Superheroes dominate our current entertainment culture. I don’t think anyone would dispute that. Every year superhero films and TV shows are among the highest-grossing, highest rated, and most talked about films Hollywood releases. And this trend shows no sign of slowing down. This year alone at the movies we’re getting Black Widow, Shang-Chi, The Eternals, The Suicide Squad, and Spider-Man: No Way Home — all of which are expected to be some of the biggest players at the domestic and global box office — after 2019’s Avengers: Endgame broke the record to be the highest-grossing movie of all time. TV is even more saturated, with the CW giving us new seasons of Flash and Supergirl on top of the new Superman and Lois show, Disney+ giving us WandaVision, Falcon and The Winter Soldier (both of which were some of the most talked about shows on Twitter during their runs), Loki, and Miss Marvel, Amazon’s The Boys and Invincible, HBO Max’s Harley Quinn and Doom Patrol, and Netflix’s Umbrella Academy and Jupiter’s Legacy.

This explosion of popularity in superheroes has led to something of a backlash and bewilderment on behalf of many in the film industry. Legendary film director Martin Scorsese famously wrote that superhero movies were “not cinema.”

Scorsese explained, “Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”[1]

Equally legendary filmmaker Francise Ford Coppola went further. “When Martin Scorsese says that the Marvel pictures are not cinema, he’s right because we expect to learn something from cinema, we expect to gain something, some enlightenment, some knowledge, some inspiration . . . I don’t know that anyone gets anything out of seeing the same movie over and over again,” the 80-year-old filmmaker said, according to Yahoo! News. “Martin was kind when he said it’s not cinema. He didn’t say it’s despicable, which I just say it is.”[2]

Actress and director Jodie Foster added her voice to the condemnation of superhero movies, saying, “Studios making bad content in order to appeal to the masses and shareholders is like fracking — you get the best return right now but you wreck the earth.” Then, in a final jab, she said, “It’s ruining the viewing habits of the American population and then ultimately the rest of the world.”[3]

These critics of superhero movies wrongly assume that the appeal of superhero movies is shallow and that the popularity of superheroes are both a sign and an encouragement of shallow tastes in the audience. However, this could not be further from the truth.

The reason superheroes are dominant in pop culture is because they appeal better than any other content right now in our modern society to our deep human need to worship. Far from being a shallow need which our desire to fill something bad about us, worship is a deep need that speaks to how we were created to be.

WORSHIP AND THE MOVIES

Merriam Webster defines worship as:

 

(verb) 1: to honor or show reverence for as a divine being or supernatural power, 2: to regard with great or extravagant respect, honor, or devotion (a celebrity worshipped by her fans) (intransitive verb) : to perform or take part in worship or an act of worship;

(noun) 1: reverence offered a divine being or supernatural power

also : an act of expressing such reverence, 2: a form of religious practice with its creed and ritual, 3: extravagant respect or admiration for or devotion to an object of esteem, 4 (chiefly British) : a person of importance — used as a title for various officials (such as magistrates and some mayors)[4]

 

Taken together, these definitions match the common understanding of worship (at least in religious circles) as a universal human impulse toward extreme devotion and extravagant admiration for someone or something that inspires praise and sacrifice — whether it’s toward a deity or something else. Philosopher James K.A. Smith wrote in Desiring the Kingdom that people are built primarily to love, and what you love most and build your life around is what you “worship.”

 

This sort of ultimate love could also be described as that to which we ultimately pledge allegiance; or, to evoke language that is both religious and acting, our ultimate love is what we worship. . . . It’s not what I think that shapes my life from the bottom up; it’s what I desire, what I love, that animates my passion. To be human is to be the kind of creature who is oriented by this kind of primal, ultimate love — even if we never really reflect on it. [5]

 

People get joy from praising what they worship. C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia, explains it this way in his Reflections on the Psalms:

 

But the most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or any thing — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honor. I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise unless (sometimes even if) shyness or the fear of boring others is deliberately brought in to check it. The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favorite game — praise of weather, wines, dishes, actors, motors, horses, colleges, countries, historical personages, children, flowers, mountains, rare stamps, rare beetles, even sometimes politicians or scholars. I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least . . .

I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.[6]

 

If worship is one of the deepest parts of what it means to be human, it shouldn’t surprise anyone to suggest that people go to movies in order to worship. And the data bears that out. All of the most popular and highest-grossing movies are about admirable people we want to cheer for being willing to sacrifice and die for higher ideals. Read any top box office list, including the top movies of all time.[7] You will find it populated entirely by stories that praise individuals who live up to some ideal greater than themselves. The top movies on every list are superheroes (Avengers, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Avengers: Infinity War, Avengers: Endgame, Black Panther, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Star Wars: The Force Awakens), romances (Titanic, Avatar, Frozen), royalty (Black Panther, Frozen), the glory of nature (Jurassic World, Avatar), and the beauty of family (Furious 7, Toy Story 3, Frozen). All these movies draw us to cheer for people who sacrifice their lives, their fortunes, and whatever else for some ideal, whether it’s their families, true love, the environment, or for their communities. These are all movies that compel us to praise the people they tell stories about, idealized men and women who sacrifice everything to defeat evil, to find true love, to defend nature, to save their families and who — every step of the way — prompt us to cheer for them as they do. You cannot find an exception anywhere. These are not merely “entertaining” movies. Comedies are entertaining, but they’re barely on the list. That’s because most comedies don’t primarily draw you to admire anyone or anything, but rather to laugh at them, even if it’s affectionately. (This is why even the highest grossing comedy of all time — Minions — is all about worship; it’s about a group of friends looking for a master worth devoting themselves to.) These stories inspire a desire to cheer for and praise both the people we admire and the ideal they are willing to die for — whether it’s the earth, romantic love, family, a city, etc.

Writers have also remarked on the similarity between the church and the movie theaters specifically — that they are both spaces specifically designed to inspire the impulse to worship. Betsy K. Brown wrote for Christianity Today:

 

The architecture of the church and the cinema may vary from place to place, but whether ornate or not, the structure of the buildings promise something lovely to come. We enter doors into a large, dimly-lit room. It is a hushed, open space. We sit side-by-side. We hear music. We hear carefully-chosen words. We see a place that has been set with care, a place meant to be beautiful. This aesthetic finger points toward the story that unfolds in the space — the story of the film, the story of the liturgy. Each story is new, but it is also very old. As famous screenwriter and teacher Robert McKee says, stories in film help us discover what it means to be human by wrapping a universal experience in a culture-specific expression.[8]

 

The connection between religious worship and the movie theater is also a historical one. Movies have their roots in the tradition of theater, and theater has its roots in the tradition of public religious ritual. Greek theater evolved from religious celebration of Dionysus.[9] After the Roman empire collapsed, the church revived the theater within the church walls before it became so elaborate that they moved it outside to open-air performances before finally creating buildings specifically for theater: “theaters”.[10] When the technology for film was invented, people tried different uses for it, but the most popular use took the form of “filmed plays” that we experience collectively in a literal “movie theater”.[11] Over the next several decades in film, audiences consistently validated every development movies went through that made it more and more an experience built around worship, from making movies longer and bigger with The Birth of a Nation, the invention of the Blockbuster in the 70s with Jaws, and the invention of the Mega-Blockbuster in the 90s with Titanic.[12] In fact, the Mega-Blockbuster was so successful that Hollywood switched to making almost exclusively Mega-Blockbusters from that point on. (This is the exact opposite of Martin Scorsese’s contention that people only watch Blockbusters because those are the only movies that movie theaters will show. In fact, the reason that movie theaters mostly show these movies is because when people had the choice between the kind of movies that Martin Scorsese prefers and the Blockbuster film, they consistently and overwhelmingly chose the Blockbuster.)[13]

It was in this context that superheroes became the main vehicles for Hollywood because they were the most effective representations for worship in cinema when worship cinema was what Hollywood was paying for.

So what is it about superheroes in particular that make them such successful worship cinema?

WHY SUPERHEROES ARE PERFECT WORSHIP CINEMA

Worship in church involves three things that superheroes imitate better than any other film genre: admiration, audience inclusion, and iconography.

  1. Admiration

In church, the object of worship is God. People gather in church to worship God by hearing sermons, seeing images, reciting prayers, and singing songs that all exist to pull the attendant’s focus to the greatness of God and why he is worthy of our love and praise: his love, his mercy, his power, his faithfulness, etc. The church architecture, songs, images, and sermons tell a story about God’s goodness and power and his choice to save us at the cost of his own life — proving his praiseworthiness which is supposed to elicit praise and worship. Even the architecture is designed to draw the eye upwards to contemplate what is above you — which is God.

Superheroes, likewise, are objects of wonder and admiration. Superheroes have traits that we admire, taken to the extreme. They are strong and powerful. They are good and admirable. They are beautiful and have sex appeal. They go on adventures and have witty banter. They are independent and have interesting personalities but also can live in community with each other and have strong bonds that we are lacking in our lives. And, of course, they can confront evil and defeat it.

Most movie protagonists have traits we admire — but superheroes can push these admirable traits to their limits. Typical action-heroes like cowboys, spies, and soldiers are strong — but not Superman or even Batman strong. James Bond is a great fighter, smooth with the ladies, and deft with his great gadgets, but, to paraphrase the famous song, anything he can do, Batman and Iron Man can do better. Sports heroes are strong, but not Hulk strong. Romantic heroes are beautiful, but superheroes are equally beautiful — and have the benefit of being powerful and heroic whereas romantic heroes are ordinary and often selfish. And horror film protagonists are constantly parodied for how unadmirable they typically are.

  1. Audience Inclusion

In church worship the attendee is not left to gaze upon God at a distance without access to this greatness. That would create resentment, not worship, because we love beauty that we can possess but resent beauty we cannot possess (hence the “sour grapes” fable and expression). The story that the church tells gives several ways that those who participate in church can participate in God’s glory: by accepting God as Lord we gain a relationship with him and get to enjoy access to him in the same way lovers gain access to each other; we gain access to his glory by being newly related to him as his adopted children; by imitating his loving and sacrificial life we gain — in a small way — the glory that comes from doing many of the things that make him worthy of glory. This is one reason why churches tell stories of Biblical heroes as well as the martyrs and the saints: the praising and remembering the smaller deeds by fallen humans like us shows us that we can follow in God’s footsteps and be worthy of smaller but similar praise.

Superheroes also make sure that we can be like the heroes we admire by making them as much like us as they are better than us. Spider-Man has superpowers and heroic morals, but he also is just an ordinary kid, has bad luck, a lousy boss, girl troubles, makes selfish choices, struggles with guilt, and has to make rent. Tony Stark is an ordinary guy with a great invention, as is Bruce Banner; Batman just has a lot of money. Even those who are not technically human like Superman, Wonder Woman and Thor look like us and behave exactly like us except for their powers. Because these characters are just like us except with powers, that gives us the perfect union of both the desire to admire something and the desire to be like the thing we admire.

Other genres with characters as powerful as superheroes lack this level of humanity that makes us feel like we could be them. Franchises like Godzilla or Transformers have monster protagonists that do not look like us and often cannot communicate with us. Therefore they rely on additional human protagonists to give us someone to relate to while the monsters give us something to admire. Superheroes more efficiently give us both the admiration and reliability in the same protagonist.

  1. Iconography

One of the chief ways that church inspires worship is with its imagery and iconography. Images can hold a hundred thousand ideas, stories, concepts, feelings within them all at once that those looking at them can experience without having to think about it. This makes them very powerful in worship where they can efficiently remind the congregation of the reasons God and those who follow him are worthy of their admiration and inspire worship before a word is said — then words can be used to add more to the worship. Within the cross or crucifix of Jesus you can recall the entire story of God’s self-sacrificial love and redemption of humanity. Icons and images of saints would have particular images associated with them, like halos, lambs, or walking sticks, that represent ideas that the audience would be familiar with — and which would be instant reminders of why they are worthy of admiration.

Film is primarily a visual medium, so characters who are highly visual especially fit that medium — and boy, do superheroes deliver. Like icons, superheroes wear the ideas they represent on their bodies in the form of their highly eye-catching and symbolic costumes. This keeps the ideas they represent always in front of us even when they aren’t talking about those ideas. Captain America wears a flag on his chest, and Red Skull wears a Nazi symbol; this means that without saying a word, we feel every fight between them is a fight between freedom and tyranny — which makes the impact much more powerful and makes us feel it more deeply, and which frees the filmmakers up to use the dialogue to add depth and drama to these ideas. In both WandaVision and Falcon and The Winter Soldier costume changes become ways of visually representing a character’s mental state, whether it’s their attempt to live an idealized life or choosing to accept a new identity. Superhero costumes are the ultimate in the literary rule of “show-don’t-tell.”

All genres do this but always in a milder way than superheroes. Romantic comedies have men dress in masculine outfits and women in feminine outfits so we associate them with ideas of masculinity and femininity without thinking about it. James Bond’s suits and Indiana Jones’s hat are memorable and iconic. But superheroes’ costumes are so loud and so explicit that their power is far stronger in evoking a reaction.

This is why going to a Marvel film on opening night is so similar to going to church. When I first watched the first Avengers film in 2012, I was surrounded by fellow fans in a movie theater watching characters I related to. We exchanged quips and admired overcome challenges and beaten bad guys. We screamed and cheered and laughed together as one so that we made each other scream and cheer and laugh harder. I had this experience again during the final battle at the end of Avengers: Endgame. The art form was built around giving a communal experience of worship exactly the way a church was designed to.

WHY THE BACKLASH

This brings us back to why there is so much backlash against superheroes by some in the filmmaking community. If worship is such a deep human impulse, why do these great filmmakers dismiss these films as a shallow and debasing art form? Why is it they don’t recognize these films for what they are?

Well, there is one possible — partial — explanation. They see worship as the problem.

The filmmakers who most strongly object to superhero movies have some interesting things in common with their filmography. Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Jodie Foster all tend to gravitate towards the same kinds of stories: deconstructive stories. They tell stories that deconstruct their central characters rather than build up their central characters. They generally tell stories that take a person or idea that you admire and then deconstruct them before your eyes so that you can no longer admire them.

Take your average Martin Scorsese film. A handsome and talented man who is struggling to get by meets an older man who has everything he wants, so he models himself after him and becomes part of his world, which leads him to get everything he dreams of, until he discovers that the lifestyle he thought he wanted ends up destroying him and everything he cared about. This is true whether you’re talking about Goodfellas, Raging Bull, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even arguably Silence. Francis Ford Coppola similarly tells stories that are about men falling prey to corruption and deconstructing ideals, like The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Conversation. Jodie Foster is the least deconstructive of the bunch, but her protagonists are almost always broken and dysfunctional people who are objects of sympathy rather than admiration.

Contrast that with your average Marvel movie, which goes the other direction. Somebody is often unadmirable, like the irresponsible Tony Stark or Thor, and then they realize that they should be better than they are, so they change and become admirable. We end by looking up to them and being inspired by them rather than being turned away from them and being disgusted by them.

To filmmakers like Scorsese, Coppola, and Foster, it might be that deconstructive filmmaking and storytelling is more truthful about the world than worshipful storytelling and therefore more meaningful. It is not that to them deconstruction is one truthful way to see the world, but the most — or perhaps only — way to see the world. (In fact, even both of Martin Scorsese’s religious films, The Last Temptation of Christ and Silence, were largely about deconstructing faith.) To them, worshipful storytelling feels good to us but is not good for us. It’s candy rather than real food — it’s filler, but it’s not what our souls really need. One can’t say for certain why this is, but it could have to do with their view of the world and of the human person. They look around the world and they see that, ultimately, everyone that they admire or they see worth admiring has disappointed them, and that that instinct to worship ends up with people blindly following evil men or evil ideas, and that wisdom and truth lead you to see that the instinct to admire or worship is misplaced.

There is, of course, sense to this. You only have to turn on the news or go on Twitter to see how many people we admire regularly fall from grace and reveal themselves to be evil men and women. And from a Christian perspective, all are sinners, and anything that we worship in our life that is not God is going to let us down and draw us further into idolatry and sin. It is why Christians have historically been frightened of theater and movies and superheroes and Dungeons and Dragons and anything else that excites a human’s worship because Christians know the danger of such things.

That said, the filmmaker must understand that you cannot get rid of the problem of bad worship by getting rid of worship. People are made to worship and worship is good for us. Psychology has shown the numerous benefits of worship. Worship makes people healthier and more moral. People who spend time experiencing something bigger than them that fills them with awe — such as being at the Grand Canyon, or a beautiful church, or — become more peaceful and less stressed. They also become more humble, less selfish, more loving, and more generous to others.

From Psychology Today:

 

Recent studies exploring this complex emotion have discovered compelling connections between the experience of awe and enhanced critical and creative thinking faculties, improved health, a sense of embeddedness into collective folds and an increase in pro-social behaviours such as kindness, self-sacrifice, co-operation and resource-sharing. Awe is also one of the few emotions that can reconfigure our sense of time and immerse us in the present moment.[14]

 

Watching stories about heroes is especially good for us. According to Jonathan Haidt, watching someone you admire causes you to experience a state called elevation. When people experience elevation, they feel a mix of awe, reverence, and admiration for a morally beautiful act. The emotion is described as similar to calmness, warmth, and love. Haidt argues that elevation is “elicited by acts of virtue or moral beauty; it causes warm, open feelings in the chest.”[15] The emotion of elevation, which warms and uplifts us, also includes a desire to become a better person. According to Haidt, elevation “motivates people to behave more virtuously themselves.”[16] The elevation we feel upon witnessing a heroic act transforms us into believing we are capable of heroic acts ourselves.

Moreover, if history has taught us anything, it is that getting rid of one object of worship doesn’t stop people from worshiping, but simply causes humans to replace it with another. David Foster Wallace famously wrote that everyone worships. “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”[17] The Enlightenment project to get rid of God only made men replace it with fascism, communism, patriotism, materialism, individualism, and a million other secular objects of worship. There really is no way to keep people from worshiping.

So the solution cannot be to get rid of worship but to direct people to the right object of worship. In fact, you might say that filmmakers like Martin Scorsese have aided the success of superhero movies by not making movies that feature alternative objects of worship. If all you do is deconstruct, you leave people vulnerable to anyone who has an alternative to put in its place.

Christians, likewise, often worry that superhero movies will cause people to worship superheroes rather than God. And it is true that it would be much better if people spent more time worshiping at church than they do worshiping at the movies. But like with the deconstructive filmmakers, this says more about the failure of churches to make their worship as compelling as movies are. It is a call to Christian filmmakers to make their movies that worship God as compelling as superhero movies are. Moreover, saying superhero movies cause people to worship superheroes isn’t really true. Superheroes do not draw worship toward themselves, but toward their ideals. We know this because superheroes fight for others and are willing to die for things that they believe are greater than themselves — meaning that the heroes themselves are not the meaning of life but simply point the way to the meaning of life. A superhero who does not do this is simply not a superhero in the traditional sense. This is the difference between an icon and an idol. An idol draws worship toward itself, and an icon directs worship elsewhere. The only question is whether the heroes are fighting for ideals that are the right ideals or the wrong ideals.

None of this is to say that there is no place for primarily deconstructive storytelling like that preferred by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. And none of this is to say that the world would not be better with more variety in movies. One of the great things about Netflix is that it has created a business model that has made the mid-budget movie financially viable again. Far from crowding out weird indie films, superhero movies have elevated the profile of directors like Taka Wattiti to the degree that there is greater attention and money for their smaller indie projects.

The point is this: the reason for the popularity of superheroes today is not because of something wrong with us, but because of something right with us. We are meant to worship. Those who wish to elevate different types of stories need to learn from what the love of superheroes tells us about the human person and the deepest parts of their needs.


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Citation Information

Joseph Holmes, “Superheroes and Worship,” An Unexpected Journal: Superheroes 4, no. 2. (Summer 2021), 2-32.

Direct Link: http://anunexpectedjournal.com/superhero-movies-are-worship-not-theme-parks/


Endnotes

[1] Catherine Shoard, “Martin Scorsese Says Marvel Movies Are ‘Not Cinema’,” The Guardian, last modified October 4, 2019, accessed May 10, 2021, www.theguardian.com/film/2019/oct/04/martin-scorsese-says-marvel-movies-are-not-cinema.

[2] Ryan Lattanzio, “Francis Ford Coppola Says Marvel Movies Are ‘Despicable’,” IndieWire, last modified October 20, 2019, accessed May 10, 2021, www.indiewire.com/2019/10/francis-ford-coppola-marvel-1202183238/.

[3] Dino-Ray Ramos, “Jodie Foster Slams Superhero Movies, Compares Studios’ ‘Bad Content’ To Fracking,” Deadline, last modified January 3, 2018, accessed May 10, 2021, deadline.com/2018/01/jodie-foster-black-mirror-superhero-movies-marvel-studios-dc-1202234126/.

[4] “Worship,” Merriam-Webster, accessed May 10, 2021, www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/worship.

[5] James K.A., Smith, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Ada, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 51.

[6] C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020), 93, Digital Edition.

[7] “These Are the Biggest Box Office Hits of All Time,” Newsday, last modified April 26, 2021, accessed May 10, 2021, www.newsday.com/entertainment/movies/the-biggest-box-office-hits-of-all-time-1.30503303.

[8] Betsy Brown, “The Cathedral and the Movie Theater,” Christianity Today, last modified January 29, 2015, accessed May 10, 2021, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2015/january-web-only/cathedral-and-movie-theater.html.

[9] “The Greeks – The Origins of Theatre – The First Actor,” PBS, accessed May 10, 2021, www.pbs.org/empires/thegreeks/background/24a_p1.html.

[10] Oscar Gross Brockett and Franklin J. Hildy, History of the Theatre (London: Pearson, 2014).

[11] “The History of Movies,” Understanding Media and Culture: An Introduction to Mass Communication, accessed May 10, 2021, saylordotorg.github.io/text_understanding-media-and-culture-an-introduction-to-mass-communication/s11-01-the-history-of-movies.html.

[12] Barry Langford, Film Genre: Hollywood and Beyond (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 244.

[13] Jason Bailey, “How the Death of Mid-Budget Cinema Left a Generation of Iconic Filmmakers MIA,” Flavorwire, last modified December 9, 2014, accessed May 10, 2021, www.flavorwire.com/492985/how-the-death-of-mid-budget-cinema-left-a-generation-of-iconic-filmmakers-mia.

[14] Emma Stone, “The Emerging Science of Awe and Its Benefits,” Psychology Today, last modified April 27, 2017, accessed May 10, 2021, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understanding-awe/201704/the-emerging-science-awe-and-its-benefits.

[15] Scott T. Allison, “5 Surprising Ways That Heroes Improve Our Lives,” Psychology Today, last modified April 16, 2014, accessed May 10, 2021, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/why-we-need-heroes/201404/5-surprising-ways-heroes-improve-our-lives.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Mike Knetzger, “‘Everybody Worships: What Do You Worship?”, David Foster Wallace, Medium, last modified March 12, 2020, accessed May 10, 2021, medium.com/@mike.knetzger/everybody-worships-what-do-you-worship-david-foster-wallace-52f3bcf2287f.

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