Like a gazillion or so other folks, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man this week. As you would expect, there were roughly 374 previews. One of them was for the upcoming Batman movie. Everyone in the theater knew exactly what that preview was about .63 seconds into it. There was a collective “shhh,” and a palpable energy coursing through the room. There was a smattering of applause when it was over.
When they finally got around to showing Spider-man I thoroughly enjoyed it – much more than I thought I would (this is largely due to still trying to purge my mind of Peter Parker dancing in Spider-man 3). Leaving the theater, I was surrounded by chatter, mostly people in their teens and twenties. They were electrified by the film – genuinely captivated by it.
The reactions to Spider-man and the upcoming Batman movie tell us something about people, particularly those in the youngest couple of generations. We’ve always loved superheroes, but the current demand is for a very specific kind of hero.
This got me to thinking – what ever happened to Superman? Why isn’t he cashing in on this? You remember the Superman movie that came out in 2006? Probably not. It was a relative box-office flop and very forgettable. If we love superheroes so much, why not Superman? My thought is this – Superman is too good; too clean. He’s the strongest guy on the planet and all but indestructible. He still rocks the 1950′s comb-over.
Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker become heroes not out of an abundance of strength, but in response to incredible pain. They’re not just looking to rid the world of evil, they’re attempting to purge themselves of inner demons and deep suffering. They struggle to make the right choices, walking a fine line between justice and personal vendetta. When held up to the most recent portrayals of Peter Parker and Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent looks like a milk-toasty Boy Scout.
Broken, imperfect superheros resonate with us (particularly younger generations) because of their flaws. I can’t relate all that well to an indestructible alien that struggles to hide his awesomeness. But, a goofy teenager who can’t talk to girls, makes mistakes that cause incredible pain to himself and those he loves, and is fueled as much by assuaging guilt as a thirst for justice – this is someone I can get on board with.
There’s something important here for church leaders to grasp. Gone are the days when young people find clean-cut, slick-looking churches appealing. They’re leaving these settings in search of alternative expressions of Christian faith – messier expressions. They’re looking for broken people like themselves and finding them in coffee houses and pubs more often than in church pews. Traditional churches need to stop hand-wringing over them and start learning from them. We need to be places where real pain, big mistakes, and genuine personal struggle are the norm and where the gospel is presented not simply as whitewash, but as genuine power for surviving and redeeming the pain, suffering, struggle that we all live with.
Note: There is a group taking another run at a Superman movie to be released next year. It’s a grittier version of the story, focusing more on Kent’s personal struggles. It’s being pulled together by the producer and writer of the Dark Knight movies. I can almost guarantee you that it revitalizes the Superman franchise.