Almost everyone likes superhero movies.
Even if you’re not a comic-con going, costume-wearing aficionado, you’ve probably seen a lot of superhero movies. They tend to be predictable and way over the top, but they’re fun and easy to love.
We all know the story: hero leads normal life; hero discovers new abilities after being involved in a radioactive experiment; hero beats up bad guys but is flattened by evil villain; hero mopes around for a bit; hero gets his act together, defeats the evil villain, rescues the beautiful girl, and saves the world. The End. Until the sequel.
We’ve all seen that story play out so many times, and yet we love it. We keep going back to see it again and again. After all, it’s a good story, and it always ends well: the hero saves the day at the last moment when all hope was lost, good triumphs over evil, and the people of the world can go back to their normal lives instead of being incinerated or enslaved.
It’s a good story, but something about it has always bothered me: Why do they have to save the entire world?
Wouldn’t they still be heroes if they just saved a few people? Imagine that you met someone for the first time and were told that they once ran into a burning house and carried a little girl to safety. Would you say, “Huh. Just the one little girl, eh?” Of course not! There’s no numerical minimum for true courage and heroism, and yet superheroes must always save the world! Or at least a country or large city.
I guess it makes sense: they are superheroes, not regular heroes, after all. Just imagine BigStrongMan reporting to the Super League of Heroes at the end of his first day:
Captain Awesome: "So, BigStrongMan, what did you save today?"
BigStrongMan: "Uh, let me think: one old mailman and a dirty cat."
Captain Awesome: "That’s pathetic! Put your cape and spandex on my desk! On second thought, keep the spandex."
We all know it doesn’t work that way. Any hero worth his secret identity is going to have to prove that he can save at least several million people—and one of them had better be a girl dangling over a pit of lava. And she’d better be a pretty girl!
The same goes for the villains, but in reverse. No self-respecting super villain’s plan goes like this:
“Let’s see, I’ll create an electromagnet that sucks the spare change out of everyone’s pockets! Ha ha! I’ll never run out of laundry quarters again!”
No. He must wish to conquer the planet or flatten whole cities! He must bring an alien race to Earth to subjugate all humanity! He must build a mind control device and then put it at the top of the Empire State Building! The stakes must be high.
So, the question is: why must the stakes always be so high?
The most obvious reason that I can think of is that high stakes make the story more exciting. It’s true, so I’m sure that’s a big part of the reason, but, honestly, we’re so used to save-the-world plots that the death of a few million fictional people doesn’t faze us very much. We don’t really care about the millions—even in real life, it’s too many people to comprehend—we care about the particular characters we’ve come to like. Did he save the beautiful girl? That matters. Did he save the lovably inept sidekick? That makes us feel good. It’s hard to get our minds around anything bigger than that, and yet saving the world is part of every blockbuster plot.
I think the reason we like stories like this goes deeper than just excitement.
Here’s what I think. Feel free to disagree. I think we like to see the world saved in stories because we know the real one really does need saving.
Turn on the news for half a second, or just think about your week at work and the people you had to deal with. Think about that earthquake that left thousands of people suffering; that woman you know who’s sick and isn’t going to make it; that friend who lost his job for no reason; the people who worship in secret so they won’t be killed, or face punishment if they don’t cover their faces, or work like slaves and have no hope. Honestly, the world is really awful a lot of the time. It’s not great, and we know that. Everyone knows that.
The world needs to be saved, so we tell that story.
Let’s go a step further. We like super villains. They have cool gadgets. They have armies of minions. More importantly, they’re really, really obvious. There’s nothing secretive about a man in green robes with giant horns on his head, or a crazy man with a painted face and a machine gun. Super villains aren’t subtle, and that’s great. They are a very obvious source of evil. We might not be able to defeat them, but we sure don’t have to wander around thinking, “Why do all these bad things happen to good people?” In the stories like this, the answer is clear: “Oh yeah, it’s that gigantic monster crushing the entire city.” Super villains are obvious. We can blame them, hate them, and fight back against them. Real life isn’t like that very often.
Except that it is.
The Bible tells us that, “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” He’s out to get all of us, just like those super villains, he's just too subtle and crafty to wear a silly outfit or let us know what he’s up to. We know and feel evil in the world, and want it to be stopped, so we tell that story. We tell it, listen to it, and wish it were true. We wish there were a hero coming to save us.
Ready for the best part?
There is a hero. He already came.
No, I’m not saying Jesus is a superhero. I’m saying He’s so much better than that. He’s not Superman, He’s God-Man, and that’s a lot better. He also didn’t do the things we’d expect to defeat the evil villain. He won by dying. How’s that for a plot twist?
So here’s the point. We love save-the-world stories not just because they’re fun, but also because they reflect something we know to be true about the world: it’s messed up and needs saving. We love superheroes because we know we’re not up to saving the world ourselves and need someone else to do it. There is something true there: there is a real hero, and He did save the world. There doesn’t need to be a sequel.