This isn’t just a post about superheroes, this is a post about an issue that is posed by superhero media, and that is the issue of human strength. The idea of the title is that you can remove or keep the words in the brackets as you wish and it still describes what I’m talking about, and I suppose that an underlying assumption of this is that even within purely secular entertainment, I believe that there are elements of God’s truth that can be found. That said, there’s also stuff that’s very much human in origin, stuff that’s not of God, and this post hopefully hits an area that holds the two in tension.
The thing about most superheroes is that they’re better than your average human in some way. Whether it’s Tony Stark’s brain, the Flash’s speed or Superman’s everything, they all have something special that we average humans don’t have. Most of them are drawn as beautiful humanoid specimens, the ideal of what humanity could be, or even beyond that. They are the epitome of strength and humanity’s dreams of progress.
They’re also deeply flawed. Any superhero created or portrayed now as having no weaknesses would be seen as wooden and two-dimensional. Some have well known weaknesses or threats to their powers, like Superman’s Kryptonite, whilst others are flawed on a more human level. Take Tony Stark’s battles with alcoholism or Bruce Banner’s tortured mental state. Take Matt Murdock’s blindness that has him walking with the aid of a cane when he’s not Daredevil, or the horrendous physical injuries that forced Cyborg to become what he is. These heroes might be ideal on one level, but on another they struggle with very real, human problems.
This is the tension of superheroes: they are at once supremely invulnerable and intensely vulnerable. It’s pretty much a paradox; even in their strength there is weakness. This is where I see God’s truth. In the Bible, strength and weakness go hand in hand. There’s 2 Corinthians 12:9, where Paul tells us that God said to him, ‘my power is made perfect in weakness’, and goes on to say in verse 10, ‘when I am weak, then I am strong’. They’re odd statements, and they fit with this paradox. It seems to me like what the Bible is saying and what superhero media affirms is that we can’t be human without weakness. Even more, we recognise humanity and can identify with it better when we see flaws. Without the flaws, it’s just not real.
But the flipside of this is the idolatry of the self. Superheroes nearly always find the strength within them to claim victory in the end. It’s the ‘believe in yourself’ mentality, that you can do anything if you just believe in it. As a Christian, I see this as way wide of the mark. The reason that Jesus had to die to save us was that none of us were capable of saving ourselves. By saying that we have the strength to turn everything around and to find our own victory, we’re putting ourselves in God’s place, because only God is capable of that.
But if there’s a seeming paradox in Christianity, that in our weakness we are strong, there is more of a paradox here. The paradox of Christianity is not really a paradox at all, because the strength doesn’t come from us, it comes from God. In our weakness we realise that we need him, and we learn to rely on his strength. However, the idolatry of the self leaves us with nothing. I’ve already explained how superhero media, with its highlighting of weakness and flaws, suggests that we recognise humanity through those flaws, and yet the idolatry of the self says that we can do anything if we believe in ourselves…even though those flaws remain. We can’t be both fundamentally weak and able to claim our own victories. As with all idols, the idol of the self will eventually lead to hurt, disappointment, and disillusionment. It makes promises that it can’t keep.
The only way that weakness can be found in strength is if that strength comes from a source that won’t let us down. Superhero media, as much as I love it, doesn’t give us that source. God is the source that won’t let us down and we can trust in that because he has already done everything that needs to be done in order for our weakness to be turned into strength. God hasn’t left anything to chance; he hasn’t given us any ‘what ifs?’ because through the death of Jesus we can know the life that he promised.
Yes, we are weak, and no, we are not strong enough to save ourselves. But the lie of the self says that we are strong enough, and it’s a lie that will only lead to more brokenness. Superhero media shows us our weakness, as do many other things, and the key to strength is realising that we were never expected to find it on our own.