The Spiritual State of This Summer’s Superhero Movies

A scene from "X-Men: Days of Future Past."
A scene from “X-Men: Days of Future Past.”
With summer beginning to take hold, it’s once again time to welcome the droves of big-budget action blockbusters to the silver screen, and chief among them is the hottest trend in movies today: the superhero flick. This “summer” alone, we’ve already had three, and it’s only the beginning of June! Still, as I’ve said before, I believe firmly in the Jesuit tradition of finding God in all things, and summer superhero features are no exception. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at the three examples of comic book cinema — Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and X-Men: Days of Future Past — and see just what spiritual wisdom we can glean from their spandex-clad stars.

Captain America
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, at times feeling more like a Bond-esque spy movie than a superhero tale, is a story packed to the brim with espionage, double-crossing, and plenty of lies. If nothing else, the movie repeatedly emphasizes one point about the titular Captain’s dealings with his “allies” in modern society (namely, the government agency S.H.I.E.L.D.) — there is no one he can trust.

While this may make sense in the high-stakes setting that Winter Soldier establishes, it’s certainly not the best take-away for us as an audience. However, it’s what Cap does in spite of constantly being told to “trust no one” that should inspire our confidence. You see, even as “friends” turn out to be not so friendly and enemies draw ever nearer, our hero isn’t shaken. He doesn’t retreat into himself and start shutting out the people that matter to him, or lash out at those who have wronged him. Instead, he finds the people in his life that he can trust, keeps them close, and does his best to make everything right. Even in the face of his greatest betrayer, who seeks nothing less than to kill him, Cap first seeks a peaceful resolution to their conflict, begging his friend to remember the good times they had together, to not throw away their friendship.

There’s a lot we can learn from Captain America’s example. He doesn’t give up on his friends, and knows the value of the community of support he has. In this regard, he demonstrates the importance of finding community in our lives. Whether in our parishes, our neighborhoods, or just among the friends we choose to keep present in our lives (from work, school, and so on), we must make the conscious choice to surround ourselves with people who will support us when we need it — and we mustn’t forget to extend the same courtesy to those we care about when they need our support, too!

In the spirit of this community-driven attitude, let’s take a look now at X-Men: Days of Future Past. The X-Men have always had a strong focus on community, in regard to both the strong ties among the members of the mutant subculture and their struggle with the larger community, where acceptance is difficult to find. Never have both sides of this coin been more evident than in the latest X-Men film. In Days of Future Past, Wolverine goes back in time to unite the torn mutant community of 1973 and prevent a string of events that will lead to genocide against the mutants and a hellish dystopia by 2023.

The mutants must band together despite their differences if they hope to be accepted by the general populace. Moreover, they must work together to show the rest of humanity that they are not something to be feared — as Professor X calls them in the title of his school, they are simply “gifted” with extraordinary powers. Similarly, in today’s world we must learn to embrace those who are different from us. Even if we don’t share race, gender, sexuality, religious beliefs, political stances, or the like, we are all human beings nonetheless, and deserve respect and acceptance from each other.

In the end, Professor X ends up inspiring the mutants of 1973 to look forward to a brighter future than the one they were warned about. “We are the sum of our choices,” he says, “as what we do now defines what we will do. Infinite decisions mean infinite consequences, for the future is never truly set.”

It is just this sort of undying hope that drives The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Hope can be a powerful tool to combat the darkness that we see all-too-frequently in the world today. Hope is why we root for Spidey — because even when he faces his darkest hour (as one could argue well that he does in TASM2), you know deep in your heart that soon he’ll get right back to swinging among New York City’s skyscrapers and webbing up some baddies. It may not be easy for Spider-Man to put his troubles behind him, but because of what he stands for, because he can be the light that hope brings to the darkness, he’ll stand up and do what’s right in the end.

Ultimately, these three films come together in an interesting way, particularly in light of the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love/charity, if you’re curious.) The three movies exemplify the virtues, each in their own way: Captain America shows us faith through the title hero’s devotion and care for his friends; Spider-Man showcases hope through the web-slinger’s willingness to embody the ideal in his actions; finally, we find love in X-Men through the film’s message of acceptance and the transformative power of love and kinship. These movies cut deeper than your average superhero fare, and we as an audience definitely leave the theater better for it.