With summer fast approaching, superhero season is upon us. With the superhero movie craze reaching a fever pitch this year, I couldn’t help but wonder if there isn’t something deeper going on.
So far this year, we’ve seen Deadpool and Batman v Superman hit the theaters and bring in billions of dollars. Captain America: Civil War, X-Men: Apocalypse, Suicide Squad and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows are all set to release over the next three months without the threat of “superhero fatigue.”
Instead, Americans can’t seem to get enough. These films are mostly smart, feature our favorite actors and thrill us with lots of surprises, so it’s no mystery people are resisting the urge to Netflix and chill and instead get in their car, drive to a movie theater and shell out big cash. But why are there so many superhero movies? Why are there so many superheroes? Why are we a nation obsessed with characters in skin-tight suits with freakish abilities who name themselves after bugs or bats?
At a screening of Civil War the other night, grown adults were loudly cheering — and jeering — at latex-clad men as they leapt around while beautiful women wielded their fierce mental powers.
The joy, admiration and devotion the audience showed to these characters reminded me of being in church, the way parishioners yell out “hallelujah” when the spirit moves them. The audience was excited in such a palpable way that it made me wonder if perhaps they thought Iron Man or Black Widow were real. The same way the faithful think their God, whom they can’t see or touch, is also real.
Then it hit me: Superheroes are the new gods and their polytheistic religion is either called Marvel or DC.
If you think I’m exaggerating, consider that according to a Pew Research Center report from 2015, “The Christian share of the U.S. population is declining, while the number of U.S. adults who do not identify with any organized religion is growing.”
Basically, fewer and fewer people are concerning themselves with the Bible, Jesus and the exciting (or terrifying) prospects of heaven or hell. There are numerous reasons for this decline in religiosity. One big reason could have to do with science.
Religion used to (often poorly) explain stuff we couldn’t understand, like why we have different skin colors or the age of the universe. Luckily, we now have science to help us with all those pesky big questions, but if we ditch religion in favor of science, we’re still left wondering about all those moral questions, like how should we behave? What’s the difference between right and wrong? Where is the line between good and evil?
I believe many of us have turned to superheroes for the answers to these age-old conundrums.
Let’s look at the origins of Captain America, who first appeared in 1941, smack-dab in the middle of World War 2. This horrific war was a time where it seemed as if evil, in the form of Hitler and his army, was taking over the world. The cover of the very first issue of Captain America shows our hero punching Hitler in the face.
It was clear someone had to police the unstable world, and Captain America made the case that our beloved country should sacrifice its young men and women to do so. We followed his advice and, fortunately, good prevailed over evil.
As technology has progressed and the economy has gone global, Americans face an entirely new set of threats that were never possible before. New weapons, like military drones, make the line between good and evil less clear.
In Civil War, a rift is formed between Captain America and Iron Man over nothing less than the requirement that superheroes have to sign an international treaty and come under the control of the United Nations.
Captain America wants what most Americans want — freedom to behave as he sees fit. Iron Man is more cautious and wants an international watchdog to be on the lookout, just in case.
Both have good intentions, making this issue a deeply moral one. In a time where our politicians, police and heads of the Catholic Church are sending mixed messages, is it so wrong to look to superheroes for guidance?
I’m certainly not the first person to ask this question. Film writer/director Terry Gilliam said this to CinemaBlend.
“As I was walking in New York yesterday on the way to another interview. There on the streets were all these comic book covers and images for sale. It’s taken over. I mean the Church is a dying thing. But comics and Marvel are everything now, aren’t they? Don’t they have all the answers to our lives? Aren’t they the figures that we want to copy and be like and aspire to? Don’t they relieve us when we’re in trouble?”
I think they do. To further bolster this idea, many scientists believe our brains are “hard-wired” for religion. So if we don’t have Jesus or Athena to worship, one of our favorite superheroes — Batman, perhaps — will fill in the gap. Our love for Batman, our need for Batman, becomes spiritual because that’s just the way our brains work.
Anthropologist Scott Atran, author of the book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, told CNN, “Religion is a byproduct of many different evolutionary functions that organized our brains for day-to-day activity.”
Does all this mean that soon we’ll be opening churches for Wonder Woman and giving 10 percent of our income to her? Well, if you consider your local movie theater your church as I do, and you spend a good portion of your income on superhero movie tickets, video games and merchandise, I’d say we already have.
Captain America: Civil War opens in churches theaters May 6.