Superheroes dominate today’s culture. We need only look at the blockbuster films featuring compelling characters with superpowers to know that Hollywood has found a lucrative formula. The enormous success of Marvel and DC films create an endless source of heroes for our children and young adults, tapping into a need for role models in today’s world.
This escape into fantasy worlds where larger-than-life heroes battle against equally powerful but evil enemies can be concerning. Our youth seem consumed by these stories, able to describe down to the tiniest detail the extent of a character’s unique superpower.
As parents and grandparents, we see this cultural influence on our youth and worry about negative influences, perhaps even the introduction of dark forces in these films.
Attaining heroic virtue
The ancient drama of good versus evil plays out in spectacular special effects and equally impressive characters in superhero films. Today’s superhero movies continue the tradition of storytelling as a medium for conveying values. We see this in ancient Greece and the advent of theater as a means for social commentary. We see this in scriptural accounts of Jesus using parables as teaching tools. The Church uses storytelling to illustrate the events in our faith history, from Genesis to Revelation.
The ancient drama of good versus evil plays out in spectacular special effects and equally impressive characters in superhero films.
Our roles as parents and grandparents call us to bridge the fictional worlds of the superheroes with our temporal journey on earth and our spiritual journey to get to heaven. Our challenge is to catechize our youth using the cultural language they understand.
And the wonderful part of this endeavor is that we don’t need an intimate knowledge of these superheroes; we just need a willingness to engage in conversations about them with our youth. They’ll share what they love about these characters, and in turn we can share about our faith.
The superheroes have human virtues that are worth emulating, which is why so many of them become role models. These human virtues can be classified under the cardinal virtues of fortitude, prudence, temperance, and justice. Engaging in conversations about superheroes can lead to identifying the heroes’ virtues and pairing them with saints who not only share common virtues but also lead lives of heroic virtue, striving for holiness.
Models of fortitude
Superman isn’t just a powerful guy that can fly and see through objects — he uses his powers for the good of society. Superman’s courage against his enemies exemplifies fortitude, which “enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1808).
Superman not only faces danger from evil forces, but the people of Metropolis — the city he protects — fear him because of his supernatural powers. Nevertheless, he persists in protecting the city he values despite mistrust and misunderstanding.
The saints often faced misunderstanding, mistrust, and persecution because of their commitment to their faith in Jesus Christ. Many of those saints faced martyrdom with courage and fortitude. One such saint-in-the-making, Bl. Miguel Pro, exemplifies these characteristics.
Bl. Miguel was born in 1891 in Mexico. As a youth, he recognized his calling to the priesthood and entered Jesuit formation. While he was still in seminary, a wave of anti-Catholicism struck Mexico, and Bl. Miguel completed his studies in Europe. He returned to Mexico as a priest and went undercover, posing as different professions in order to take the sacraments to the people of Mexico.
Fr. Miguel served in secret until he was falsely accused of a bomb threat against a former Mexican politician. He was captured and executed by firing squad, famously refusing a blindfold and opening his arms while calling out, “Viva Cristo Rey (Long live Christ the King)!” As a martyr, he demonstrated the fortitude to face his oppressors even unto death.
Models of prudence
Spider-Man, the sarcastic teenage superhero capable of scaling walls and shooting a powerful web out of his hands, seems an unlikely example of the virtue of prudence, defined as “the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it” (CCC, 1806).
Peter Parker (Spider-Man) is an intelligent and charismatic young man who suffers a nuclear accident while on a high school field trip and discovers he has gained spider-like superpowers. His unwillingness to use his gifts results in the death of his uncle. This realization fills him with regret and haunts him, but he changes his attitude and pursues the good in the world.
Prudence guides him as he learns to choose the good, even when that puts him in danger.
St. Paul the Apostle shares some characteristics with Spider-Man. An intelligent man, St. Paul used his cleverness to persecute the early Christians until a powerful vision met him on the road to Damascus and changed him. He encountered Christ and immediately regretted having persecuted Christians (see Acts 9; 22; 26).
As a committed follower of Christ, St. Paul used his intellectual and communication skills to spread the Gospel despite persecution. Unlike Spider-Man, whose regret haunted him, St. Paul’s regret at having hurt Jesus and his followers formed him as a preacher. Paul knew and believed firsthand in Christ’s forgiveness and mercy, and he became an influential evangelist, using reason to help others arrive at the Truth.
Models of temperance
Tony Stark, known as Iron Man, was a rich weapons manufacturer interested in the worldly benefits of his station in life. A severe injury while witnessing a battle forced him to reconsider his playboy lifestyle and the selfish choices he made in pursuit of material pleasure. He turned to using his material gifts for the protection of humanity.
Stark’s injury recalibrated his values, leading him to a life of temperance, “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC, 1809). This pattern of a life-altering event occurs time and again in the lives of saints.
Like Tony Stark, St. Ignatius of Loyola lived an aristocratic life. St. Ignatius experienced success as a soldier and military leader until he was badly wounded in battle. His recovery was long, and he spent much of his time contemplating the choices that led him to this turning point in his life. Ultimately, he chose to lead a life dedicated to the Lord and is well known for developing what we know as Ignatian spirituality and for founding the Society of Jesus.
Models of justice
Wonder Woman models justice in her desire to protect the world from evil. She is unique as far as superheroes go because her motivation is love — she leads with the desire not only to save the world from evil villains, but to appeal to their own salvation.
Wonder Woman wants to find the good in the villains and help them change their ways. It doesn’t always work out that way, but she endeavors to promote “the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good” (CCC, 1807).
Heroic virtue is often displayed in subtle and quiet ways by the saints. St. Katharine Drexel, like Wonder Woman, strove to defeat injustice in the world. She worked tirelessly to provide opportunities for the marginalized in society to have access to education. She was certain this was an efficacious way to lead the needy out of poverty. Her generosity helped establish schools and colleges for Native American and African American children, leaving a legacy for generations.
Grace separates saints from superheroes
Carol Danvers, the latest Captain Marvel character, struggles with her superpowers. She knows she has limitless strength and unexplored abilities, yet she feels unworthy of her powers. During training, Danvers’ superior tells her that these powers are a gift, and gives this encouragement: “I want you to be the best version of yourself.”
If seeds of the Gospel can be found anywhere, as Bishop Robert Barron suggests, then in this scene we see how grace can operate in us to help us achieve holiness. Like Danvers’ superpower, grace is freely given to us by God and helps us become better versions of ourselves.
The superheroes inspire us and serve as role models for their positive traits. They lead exciting lives of adventure and victory, but the true path to holiness is found in quiet lives of sacrifice and prayer. These stories give us the opportunity to identify these admirable virtues, and then through contemplation, discussion, and guidance, instill those virtues in our youth.
The superheroes invite conversations where we can introduce the true source of salvation, Our Lord Jesus Christ.