Hollywood’s Summer Superhits: America’s Fascination with Superheros
Amidst much media hype, several of Hollywood’s summer movies are poised to become listed among the most financially successful films of all time. Movie critics were predicting that despite the springtime advertising blitz, movies such as Batman, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Star Trek V, and Ghostbusters II were destined to bomb at the box office. However, the public showed no boredom with sequels and Batmania, and soundly proved these predictions wrong. If you are like most Americans, you should be able to easily match the following descriptions with the above titles:
- The crew of the Enterprise is hijacked by Sybok, an Epicurean Vulcan, and Captain James T. Kirk, Dr. McCoy and Mr. Spock, recently recalled from shore leave, are led “where no man has gone before.”
- New York City is besieged by ghosts, spooks, poltergeists and spirits. The team of Venkman, Egon, Ray and Winston, coaxed out of retirement, are able to enlist the aid of a Carpathian spirit to combat psychomagnatheric slime.
- Gotham City is plagued by a psychopathic killer named Jack Napier, alias The Joker. Bruce Wayne, a millionaire dilettante turned costumed vigilante, uses technological sophistication to bring the vicious killer to justice.
- Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones, an eminent archaeologist, embarks on yet another adventure in a quest to rescue his obsessive father from the Nazis, and survives an assortment of cliffhanger episodes to foil their plan to dominate the world.
Even at face value, these are familiar plots, recognizable to even those with only a passing acquaintance with pop culture. It is a mystery to movie critics to explain why the American movie going public has become so enraptured with such predictable fare. Why are the judicious, discerning and culturally literate people of America spending millions on mindlessly repetitive entertainment?
If we consider the great need in America today for role models, do the characters give us any clue to the immense popularity of these movies? Consider the characters offered as heroes to the American audience: a pointy eared Vulcan; a 1930s styled, Saturday matinee serial hero; a comic book super hero; and former Saturday Night Live/SCTV cast members doing a take-off on an Abbot and Costello movie. Are these the central figures on which we are to pattern our lives?
Two of these movies, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Batman, are already two of the top money makers of all time. The first Ghostbusters movie was the most popular comedy film of all time; the second installment promises to do equally as well.
What is behind America’s fascination with ghosts and superheroes?
Upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that it is not the plots or characterizations of any of these movies that provides a source of compelling fascination; it is their themes which draw us. On the surface, these movies offer simple themes – a science fiction story, a comedy, a comic book motif, and a matinee serial. These genre are extremely different from one another. The common denominator is that, although they differ in form and content, every popular movie this summer seems to have had an underlying spiritual theme.
A culture devoid of spiritual values has sought to fill the vacuum with heroes who give us hope and pose answers for the problems that threaten to destroy our society. America has heard some bold suggestions from several all-too-familiar, yet well-loved characters this summer as they attempt to answer the question: “What is the meaning of life?”
Perhaps, in our sophistication as a technologically-fixed society, we have been too preoccupied with materialism to ask this question ourselves. Or perhaps we were just too embarrassed to admit that we didn’t have all the answers. The most popular movies of the summer of 1989 all ask spiritual questions. They all make use of concepts that are other-worldly, yet these ideas are not too escapist for us to easily miss their relevance.
Star Trek V introduces a new character of interest to devoted followers of the ever popular science fiction series. Sybok is the half-brother of Spock. Trekkies will immediately notice that Sybok’s temperament is diametrically opposed to his stoic logician brother, Spock. Sybok has rebelled against Vulcan culture by daring to hold faith in inner feeling and emotion, rather than logic, as the pathway to the truth. Long banished from his world, Sybok has conspired to attempt the discovery of Shakarii (which, of course, in Vulcan means heaven).
“Every culture in existence shares a belief in a place from which all life sprang,” Sybok explains. “To Terrans it is Eden; to Vulcans it is Shakarii …” Sybok is also a healer ministering deliverance from painful memories through a modified version of the Vulcan mind meld. According to Sybok, this is a victory won “by faith.” He later adds, “By making you face your pain and draw strength from it.”
If all of this isn’t an overload to our material-worldly conditioned minds, consider the following exchange between Kirk and Sybok as the exiled Vulcan explains his reason for hijacking the Enterprise:
Sybok: “My vision …. given to me by God.”
Kirk: “You’re … vision?”
Sybok: “He awaits for us on the other side.”
Kirk: “You’re mad!”
Sybok: “Am I? We’ll see.”
Is all that makes Ghostbusters II so popular its spectacular special effects and deadpan one-liners from Bill Murray? The first Ghostbusters was the highest grossing comedy of all time. The Ghostbusters movies rely heavily on proven formulas, but is there an unseen element that is drawing record audiences? Dialogue from the first movie reveals a humorous yet insightful glimpse of spiritual realities.
Winston: “Hey, Ray … Do you believe in God?”
Ray: “Never met Him.”
Winston: “Well I do … I love Jesus’ style … the Bible about the last days when the dead would rise from the grave?”
Ray: “I remember Revelation 7:12, ‘And I looked as he opened the sixth seal. And behold, there was a great earthquake and the sun became as black as sackcloth and the moon became as blood.’‘”
Winston: “Judgment Day…”
Ray: “Judgment Day (shrugs) … Every ancient religion has its own myth about the end of the world.”
Winston: “Myth? Ray, has it ever occurred to you that maybe the reason why we’ve been so busy lately is that the dead have been rising from the grave?”
Ray: (Pauses) “How about a little music.”
Another long hyped movie promises to break all box office records. The appeal of Batman has been staggering. In addition to ticket sales, the movie has generated millions of dollars in the merchandising of Bat paraphernalia. It has become bigger than the California Raisins. What is behind the obsession with a man in a cape and a mask?
Ever since the success of Superman and its sequels, the movie industry has been keenly aware of the lucrative possibility of bringing comic book characters to life. But Batman taps into the darker areas of the soul. Says production designer Anton Furst, “We wanted Gotham City to be disquieting, forbidding, dangerous. We took the worst aspects of New York and condensed them, and then stretched them up vertically.”
Into this setting, add one restless, emotionally scarred Dark Knight and you have a metaphor describing our disturbed society. Batman acts as a vigilante who offers power, righteousness and invincibility in a world that is seemingly spinning out of control. Batman offers us humanistic justice; lacking superhuman powers, he relies on technology and imagination to arrive at a post-modern perfection. Batman is an image that people have been craving; he gives us someone to emulate. The key to his immense popularity lies in the idea that through human efforts we can solve our internal conflicts and confront the problems of our society.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade offers the final installment of the Raiders series. This time Dr. Jones is searching for the Holy Grail – the cup that Jesus drank from at the Last Supper. Moments from the film’s dialogue provide us with glimpses into spiritual truths. The Grail is described as “the cup that holds the blood of Jesus Christ.” We are told that the keeper of the Grail possesses “a spring inside him welling up to eternal life.”
The senior Dr. Jones, Indiana’s father, is so obsessed with this search that he says, “The Grail is the only thing that matters … The quest for the Grail is not archaeology; it’s a race against evil.” Later in the movie we see that the Grail does indeed heal and give eternal life.
Film makers at the end of the 1980s have discovered that formulas for success often include the interweaving of a heavy spiritual theme throughout an otherwise light-hearted plot. They have discovered that, although many Americans like to see themselves as sophisticated, relying on modernistic explanations for everything, they respond favorably to themes that touch a deeper pulse.
Author Winkie Pratney has described the four-stage process by which a culture is emptied of spiritual mores and is filled with substitutes which provide a counterfeit spirituality. In less than a generation, America has come from being an irreligious material culture, to a New Age of psychic technology. For the past 40 years, America has been in a spiritual revolution. From the conservative post-war years when the Judeo-Christian concept of God was freely accepted – to the present where society has become thoroughly secularized, the spiritual needs of the people have been in a state of flux.
- In the 1950s, Americans forgot about God. Thirty or more years ago, Church attendance was at an all time high, but religion had become a status quo experience. The ’50s was a period in which Christianity became culturally irrelevant to the youth of America.
- In the 1960s, Americans forgot God’s laws. This was the most turbulent decade in recent history in which Christian values were scorned and discarded by the youth. The end result of the ’60s was the Woodstock nation – a drug induced orgy together with rock music symbolized rebellion against God’s laws.
The absence of God and His laws created a spiritual vacuum. This dilemma was succinctly articulated by Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, “When the truth is found to be lies/ And all the joy within you dies/ Don’t you want somebody to love?” America was ready for new gods and new laws.
- In the 1970s, America made up new gods. After the emergence of the “flower child” generation, new religions, such as Transcendental Meditation and a whole variety of cults, made inroads into our culture. The most popular of these new gods was, of course, SELF. The children of the ’70s became known as the “me” generation.
- In the 1980s, America made up new laws. A society had been formed without ethics. A mass amnesia had set in and most were unaware that they lived in what was once a Christian nation. At the end of the ’80s, America had become a value free society. The revolution had been completed.
This is a replay of deception carefully orchestrated by a subtle enemy. The original pattern of spiritual revolution, or “How to Destroy a Society in Four Easy Steps,” is found in Genesis 3:1-4.
“Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God really say, (Forget God) “You must not eat from any tree in the garden?”’ … ‘You will not surely die,’ (Forget God’s laws) the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God (Make up new gods), knowing both good and evil’” (Make up new laws).
The Answer to the Search
God created each one of us for fellowship with Him. After the Fall, God sent His only Son to pay the price for our sins so that fellowship with Him may be maintained. Until recently, the message of salvation was readily received in America. But many rejected faith in Jesus and instead created a society which exists in a God-shaped vacuum.
The most popular movies of the summer indicate that people are restless and searching for answers. This trend shows that many are desiring spiritual rest. Each one of these movies attempts to fill a void that is in all of us.
In Ghostbusters II, the premise is that New York is threatened by slime that is psycho-reactive. The evil unleashed on the city is a reflection of the bad vibes which characterize the Big Apple. As in the first movie, New York City is presented as a city possessed by evil spirits. This is a spiritual insight much closer to the truth than most New Agers would care to admit. The police are powerless to do anything, as are religious leaders and the mayor. “So who ya gonna call?”
Batman presents us with a similar view of the city. The Joker symbolizes the rash of serial killers and violent crime which is out of control in our society. Unable to offer a cure for our diseased society, film makers have given us a savior. Batman represents justice in a nation without God. Unlike Superman, he is a mere man; Batman suggests to us that we can become like God – that through our own efforts we can save ourselves.
In Star Trek V, we find the crew of the Enterprise truly fulfilling their mission: “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” It is surprising to note that the highly intelligent and logical Spock at no time denies that God exists. In the wake of recent scandals in televangelism, is it possible that God has found a Vulcan to spread the gospel? It is refreshing for audiences to see Mr. Spock going “In Search of God.”
As Sybok correctly tells us, inner healing is found by faith. One element is missing, however – only Jesus Christ has the power to heal sickness and the pain of past memories.
The saving grace of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the presence of the elder Dr. Henry Jones, played by Sean Connery. Dr. Jones sincerely believes that eternal life and the power to heal are found in the cup used by Jesus. But he neglects to answer one question: “What was in the cup?”
According to the Bible, the cup is “Father … not what I will, but what You will” (Mark 14:36). In this passage, Jesus prays to His Father indicating His willingness to go to the cross. His obedience made your obedience possible. Repentance, turning from what you want and what you desire, is a necessary part of true salvation. However, you cannot save yourself; repentance merely puts you in a position to receive the great gift of eternal life that a loving God has for you.
Eternal life is knowing God. Although the summer’s most popular movies deal with the theme of man’s great spiritual need, they skirt the central issue – that this new life is found in a relationship with Jesus Christ. This answer has not been directly given, but hopefully many are asking the same question posed by Dr. “Bones” McCoy at the end of Star Trek V: “I was speculating: Is God really out there?”