A few nights ago, I went with some friends to see the latest superhero film, Justice League. As a rule, I find this genre of movies rigidly formulaic and not terribly interesting, but my wife tells me that I’m not supposed to be antisocial so I went along for the ride. Also, I figured that no matter how awful the movie was, I would at least have the pleasure of listening to Jeremy Irons deliver a few lines.
My low expectations were (barely) met. Lots of two-dimensional characters with capes and shields and fine looking bodies in special suits flying around, cracking atrociously bad lines, flexing their muscles and using their superpowers to save the world from the really bad guy (an individual named Steppenwolf, in this case, who I must confess often just made me want to chuckle) bent on destroying the world. Yawn. Rinse and repeat every few months and you have a tried, tested, and true Hollywood formula for raking in millions.
As I was walking out of the theatre, a simple question occurred to me: Why? Why do we go to the movies? Well, the most obvious reason is because we want to be entertained. We want to see cool stuff that we will never see in our ordinary, pedestrian lives which contain altogether too few explosions or car chases or superheroes or wild nights of responsibility-free passion with impossibly beautiful people. And the moviemakers spare no expense in making sure that we will see plenty of cool stuff. It truly is astonishing what can be created/simulated on a screen these days. We go to the movies because we want to escape. And what better place to escape but into all of these wonderful stories and lives whose chief attribute is often simply that they are not ours?
But I suspect there is more to the story. I wonder, in particular, if in a post-Christian culture that has mostly walked away from church, going to the movies functions something like going to a house of worship for many. There are many parallels, it seems to me. We go to the movies again and again to have a story of the triumph of good over evil narrated to us. The good guys always win, after all. The world is always saved. Few of us, it seems, believe that we are a part of any real grand story that is good and hopeful, but the need to be a part of such a story must be fed somehow. So we go to the movies.
We also go to the movies to rehearse our conviction that love really does conquer all (no matter how inadequately this “love” might be understood and presented on the big screen). Romantic comedies all offer some variation of boy/girl overcoming some obstacle in order to find his/her “true love”—this glorious state of being that is out there waiting for all of us, if only we can find it and eliminate all of the other things/people who stand between us and its realization. Love, love, love. We so desperately want/need this and we are drawn, like moths to a flame, to stories of love however confusedly and impossibly their version of love is presented to us on the screen.
We also go to the movies to worship. We bow down to the beautiful, muscular people who repeatedly save our world and find love in the process, we read and agonize over the minutiae of their lives in the pre-movie magazines (bulletins?). We admire their bodies, we pine for their houses and their cars and their trips, we look with longing at their beautiful children, we grant interest to their opinions that is enormously disproportionate to their suitability to offer them. We offer them our devotion and our time. We want to imitate our gods. We covet their lives.
And, of course we give. Oh, do we give! Millions and millions of our hard-earned, increasingly precarious dollars are devoted to supporting and sustaining these houses of worship. In what rational culture would an average actor or athlete command a salary that vastly exceeds that of national leaders or doctors or educators or… pick your useful vocation? If how we spend our money reveals what matters to us, it is clear that there are few things more important to us than that we are entertained. Our tithes and offerings are dutifully collected and promptly poured back into big companies who pay big money to get the beautiful, muscular people to lend their beautiful, muscular bodies to yet more stories of love and good triumphing over evil for our next worship experience.
A bit of a strained analogy? Perhaps. But there are just enough parallels to be mildly unsettling—at least for me.
I am well aware that the chief lesson to be learned from my latest theatre experience might just be that I might need to watch better, more nuanced films that actually make some attempt to reflect the complexity and beauty of the human condition. To which my response is… Um, well, yeah.