Summer is here! It may not feel like that in the Northern Hemisphere right now, but this week marks the opening of the official season of Summer Movies. Each year, readers enjoy telling us what sparks their interest at theaters—and what spiritual connections they make. We once had a Buddhist priest write an extended commentary on “Iron Man”! This week, we’ve already published veteran film critic Edward McNulty’s coverage of the new “Jumping the Broom.”
TODAY, author and film critic Greg Garrett writes about Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor.”
Year of the Superhero
By Greg Garrett
It’s another year of the superhero.
For ten years now, certainly since Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man in 2002, comics adaptations have led the charge at the summertime box office. The Dark Knight Returns (2007) earned over a billion dollars world-wide; other top-grossing films include installments from the X-Men series, the Iron Man films, and The Incredibles, Pixar’s brilliant take on a superhero family like Marvel’s Fantastic Four.
This summer the films include the newly released Thor, the Shakespearean saga of Thor, the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), exiled to Earth by his even-godlier father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), directed by the great Kenneth Branagh. There’s the X-Men prequel helmed by Matthew Vaughn, X-Men: First Class, out in June. New superstar Ryan Reynolds plays Hal Jordan, a cosmic cop who is the Green Lantern in the film of the same title out in June. And the one I’m most excited about—the World War II-era Captain America:The First Avenger, which comes out in July and leads us into next year’s Avenger film with Iron Man, the Hulk, and other familiar characters joining to fight menaces no single hero can withstand.
I get that my geek is showing. But these films keep getting made, and keep appealing to audiences for a number of reasons. As CGI technology advances, of course, it becomes more and more possible to depict the impossible (although I fear Green Lantern may be little more than this). The stories feature clear-cut heroes against real evil. And the themes—besides good versus evil, we have heroism, courage, self-sacrifice, and lots of other spiritual qualities represented in superhero films. As I argued in my book Holy Superheroes!, we keep consuming these stories because they are filling a vital spiritual need in our lives.
As I also suggested in Holy Superheroes!, they also often retell our sacred stories in ways that are more dramatic—and more dramatically cohesive—than even our sacred texts. As in the life of Jesus, Captain America, the Green Lantern, and the various members of the X-Men willingly take on a heroic quest to serve others, to risk—and maybe even give—their lives to save others, to push back the cosmic darkness and to stand for something good and true and noble.
As in the life of Jesus, Thor must learn what it means to walk in both the world of gods and the world of men. While Jesus most certainly did not solve problems with his fists—or a big honking hammer—Christian belief in the Incarnation suggests we have to pay attention to the ways in which Jesus was fully God—and fully human. It’s a paradox that a fictional character like Thor can help us investigate, and that might prompt further insight for us.
The long-running X-Men comic and the more recent films, also force us to grapple with one of the biggest spiritual questions: How do we relate to those who are different? How do we tame our own impulses toward prejudice and hatred toward those we don’t understand?
Superhero comics have always explored real questions in the guise of brightly-costumed characters, and once again we have the chance to be entertained—and maybe enlightened—by another year of the superhero.
Care to read more from Greg Garrett on comics?
You can order Holy Superheroes! Revised and Expanded Edition: Exploring the Sacred in Comics, Graphic Novels, and Filmby Greg Garrrett from Amazon now. It’s a great discussion-starter with small groups!
Greg has appeared in the pages of ReadTheSpirit a number of times over the past four years. Here is a link to the original 2007 interview with Greg in wihch he talks about his conversion to Christianity—after watching “Pulp Fiction”! That may sound like a strange conversion story, but C.S. Lewis’ own conversion story, which you’ll find in this 2007 story, was similar. This story also contains an in-depth Q and A with Greg about the spiritual wisdom in comic books.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.