Two thousand years of western fiction have lead to what is one of the most common storytelling tropes. It’s been in everything from The Old Man and the Sea and The Grapes of Wrath to Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. Characters who take exhibit qualities resembling the Bible’s Jesus Christ hold a special place in fiction, because of what they indicate about our heroes and what they indicate about Western storytelling.
So how do we spot a Christ-character? Do they have to have a beard? Well, no. Are they always men? Not necessarily. Do they always have to have the initials JC? No, but it helps. There’s a variety of things which make a character Christlike, but I think one of the better and more exhaustive lists I’ve seen is found in Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor:
1) crucified, wounds in the hands, feet, side, and head
2) in agony
4) good with children
5) good with loaves, fishes, water, wine
6) thirty-three years of age when last seen
7) employed as carpenter
8) known to use humble modes of transportation, feet or donkeys preferred
9) believed to have walked on water
10) often portrayed with arms outstretched
11) known ot have spent time alone in the wildnerness
12) believed to have had a confrontation with the devil, possibly tempted
13) last seen in the company of thieves
14) creator of many aphorisms and parables
15) buried, but arose on the third day
16) had disciples, twelve at first, although not all equally devoted
17) very forgiving
18) came to redeem an unworthy world
These types of archetypes are particularly relevant to Superhero characters, and given that Superhero movies are all the rage, I found it worth looking at some of these movies on a case-by-case basis. Not all of the things on the above list will apply to them, but they’re all worth thinking about.
Let me start off by clarifying that this will only relate to Superhero movies since the genre’s boom in the early 2000s. And only movies. I could, if I had unlimited time, explain the allegory behind The Dark Knight Returns or The Death of Captain America or The Death of Superman, but since seemingly every comic book character outside of Thomas and Martha Wayne has at some point died and come back to life, it would be a little unnecessary. So it’s worth explaining what about those cases is significant, and what is frequently at the center of these stories: death and resurrection.
*SPOILERS FOR SPIDERMAN 2, BATMAN V. SUPERMAN, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, CAPTAIN AMERICA: FIRST AVENGER, LOGAN, AND GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY*
Peter Parker’s whole arc throughout the three Sam Raimi-directed Spiderman films is one that a lot of heroic stories tell – someone who gradually learns to make sacrifices for others. He begins as Spiderman so he can get money so he can buy a car so he can impress Mary Jane. Then, by the end of the film he gives up on trying to be with Mary Jane because he thinks that will get in the way of him doing his duty as a hero.
Spiderman 2, more than the movie before it or after it, has one iconic moment in which we see Spiderman trying to stop a train from running off the tracks by shooting a web from each outstretched hand.
When he finds himself exhausted from the effort, the people he has just saved carry his limp body aloft.
This scene obviously mirrors the crucifixion, and we’re already seeing similar imagery coming out of the Spiderman Homecoming trailers.
The use of this imagery is clever; it builds upon the theme of the film, by associating Spiderman with Jesus, reminding us how selfless he is. The imagery isn’t subtle, but it’s smart, and it’s useful. It’s not heavy-handed and it’s not excessive, that’s more than I can say for these next movies.
Man of Steel/Batman v. Superman
I should clarify that this section will not just have spoilers for the two movies listed above, but will almost certainly have (potential) spoilers for the upcoming Justice League movie coming out later this year. Obviously, I’m not psychic and I don’t have a copy of the screenplay, but it doesn’t take a genius to predict what will happen in this movie. Anyone who knows generally how movie franchises/comic books work or has some knowledge of Superman lore can figure this one out.
All of the Christian imagery in the DC Extended Universe (not quite applicable to Suicide Squad, obviously) is painstakingly deliberate, often to the point of being excessive. But that’s ingrained in Superman’s mythos. Superman’s original writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, were two Jewish men and it is often said that they wrote Superman as their idea of what the Messiah might be like.
Superman’s story resembles that of Christ (or Moses, depending on who you ask); he finds himself on earth by supernatural circumstances, and is raised by earth-parents while still being guided by his otherworldly father. He becomes a figure both loved and feared as he miraculously saves the world.
The visuals of these movies certainly echo this theme, which I think is a nice touch despite the fact that none of these movies are really that special.
The sequel to Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, while also using similar images, adds Lex Luthor constantly comparing Superman to God and criticizing his absolute power. In that way, he’s a bit of a pharisee to Superman’s Jesus. Here’s where I would insert a line Lex Luthor’s dialogue which shows what I’m talking about, but none of it really gets the point across, since it’s not really anything impressive. YouTube movie critic Jenny Nicholson made a funny video in which she script-doctored Dawn of Justice, bringing attention to Lex Luthor’s obsession with Superman and the Bible. She has a satirical suggestion about how this might be fixed:
Almost every line Lex Luthor says is a biblical reference. This movie doesn’t really have a thesis statement or go anywhere with it but it sure wants us to know that Superman is God. This dialogue gets pretty heavy-handed and boring because every time Lex Luthor opens his mouth he says the exact same thing. … So I’d like to propose that we contain all this energy to one scene. In my version of the script, I’m going to insert a 30-minute scene in which everything halts so that Lex Luthor can appear on a political podcast, during which he can share all of his god-related Superman theories and metaphors. After that, every time Lex encoutners a character he hasn’t seen before, he can simply say, “did you hear my podcast?”
Batman v. Superman ends with Superman’s noble and sacrificial death. Oh, sorry, I meant to say “death” as though I were using air quotes. It’s obvious that Superman will come back. And I don’t say that because of that bizarre clue where the dirt starts floating off Superman’s coffin – I say it because the story tells us this will happen. By constantly using dialogue and cinematography to compare Superman to Jesus, the film clues us in that he will be the hero to come back from the dead and save the world.
The Dark Knight Rises
The number one concept mentioned in Thomas C. Foster’s chapter above is the idea of death and resurrection. He clarifies that the death doesn’t have to literally be final, but can be a metaphorical death, or one where everyone assumes the character is dead. The Dark Knight Rises has a lot of this.
At the beginning, Bruce Wayne is, more or less, presumed dead, until he becomes the Batman again when Gotham needs him. Then, in the middle, he is held in the pit, which is a kind of Hell for him. (During the three days in which Jesus was dead, it is said that he was in Hell, redeeming all the souls in Hell and on earth.) After some amount of time, he comes out of this, returns to Gotham, and saves the city… Only to ride his Bat-plane into the distance with the nuclear bomb which would have destroyed Gotham. Everyone presumes he’s dead, but Alfred and the audience discover that he lives happily in the heavenly Tuscany. A sacrificial death which the hero actually survives – that’s as textbook Jesus-figure as it comes. (And if we want to get technical, Miranda Tate’s betrayal of Batman very slightly resembles the way Judas betrayed Jesus – with a kiss, and a stab in the side.
Captain America: First Avenger
This one’s more straightforward than The Dark Knight Rises. Captain America has a chance to save the world, but only at the cost of his own life. In a certain sense, Cap dies and comes back after a certain time dead.
And sure, Cap’s got disciples and fights a guy who looks like Satan, but that’s about it.
Looking at the criteria from the list above, a few of those listed by Foster jump out in relation to the recent Logan. The first one that jumps out is closeness with children – Logan acts as a
father father figure to X23, and later on, he helps the experiment orphans, shows a partiality to children. Then there’s the not-so-subtle name of their destination – Eden, a deliberately biblical endpoint. Towards the end of the film, the children become sort-of disciples for Logan. Just as the Gospels are followed by Acts of the Apostles, Logan would be followed by Acts of the X-Children.
Unsurprisingly, one of the most iconic shots from the movie is Logan standing with X23, bleeding from his sides – much like Jesus did after the crucifixion. So, then, it’s fitting that his death comes at the end of the film, in a self-sacrificial way that saves the children (again, with wounds from his sides).
The most notable difference here is that Logan doesn’t come back from the dead, but instead lives on in spirit with the children.
Guardians of the Galaxy
I can hear you now – Who in this cast of antiheroes would be resemble Christ? But it’s obvious, isn’t it? It’s Groot.
There’s a smaller moment towards the beginning where Groot sprouts a flower and hands it to a child. As said above, a fondness for children is a qualifying quality for Christ allegory. Of course, this isn’t the only thing, with the most notable moments coming in the last section of the film.
It’s one of the film’s greatest tear-jerker moments. When the spaceship the Guardians are on is about to crash, Groot grows himself until he has wrapped everyone safely which will likely save their lives but end his. Rocket discourages him, and after listening to Groot say nothing but “I am Groot” for the entire film, we are left with this lovely dialogue:
Rocket: “No Groot! You can’t! You’ll die! Why are you doing this?”
Groot: “We are Groot.”
Groot makes a heroic sacrifice which ends up saving his team, and in turn the rest of the galaxy. And of course, after this, Groot is made into a plotted plant, leading to his rebirth, and, in a sense, resurrection.
So what’s the point of all this? Across all these movies, there’s a pattern of sacrifice, death, and in some cases, resurrection. This indicates where Western fiction has arrived after 2000 years – with Jesus as the archetypal hero. The protagonists in these movies share at least one of Jesus’ values, and by creating them in such a way that reminds us of Jesus links the character to these values. It reminds us what a hero is.
To all my Christian readers, I wish a blessed Easter!