Who Needs A Superhero?
Who Needs a Superhero? Finding Virtue, Vice, and What's Holy in the Comics (H. Michael Brewer. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004, 224 pages.)
Comic Book Character: Unleashing the Hero In Us All (David A. Zimmerman. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004, 160 pages.)
A major trend sweeping through the evangelical subculture today is a move toward redeeming popular culture. A mere generation ago, movies, television shows, pop music, literature, comic books, virtually anything produced by the mainstream entertainment industry was deemed corrupt by definition. Many evangelicals still indulged their interest in such things, but it was often regarded as a guilty pleasure.
No longer. The pendulum has shifted. Where you once found books decrying the evils of Hollywood, television, rock and roll or fantasy literature, you now find numerous books, web sites, and articles that seek to unearth the Christian images, parallels, messages, and characters buried throughout these mediums. Of course, the detractors are still hard at work. But more often than not, evangelicals are waking up to the idea that perhaps they were a little hasty in rejecting popular culture. Rather than demonizing these cultural products and the people who create them, perhaps we should stop and listen to what they have to say instead. Who knows? We may discover that we have more in common than we think. And what better place to build bridges of understanding than on common ground?
Two of the most recent entries into this effort to bridge the gap between Christianity and popular culture are H. Michael Brewer’s Who Needs a Superhero? and David A. Zimmerman’s Comic Book Character. It is interesting that two such similar books would come out at almost exactly the same time. But perhaps it just means the time for this message has come.
Christian images, characters, and messages in comic books, you say? Come on, aren’t these fanboys just seeking to justify their juvenile obsession with the medium? I was an avid comic book reader and collector growing up, but I never associated that interest with God. Through comics, I was seeking the same thing as every other pimple-faced geek: adventure, excitement, and buxom, photo-realistically drawn women dressed in skin-tight costumes. Like these costumes, aren’t these guys stretching things just a little?
That question was foremost in my mind when I first picked up Who Needs a Superhero? But I didn’t get more than a few pages into the book before I realized Brewer wasn’t reading comics wrong, I was. Through a succession of tightly written chapters on classic heroes like Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, Thor, and the X-Men, Brewer shows us that virtually all of these characters and their stories point us toward Christ rather than away from him.
Take Superman, for example. The parallels between Superman and Jesus are remarkable. Both have amazing abilities and powers beyond that of mere mortals, both came from humble origins and were raised by surrogate parents, both stand up for truth and justice, both are considered a menace to authority, and both do battle with humanity’s archenemies. Brewer admits that Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster—the two Jewish boys from Cleveland who created Superman—probably did not intend Superman to mirror Jesus so closely. But intentional or not, the similarities cannot be denied. In my case, such parallels did not lead me toward Christ on a conscious level. But I am willing to accept that on an unconscious level, they prepared me to recognize and identify with the story of Christ when I heard it. After all, as Brewer points out, “Every heroic saga, legend, and myth is ultimately a variation on one universal story: When all seemed lost, a hero stepped in to rescue us from the evil around and within us. As it turns out, this story happens to be true, and the hero is absolutely real.”
Not every superhero Brewer profiles can be linked so closely to Christ. But he does a great job of demonstrating how all of them exhibit character qualities or spiritual truths that teach us something about God. There is the Incredible Hulk, an enormous, green statement on our inability to overcome our own sin; Batman, who shows us that even the best among us, can only be made perfect by God; Wonder Woman, who is a study in the power of truth; the Fantastic Four, who teach us about living in community; and a comparison between the Punisher and the Green Arrow, who illustrate competing images of God.
Written at a popular level, this book definitely sacrifices depth for accessibility. Brewer also restricts himself to mainstream characters published by DC and Marvel rather than delving into more challenging independent titles like Hellboy, Sin City, or 30 Days of Night. So, even though this book satisfied neither the theologian nor the comic snob in me, if you have a pimple-faced comic book fan in your house, or you used to be one yourself, you will definitely want to get your hands on this book—if only to offer a spiritual justification to your spouse for your ever-growing collection of double-bagged, mint copies.
Comic Book Character moves things in a slightly different and deeper direction. Rather than base each chapter around a particular character, Zimmerman takes a thematic approach and then brings in various superheroes to demonstrate his points as needed. Questions covered in this book include, “Why are we sometimes so strong and yet often so weak? What makes the difference between righteous anger and blind rage? Why do superheroes (and we) wear masks? What’s so super about being good looking, young or simply alive? Why are we so quick to marginalize people? Which higher power ought we to submit ourselves to, and which ought we to rebel against?”
As with Brewer, I was disappointed to see that Zimmerman restricted his pontifications to mainstream DC and Marvel characters. However, I tended to prefer his book to Brewer’s, because Zimmerman’s approach was more sophisticated and contained far less sermonizing. Rather than show us how superheroes provide answers to our deepest questions, Zimmerman demonstrates that superheroes are better at raising a number of interesting and important questions instead. They also offer far more in the way of social commentary than most people realize. In this sense, I felt Zimmerman’s book was less about trying to justify comic books as a medium and more about using them as an entry point into some basic theological and philosophical issues. He could have taken the same approach to another medium, such as film, and been just as effective. It’s not that Brewer’s approach doesn’t work or that it wouldn’t work more effectively in the hands of a more capable author. But I suspect the questioning quality of Zimmerman’s book will make it far more palatable to those outside of the evangelical community as well as those evangelicals who tend toward a more postmodern way of thinking.
Zimmerman is a self-confessed, post-pubescent “fanboy.” But, like Brewer, you never get the sense he is talking to comic book insiders only. Exactly the opposite, actually. Like any closet comic book geek, Zimmerman loves nothing more than the opportunity to bring others into his four-color world, to show them that it’s not all “Kapow!” “Zowie!” and “Wham!” and that not all fanboys are like the bitter, overweight, socially inept comic store owner on The Simpsons. In fact, they are probably far more imaginative and interesting than most.
Whether you’ve been waiting to come out of your own comic book closet or you would simply like an unconventional approach to some important questions about what it means to be human, I highly recommend this book. You don’t have to be a comic book fan to enjoy it. But don’t be surprised if, after reading it, you find yourself hesitating outside your local comic book store and wondering if you should have a look inside. And don’t hate yourself if you do.
—About this Film
“Do we really need another sports movie?” That was my initial response upon seeing the ads for Coach Carter. With Radio, Miracle, Wimbledon, and Friday Night Lights all coming out within the last twelve months or so, it seemed like the genre had reached a saturation point. So the question is, is Coach Carter worth watching? Does it contribute something to the genre that other sports movies do not?
In terms of character and plot, Coach Carter is hardly innovative. You’ve got the hard-driving coach who struggles to win the community over to his unorthodox tactics; the group of misfits who he transforms into a winning team; the “tough case” who is really just crying out for attention; and the token sub-plot—in this case, a player whose hoop dreams may be dashed by his girlfriend’s pregnancy—that attempts to deepen the story through social commentary.
If not plot, then how about message? Once again, Coach Carter has all the subtlety of a pipe organ at full volume, blaring familiar themes like “believe in yourself,” “teamwork,” and “winning isn’t everything.” Not exactly the brightest light on the tree, but not the dimmest one either. In fact, I was all set to commend it for going beyond the norm by addressing the structural issues that created the personal struggles each character faced rather than merely repeating trite, self-help rhetoric. But affirming this film’s positive message became increasingly difficult, seeing as that message was contradicted in the end.
Coach Carter’s central message is simple: We all have the ability to live extraordinary lives. However, working against that potential is our tendency to believe the lies people tell us. As the saying goes, belief is reality. Thus, if we hope to realize our potential, we need to cast off the lies and start living the truth. So far, so good.
A climactic moment in the development of this theme occurs when Coach Carter is confronted by the “tough case,” who has finally found the answer to Carter’s oft-asked question: “What is your deepest fear?” The player responds by quoting poet Marianne Williamson:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same….”
It appears these boys are finally getting the message. They’ve been “playing small.” Now it’s time to show the world what they’re made of, to dream bigger dreams.
Great. It looks like all systems are go. Cue the big game, the slow motion shots, the post-game speech, and the “Where are they now?” epilogue.
But wait a moment: We still have a sub-plot to wrap up. Remember? The one about the player and his pregnant girlfriend?
After struggling through how to make the baby fit into their plans, the guy arrives at his girlfriend’s house one day to inform her he has found a solution: Not only has he won a full basketball scholarship, the college is even willing to help them support the baby.
She responds by telling him they needn’t bother. She has found her own solution: Abortion. With the baby gone, now they are both free to “do their thing.” Upon hearing the news, he is mildly upset that she didn’t allow him to walk through the experience with her. But after that, it’s all hugs and happily ever after.
As the father of three young children, this scene almost made me cry. It wasn’t so much the couple’s decision that bothered me. It was sad, but it was also understandable given their situation and the obvious lack of a social support system. What really troubled me was the fact that this film—which had just finished telling us, “We are all meant to shine, as children do”—did not even take a moment of silence for the death of this unborn child. It just moved right along with the story. No remorse, no consequences.
The strange thing is, this couple’s decision employed the same sort of narcissistic thinking that created the oppressive, racist structure Coach Carter was fighting against in the first place. Throughout the colonial history of America, white people were “doing their thing” at the expense of those who, like fetuses, were not classified as people, namely African and Native Americans. Sure, the white folks accomplished some mighty deeds along the way. But at what cost? How many lights were extinguished just so the lights of a few could burn even brighter?
This couple’s fetus also had a light, but it never got a chance to shine. Just as white settlers considered their lives more important than the lives of the people they oppressed, this young couple apparently considered their lives more important than the life of their unborn child. It’s nice to hear they went on to make something of themselves. But, I ask again, at what cost? The worst part is; this subplot is completely extraneous to the story. It’s not just a bad message; it’s bad storytelling.
So, is Coach Carter worth watching? That all depends on what message you take away from it. If it inspires you to follow Ken Carter’s example, to let your light shine so that others will be encouraged to do the same, then by all means, yes. But if all it does is heap more lies on top of the ones you already believe, then I fear this film is simply a waste of time.
—About this Film
—About this Film pdf
The majority of films are forgettable. A slim minority are entertaining. A precious few are insightful. And then, every so often, a film comes along that is truly significant. Hotel Rwanda is one such film.
Hotel Rwanda is a significant film primarily because it documents an era in history when the system broke down. It was a time when people around the world glanced up at their television sets during dinner, saw images of carnage and genocide, and then calmly resumed their meals. Over a period of 100 days in 1994, nearly one million people were massacred in Rwanda—many of them women and children, and most of them hacked to death by their neighbors with machetes. But, apart from a few NGO’s and religious groups, the world didn’t lift a finger to stop the killing.
Outsiders did not intervene, this film argues, because to most people, Rwandans were not even “niggers,” they were Africans. While racism likely had something to do with our hesitance to intervene, I am certain that bureaucratic squabbling and incompetence were just as significant. But no matter why the world failed to step forward, the fact remains that nearly one million people died, and millions more were injured and/or traumatized by the violence. If there is one message that comes through loud and clear in this film, it is this: Never again. As difficult as it is to imagine, we would be naïve to think that such atrocities will not happen again somewhere in the world. And when they do, I hope we have learned enough from our past indifference and incompetence to respond more appropriately and efficiently than we did in this situation.
Hotel Rwanda is also significant because it shows us that in the midst of the carnage (which the film mostly suggests rather than depicts), there were also people who did care. One of these people was Paul Rusesabagina, manager of the Hotel Des Milles Collines, a four star establishment in Kigali. Paul’s intentions are far from selfless at the beginning of the film. He is more focused on currying favor with the power elite than helping his fellow man. But when the killing begins, he does not hesitate to use his connections to protect Tutsi and Hutu refugees, eventually sheltering 1,286 of them in his hotel. As this film portrays, this was an extraordinary feat, made possible mainly by Rusesabagina’s influence, intelligence, bravery, and wit. Other heroic figures in this film include the embittered UN colonel tasked with watching the massacre but not intervening, a young news cameraman who lays his life on the line to get the story to the world, a Red Cross worker who is forced to witness the execution of the children she is trying to rescue, and numerous unnamed Catholic priests and nuns. With so many films, TV shows, and politicians suggesting revenge as the only appropriate response to evil, it is refreshing to see a film that demonstrates characters who embrace an alternate point of view. While the Hutus and Tutsis were slaughtering each other as a way to settle old scores—trying to overcome evil with evil—Rusesabagina and company were trying to overcome evil with good. And, miracle of miracles, it worked! For those who wonder whether there really is anything good in the midst of all the horror they witness on CNN each week, this film answers with a resounding “Yes!” There is reason for hope. All it takes is for good men and women to act boldly in the face of evil.
Finally, this film is significant because it reminds us that no matter how comfortable our lives are over here, there are always people living over there for whom comfort is but a vague thought at the bottom of a long list of primary needs. With the death toll from the South Asian tsunami still rising, this is hardly a new thought. But I am certain it will not be long before we, too, look up from our dinner at the scenes of horror caused by this natural disaster, and then resume our meal. As any aid agency will tell you, people have a tendency to respond generously to such situations out of emotion over the short term. But that response quickly fizzles out as we become immune to the images and resume our normal lives. Hence, we need films like Hotel Rwanda to help us fend off indifference and remind us that giving is not a one-time event. If we truly want to make a difference, if we truly want to prevent tragedies like Rwanda from happening again, generosity must become a lifestyle.
When it comes time for the Oscars this February (2005), I hope Hotel Rwanda is nominated for Best Picture, if only because that means more people will see it. That said; I am doubtful it will win, mainly because from an artistic point of view, it is not exactly a spectacular film. The acting is first-rate, especially by star Don Cheadle, and the script is solid. But director Terry George has chosen dramatic realism over flash and style, which may not impress some voters. I guess it all comes down to what Academy members base their votes on: style or significance. If it is the latter, Hotel Rwanda will definitely go home with the gold.
—About this Film pdf