Early in the new movie Incredibles 2, Elastigirl (Helen Hunt) decides to continue being a superhero, even though her government made the activity illegal. “To fix the law, I’ve gotta break it,” she tells her husband. And when her teenage daughter questions that logic, Elastigirl puts it more simply, declaring that when a law is immoral, moral people have to resist.
That’s a pretty heavy idea for a kid’s movie, but not one uncommon to superhero stories. Superheroes constantly stop criminals and deposit them with the local police, but they almost always break the law while doing it. Heroes sneak into buildings without a warrant, they cause property damage, they even assault people, all in the name of restoring order. Even the heroes who work alongside authorities—such as Batman with Commissioner Gordon or Superman with the President—still act outside of legal boundaries, doing what the police can’t do to solve crimes they can’t handle.
And yet, we cheer on our favorite superheroes and ignore the double-standard because we know their hearts are in the right place. When the law allows evildoers to go free, or actively hurts innocent people, then we want a hero to break that law. We need them to do that greater good.
Superhero stories thrive on the idea that while the law is good, the spirit of the law is better. So if the law ever helps people hurt other people, then it’s not only good, but actually heroic, to break that law.
How To Be A Champion
That “illegal legality” tension has been fodder for comic book plots since the genre’s inception in the early 20th century, but one of the most interesting takes on the theme occurs in the current Marvel Comics series Champions. Created by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos, the Champions are a team of idealistic teenage superheroes who use their powers to equip and inspire others. Multiracial and gender diverse, their members include second-generation versions of established characters, such as the delightful Captain Marvel fangirl Ms. Marvel, a boy with the same name and powers as the better-known Spider-man, and a teen scientist who can turn into a brash but intelligent Hulk.
Insisting that they don’t “punch down” at the usual run-of-the-mill criminal, the Champions put their fantastic abilities to create change instead of mayhem: they free Appalachian miners trapped in rubble and empower Arab girls threatened by extremists. They redefine the superhero mission statement from being exceptional to being relatable, sparking a grassroots movement that’s open to anyone who’s willing to welcome and encourage others.
But even this team runs into trouble with immoral laws, as best demonstrated in the fifth issue of their current series. The story opens with our heroes rescuing worshipers from a burning mosque, as authorities standing around watching. Discovering that hate crimes in the county have increased under the watch of the very racist but very popular Sheriff Studdard, the Champions make plans to take him down. But because Studdard hasn’t done anything explicitly illegal, and can use his authority to bully others, there’s little they can do. To even protect victims and investigate crimes the sheriff ignores, they have to transgress the law.
In a standard comic book plot, the super-powered Champions would just attack Studdard (who would probably reveal that he has powers too, leading to a big spandex brawl). But systematic racism and corruption can’t be dealt with in such a simple manner. As Ms. Marvel puts it to a teammate, “Sometimes, there’s just not anything to hit.”
Instead of punching, the heroes decide to empower the good guys, namely the sympathetic Deputy Sims. Worried that crossing the sheriff would damage his career and popularity among fellow officers, Deputy Sims wants to change things from “the inside,” working within the system to find ways to take down Studdard. But after the Champions’ investigation reveals how Studdard uses the law to disenfranchise others, Sims comes the recognize that the law is immoral. With the heroes’ support, Sims reveals to the county the sheriff’s corruption, and starts to build a coalition to change the laws.
Throughout the story, the Champions broke the law, and encouraged others to do the same. But not because they were rebels just trying to stir up trouble — they broke the law because it was hurting people, harming those it should have been protecting. The application of the law contradicted its spirit.
As common as this dichotomy is to superhero stories, it’s even more prominent in the Bible. It doesn’t take more than a cursory glance at the Gospels to find Christ rebelling against the law to touch unclean people and to perform miracles on the Sabbath.
Jesus never intended these to be mere provocations, and in fact claimed that he came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. But he also knew that these regulations exist to glorify God and nourish creation. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus teaches his followers. “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
How can both of these things be true? How can Jesus enact the law while transgressing the law?
Paul engages with this dichotomy in his letter to the church in Romans. In the first couple chapters, Paul establishes the inescapable reality of sin by invoking the law: because no one can keep all of these rules, they lead not to righteousness but to knowledge of our shortcomings. But Paul directs this failure toward a different law, one of faith in God’s grace, based on the understanding that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” Paul recognizes the law of the prophets for the way it reveals out desperation, but further recognizes that Christ’s sacrifice makes him “dead to sin” and therefore dead to the law. All of which leads to his glorious declaration at the start of Chapter 8: “Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
As believers, we are grateful for the direction given to us by the law, but we also recognize that neither our righteousness, nor that of anyone else, is found in it. We transgress the law in the name of radical forgiveness, we follow Christ knowing that our shortcomings do not define us.
That’s a hard principle to keep in mind. We often find ourselves wishing for a set of guidelines to help us discern right from wrong, and we find it easy to judge others (or ourselves) for various shortcomings. Read badly, the Bible can provide just set of guidelines and means for judgment. Read well, scripture teaches that law exists for love of people.
Paul’s teaching is complex enough to spawn hundreds of books of theology and simple enough to serve as a superhero plot. We consider it heroic when Batman or Spider-man breaks the law to beat up a bad guy. But it’s that much greater to transgress the judgment invited by the law to preach Christ’s forgiveness, to love one another.
Cover image by FancyCrave.