Superhero Jesus is a common way for American Christians to see Jesus; but is it right?
Superhero films rule Hollywood. This past week, Martin Scorsese, admittedly a brilliant filmmaker, was talking to press about his hotly anticipated experimental film THE IRISHMAN. I can’t speak for you, loyal readers, but this newest film of his looks tantalizing…
Anyway, doing the rounds, Scorsese expressed his opinion about Marvel’s superhero films which rule the box office in a way no other franchise ever before has. He wasn’t being particularly uncharitable about the house that producer Kevin Feige built, mind you. And yet the internet soon exaggerated what Scorsese had said. The lean of it amounts basically to him not recognizing these blockbusters as “cinema.” No big deal there! Scorsese did imply that they are well-made “theme parks.”
But this, not unexpectedly, caused quite a stir as the slightest disagreements often do among nerdom. Bloggers and vloggers associated with the superhero film genre made their counterpoints known. To be fair, many who did this were initially respectful to the master filmmaker. But some did take issue with Scorsese admitting that he couldn’t fully watch any of the Marvel offerings. Should he then be criticizing something he refuses to see? Might there be a modicum of hypocrisy in that?
Marty Strikes Back
This went on (and on and on), and then, hounded by press for more flesh, Scorsese “doubled down.” Once more he didn’t really insult anything or anyone. He just commented that Marvel movies were invading theaters and that theater chains and movie-goers should resist. Now this isn’t really new stuff—many different Hollywood people from “King of B-Movies” star Bruce Campbell to artistic creatives like Jennifer Lynch have indicated the problems with theaters only offering superhero movies. And besides, this was just opinion about entertainment. That’s not really hate, is it?
You wouldn’t know that from the fan reaction, now a bit less forgiving and kind to Scorsese. His comments were quickly spun into hate-filled words. In the subsequent online to-do, filmmaker and superhero-lover Kevin Smith, himself not without tremendous respect for the great director, opined that Martin Scorsese had perhaps made the biggest superhero movie in history. Smith was referring to the 1988 adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’ controversial novel The Last Temptation of Christ.
“Last Temptation of Christ is a superhero movie,” said Smith. “I’m not diminishing Jesus by any stretch of the imagination but who is Jesus if not a superhero?”
Getting Theological about Lava Cake
I want to use that as a theological diving board for what follows. But before I dive in, please allow me to confess that I have GREAT love for the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I thoroughly enjoyed AVENGERS: ENDGAME and can watch over and over again. I delight in all 23 films making up “the Infinity Saga.” I eagerly await the casting of Victor Von Doom and all the steps that will go into a filmed SECRET WARS Saga. I am excited about BLACK WIDOW, SHANG CHI, THE ETERNALS, and DOCTOR STRANGE IN THE MULTIVERSE OF MADNESS. Disney+? Take my money, please!
There is something to be said for high-quality lava cake. Surely just about anyone can make a pretty crappy lava cake as lava cakes go. Slopped together, bad ingredients used, and cheaply made lava cake is both common and terrible. But you can also have exceptional lava cake, made with care and creativity, with the very best chocolate, buttery goodness, and so many other tasty delights incorporated. Following Jon Favreau’s CHEF, from where I acquired this analogy, Marvel movies, to me, represent the finest lava cake available.But let’s face reality, True Believers. No matter how good it is, it’s just lava cake, folks. This is true also of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and other high quality sweets and confections. These are not bone-in Wagu Ribeyes or côte de bœuf like what Scorsese and auteurs such as David Lynch offer.
That isn’t to say that fine and popular desserts don’t have their place. There is something to be said for good doughnuts, ice cream cones, and of course, lava cake.
But let’s back to what Smith said concerning Jesus being a superhero. Is he right? Is Jesus a superhero? Is that an adequate way to think about Jesus? Would you say that “superhero” is a good analogy here?
In my twenty years teaching Scripture study and being involved in religious education I have grown to appreciate useful analogies. Being Catholic it is inescapable. Ours is necessarily an analogous imagination. Our sacramentality depends on this. The Medieval axiom rings true: our only way of talking about God is through culturally-specific anthropopathic, anthropomorphic analogy. All our God-talk is such! It touches everything we are, have, and do as Catholics.
But is “superhero” a fitting analogy for Christ? It certainly is a great analogy for teaching historical dead-ends in various Christologies (i.e., heresies), and admittedly, I have used them for doing so these past twenty years.
Take the first among superheroes, Superman. Often, I employ the Man of Steel in speaking about the most pervasive heresy in history concerning who Christ is—Docetism. Docetism comes from the Greek word δοκέω (I seem), suggesting appearance or disguise. Superman seems like a human man, appears as an earthling, but in reality Clark Kent is only an appearance, a disguise, a make believe. The reality is Superman, strange visitor from the Sky. Clark Kent is the pretend face, the mask.
In very similar ways Catholics and other Christians have a docetic hangover. It’s way too easy to associate Jesus with Superman via our closet Docetism. We are uncomfortable with our humanity, born between urine and feces, headed for the box and dirt and worms. Parishioners imagine that the historical Jesus could vaporize the Pacific ocean with a thought, or Pilate and his soldiers for that matter—“Otherwise he wasn’t God!” We like Superman way more than man, it seems.
Superhero Christology, Way Too High?
The comic book relationship between Shazam and Billy Batson is not unlike the separationist Christologies of many ancient Gnostic groups. At his baptism some Gnostics believed that the totally human Jesus received a god, or aeon, the Christos. This god was an other-than-human person who had joined with the earthly and weak Jesus giving him superhuman abilities (healing powers, teaching, marvels). But at his Passion, the aeon abandoned the human Jesus, and returned skyward. This the doomed Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!”
Watching films like EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, E.T., and any Superman movie—not to mention PASSION OF THE CHRIST and THE GREATEST STORY EVER TOLD—one can see something in them like exaggerated “Descending Christologies” where humanity is but an afterthought, perhaps only a disguise (Docetism), or absorbed (Monophysitism), or without a real human soul or will (Monotheletism).
These ideas and others we Catholics reject in our verbal orthodoxy. But they keep showing up in our actual practice and ways we relate to Jesus and one other. Maybe we should see Jesus as God become man and less God become Superman?
Kevin Smith and Karl Rahner to the Rescue
But I don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I like Kevin Smith a great deal. He has a lot of human warmth and seems to be a great dad.
Smith offered something golden about the MCU. He said what keeps Marvel movies and other comic book superhero films so interesting and appealing isn’t the “super” part, but the HUMAN part.
Hearing that I was reminded of the Great Karl Rahner (d. 1984) and his understanding of Christology. Divinity and humanity are not in competition. Precisely because Jesus is God the Son, he is THE human being (the rest of us are humans becoming). Precisely because Jesus is the human being, he must be God’s self-expressive Word or Son. So anything we say about the human can be said to be a deficient Christology. And everything we say about Jesus can be said to be self-transcending anthropology.
Movies say things, folks. They communicate very human things. So do superhero genre flicks.
We can be both/and at the movies and with other more important things, fellow Catholics. As far as lava cake goes, Make Mine Marvel! And Mr. Lynch? More TWIN PEAKS please.