The Superhero Formula?

Superheroes haven’t held their ground very well this year.  Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man have struggled to hold on to the #1 spot in the box office together for even as long as last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy held the title by itself.  And then there’s Fantastic 4, a film which went from criticism, to criticism about the criticism, to apologies from the director in no time flat.

No, this summer, blockbusters like Jurassic World and Furious 7, along with Pixar’s Inside Out and newcomer Straight Outta Compton have been climbing the charts, giving Marvel’s finest a very tough battle.  Of course the modern titans will spring back.  With at least eight superpowered flicks on the slate for 2016, the odds are on their side.  But when media and tech mag The Verge put forth their explanation of why these non-superpowered films were holding their own against the modern Hercules, it begged for a response.

Superhero Films without Superheroes

The title The Verge author Bryan Bishop chose was:

The best superhero movies this summer didn’t have any superheroes at all:
The year other genres finally figured out Marvel’s secret formula

In the article (which is excellent reading; I recommend it), Bishop summed up Marvel’s “secret formula” as follows: Good superhero movies…

  1. …Always fight in a team.  Since Joss Whedon perfected the formula in 2012’s The Avengers, superhero movies that “assemble” a diverse team of power-packed people to face fearsome foes have been the rule, rather than the exception.  Even Captain America: The Winter Soldier gave Cap a team to help him out.
  2. …Always save the world (at least).  So much for the days of Batman rounding up petty thugs in Gotham City, or Superman’s quest to bring a computer hacker to justice.  Good superhero movies have to pit the good guys against real evil that threatens to destroy everybody on the planet, or maybe even everybody in the galaxy.
  3. …Are endowed with some unique and special gift.  This is a given in superhero films; The Hulk can become invulnerable and unbelievably strong, Thor has the power (and hammer) of a demigod, Wonder Woman has a magic lasso, Bruce Wayne has lots of money.

But the interesting thing about Bishop’s take on this year is how he placed several other films into these archetypes:

  • Furious 7Pitch Perfect 2, and Minions all featured diverse teams that have been built and honed over the course of previous movies;
  • Jurassic World and Mission: Impossible gave us world-threatening villains and the spectre of death looming over all of us;
  • Inside Out‘s emotions and Straight Outta Compton‘s N.W.A. are endowed with special gifts; namely, gifts of sadness and rapping, respectively.  (Hope we got that in the right order)

Building a film this way, Bishop asserts, gives it the feel of a superhero epic, even if it doesn’t feature any flying capes or aliens to punch.

Secret Identity

I won’t deny that films with these elements are strong films.  Well, most of them, anyway (I’m looking at you, Fantastic 4).  When done well, they’re like a secret sauce that makes a good concept into a great movie.  In fact, they’re some of my favorite parts of any film, epic or not.

And I’ll also agree that these elements work just as well as part of a non-superhero film as they do with spandex bodysuits.  Some of my favorite examples are:

  • Star Wars.  The rebels form a team, each with unique abilities (Leia can lead, Han can fly, Luke can use the Force), to take down a galactic threat called  Jar-Jar Binks  The Empire.
  • Harry Potter.  Voldemort and his cadre of Death Eaters threaten the entire world, wizards and muggles alike.  Only a team of young wizard students named Harry, Ron, and Hermione can stop him.
  • Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  Indy, along with his team (his dad, and friends Brody and Sallah), must use their unique skills stop the Nazis from retrieving the secret to immortality and taking over the world.
  • Back to the Future Part II features a small team – Doc and Marty, but each with their own special skills – as they race into the past to prevent a terrible, dystopian future from coming to pass in 1985.
  • The titular Fellowship of the Ring is a group of nine dwarves, elves, humans, and wizards who are assembled to destroy a ring that could bring the world to its knees if on the wrong hand.

The common thread of science fiction and fantasy running through these films is no coincidence, and serves all three “ingredients”.  Fantastic settings not only give you the most wildness in your diverse teams, they are also the simplest in which to pit your characters against world-ending terrors and equip them with unbelievable gifts to do so.

But they’re also a clue to the reality: this recipe is not some magical concoction that Marvel invented, and a superhero film certainly didn’t pioneer the idea of the fantastically-powered, team-based battle against a massive threat.  There’s a bigger, more fantastic reality behind all this.

Origin Story

Isn’t it interesting how we all seem to resonate with the same types of stories?  While audiences are vast and varied, the most popular stories share elements that almost everyone really enjoys.  Liking certain types of stories seems to be wired into our nature.

I’d say that it is wired into our nature.  But it’s not the superhero story, at least not originally.  And it didn’t start with Star Wars, either.  In fact, this story is older than time and space, and was written into our hearts and minds the moment we were born.  It’s the story of the greatest team, with the greatest powers, facing the greatest villain.

When God created the world, He didn’t do it alone.  Along with God (the Father), there was also Jesus (the Son) and the Holy Spirit, three unique beings that worked together perfectly – but also had perfectly unique specializations:

  • God the Father is the creator.  He specializes in telling stories that don’t just come to life, they are truth in themselves.  Everything He says comes to pass.
  • Jesus is the redeemer.  Sent on a rescue mission, Jesus walked the Earth and experienced firsthand the life and problems we all live with, then died a terrible death to finally defeat the villain once and for all.
  • The Holy Spirit is the connector.  He empowers us to live the way we’re supposed to live, connecting us to Jesus and the Father to make their mission possible.

So that’s the team and their powers…but who is the villain?  What world-threatening calamity looms over our story?

The villain is inside of you.  Your sin, your weakness, your rebellion against God.  Because of your heart, you would never go to God; that sin placed the whole planet under a curse.  A curse to struggle, to experience pain, to fight just to stay alive, but then to die nonetheless.

And then the team came.  Connecting you to the God who saves, redeeming us to live eternally, and creating in us a clean heart which will help restore the universe!

God wrote all of this on our hearts so that we could see the “superhero formula” and have our hearts stirred up to realize the reality.  So look behind the special effects and try to find them in every film.

• • •

Thanks for reading Redeeming Culture! If you’re new here, we’ve explained “The Story” and what it means to redeem culture before. We’d love for you to check them out. And if you like what you see and want to help us out, we’d be thankful! Click here.

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