The superhero story is a great success and fascination of our time. It holds captive not only children and teenagers, but adults as well. These tales of great feats, formidable dangers, power, and struggle spark our imaginations and make us aspire to great things. We can hardly get enough of them. Why? Do we only watch these movies to escape from a harsh reality, or do we act from some deeper motive?
It seems evident that we as a culture are dissatisfied with the daily grind. The idea of someone being happy to get up and go work in a cubicle for nine hours seems strange to us indeed. And this dissatisfaction reveals our corresponding desire for something new and unexpected to pierce the monotony of ordinary life. We thirst for a mystery outside the boring bounds of mere routine that will invigorate us and enliven us.
Over time, however, we have purged ourselves of any such mystery. Popular science has evicted all ghosts, nymphs, and gods from our world and has reduced the eternal heavens to a cloud of swirling gases and ricocheting rock. It tells us that we stand on a spinning ball in a spinning solar system in a spinning galaxy, hurtling through space to nowhere in particular.
With mystery thus banished from the world around us, we turn instead to imagination. We tell stories and dream dreams with a desperate urgency unknown to our predecessors, seeking a way out of the oppressive, seemingly-mechanistic universe. When we hear stories of superheroes striving on a plane of action far above our own, we strain to hear in them a promise of freedom from our dissatisfaction, and we find ourselves longing for a radioactive spider bite or to claim Odin as father so that we might likewise rise above ordinary activity and save the world. Even so, while the images of our favorite hero’s feats flicker bravely on a screen and our hearts surge in anticipation, we hear whispers from sectarian cynics who sit scattered in the crowd, “It’s nice, but it’s only a fiction.”
Are they right? Or do we rather ask with Keats, expectant as we leave the theatre, “Do I wake or sleep?” As the carved wood of violins resounds with humming strings, so do our souls resound with these heroic tales, and this resonance seems to speak of a true affinity. We are made for greatness, just as that wood is made to sing. How then can we be great? The cynics in the crowd would seem right, if our only hope for greatness lay in attaining positions of wide influence or in merely tending to our allotted, meagre duties.
Yet, there is more to life than the exterior actions of the influential or the lowly. There is an interior life whose subterranean shifts are much more powerful. For whose life has not been changed by a painful loss or an unexpected love? And for believers, this goes even further. Adopted as God’s children and borrowing His infinite power, we can, in a flash of love, traverse infinite distances, purchase for others eternal gifts, and touch God Himself. We thus can enter a new sphere of activity and life, one which has its own laws of gift and exchange; a life which is most free precisely because its measure is Love.
To us, therefore, who sit in the world amid a dense fog of false arguments and desire-propelled despair, superheroes come as heralds of another realm. They come to split the fog that is restricting the horizon of our lives with a glint of their truth, one that reflects our own glimmer of child-like hope for greatness.
-Br. John Peter Anderson, O.P.
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