With five days of hell tucked squarely in Jack Bauer’s handbag, a sixth day (or, more accurately, sixth season) of Fox’s “24” seemed pretty much. well, in the bag. However, Bauer’s battle transitioned from “real-time” to real life, as a new enemy beat him in the ratings.
NBC’s critically acclaimed new action/drama “Heroes” captured nearly a half-million more viewers, emerging as the #1 series on television in adults 18-49 and other key adult demographics according to Nielsen Media Research. Some might attribute this series’ success to the show’s well-paced plot and intelligent writing, or the smart development and direction that evoke comparisons to television like “The X-Files”, and “Lost”, or M. Night Shyamalan’s film “Unbreakable”. I believe it’s something much deeper. It strikes squarely on a larger phenomenon that has been swelling in our media for the last decade.
This February, Nicolas Cage’s head will catch on fire as he chain-whips both human and demonic villains as the “Ghost Rider”. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will be back in March, this time computer rendered and sans Vanilla Ice. A silvery figure on a surfboard will break up the wedding of Reed Richards and Susan Storm, provoking a second “Fantastic Four” film that will hopefully live up to its adjective this time. Also trying to get hitched, “Spider-man” will be popping the question to Mary Jane even though he’s engaged with the Sandman, Harry Osborn, Venom, and the greatest villain of all: his own inner demons. Lagging behind but on the way, Robert Downey Jr. will be donning full body armor as “Iron Man” in 2008, while a lesser covered actress will leave little to wonder as “Wonder Woman”, and Oscar nominee Heath Ledger will be joking his way through the sequel to “Batman Begins”.
Television’s treatment of superheroes has come a long way since smirking adults would sing “na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na BATMAN!” with the family, watching their children swing along with “Bam” and “Pow”, while they snickered at the prime-time sexual innuendos flying like batarangs over the kids’ heads. Time-shift into the next century with Tim Kringle’s hit new NBC series about superheroes, and there is a reverence both for the powered characters and the show’s “high concept”, which is nothing more than a thinly veiled, more subtly nuanced “X-Men”. After all, healing factors, flight and telepathy abound, wrapped with a question as to whether these mutations indicate evolution or intelligent design. The show is seemingly building toward the latter, as the powers are emerging in tandem with a pending threat and urgent need.
This summer, after “Heroes” ends its first season with an inevitable “To Be Continued.” thousands of devout fans will likely attend the famed San Diego “Comic-Con International”. Attendees will enjoy sessions not only with comic book creators, but with Hollywood directors like Peter Jackson, science fiction authors like Ray Bradbury, and actors like Samuel L. Jackson. Every form of popular genre and entertainment will be there pimping their wares at a show initially birthed around comic books. The convention has expanded over the years to include a larger range of pop culture elements, such as science fiction, fantasy, horror, animation/anime, manga, toys, collectible card games, video games, television, and movies. The convention is the largest of its kind in the United States, filling to capacity with 125,000 attendees in 2006. It’s no surprise this convention has drawn so many other media elements together, as all these forms of entertainment have begun to appropriate, pillage or outright rip off stories and concepts once relegated to sequential art. “Comic book heroes” and their stories are not unlike the mutants in the X-Men, or Tim Kring’s “Heroes”, evolving beyond their traditional form to saturate every corner of the media market.
Not every Christian will find these stories automatically compelling. However, it’s important that Christians do not ignore this season of our cultural fascination with heroes. While Hollywood’s “Academy” would hang Oscar trophies on down-to-earth films like Babel, Little Miss Sunshine, and Letters from Iwo Jima (which, all combined, don’t even come close to the global grosses of Spider-man 2) it’s apparent that the bulk of our society is paying attention to characters who wrestle with issues that transcend the mundane, struggling with otherworldly considerations that peel back a veil and reveal a larger context filled with mystery, good and evil, truth, and destiny. If Christians dismiss these as escapist diversions with no deep cultural resonance, they miss an incredible opportunity for the gospel they profess. A simple look at the current social and political climate tells all, from our cynical city in Seattle to the East Coast pessimism of a smirking Jon Stewart. A populace that feels powerless when it comes to seeing real change, losing faith in government, politics, ethics and even social activism to solve the innumerable problems throughout the world, dreams in their down time that a hero will be revealed, a savior who will pull them out of the miasma or imminent destruction that they’re facing.
The “heroic” trend, many times, is a form of either distortion or homage (and sometimes both) of Jesus, depicting a theoretical hero or group of heroes who embody one or more traits of the real hero/savior worshipped by the Christian. Miraculous powers, unbound by time, the ability to heal or rise from death or near-death, metaphors of ascension and transfiguration. these are all trappings that people wish were true, neglecting the truth that they were (and are) in Jesus Christ. Often one or more heroic figures in these stories will possess the virtuous character to lead the way, chart the course, to sacrifice himself for others, to save the world. or at least save the cheerleader. There is often a prophesied, or sense of, doom that only this figure can arrest. Many times these modern day fictional characters are archetypes of archetypes, with direct parallels to biblical men of God like Samson, Moses, Boaz, and David, fallible heroes who were actually archetypes that albeit imperfect dimly reflected and foreshadowed Jesus.
While not a big fan of “Superman Returns”, director Bryan Singer had the titular character address this succinctly when discussing the state of the world with reporter. “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one.” If Lois Lane represents our rebellious refusal to admit we need a hero, a Kansas farm boy in spandex echoes the biblical truth that we know, deep down: we’re doomed without one.
There is something both profound and perverse about this current trend to be considered; one is the notion that everyone is grasping for a savior, and that Christians can illuminate both that felt need and a true savior, not a fictional pipe dream. The other side of the coin is darker, however, in that we are not struggling with ignorance but, in fact, rebellion; instead of recognizing Jesus Christ, many of us stubbornly refuse to recognize the true and only hero, filling leisure hours with the placebo of the month (or television season). We gobble up superpower stories much like “Heroes” villain Sylar collects brains, never satisfied and always craving more. Christians are not exempt, seeking solace in times of depression and anxiety by turning to these archetypes instead of the real thing.
On television, Superman is still a farm boy in “Smallville” (which is not faring as well in its sixth season, paling in comparison to Heroes and deteriorating to a campiness that almost hearkens back to Adam West’s Batman). However, as it limps along each week the familiar, pained theme song by Remy Zero cries out “somebody save me.” which does encapsulate the current cultural climate and accompanying rally to the “meta-human” narrative threading throughout Hollywood in film and television. I think it’s vital that Christians explore this culture enough to point from metahuman to metanarrative, from the super-powered life to the power of the gospel to transform lives, connecting this obvious hunger to the fact we are reminded of in Acts 4:12, that “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved.” As long as Hollywood is splashing us with garish, fictional heroes, wrestling with great power and great responsibility, lifting our spirits for a couple hours with the thought that someone is crouching on the rooftops, flying through the heavens, or wrestling with dark forces that wish us harm, we need to connect the dots between this yearning and the real savior who can truly heal our spirits, who is truly alive and ruling on the throne, who has overcome the world and seeks and saves the lost.
“Heroes” can save the cheerleader. Jesus already saved the world.