What Really Makes a Hero (Hint: It’s Not the Tights)

What if Superman didn’t want to be a hero?

He didn’t have to be, you know. He could’ve been a doctor (and saved ever so much money on X-ray machines) or a welder (that heat vision sure comes in handy) or the best Fed-Ex delivery guy ever. He might’ve been a fantastically fearsome nightclub bouncer or a reality TV star. If he got into sports, he could’ve lived quite comfortably off the bullion from his gold medals.

Parents tell their kids that they can be anything they want to be. That’s a load of dryer lint, of course. Parents lie a lot—especially about what their kids can or cannot realistically do. Except for Jonathan and Martha Kent. When they told their little boy Clark that he could do anything (perhaps as Clark bench-pressed the family dairy cow), they meant it.

And practically any career he picked would’ve been far more lucrative than being a superhero (work week: 168 hours, give or take; starting salary: nothing, plus tips). He might’ve had enough cash to buy a nice little split-level in the Metropolis suburbs—or, at the very least, heat the Fortress of Solitude a little better.

(And don’t talk to me about Clark’s twice-monthly paycheck from The Daily Planet. I’ve been a reporter. I could’ve made more money donating plasma.)

And yet he chose a life filled with danger, destruction and frequent contact with deadly kryptonite. He chose to put his (admittedly rugged) life on the line for the good of us all—even though we never even promised a plate of nachos in the deal. What would possess a guy to use his skills and gifts so thoughtfully, when he could be making gobs of money in Las Vegas?

It’s simple: He’s been called to do so. And I believe that calling, whether it takes the form of eerie ramblings from his dead father or his own Kansas-grown conscience or some sort of quirk of the guy’s Kryptonian DNA, originates from another, greater source.

Superman’s sense of purpose is not that unusual: At least, not in places where costumed crimefighters hang out. So many superheroes carry a sense of destiny that they likely have a special pocket for it—right next to the batarangs or the extra set of Cyclops glasses.

But just because God calls us to do something doesn’t mean we have to follow. None of us are action figures, to be manipulated at will—not even superheroes (though they’re often action figures, as well). No, God may be calling us, but he also gives us a choice. And that’s reflected in our cinematic superheroes, too.

“One day, you’re going to have to make a choice,” Jonathan Kent tells his special little adoptee, Clark. “You have to decide what kind of man you want to grow up to be. Whoever that man is, good character or bad, it’s going to change the world.”

Man of Steel - Official Trailer #2 [HD]

In Man of Steel, Clark Kent faces that choice when he’s 33 years old (about the same age most scholars think Jesus was when he was crucified). For most of his life, Clark had kept his real nature hidden from the rest of the world. His adoptive father, Jonathan, thought Clark would likely be rejected if people knew what He really was.  And no one, not even a super-powerful Kryptonian, likes rejection.

But then one day, General Zod and some other Kryptonian ne’er-do-wells land on earth and announce to the world’s earthlings that there’s an extra-terrestrial living among them. He demands that earth turn the guy in—assuming, of course, they value their miserable little planet.

Clark doesn’t really know what to do. If he turns himself into Zod, his sacrifice might save the world. Or Zod could break his promise and destroy the place anyway.

So Clark does what any good, farm-raised, Midwestern Christ-figure might do: He goes to church— pondering his choice as a stained glass Jesus looks over his shoulder. Eventually a priest comes in, and Clark makes a quick confession, asking for a little advice on what he should do. Can he trust Zod? Or his fellow humans, for that matter?

“Sometimes,” the priest says, “you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.”

Clark decides to turn himself in. He allows his captors to slap a set of handcuffs on him and they haul him into custody—crazy, really, since those handcuffs would have all the restraining power of shaving cream. His captors have no real power over him, making the scene an echo of Jesus’ own surrender to the authorities of his day.

It’s telling that that’s the first time we see him dressed as Superman, complete with cape and blue leggings and the big sign of hope across his chest. The suit is both a snappy fashion statement and a statement of choice; his choice to be a hero. He’s taken on the mantel of his own superhuman-ness and all the responsibilities that entails, even if it means his death.

You need more than superpowers to become a superhero. Sure, nifty abilities make our superheroes super, but it’s their choices that make the hero. Each caped wonder in our Technicolor pantheon makes choices to follow the right path or wrong. Each choice defines who he or she is. And if a would-be superhero should choose poorly? They join a fraternity of an altogether different sort.

Personal Choices Are the ‘X Factor’

Take a look at our X-Men friend, Professor Charles Xavier, and his one-time BFF Eric Lehnsherr, a.k.a. Magneto. Both are really powerful mutants: Professor X can read and even manipulate peoples’ minds, Magneto can telekinetically play with all sorts of metal. Both keenly feel the prejudice of the non-mutant folks around them. And both, as we saw in X-Men: First Class, started out on the same team. And sometimes, as happened in X-Men: Days of Future Past, they join forces again.

But for the most part, they made different choices. Xavier and the mutants under his tutelage opted to work within the confines of law and with humanity to encourage acceptance—battling evildoers whenever appropriate. Magneto became an evildoer (though he might classify himself as a freedom fighter), declaring war on humanity and rallying legions of mutants to his own nefarious banner. Almost every mutant, it would seem, falls under sway of one of these two leaders. Each mutant makes a choice to become a hero or villain.

“When an individual acquires great power, the use or misuse of that power is everything,” Professor Xavier says in X-Men: The Last Stand. “Will it be used for the greater good? Or will it be used for personal or for destructive ends? Now this is a question we must all ask ourselves. Why? Because we are mutants.”

Xavier tells his students—and us—that being good isn’t a matter of fate: It’s a matter of choice.

From Demon to Hero

Perhaps the ultimate illustration of this power of choice and free will is the weird and ruddy superhero Hellboy.

In the 2004 movie Hellboy, we learn he came to earth via inter-dimensional portal—the cutest little demon with a Right Hand of Doom you ever did see. But a young scientist named Trevor Bruttenholm, refusing to judge a a baby by its horns, adopted the creature and raised him as a Catholic. And in the movies—so far, at least—the Rosary-toting demon (Red, for short) has taken his father’s teachings to heart and tries to do the right thing. Never mind the diabolical prophecy that claims he’ll bring about the end of the world: It seems as though Red’s own decisions are trumping his diabolical “destiny.”

It’s a powerful message. God’s grace is so powerful that it can rescue anyone—even a horned demon—who wants to follow Him.

We don’t know how all this will work out in the movies, if it works out at all. Audiences were left hanging at the end of Hellboy II, and Hellboy III seems an uncertain enterprise. But for now, the trajectory is encouraging: Red shows us that we can all choose what sorts of people we want to be. No matter what sort of baggage we carry, no matter how troubled our past has been, our life is not written in stone. We can choose to be one of the good guys. We’ve got free will in our corner. And if we choose to embrace the saving mercy of Jesus, none of us are beyond it.

“Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet” is available at Amazon.com and other book sellers.

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Paul Asay has written for Time, The Washington Post, Beliefnet.com and a number of other religious and secular outlets, including this one. He is a movie critic for Plugged In, an online outlet that reviews entertainment from a Christian perspective that draws around 1.5 million visitors monthly. He also manages a blog at Patheos and, occasionally, blogs on his own site PaulAsay.com. He lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, daughter and several unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter at @AsayPaul.

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