Why we love superheroes

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Debbie Ong –

is an Associate Professor in the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law and specialises in Family Law. She is a member of Pentecost Methodist Church and has been serving in the Methodist Welfare Services ministry. Debbie is married to Victor, a lawyer. They have three happy children.

Captain America and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hit our cinema screens most recently. Last year, The Wolverine and Thor thrilled audiences.

Superheroes represent the idealised virtues that we want in ourselves, our spouses, or our leaders. More than that, they represent the overcoming of weaknesses by virtues of selflessness, commitment and courage.

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Superman was sent away from his planet, an alien alone on earth bearing the burden of saving a world that was not his. Spiderman is the misunderstood hero who selflessly makes choices to do right despite being unappreciated and viewed with suspicion. Batman suffered the tragedy of witnessing his parents murdered, but rises above his dark roots with the dedication to condition his mind and body to battle evil.

Superheroes mirror our desire to achieve good despite a thorn in the flesh. We identify with having responsibilities and burdens that come with some pain.

The “everyday heroes” reported in our local news media have similar stories of selflessness and overcoming tragedies. Last year, a young man gave up his slippers to a shoeless elderly woman on a bus and sprinted barefooted on the sun-scorched pavements back to his hostel. The kind act warmed hearts and stirred spirits.

But more recently, in an article published on the BBC website, the author lamented that MRT commuters in Singapore did not offer her assistance when she felt faint from morning sickness.

What do we expect from the State when we highlight such conduct? The Law offers protection from harm: criminal law punishes immoral acts that cause harm while civil law allows provision of compensation to victims. But the law in general does not criminalise omissions or compel positive acts to confer benefits on others.

For example, there is no legal duty to save a stranger from drowning or render aid to a fainting woman. Is rescue to be encouraged? No doubt it is, but it is not enforced as a legal obligation; instead it is encouraged through public education, perhaps a change of culture, role-model examples and inspiring others. It is the perfect arena for the Christian to be Salt and Light:

“You are the salt of the earth … the light of the world ... let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16)

How might we THINK on a few aspects of everyday life that provide opportunities for humble superhero feats? The Superhero, we have observed, may be the imperfect person who rises above his or her weaknesses to fulfil a purpose. He or she focuses on the triumph of good and not the adulation of the people.

The longing to watch the Superhero be victorious is the same longing in us to see good being done every day. Doing good pleases the Lord and bullying provokes His anger. He has said: “Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused...” (Exodus 22:22-24)

Which Superhero can we be in the home? The one who forgives his grumpy family member for harsh words and brings peace and forgiveness to the home? Or the one who shows consideration and compassion to the domestic helper, remembering she has left her own family and support base behind to earn a modest income? Or the one who provides care for the elderly parent who can be demanding or even unreasonable?

The superhero in the home is the unsung hero, whose acts are not seen but who certainly pleases the Lord.

Outside the home, can we make a conscious effort to befriend those who are left out by society because they are poor, lack social skills, or are just different, or to give time to children who lack loving parents? Can we be just a little more patient?

The issue of being gracious is almost clichéd, yet our fast-paced lives can cause us to fail to THINK about how much more gracious we can be in so many little ways.

[updated 3 June 2014]