A flock of worshippers assemble to watch their god in action—they recite catchphrases, collect memorabilia, and habitually read from their sacred text: comics. The way some fans treat superheroes make the superhero genre seem like a secular religion.
The superheroes fans gravitate towards what often reflect their own personal beliefs. When heathens criticize their favourite superheroes, fans take it as a direct insult to them and quickly defend their faith and god.
With the plethora of biblical allusions, religious references, and the ever-pervasive theme of good versus evil, it is quite easy to draw a comparison to the genre and religion.
DC Comics, in particular, loves pushing this idea. Superman is an alien with god-like abilities: super strength, heat vision, cold breath, super speed, super hearing, flight, and invincibility to everything except kryptonite—and, arguably, humans.
Is he overpowered? Probably. Will I watch it anyway? Yes.
Their recent films portray Superman as a messianic figure.
In Batman v. Superman, Lex Luthor refers to the impending fight between Superman and Batman as “God versus Man.” In the movie, Superman dies as a sacrifice to save many. Then, in Justice League, he is resurrected and triumphs over evil.
Sound familiar? It is the story of Jesus Christ: a saviour sent to earth to die to save the world and who then rises from the dead.
Like Christ, the humans depend on Superman as a saviour. The only big difference, according to The New York Times, is the way each figure deals with evil and criticism. I would also argue that Superman doesn’t leave after his resurrection. It is not necessarily that Superman is special. If Krypton still existed, he wouldn’t be any different from the other Kryptonians. It is when you juxtapose this “all-powerful” being with the average human that the reverence and dependence is born.
In Batman’s dream sequence, Superman shoots down a sandy tunnel, a plume of dust flies when he lands, and the soldiers kneel at his feet. Kneeling is the ultimate gesture of surrender in superhero films. Kneeling is reserved for kings and gods as a sign of loyalty and submission.
You salute soldiers. You bow to kings. You kneel to gods.
In religions where God is a king, the action of the soldiers in Batman’s dream makes sense.
Movies where the protagonist is an actual king, such as Black Panther, highlight these similarities even more. Through the ingestion of a heart-shaped herb, T’Challa enhances his physical abilities and he is crowned king of Wakanda, a fictional African nation with advanced technology. The king protects his kingdom and his people from those who seek to use Vibranium for evil.
The difference lies in the complexity through which movies like Black Panther portray humans. Although, we are usually tempted to categorize citizens of Wakanda as good and Killmonger as evil, the movie pushes us to reconsider. In that way, Black Panther is not about a god-like character, but humans with enhanced abilities who have strengths and weaknesses.
In addition, the way audiences adore the film through their repeated attendance and their clothing resembles some religious practices. Fans wore traditional clothing and more for the movie as one might when going to a place of worship, and many re-watched the movie. Many religions dictate the kinds of attire their congregants wear to differentiate them. Most rules promote modesty and reject the sexualization of the body.
On the other hand, this dedication to the film has less to do with religion and more to do with the cultural movement. The support for the movie emphasizes the need for culturally diverse films with diverse casts. The thriving nation of Wakanda is a depiction of what the world could have been without slavery and being the first American movie with a predominantly black cast underscores the message.
It is also interesting how writers create god-like characters, then give them their own gods. In Black Panther, they worshipped the panther God, Bast. In the past, the Wakanda people could speak directly to Bast. The first Black Panther got his powers by asking Bast to help him defeat the “demon spirits” that came through the exposure to Vibranium. In later years, the Wakanda tribe become linked to Bast through the heart-shaped herb.
Not widely talked about in movies, but sometimes mentioned in the TV show, Supergirl, is the Kryptonian god, Rao. The faith gets twisted into a cult by Thomas Coville after being saved by Supergirl.
The most obvious portrayal of gods is in Wonder Woman, daughter of an Amazonian queen and a Greek god. One of Wonder Woman’s most popular exclamations is “Great Hera!” and “Hera, give me strength!”—a reference to the Greek goddess of marriage and woman. The exclamation is used to draw comparison since Wonder Woman is a subversive feminist hero.
These beg the question: if these superheroes are gods, how can they worship gods? Does that make them false gods or their gods false? Ultimately, the increasingly popular superhero film genre is known for its invested fan base and is now being treated by many as a secular religion. Fans revere these strong, good, and powerful superhero figures as if they were Gods, creating a modern, new idea of worship.