I’ve always been fascinated by the opening scenes of Avengers: Endgame. They depict superheroes of an unexpected sort—not the triumphant, swaggering bunch we’ve come to recognize, but rather a group in disarray, resigned to inevitable defeat. Half of the Avengers are gone, lost to Thanos after the events of Infinity War. Tony Stark and Nebula are adrift in deep space, awaiting their imminent end. Thor is an overweight and washed-up alcoholic, a shadow of his former mythological self. Scott Lang is trapped in the quantum realm.
In some ways, the ending of the franchise seems trite in comparison (spoiler alert!). The Avengers travel back in time and successfully retrieve the Infinity Stones. Reuniting in the present, they have a final epic showdown with Thanos. In short, they show up, defeat the villain, and save the day—just as we would expect. The opening scenes, however, seem to depict the Avengers at their most relatable, as the kind of protagonists we want to root for: characters first, superheroes second.
The Avengers typify a unique character archetype that comic artist maestro Stan Lee depicted to great effect, the fallible superhero. One tribute to his work put it this way: “The Fantastic Four fought with each other. Spider-Man was goaded into superhero work by his alter ego, Peter Parker, who suffered from unrequited crushes, money problems and dandruff. The Silver Surfer, an alien doomed to wander Earth’s atmosphere, waxed about the woeful nature of man. The Hulk was marked by self-loathing. Daredevil was blind and Iron Man had a weak heart.”1 Stan Lee revolutionized the genre by making his superheroes imperfect, vulnerable, and alone. In a word, he made them human, and in so doing, made them compelling.
There is a complex and intriguing duality to the archetype of the fallen superhero that speaks profoundly to our human condition. On the one hand, we desperately want to believe in superheroes who are unlike us. Our deepest longing is for someone with strength and power outside the typical human experience to enter into our pain and to put wrong to right. We look around us at the anguish that characterizes the human condition—messy divorces, unexpected betrayals, criminal violence. We look inside ourselves and we see the same brokenness lurking within our own hearts— empty purposelessness, fearful uncertainty, bitter jealousy, naked hunger for power and status. Confronted with the inescapable reality of turmoil within and without, we know full well that life in the natural order is, as Bertrand Russell put it, an ongoing experience of “unyielding despair.” If we’re honest, we’re afraid of being alone, of being left to our own devices. There exists within all of us the earnest hope for someone to save the day, or to save us from ourselves.
On the other hand, however, we want our superheroes to be just like us. We can’t relate to untouchable figures who stand aloof from the struggle and suffering of our everyday lives. We don’t identify with messiahs who leave the messiness of our human existence just as easily as they arrived to save the day. In a strange way, we want our heroes to know our pain in a personal and profound way, not merely to deliver us from it, but to experience it alongside us.
The Apostle John seems to anticipate these seemingly divergent themes in the powerful opening lines of his gospel. To John, they come into confluence in the person of the Incarnate Christ, who embodies and exemplifies them in His enfleshed self. John speaks of an ineffable Word, One totally and completely unlike us. He existed “in the beginning.” He is transcendent by virtue of the fact that He came before all things. It was through Him that “all things were made,” without Him was “not anything made that was made.” He is powerful on a cosmic scale, forming and shaping all things from mountains to molecules, quarks to quasars. Not only does He sustain the moral order of the universe, with a “light [that] shines” defiantly and boldly in the face of the “darkness,” He brings hope because “the darkness has not overcome it,” a promise of the restoration of all things; that all things will be made new.2
Yet this Word is also like us, in a way that we would not have dared hope. He is not distant from humanity, and He doesn’t deliver us from a distance. The Gospel of John tells us that “He came to His own,” a stunning statement that speaks to how the Maker of Worlds bridges the divide standing between creator and creation. In a breathtaking yet understated phrase, John explains that the Word “became flesh and dwelt among us.”3 The Word breathes. The Word bleeds. The Word walks among us and meets us where we are. He became one of us, in so doing, he inhabited our humanity and entered into its experience of struggle and pain.
John goes one step further in deepening our understanding of the ‘fallible superhero’ by fusing these seemingly contradictory images together. Unlike the superheroes of comic book lore, whose weaknesses stand at the periphery of their otherwise perfect personalities, John’s Word is powerful because He becomes weak. His divine glory is most clearly seen as He assumes frail humanity. Paradoxically, the means by which the Word restores us to life is His atoning death. John casts the Word as the sacrificial “Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”4 The Word takes our place, receiving the punishment that we justly deserved, in order that we might go free. He doesn’t merely sympathize with us by coming alongside us in our struggles; He triumphs over them by taking them upon Himself.
In speaking of the Word, John tells us that we have seen His glory. We have indeed seen His glory— a peculiar and beautiful glory that journeys alongside us, suffers in our place, and compels us to follow in His footsteps. This is truly the “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth!”5 I conclude with the words of St. Augustine, who captures the essence of this mystery best in his Sermon 191:
Man’s maker was made man,
that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;
that the Bread might hunger,
the Fountain thirst,
the Light sleep,
the Way be tired on its journey;
that the Truth might be accused of false witness,
the Teacher be beaten with whips,
the Foundation be suspended on wood;
that Strength might grow weak;
that the Healer might be wounded;
that Life might die.
John Chua ’23 is a Freshman in Thayer Hall.