We live in an age of superheroes. Since the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) debuted in 2008, movies about costumed adventurers have dominated pop culture, making household names of obscure characters like Rocket Racoon and Spider-Ham.
It’s not hard to see the appeal of these movies. We can find it in the best scene of the first superhero blockbuster, 1978’s “Superman: The Movie.” A helicopter accident leaves reporter Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) dangling off the side of a skyscraper. She loses her grip and plummets toward the pavement, but Superman (Christopher Reeve) swoops in and catches her mid-air. “Easy, miss, I’ve got you,” he says with reassuring calm. But Lois isn’t so easily put at ease. “You’ve got me?” she shouts; “Who’s got you?”
That little moment captures so much of what we love about superhero movies: the fantasy that some inexplicable power will rescue us from certain calamity, that miracles arrive in colorful spandex.
That scene also demonstrates why Christians are among the biggest superhero fans. Christianity is, as the great theologian Howard Thurman wrote, the religion of those “with their backs against the wall.” Again and again, the Bible teaches that God comforts those who mourn, that all things work for the good of those who love God, no matter how powerful the wicked may seem, no matter how dire the situation may appear. The Bible promises that God “regards the lowly” over the haughty, that God loves justice.
But is the justice God loves the same as the justice Superman and the Avengers mete out against wicked businessman Lex Luthor or universe-destroying Thanos? Is beating up bad guys the same as doing good?
To see how superhero movies imagine justice, we can look at the franchises that launched the current superhero craze. Starting with 2005’s “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan reimagined millionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) as a (relatively) realistic character, grounded in modern crime and politics. The MCU got its start with 2008’s “Iron Man,” a breezy adventure anchored by Robert Downey Jr.’s charismatic performance as cocky industrialist Tony Stark.
Both franchises follow rich White men who become costumed crime-fighters after disaster disrupts their privilege. For Bruce Wayne, that tragedy occurred in his youth, when he witnessed his parents’ murder by a petty burglar. Fueled by vengeance, Wayne used his immense resources to travel the world, train with master ninja Ra’s Al Ghul (Liam Neeson), and become the legendary Batman. Misfortune struck selfish arms dealer Tony Stark later in life, when he was captured by middle eastern insurgents bearing weapons produced by his company. After his escape and return home, Stark renounces arms dealing and devotes himself to doing good as the armor-clad Iron Man.
While these films do occasionally treat crime as the result of systemic inequality and corruption among the elite, they ultimately subscribe to the “one bad apple” theory. Iron Man and Batman do not improve the world by redistributing their wealth or dismantling the military or the police. Instead, they work with those institutions to root out corruption. Both characters insist that they best know how to use their money and power, that they need it to do good. There’s not a hint of irony in a “Batman Begins” scene in which Wayne compares his work as Batman to his grandparents’ attempts to end poverty during the Great Depression, a statement he makes to his personal butler Alfred (Michael Caine) while riding in his private jet and joking about his luxury cars.
As the emphasis on individual action suggests, these movies consider social change dangerous. Each entry in the “Dark Knight” and “Iron Man” trilogies features villains who seek power by sowing chaos. Stark’s business rivals hire terrorists to scare Americans, thus making the weaponry they sell more valuable. Batman’s enemies spur anarchy in Gotham City to gain power for themselves.
While there’s certainly no value in destruction for its own sake, these movies treat revolution as an inherent evil and order as an inherent good. Those who oppose American imperialism or wealth inequality are portrayed as either craven or foolish, duped or seduced by the villains. The hero establishes law and order by punishing the rabble-rousers.
As these examples suggest, superhero films often imagine justice as the work of one exceptional person, who maintains the status quo by beating those who step out of line.
Throughout his work, the theologian Thurman warned against the tendency of Christianity – “a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering” – to become “the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life has too often been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to weak and defenseless peoples.” When we reduce justice to the defense of the status quo, we run the risk of committing this error.
The justice that God loves and Jesus taught begins on the principle that every person is created in the image of God. The imago Dei tells us that “all human beings are equal” because “God has imparted a divine spark within humanity,” Antipas L. Harris explains. “Christianity is all about social justice,” he contends, precisely because it invites “people once alienated from God […] to return to [H]im and rediscover their godlikeness through Jesus Christ.” Any action of institution that diminishes the imago Dei in a person also diminishes their humanity and is therefore unjust.
Because injustice profanes the image of God in humanity, it is “a contagious sin that breaks and angers the heart of God,” write theologians Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Graham Hill. From the warnings of the Hebrew prophets to Jesus’s teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, the Bible “presents God as a just God who calls for justice among His people, for creation, and in the world.” These scriptures teach that “God’s antidote to injustice is truth, love, grace, reconciliation, peace, compassion, and welcome.” Only when we pursue these principles can we fulfill what God desires of us: “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8).
Heroic Love and Compassionate Justice
The vast majority of superhero movies follow the leads of “Iron Man” and “Batman Begins,” valorizing law and order instead of truth, love, grace, reconciliation, peace, compassion, and welcoming.
But even within these movies, we can catch glimpses of Christian justice. “Spider-Man 2” (2004) ends with Spider-Man (Tobey McGuire) inspiring Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina) to save New York City by foregoing the power he desires. In “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (2017), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) rejects the power offered by his world-conquering father Ego (Kurt Russell). Superman (Brandon Routh) sacrifices himself to inspire the best of humanity in 2006’s “Superman Returns.”
Recent superhero films come even closer to Christian justice when they use fights between good guys and bad guys as a metaphor for other struggles. The 2018 animated hit “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” builds to a confrontation between new Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and the Kingpin Wilson Fisk (Liev Schrieber), but the story’s real conflict involves Miles’s feelings of self-worth. Caught between the expectations placed on him by his police officer father (Brian Tyree Henry) and the poor decisions that lead his beloved Uncle Aaron (Mahershala Ali) to a life of crime, the teen’s lack of confidence compounds when Spider-Men and -Women (and -Pig) arrive from other dimensions. None of them believe in him. The end of the film does feature a knock-down, drag-out fight between Miles and Kingpin, but he wins the real battle before he throws a single punch. When he spray paints a logo on his costume and dons sneakers and a hoodie, Miles acknowledges the lessons he learned from both his parents and his uncle while announcing himself as a unique type of Spider-Man. When he embraces his heroic identity while celebrating his Afro-Latino identity, Miles embodies the welcoming justice that loves diversity.
Even though “Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” features villain Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), whose recent breakup with Batman nemesis the Joker leaves her vulnerable, director Cathy Yan and writer Christina Hodson tell a story of justice through truth. The four women who join with Harley may come from different walks of life, including hardboiled detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) and troubled musical artist Dinah Lance aka Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), but they all suffer abuse from men, personified by the brutal and insecure gangster Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor). As they protect one another from Sinonis’s goons, the Birds of Prey enact justice by telling the truth about misogyny.
The clearest example of biblical justice in a superhero movie comes in one of the genre’s most successful films. Directed by Ryan Coogler, “Black Panther” meets all the expectations for a great superhero film. It has a hero with fantastic powers in T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), son of late King T’Chaka (John Kani) and heir to the Black Panther mantle. It features an exciting setting in the fictional African nation of Wakanda, home to the world’s largest supply of the super metal Vibranium. The story offers a compelling villain in Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the American-born son of T’Chaka’s disgraced brother N’Jobu (Sterling K. Brown), who uses his black ops training to overthrow T’Challa and unleash Vibranium weapons on the world.
But Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole use these genre elements to address injustices such as white supremacy and nationalism. Killmonger isn’t just a madman who wants to conquer the world. He’s the victim of American racism and imperialism. These forces have so twisted his brilliant mind that he cannot see Wakanda’s resources as anything but tools of domination, a way to take revenge on colonizers and reject their humanity in the same way they’ve rejected the humanity of Black people around the world.
To defeat Killmonger, T’Challa cannot simply beat his enemy up. The two do come to blows at the film’s climax, but the battle isn’t just a grudge match. T’Challa fights his cousin to prevent him from launching weapons and to remove him from the throne, which Wakandan law dictates must be done through ritual combat.
T’Challa’s real victory comes by addressing the wrongs that made Erik Stevens into Killmonger. Following the lead of his secret agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa shares his country’s technology with the rest of the world, even opening a science center near the Oakland, California, housing project where Stevens grew up.
T’Challa does not ignore that his royal privileges were aided by his father’s decision to abandon Stevens in America. Unlike Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne, T’Challa does not insist that he’s “one of the good ones” and try to absolve his own guilt while reinforcing oppressive systems. Instead, he acknowledges his culpability, rebukes the selfish isolationism of previous leaders, and spreads his wealth across the world.
With these actions, T’Challa pursues the justice taught by Jesus. Nowhere is that clearer than in the aftermath of his battle with Killmonger. Instead of boasting of his victory, T’Challa carries Stevens to a cliff and offers to heal his fatal wounds. When he refuses, T’Challa sits with his cousin and watches the sun rise with him, listening to him talk about his ancestors’ pride and resistance to enslavement. Despite all that Killmonger has done, T’Challa’s actions affirm the image of God in Stevens. T’Challa acts justly.
In Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman observes that most people live “with their backs constantly against the wall” and asks, “What does our religion say to them?” If we Christians only imagine justice as the emphasis on law and order featured in some superhero stories, the type of justice that simply reinforces the status quo, then our answer brings no joy. In that case, our answer is, “You only matter if you stay in your place.” But if we pursue the restorative, welcoming, peace-loving justice glimpsed in some movies and portrayed in films like “Into the Spider-Verse,” “Birds of Prey,” and “Black Panther,” then the answer is more compelling. With even entertaining blockbuster adventures, our religion can say to the poor and dispossessed: “You are made in the image of God and you deserve to be treated as such.”