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When I was 7 years old, I became a superhero. Specifically, I was Batman, the morose, troubled do-gooder who has the coolest gadgets this side of the Pentagon. It was a natural career choice as I already had a foolproof alter ego: Who would ever suspect that a mild-mannered second-grader was, in fact, the Dark Knight?

My mom took that decision in stride and stitched me a cape. I pieced together a utility belt, complete with compass, grappling hook (a shower curtain hook tethered with dental floss) and an old hairnet perfect for ensnaring bad guys. I was righteousness personified, a paragon of truth and courage who feared only one thing: asparagus. It's been about 30 years since I've pinned on my bat cape (Focus on the Family's dress code frowns on such rampant individuality), but I still have a soft spot for those crusaders.

Apparently, I'm not alone. In recent years, superhero films have become one of the box office's most popular, most reliable, attractions. The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan's dark Batman epic of 2008, earned more than a half-billion dollars in North America, making it the third most lucrative film of all time. The Spider-Man trilogy banked a whopping $1 billion in North America, with a reboot in the works for 2012. The two Iron Man films each made more than $300 million—not too bad for a superhero few had ever heard of. Little wonder why studios keep enlisting superheroes to save the box office: By Labor Day weekend 2011, four more such films—Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger—will have flown onto the silver screen.

But why the mass appeal? Is it the action? The adventure? The novelty of seeing Captain America's Chris Evans transformed into a digitally altered 98-pound weakling, then buffed up to battle Hugo Weaving's evil Red Skull? Well, maybe. But I think it goes deeper than that. And it's no accident that we're in the midst of a superhero resurgence in our postmodern world.

Postmodernism was forged from the fires of Watergate, Vietnam and a dozen other events—historical milestones that tarnished our faith in country, science, even ourselves. Postmodernists are skeptical folks, dismissive of people who claim to have all the right answers. And hey, that's not all bad. A little cynicism can inoculate us against charlatans, demagogues and authoritarian excess. But it's a short walk from there to the intellectual no-man's land of relativism where absolute truth is banished and "right and wrong" become a matter of personal preference ("I wouldn't do that, but who am I to judge?"). Yet deep down we know better, and long for someone to remind us of that. Superheroes provide that reminder. They are our cultural conscience, mythical characters who point us back in the right direction. For example:

• Spider-Man takes up crime fighting after being spurred on by the memory of his dear departed Uncle Ben, who warned, "With great power comes great responsibility" (an echo of Luke 12:48).

• Banished to earth for his arrogance and pride, Thor is a hammer-wielding warrior who learns that the arsenal of a true leader includes humility, service and self-sacrifice.

• Batman, who salvaged his life and confronted his fears following the death of his parents, honors their memories through high-flying, bad-guy bouncing community service. "It's not who I am underneath but what I do that defines me," he says in Batman Begins. That statement calls us to turn belief into behavior, as does James 2:26.

• Iron Man, with his radical, Damascus road-style conversion (Acts 9) from hedonistic arms dealer to protector of the people, concludes, "I shouldn't be alive unless it's for a reason."

Such heroes, like the rest of us, are flawed people living in a fallen world. Some drink, smoke, swear or use their mystique to score with damsels in distress. They may lose their way at times, then rediscover their virtuous calling and pick up the trail at the end. These are comic book demigods, not perfect role models.

The only real role model is Jesus. The rest of us (even in a cool iron suit) will stumble, fall and fail. But it's nice to know that there are characters who dare show a bit of what the Lord wants to see in us: A thirst for truth, a desire for justice, a willingness to sacrifice ourselves for a greater good. They remind us that, in this relativistic world, some absolutes remain. And we all can be champions for those absolutes, whether we wear a cape or not.

Published June 2011

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