Saturday, March 07, 2009


Cynicism and Superheroes: What Would Jesus Think?

Watchmen is the anti-superhero superhero movie.

The film is based on a 1986 graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore, which was intended to subvert and parody the comic book superhero genre - posing the question: What if the adventures of Superman and Batman actually happened in history?

The graphic novel, and now the movie, concludes that - while superheroes might have been a blessing in the 1940s and 1950s, fighting crime and Nazis honorably, by the 1960s, they would have become corrupt and selfish. If we had a Superman in the Vietnam War, he would have taken out the Viet Cong in one fell swoop, ended the war early, and given a much-loved Richard Nixon five terms in office - leading to a near-apocalyptic, depressing state of America that we see in the 1984 present day setting of Watchmen.

The superheroes in this movie are just send-ups of previous comic book heroes. Nite Owl II looks like a someone in a knock-off Batman costume (and Ozymandias' costume seems to be stolen from the set of Joel Schumacher's Batman movies with George Clooney and Val Kilmer). The main characters' roles in this movie are to ask whether our society's obsession with superheroes is misguided and silly.

But this is where Watchmen creator Alan Moore and Watchmen director Zach Snyder got it wrong.

The point of superheroes (and thus, superhero movies) is to inspire and guide us... to give us a moral compass and a thirst for social justice. Their stories are allegories of our world, and how each of us is called to be a hero. The problem is that audience sometimes get too wrapped up in the special effects and nuances of the plot rather than the core messages of courage, bravery, compassion, justice, and heroism.

That's how Watchmen misses the mark. It's not the superheroes themselves that need to be criticized for their fictional stories; rather, it's some of the people in the audience of superhero movies and comic books who don't understand the deeper meanings that need to be criticized for just not getting the point.

Watchmen has an obnoxiously cynical view of the world. For instance, the character that gets the most sympathy is Rorschach (wonderfully played by Jackie Earle Haley), and he's the one whose acts of heroism are violent, bloody, and vengeful; conversely, the movie makes the most laughable hero Nite Owl II (Patrick Wilson), who prefers a more compassionate route to justice. Compassion is silly, but vengence is admired - the movie seems to say. What a horrible message!

The Book of Ecclessiastes took a similar route in the Scriptures. The author Qoheleth even goes as far as saying "Don't be excessively just and good, and don't be too smart, lest you be ruined." (Eccl. 7:16). But cynicism does no one any good, even in the Scriptures.

To counter cynicism in his day, Jesus instructed his disciples to be excessively just and good, to be as wise as serpents, and as harmless as doves. Jesus understood the value of heroism, so much so that he lived out the greatest hero story ever told - in his ministry, on the cross, and by the wonder of the empty grave.

Cynicism might get film critics excited about the edgy Watchmen, but it is not the route that I want to take. If you really want to see a movie about the reality of superheroism, go rent The Incredibles (2004), which poses the same initial questions as Watchmen, but ends with a nod to the gospel values that make heroism worth hearing about over and over, in comic books and summer blockbusters and in real life.

So no matter what this movie says, Jesus tells us to be a hero: be compassionate to the marginalized; love those who hate you; serve those who need protection; guide those who need your wisdom; and give yourself completely to one another. That's a story worth telling!

No comments: