The Hero’s Arc: Truth, Social Justice, and the American Way, Part 2

In my last blog post, I waved my comic geek flag high as I celebrated comic book characters and movies and showed that there is a lot that those who fight for justice can learn from them.  It was a celebratory piece. But what happens after that first major battle is won? The villain and victims get the kind of justice they should, but then what? Does everyone live happily ever after? Unfortunately, not. There are dark sides to hero work just as there can be dark and lonely sides for those who fight for justice. That’s the journey sequels often explore. In this sequel, I explore three hard truths about hero work and how workers for justice can relate, learn, and journey on.

The Villains Keep Coming

Heroes have multiple villains; whether it is a movie or tv show, there is no shortage of problems to fix or villains to fight. Overall, our heroes feel the call to fight the villains, for heroes have a burning fire within that drives them to make the world a better place. It is their life’s work and a vocation – they take it very seriously. But sometimes, it just gets too much.  There are times that heroes just want to be left alone to be their unique self, but the larger world and its injustices intrude.  Many heroes have moments where they don’t want to be heroes. They don’t want to fight. Peter Parker would like to enjoy a school trip without having to be Spiderman saving his friends from the latest villain.  Sometimes Clark Kent just wants to take Lois Lane out on a date and be Clark Kent, not Superman.  Sometimes Wolverine is just tired. And those of us that are concerned with the evils of the world and making our world a more just place can certainly relate. I have students that often talk about justice fatigue or activism fatigue. How many marches can one walk in?  How many protests can one person join?  Just how many battles can one fight at the same time?  Sometimes it is just too much!

There are no easy answers, but what our comic book heroes teach us is that we dig deep and keep fighting, but never alone. The longer the hero’s arc, the bigger their crew gets. The hero belongs to a wider circle of people with different gifts and talents working together to fight injustice. This relieves the burden in two ways. First, it is easier to fight with a bigger army. Secondly, it means not every hero need fight every battle.  The Avengers franchise shows this very well. If any Avenger needs another, they will be there, guaranteed.  But the Avengers are not always called upon to assemble.  Not everybody has to fight every battle. The Hulk, for example, had to take a break to figure out how to be a better healthier Hulk (as seen in his arc shown in Thor: Ragnarok, Avengers: Infinity Wars, and Avengers: End Game). There is nothing wrong with taking a break; it is necessary for longevity. Rest is the way we make sure that we are healthy enough to fight future battles.


Fights Will Be Lost

There can be a bit of a formula to superhero movies.  Often, there are three big fights.  The hero wins the first one, loses the second one, and wins the third.  The first win shows us the skill of the hero.  The hero is equipped for the task, but even those equipped for the task lose. Those who fight for justice will lose battles. There will be court cases that does not go the right way, elections that do not move us closer to justice, and at times we get beat up.  But we know that we have the skills to win a battle and we know that we live to fight another day. Our heroes do not just jump into the next battle. They take time to train and recuperate, to lament and regroup. We may be tempted to jump right into “regroup” mode and strategize for what’s next, but it is important that we don’t skip the lament. In movie land this usually involves cursing and breaking things. That may be needed at times, but the Bible presents more life-giving examples of laments. Laments that start with complaints and laying those complaints before God. Dealing with the difficulties of the moment frees us and gives us space to know that it won’t always be this way. In that space we can remember the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” With is realization, many laments end in praise to God for who God is, for the power we have through God, and for what will be accomplished. After the laments provide space to see deliverance, we are then ready to regroup and resume.


Some Will See You as a Hero; Some Will See You as a Menace

The constant debate in comic book and their various iterations is: Is this person a hero that should be celebrated, a vigilante that should be controlled, or a menace that should be stopped? One person’s hero can be another person’s villain. In the work of social justice, some will applaud you for what you do. Others will argue that what you are doing has nothing to do with the Gospel and question your Christianity and calling. They will argue that you have gone astray and need to be controlled. And others will go as far as to question your humanity and call for your end. All we can do is what our comic heroes do—keep working and doing what we are called to do. We shouldn’t do it flippantly. Some critics should be listened to. We should be reflective and introspective about how we do the work, but we should do the work. While the work is difficult, it is worthy of its difficulty. At the end of the day you may not save the whole world, but you do make individual worlds better.  For those that are made better by this work, you will have helped to save the day.


Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson for November 28, 1992

Dr. Annie Lockhart-Gilroy is a womanist pedagogue and practical theologian who writes and teaches on emancipatory pedagogies and the spiritual formation of youth. She is Assistant Professor of Christian Education and Practical Theology at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa, OK. In addition to numerous articles, and posts, she is the author of the forthcoming Nurturing the Sanct