When I was a young boy, I yearned for super powers. After watching The Adventures of Superman on TV, starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, I would put on my t-shirt with a big ‘S’ on the front, tie a towel around my neck as a cape, and make every effort to fly around the house. On more than one occasion, I actually prayed and asked God to give me super powers. I promised to use them to help people. But, mostly, I just wanted to fly. Thankfully, I did not have the privilege of watching shows like Jackass, which might have encouraged me to try flying off the roof. No, I was stuck with my mortal powers . . . still am, as a matter of fact.
But, I wonder what I would do if I got superpowers. What if I could fly? What if I could leap tall buildings in a single bound? What if I could crawl up walls like a spider or stretch myself as if made of miraculous rubber? What would I do? What would I be?
According to the recent spate of superhero movies, chances are I would become a paragon of virtue, wisdom, and courage. I would be willing to sacrifice my life to save others. And this would be true, regardless of how self-centered and amoral I had been before my miraculous transformation.
Consider the case of the Green Lantern in the recent movie called, sensibly enough, Green Lantern. I won’t be spoiling much by telling you that this movie tells the story of Hal Jordan, a self-centered and obnoxious fighter pilot who is chosen by a magic ring to become a Green Lantern, a guardian of justice and harmony in the universe. Right before our very eyes, a man who might best be described as a jerk becomes a virtuous, wise, selfless hero who is willing to die for the sake of others. Yet, the movie gives us very little reason to believe that this should have happened. It seems more plausible to believe that a man was endowed with astronomical superpowers than that he instantly changed his entire character and value system. My son, the one of boyhood Superman fame, warned me that Green Lantern wasn’t a good film. I should have heeded his warning.
Some movies try to provide a rationale for their superhero’s exemplary character. Spider-Man, for example, tells the story of a young man who was raised in a loving, moral family. When, after receiving his arachnid-like powers, he uses them for selfish purposes, he pays a high price in the death of his beloved uncle, a death he could have prevented with less self-absorption. Plus, Uncle Ben left Peter Parker AKA Spider-Man with sage advice, “Remember, with great power. comes great responsibility.”
The 2011 film, Captain America, tries in a different way to explain the moral fiber of its superhero. In this case, Steve Rogers, who becomes Captain America through he wonders of science, is chosen precisely because of his ethical standards. He is courageous, with a strong sense of justice, and a lack of desire to kill people, even the bad guys. Thus, the willingness of Captain America to give up his own life for others makes sense.
The recent movie, Chronicle, tells a different story altogether. When three high-school aged boys gain superpowers, at first they continue to be more or less the same boys. Their personalities don’t change. Nor do their values. They do not envision using their powers to help others. Rather, they simply want to enjoy their superhuman endowments and, if possible, become more popular with their peers, especially girls. But in one of the boys, the one whose family is painfully dysfunctional, superpowers simply magnify his own moral confusion. He is not miraculously transformed into a superhuman do-gooder. Rather, he becomes dangerous, a genuine mortal threat.
I will not offer up any more spoilers here. Chronicle is a fascinating, thought-provoking, and entertaining film. I’d recommend it unless you’re squeamish about PG-13 violence. But, even given how little I’ve said, you can see how Chronicle offers an unusual and unusually thoughtful answer to the question: What would you do if you got superpowers? After rolling my eyes at the saccharine answer of Green Lantern, I found the blunt realism of Chronicle to be refreshing.
Let me close with a couple of thoughts on moral development and superheros.
First, I believe that superpowers accentuate our virtues and exacerbate our faults. If a person like Hal Jordan were actually given magical Green Lantern powers, I expect he’d use them for selfish benefit. Why would we expect anything different? You see this sort of thing all the time. People who suddenly receive great amounts of money, power, or fame generally become what they already are, only bigger (which could mean better and could mean worse).
Second, as a Christian, I believe that we actually receive superpowers when we come into relationship with God through Christ. The Holy Spirit of God resides within us to empower us for supernatural ministry. Yet the Spirit of God is not just a value-neutral power source. The Spirit also teaches us the ways of God and molds in us the character of God. Thus, our power comes not as an impersonal force, but rather in relationship with the very Spirit of God.