How superhero films are replacing religion in teaching us how to live – RN
Religious themes in superhero movies aren’t usually this obvious, but they’re there. (Getty images: inhauscreative)
Australian church attendance isn’t what it used to be, but that doesn’t mean we’ve become a nation of sinners.
These days, many of us get our sense of right and wrong from more cinematic sources and according to cultural studies expert Justine Toh, that’s not such a bad thing.
“There are fewer and fewer of us who might sit in a church and hear from the pulpit how we should live,” says Dr Toh, a senior research fellow for the Centre for Public Christianity.
“Maybe you go to the cinemas and watch something and say, ‘OK, in order to be a hero, I need to be able to think about other people and maybe sacrifice my own interests in order that others might live’.
“The whole Avengers franchise is all about that.”
For Dr Toh, “fingerprints of faith” can be found in fantasy blockbusters, too.
“The whole story of [Jesus’s] sacrifice for others has left echoes in our culture,” she says.
“So, when Harry Potter goes and sacrifices himself for the sake of other people, that is something that resonates with us on a deep level.”
Superman and the longing for a Messiah
To understand why superheroes are so often depicted as self-sacrificing, Messiah-like figures, Jesuit priest and film critic Father Richard Leonard urges us to look at the origins of this genre.
“I don’t think it’s by accident that [the superhero genre] explodes with The Shadow, Hercules and Superman in the Great Depression,” he says.
“[It’s a time] when the world is incredibly depressed, and people want to be saved.
“It doesn’t surprise me that people who are longing and hoping for the Messiah might be able to give a secular audience a Messianic story.”
But Dr Toh says superhero stories offer more than a saviour figure; they remind us of our place in the world.
“People are [increasingly] disaffiliated with institutional religion, but they are what you might call ‘orphan believers’, they’re still transfixed by something bigger than themselves,” she says.
“Even if people report feeling a sense of awe or wonder about the universe, it speaks to some sort of longing within us that is a spiritual longing.”
Whether we realise it or not, these cinematic battles to save the world instil in us a sense of purpose and a ‘right’ way to live.
“When films deal with these sorts of issues, they’re really connecting with something at the heart of the human experience,” says Dr Toh.
Why cinema could be the new church
Maybe it’s not just the films we watch that are giving us a dose of ‘churchiness’.
Father Leonard believes the cinema itself could be considered a sacred space.
“They’re church-like … we have stars for saints, we even have food that you only eat at a cinema,” he says, likening popcorn to the Catholic Church’s sacramental bread.
After acknowledging the limits to the church-cinema analogy, Father Leonard thinks of another obvious similarity: strict rules around mobile phones.
“If you started texting during a church service, a synagogue service or a film, my hunch is people around you would be pretty upset,” he says, laughing.
Having completed his PhD in cinema studies and taken on directorship of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting, Father Leonard is an expert on how faith appears in film and why religious leaders should care.
“One of the reasons as a Jesuit priest I was sent to study the cinema, and to work in it now, is because if we’re waiting for young people to come back to church, we could be waiting a very long time,” he says.
“But if we want to go where they are and talk about the things that are forming them, there had better be one of us — luckily it was me — who studies [cinema] at some depth.”
The best-known superheroes are taking a break this Boxing Day, as far as new-releases are concerned, but perhaps DC Comics’ latest offering, Aquaman, will provide a new perspective on faith and film.
At any rate, it’s a good opportunity to clue-up on the religious convictions of sea creatures.