Everyone Needs Heroes

January 16, 2007

Cary Ashby (

    "I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble..." Aunt May to Peter Parker, "Spider-Man 2"

    "We can be heroes ... just for one day." David Bowie, "Heroes"

What drives fans to spend endless hours discussing their favorite super heroes, watching the latest adventure on DVD for the millionth time or spend countless hours with our noses stuck inside comic books? What is it about heroes that resonates with us?

Aunt May Parker (actress Rosemary Harris) may have said it best in a scene from "Spider-Man 2." Aunt May tells her nephew Peter Parker (actor Tobey Maguire), known to the rest of the world as Spider-Man, that heroes are "courageous, self-sacrificing people (who set) examples for all of us."

And yes, Aunt May, heroes - specifically the 'super' variety - also inspire us "how to hold on a second longer." Heroes, at least like those in the comics like Batman and Captain America, save people in crisis and have archenemies. They perform courageous acts and good deeds in pursuing what Superman is known for: "Truth, justice and the American way."

I contend there is something deeper, something fundamental within us, that makes heroes so profound and likeable. On a theological level, some super heroes can be considered Christ-figures.


You're probably asking, 'What does being a Christ-figure mean? And how is that different from a being hero?'

A Christ-figure is a character with parallels and similarities to God's Son by performing acts Jesus of Nazareth did during his earthly ministry - being a savior, liberator, healer, reconciler, miracle worker, community-builder, etc.

Batman, for instance, more closely resembles a hero who is Christ-like, without being a pure Christ-figure.

Batman sets an example of Christian living by using a strict moral code of never killing or allowing others to be killed. He considers himself the self-appointed savior of Gotham City who goes out of his way to see no one - victims or criminals - are killed. That is a fulfillment of the Sixth Commandment: "Thou shalt not kill."

However, the onscreen final†confrontations with The Joker (Jack Nicholson) in "Batman," Two Face (Tommy Lee Jones) in "Batman Forever" and Ra's al Ghul/Ducard (Liam Neeson) in "Batman Begins" seem to contradict this. That, however, is an issue for another op/ed...

On the other hand, there is nothing resembling Christ's commandment to love one another in Batman's self-righteous, "my way or the highway" attitude he takes with the various Robins and other heroes in the comics.

Generally, however, Batman saves people from being victims and is what Aunt May calls courageous and self-sacrificing - making him a hero-figure.


In contrast, Superman - at least in the first two films and Bryan Singer's "Superman Returns" - is closer to being a pure Christ-figure.

The comic book version embodied Christ's self-sacrifice and was a sacrificial lamb in the 1993 series-within-a-series "Death of Superman" when the Man of Steel was killed while saving the people of Metropolis from a destructive alien. Witnesses later discovered an empty casket and Superman even came back from the dead.

Jor-El (the late Marlon Brando) sees his son as the savior of Earth in "Superman: The Movie." He tells Superman (the late Christopher Reeve), earthlings "can be a great people, Kal-El (if) they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son."

This is an obvious reference to John 3:17: "For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him." It also refers to John 8:12, where Jesus says, "I am the light of the world." (New International Version)

"Superman Returns" continues this theme when Superman (Brandon Routh) tells Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth), "You wrote that the world doesn't need a savior, but every day I hear people crying for one."

Near the film's conclusion, Singer drives the theme home. Superman, after ridding Earth of Lex Luthor's Kryptonite island, falls through the sky with his body forming a crucifix. He is brought to Metropolis General Hospital where he remains in a coma for three days. His son's kiss, combined with one from Lois, is what, for the lack of a better phrase, brings him back to life.

This brings up an important point. Don't let the analogies go too far because they fall apart inevitably.

"Superman II" addresses the tension in Superman's dual nature. After Lois (Magot Kidder) discovers his secret identity, the Man of Steel (Reeve) tells her he has no choice but to be both Superman and Clark Kent.

Like Christ, Superman has a dual nature. He is a Kryptonian who grew up from infancy as an Earthling; he's also reporter Clark Kent to most people, but Superman to the rest of the world.

Ultimately, underneath the Clark Kent persona, Superman always will be an alien who has amazing powers because of the sun's influence on his body. Jesus Christ, in contrast, is 100 percent God and 100 percent human all the time.


The Rev. Dr. Ed McNulty, a retired Presbyterian minister and longtime movie critic, told me it's easy to see the Christ motifs in the "Spider-Man" franchise.

McNulty said Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson) helps Peter answer his later "call" to become Spider-Man by urging him to do things greater than himself, by saying: "With great power comes great responsibility." That eventually becomes Spider-Man's motto, driving him in everything he does and every action he takes.

"That's scriptural," McNulty said about the famous quote. "Jesus said, 'To whom much is given, much is expected.'"

In "Superman: The Movie," Clark Kent's father, like Uncle Ben, helps Clark with his call by telling him he is destined for greater things than running fast. Sadly and ironically, those words of wisdom are the last things Uncle Ben and Jonathan Kent (the late Glenn Ford) tell their respective "sons."

McNulty said the scene in "Spider-Man 2" after Spidey strains to stop a runaway train has a Christ-like symbol of the hero being a community-builder. After Spider-Man collapses from exhaustion, the passengers - New York residents of all ages and races - gently pass his unconscious body over their heads until they place the unmasked hero on the floor of the train.

McNulty also sees an equivalent to a sacred Renaissance painting called "Disposition of Jesus Off the Cross."

"The crowd picks him up to safety. There's a great overhead shot that's like...taking Jesus off the Cross," he said.†"Spider-Man creates a kind of community," McNulty said, when the crowd later protects the hero from Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina).

The theologian also sees some Christ-like imagery in "Batman Begins."

Like Peter Parker, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) in "Batman Begins" struggles with being called to do "something more than he thinks he can do," McNulty explained.

"In 'Batman Begins,' you see the anguish and pain (of Bruce Wayne). That and in 'Spider-Man 2,' you see there is a cross in being a super hero," he said.†"There are sacrifices to not being normal."

McNulty said seeing characters like Batman and Spider-Man positively address their personal demons sets an outstanding example for all fans, not just Christians.

"Everyone needs someone to look up to. Everyone needs their heroes," McNulty added.

Cary Ashby writes a twice-monthly comic book column for the "Norwalk Reflector" newspaper, where his main job is covering the criminal justice beat. Ashby, who has taught film theology at four churches, earned a Master of Arts in Christian Education from Union-PSCE, a Presbyterian seminary in Richmond, Va. He has been collecting comics for about 25 years. Send him your feedback at