Any self-respecting episode of The Flash or Arrowcenters on The Big Fight. It’s what superheroes are all about, verified by comic-book covers throughout history: Spider-Man vs. Doctor Octopus! The Fantastic Four vs. Galactus! Superman vs. Hitler! This clash-of-titans obsession is, for many sophisticated readers, what kept comics relegated to the category of juvenilia for so long. If the only thing you can think to do with your larger-than-life hero is to imagine a larger-than-life villain for him to fight, one might suspect you haven’t progressed beyond crashing your toys together in the sandbox.
But in reality, the best comics – and the best television and movie adaptations - make room for more than The Big Fight. It only takes a moment’s reflection to realize that the root conflict of the superhero genre is not man against man, even with the prefix “super-” attached. Telling a story about a person with extraordinary powers entails having that character wrestle with his personhood, and with the ordinary parts of humanity to which he is still subject. The real conflict, in other words, is man against himself.
That’s what makes superheroes such a potent vehicle for theological reflection. My favorite way to look at the creation story is that it’s not about the sovereignty of God or the depravity of human beings. Instead, it’s about what happens to all of us. We awake in this world with certain powers. We can choose our own purposes - for better or for worse. We can harm others or help them. We can serve our self-interest or something bigger. Our lives are the stories of what we decide to do with the power that we never asked for.
Our lives are the stories of what we decide to do with the power that we never asked for.
For Arrow - billionaire Oliver Queen, played by Stephen Amell - the internal struggle is between vengeance and heroism. His power is not a superhuman ability, but immense wealth and specialized training. As the series has matured, Queen has changed his tactics, from killing his family’s enemies to protecting the defenseless without the use of deadly force. Yet his resolve requires constant maintenance, and for that, his non-costumed compatriots must step in between him and his baser instincts. In the most recent storyline, the realism of the series - no superpowers, no gamma rays, no invincibility - pays off handsomely. Queen vanishes on a classic Big Fight quest to vanquish the world’s greatest assassin, Ra’s al Ghul, and his sidekicks decide to adopt his Arrow persona to keep their city’s hopes for justice alive.
Barry Allen - also known as The Flash and played by Grant Gustin - does have superpowers, as does the rogues gallery of opponents he faces (all drawn from comics’ bright, silly Silver Age). So his conflict is even more elemental. Given the ability to break the sound barrier on foot, to what ends does one apply one’s self? Allen, young and passionate, submits too easily to the seemingly benevolent program of his mentor, the mysterious Dr. Harrison Wells, while his foster father wants the best for his human self. Which is the temptation, and which is his destiny? Super-speed can’t answer that question.
Caped crusaders and spandex-clad musclemen are easy to dismiss as kids’ stuff. But any kid who follows them past their splashy covers isn’t getting good-versus-evil pablum. The choices driving their narratives are human ones that vibrate with theological meaning. To what ends shall we apply our creaturely powers, whether small or great? Whose guidance do we follow? Are we called to self-sacrifice or self-discovery, to the good of strangers or kin? The only option that’s unavailable, Oliver Queen and Barry Allen remind us, is to deny the ability we possess.