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What do our superheroes tell us about ourselves?

KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter
KUOW Photo/Gil Aegerter
Authors Reza Aslan and G. Willow Wilson.

There’s one thing you can depend on every summer: Superhero movies will shoot straight to the top of the box office. The top three grossed $2.6 billion this year, illustrating how the popularity and profits of comic-book heroes have been on the rise recently.

At the same time, religiosity in America is on the decline. Is there a connection?

Bill Radke sat down with authors Reza Aslan and G. Willow Wilson to ask if superheroes are filling our moral and cultural need to connect with something larger than ourselves.

Aslan’s new book, "God: A Human History," argues that our deities have always been a reflection of ourselves — just like our superheroes.

“Religion is far more a matter of identity than of belief or practice,” he said.

And Wilson, who writes the “Ms. Marvel” comics, said she’d like viewers to enter the movie theater thinking less about what a film says of the characters and more about what it says of society.

“I think these stories really are an excellent window into what we are thinking about and how we are identifying as people right now,” she said.

Willow said superheroes can serve as a kind of moral icon when society drifts from organized religion.

“An increasing number of people don’t practice at all," she said. “We’re questioning whether the moral and ethical contracts offered by religion still work, but we still need an ethical framework.”

In other words: “Superheroes teach us how to be good.”

Religion has been interwoven into comics since the beginning. And in Wilson’s new “Ms. Marvel” comics, the hero is a practicing Muslim who is both sustained and challenged by her faith.

Aslan said throughout history, people have modeled deities to resemble themselves. Even an atheist will describe themselves when asked what a god is like, he said. And how we  think about superheroes — who have human characteristics and emotions in addition to one specific superhuman power — isn’t much different.

“That is an archetype," Aslan said. “It is something that is deeply ingrained in our consciousness.”

Alsan pointed out that superheroes have changed a lot since their conception nearly a century ago. The stories are darker. The heroes dwell in gray areas more often. The moral dilemmas are more compelling.

“We have to make these characters interesting by making them reflect the morality the world in which we live,” he said.

Wilson and Aslan said that one thing is clear: Change is constant, as is our resistance to change. Wilson said we can see that resistance in how evangelical Christians have supported President Donald Trump despite his failure to exemplify many Christian values.

“People yearn for security over change,” she said.

But changing is the only way gods or superheroes can remain relevant, Aslan said.

“The only way that our gods or our superheros are going to continue to matter is if they can shift to actually reflect the world in which we are currently living,” he said.

Year started with KUOW: 1985 – 1986, 1991 – 2004, 2012