juvenile years well into the 30s, and the temptation might be to see people reliving their adolescence through some kind of comic book virtual reality, but the mainstream appeal of these stories is to our heroic sense. That’s not to say they’re on the same level of artistry as the Nordic myths or Homer — though in some ways, they tell the heroic story better, they’re more complete — but their heroic appeal is something that rightly speaks to juveniles and to adults alike. 


OSV: Besides the stark contrast between good and evil, do you see other “Catholic” elements in the stories about superheroes? 

Sanford: I do. In addition to the moral universe that’s depicted, I think many of the movies also have a vocational dimension. They promote the idea of embracing one’s own particular call in life. In nearly every case, the person who is given these powers receives them as a gift or a curse, usually through a moment of chance or providence. Few choose to be how they are. Rather the choice comes through what use they make of their powers. To an extent, that mimics our own lives. We didn’t choose our parents or choose our particular talents, gifts and foibles. But we do choose who we become as we move forward. We choose whether we grow into the men and women we’re called to be. Also, in many ways, most of the superheroes have a profound respect for human life. 

OSV: How so? 

Sanford: Well, for example, Batman refuses to kill. In “Batman Begins,” that’s his weakness, according to his former teacher, Ra’s al Ghul. But in fact, his refusal to kill is Batman’s strength. You see something similar in the first of Sam Raimi’s three “Spider-Man” movies. The Green Goblin drags Spider-Man to the rooftop and makes a remark about how the teaming masses exist to serve the great ones like himself and Spider-Man. Spider-Man stands in contrast because he doesn’t see life as little. He values it and wants to protect it. In most of these movies, the villains are happy to engage in activities with all sorts of collateral damage, while it’s the superheroes who try to preserve the lives of people who are in the way. They put themselves at the service of others. Even when they are engaged in high stakes fighting, they endeavor to never harm innocent people. 

OSV: In some ways, superheroes are rather un-PC aren’t they? 

Sanford: They certainly discredit a lurking egalitarianism in our culture. “The Incredibles” does this better than most. In that movie, the superheroes are living under cover because they’re too extraordinary for display. The government wants them hidden. That’s a critique of a culture that wants to pretend we’re all the same. One should be able to recognize the equal dignity of human persons, and at same time recognize that some individuals have extraordinary gifts they’re called to develop and use. That call to greatness that Western civilization issued in its vibrancy is muted in our own day and age. 

OSV: So would you say the appeal of these superheroes is a hopeful sign for our culture? 

Sanford: I would say that it’s not simply having shows about superheroes per se that’s good or bad, but rather how those stories are told and received. Over the past 30 years or so, the superhero movies that have been the least popular are the ones where the hero isn’t all that morally heroic. Many of the Superman movies fit that bill.  

I think when it comes to movies whose purpose is to inspire, people want them to respect the moral universe and mirror what we would like to see imaged in ourselves. Because of that, superheroes are more appealing the more they embrace a virtuous paradigm. The ones that seem to have been the most popular are the ones most clearly striving to be virtuous and stand as exemplars of virtue. So Batman represents justice; Spider-Man, integrity, honesty and the fulfillment of responsibilities.  

We see in them the selves we’d like to be even though they’re extraordinary in powers or wealth. We also tend to like the ones that fail a little, but then recover from that failure. We often fail, and in seeing heroes who occasionally fail but continue striving for moral greatness nonetheless, we are motivated and called on to strive for the same. 

Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.