“Going to the movies” began as an American tradition almost 90 years ago. In those early days, over 60 per cent of us went to the theater every week. By the mid-1960’s, movie going dropped to 10 percent and has held steady since. As our nation has grown, that is a lot of people. Despite the multiple ways we can access movies today, going to the movies is still big business.
As for 2018 – the movie industry celebrated a banner year. The top films determined by box office receipts were:
|2||Avengers: Infinity War||$678,815,482|
|4||Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom||$416,769,345|
|6||Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch (2018)||$267,377,830|
|7||Mission: Impossible – Fallout||$220,159,104|
|8||Ant-Man and the Wasp||$216,648,740|
|10||Solo: A Star Wars Story||$213,767,512|
Over 1.3 billion tickets were sold grossing a whopping $11.8 billion, more than the GDP of 60 countries. Theaters hosted a record 814 films; most of them single-event or limited release. About 150 movies were wide-release (over 1,000 theaters).
So why does it matter? We get a big picture view of our culture by what captures our hearts and pocketbooks. Where we choose to spend time and money says a lot about our collective moral compasses and spiritual desires.
Now, back to the list. The most obvious take from looking over the top ten films is six of them are superhero stories (Black Panther, Infinity War, Incredibles 2, Deadpool 2, Ant Man and the Wasp, and Aquaman). Not only did these films rake in the money but they were all highly rated by film critics.
How does this help us better understand our culture? What is there about super hero stories that is different enough to tell us something about our cultural zeitgeist?
Growing Up with Superheroes
The current wave of superhero stories rises above a film culture dominated by themes of vengeance, horror, irreverence, and pretentious romance/sex. But the superhero genre is not a recent trend. No matter how old we are, most of us grew up with superheroes in our comics and on our television screens.
The backdrop of superhero stories begins in the 1930’s, when everyday life was marked by financial hardship, insecurity and uncertainty. As the Depression era rolled on, the growing influence of Adolph Hitler in Europe cast a dim light on the future.
The first Superman comic book appeared in 1938 and struck a sensitive chord. The stories provided a positive outlet for the helplessness of the times. Superman was “super” not only because he possessed powers to overcome evil but because he was good. His mission was to preserve “truth, justice and the American way,” a phrase first applied to him soon after America entered World War 2. Captain America, a soldier imbued with superhuman powers by an experimental serum, joined Superman and became the most popular of the growing number of superheroes during the war.
Since then, hundreds of characters (some say thousands) have populated the superhero universe, most arising from the pages of DC (Detective Comics) and Marvel (nee Timely) Comics.
Superheroes are created in different ways. Some are aliens with natural super powers (Superman, Captain Marvel), some are descendants of mythological gods (Thor, Wonder Woman), some are humans possessing mutated super powers (X-Men), and some are humans who have trained themselves to overcome physical limitations through technology (Iron Man) or heightened senses and mind-blowing fighting skills (Daredevil). Comics, radio and television programs, and infrequent movies kept superheroes alive and growing for decades.
A new era of superhero movies launched with the releases of X-Men in 2000 and Spider-Man two years later. The 2005 Batman reboot (with Christian Bale) signaled a fresh commitment to major studio investment in superhero films. Since then, DC and Marvel have produced 78 wide-release films amassing over $40 billion worldwide.
Not surprisingly, superhero films resonate around the world and are among the top grossing films in most countries. In 2018, except for Black Panther, each of the movies made more money overseas than in the US.
So, what are some possible insights the widespread attraction for superhero movies tell us?
First, the uncertainty and angst in the world since the turn of the century makes our culture hunger for peace and security. The events of 9/11 created expanding political distrust and polarization. Again, it seems, the superhero genre was striking a sensitive chord – not only with devoted fans but with broader culture. A contested and muddled Presidential election in 2000, the attacks of 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina – the new millennium got off to a demoralizing start.
“Nones” are the largest religious group in America. Add the rapid rebooting of cultural values and communication (sexting, same sex marriage, identity politics, #metoo, etc.), political polarity, and religious turmoil, our country is in a spiritual stasis. As David Byrne sang years ago, “America is waiting for a message of some sort or another.” In some ways, superhero movies provide a general message of hope and security missing in general culture.
Second, the story that good will triumph over evil is one that gives hope. The world inhabited by superheroes is a world where justice prevails. Superheroes, taken as a whole, make extreme sacrifices to see that good triumphs. Justin Martin, a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, notes, “Superheroes fill a void. They are a reminder that even when things seem their darkest, there’s hope over the horizon. People want to see more of that as a reminder that there is such a thing as self-sacrifice.”
Third, superheroes raise the bar for how people should serve others, seek justice and get involved in the cultural struggles.
Most of the popular stories in the superhero universe are grounded in the belief of universal justice, a hatred for evil, and a duty to act for the good of others – all biblical truths. The phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility” (the Spiderman rule), sums up the charge for many superheroes.
After 80 years of storytelling, most superheroes come to films with fully developed backstories of not only great victories, but also defeats, losses, and brokenness. . . and religion! Frank Miller, author of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Daredevil says, “If people can’t stand cartoons about religion, they’ve got a problem.”
And he’s right. Years ago, I saw an X-Men cartoon where Wolverine was at a church altar reading the Bible saying, “I will give thanks to you, O Lord. Though you are angry with me, your anger is turned away and you have comforted me. I will trust you. I will not be afraid.”
Wolverine is not alone. There are many websites dedicated to identifying the religion of each superhero. Superman is a Methodist. Spider-Man is Protestant. They go to church and pray. Batman is Episcopalian (though lapsed). Daredevil is Catholic and struggles with God’s goodness and the problem of evil.
In a world of acute uncertainty and despair, hunger for the true story of God’s creation and restoration exists. People resonate with the better parts of the superhero stories.
So, do superhero movies provide a good role model for our culture? Admittedly, sometimes the violence is gratuitous or merely for entertainment. Even though they fight the bad guys for us, not all superheroes are good role models (thank you, Deadpool, but no).
In a world saturated with moral failure – Presidents have sex in the Oval Office, popular moral and religious leaders sexually harass and even assault those under their charge – good role models and hopeful outcomes are craved. Even if they are fictitious.
I watched the Superman television show when I was a young boy. He motivated me to fight evil and help those in need. When I played with friends, I was always Superman. I never thought I could really fly or bounce bullets off my chest, so I pretended. But I always knew I could save people and defeat the bad guys.
I still think I can.
Bill Brown, PhD, is the National Director of the Colson Fellows Program and the Senior Fellow for Worldview and Culture with the Colson Center.