The word superhero is one which can be heard in a multitude of contexts throughout modern society. From an early age children learn about superheroes, which come to save the world from impending doom. As time progresses and adulthood approaches, it is now expected that aspirations of learning to fly and obtaining super-strength are grown out of and have moved towards the notion of superhero which describes someone to admire and model their moral and ethical standards. Society presents a wide range of superheros which take into account modern concerns of age, culture, gender and religion.The superheroes of the modern world can consist of anyone from a great religious leader (Moses, Muhammad, Buddha, Jesus etc.), or icons of pop culture (sports-stars, pop idols, movie celebrities), as well as including those that belong to our films, cartoons and literature: and while they are all vastly different there are also many unifying factors.
Superheroes are most commonly accessed through film and television, with a large number of heroes being religious figures or displaying religious characteristics. The purpose of this essay will be to explore the notion of the superhero, paying particular attention to the ways in which religious heroes are represented in film. In order to do this I will first explore the mythical construct of the superhero before contextualizing the role which is played by religion in the film industry. From here the notion of the religious superhero portrayed through film will be analysed drawing upon the film The Last Temptation of Christ before moving to religious themes and attitudes represented by cinematic hero’s such as ‘Neo’ the main Character from The Matrix.
As was briefly mentioned earlier, there are many observable characteristics held in common by the various types of superhero that modern society glorifies. Significant and well known to those interested in the notion of hero is mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose works cover the mythic superhero in great detail. His view is that the mythological journeys and stories carried out by the ‘hero’ tend to follow a structural pattern which he calls the “nuclear unit of the monomyth”. (Campbell, 1968, p.30) According to Campbell it doesn’t matter what religion or civilization a hero myth comes from, they will all follow this pattern of the nuclear unit: “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life enhancing return.” (Campbell, 1968, p.35) In outlining the structural monomyth Campbell further divides these three overarching facets into smaller components, however, for the purposes of this paper the three are sufficient.
As the notion of the monomyth is only a framework the themes presented appear in a variety of guises throughout mythical history. Other similarities also lie in the hero’s mission in that the world which the hero is entering is always suffering from a “symbolic deficiency” (Campbell, 1968, p.37) which the hero must deliver it from. This deficiency could be the presence of a distressed damsel, impending doom, or that the world as a whole has fallen away and reduced itself to evil. Along with Campbell, Norman also acknowledges that in order to be successful in redeeming the world the hero must undergo a transformation where he/she discovers the hidden potential that will lead to victory. For Norman this transformation requires the hero to “abandon all and be abandoned,” (Norman, 1969, p.5) By this she is saying that the hero will enter into the space where evil lurks so as to emerge from it liberated – much like Friedrich Nietzsche’s well used saying “Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger.” (Nietzsche, p.5) The hero and his/her actions provide warning and advice, as well as encouraging the everyday being to live full and productive lives. They provide a hope that all people have great potential and that the key to satisfaction is to unlock and harness that potential, putting it to good use. Campbell reiterates this in saying, “the hero is symbolic of that divine creative and redemptive image which is hidden within us all, only wating to be known and rendered into life” (Campbell, 1968, p.39).
Campbell’s work in both the areas of mythology and religion makes easy work of transferring his notion of the monomyth to religious figures and their cinematic representations. The transcendent nature of the language used in the previously mentioned quotation from Campbell also serves as an example of the close link between the notion of hero and religion. This relationship is best observed in the medium of modern filmmaking, which has maintained its popularity since its emergence in the late 19th Century. Films and their content are designed to captivate their audience, temporarily transporting them into the make believe and instilling in them a wide range ideas about the world in which we live. Because of the integral part that religion and spirituality play in a large portion of human lives, it is not surprising that it features heavily in the films produced. In their commentary on the relationship between film and religion, Pope and Johnston agree that in today’s largely secular world, questions which were traditionally considered to be religious (i.e. Those concerning origin, meaning and purpose in life) have been shifted from religious institutions to the secular world. “The questions are still being asked,” says Pope (2007, p.8) “but in different ways and in different places from those traditionally held to be appropriate.”
Johnston provides two ways of examining the theological content embedded in cinematic productions. In talking about the religious issues raised by films he states, “They affect the heart, then the head.” (Johnston, 2006, p.250) In greater detail this refers to “experiential” and “critical” axis of analysis. The “experiential” refers to the immediate experience of receiving the film, the thoughts that are provoked and discussion that follows. The “critical” axis of deconstructing what has been seen comes with reflection on what has been experienced in a critical manner in order to create an understanding of what these initial reactions mean. In summary, his view is that theological and religious themes are intertwined into the fabric of film – all that has to be done is to approach them with a ‘religion lens’ and examples of theological reasoning will be found.
Now that the relationship between religion and film has been explored, along with the notion of the heroic monomyth, the attention of this paper may turn to applying these theories to cinematic examples. There are two main ways that religion can be observed in film: 1) Films which depict the lives and tales of religious superheroes. 2) Films whose characters and storylines resemble those of religious myths and events. Each one of these categories will now be discussed beginning with the former.
One of the best ways that religion, and its superheroes, can be discovered through the world of film is in those films which retell the narratives and events from a given religion. Films such as The Prince of Egypt (1998), The Passion of the Christ (2004), Little Buddha (1993) and The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) all tell the stories of religious superheroes which are derived from the myths and stories of their respective religions. The representation of religious characters such as Jesus, the Buddha and Moses in popular film builds their image to celebrity status much like society’s other superheroes – pop stars, sports man and alike. The Last Temptation of Christ (1998) directed by Martin Scorcese, is a prime example of the way that film has been used to elevate the position of the religious superhero. In order to demonstrate the level to which Scorcese’s portrayal of the life of Christianity’s Jesus lives up to the superhero, a deconstruction using Campbells theory of the heroic monomyth will be conducted.
Flesher and Torry, in their book Film and Religion (2007), provide a critical deconstruction of the film The Last Temptation of Christ, focusing on the positioning of the audience to experience the well known story of Jesus in a confronting and unexpected way. As outlined in the book, Martin Scorcese’s – the director of the film, intention for this film was to attempt to capture the human image of Jesus as conflicting with the divine, by portraying human weakness within him. The film depicts Jesus as lustful towards women, uncaring and often selfish. It also portrays a confused, God denying Jesus who is reconsidering the mission he was to carry out. By employing Campbell’s framework of the classic hero myth and applying it to the narrative context of the Last Temptation of Christ, as deconstructed by Flesher and Torry, many similarities arise between the figure of Jesus and Campbell’s ‘hero.’ In its entirety, Martin Scorcese has effectively produced a hero myth in accordance to Joseph Campbells structure of the “nuclear unit of the monomyth” (Campbell, 1968, p.35)
Campbell suggests that there are a number of essential features within the concept of monomyth beginning with the Separation (1968, p.35). Using Jesus as the hero of Scorcese’s film, two separations can be extracted from the narrative. Firstly, Jesus is separated from God the Father in being born into the world; however he is also separated from the world because of his dual nature as both human and divine.
Campbell’s second aspect of the monomyth is the initiation, whereby the hero enters a discovery process of both potential, reason and mission. (1968, p.35) Throughout the movie, Jesus is portrayed as struggling to develop his mission and purpose on earth and battles with his dual nature. According to Flesher and Torry’s analysis, Jesus comes to a gradual understanding of his mission, through a staged “discovery process” (Flesher & Torry, 2007, p.144). which incorporates various “turning points of Jesus’ development..[through which] his character also changes”(p.145). Campbell also refers to the sacrificial nature of the hero stating,
“The really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens with the interval of the heroes nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power.” (1968, p.36)
In reference to the movie’s reflection of the Jesus story this would be considered to be the point where Jesus acquires “access to the power of his divine character and begins to perform miracles.”(Flesher & Torry, 2007, p.145) Also referring to this part of the monomyth is Jesus’ decision to make the ultimate sacrifice for humanity with his life. Flesher and Torry also reiterate this in saying, “Christianity’s mission of salvation is to rescue all human beings from the punishment that their sins deserve, and to give them the heavenly rewards of which sin had deprived them.”(Flesher & Torry, 2007, p.145) This epitomizes the redemptive power of the hero to restore peace and hope to the world. And finally, no great story would be complete without knowing the hero didn’t die for good which Campbell describes as the “Life enhancing return” (1968, p.35) which is for the Christian story, the resurrection of Jesus and his conquering of death.
Finally, examination will now turn to the way in which filmmakers extract and manipulate religious themes, concepts, stories and histories in order to create their superhero’s and the narratives which they enact. Flesher and Torry (2007) also expressed the view that films often draw on religious symbols and motifs in order to enhance the message of their hero making it more emotional and personal. (Flesher & Torry, 2007, p.3) There are many different films which express religious views explicitly and others more implicitly. Ford (2000) offers that myths are a form of human expression and are constantly evolving, while being adapted and re-contextualised to create meaning for a wider variety of audiences. Attention will now be transferred to Lana and Andy Wachowski’s film, The Matrix (1999), in order to gain an understanding of how both Buddhist and Christian themes have been adapted for this film.
The Matrix is a well known film that is often recognised as carrying strong Christian themes and as representing the messianic story of Christianity. Ford acknowledges that while this is certainly a strong narrative basis for the film there is also strong parallels with Buddhist philosophy. To understand his position Laurie Honko’s definition of myth, as cited in Ford’s article, is helpful:
There are “Four criteria of myth with respect to form (narrative of sacred origin), content (cosmogonic in terms of cultural origin or existential condition), function (model for human activity), and context (in the sense that myth provides the ideological content for a sacred form of behaviour.)” (Ford, 2000.)
Ford believes that the Christian over-tones within The Matrix do not meet these criteria of myth. His view is that in order for The Matrix to be considered mythic it must meet all the criteria, as defined by Honko, and so fails resoresenting the content aspect of Honko’s definitionof myth. It is however, fulfilled by existing themes of Buddhist philosophy.
A brief description, in the table below, of the Christian influence present in The Matrix will be provided before focusing on the newly exposed ideas of Buddhist revelation also operating within the film.
Neo (main Character): Represents the redemptive figure of Jesus. He is the ‘Chosen One’ who will deliver the world from the hands of the enemy. He sacrifices himself and is later resurrected transforming him into a more divine figure who has the full power to defeat evil ascending into the sky at the end.(Christian story of Jesus’ ascension.)
Morpheus: Seen as being John the Baptist – preparing the way for the ‘Chosen One’. Could also represent God the Father who guides Jesus and shows him the way.
Trinity: While having a clearly Christian theological name, she is similar in many ways to Mary Magdalene – slight hint of possible love interest – but cares for and helps Neo.
Cypher: Represents Judas. He is the trusted friend who betrays the team handing them over to the forces of evil, death and destruction.
Oracle: Holy Spirit – Revelatory powers, also empowers them and gives guidance.
Agent: Devil/Roman soldiers – try to inhibit Neo’s mission/beats and tortures Neo. Neo eventually conquers both.
Intelligent Technology: Satan/Sin. Morpheus says, “The world (the matrix) has been pulled over your eyes to blind you to the truth...that you are a slave. Have been born into bondage.” (Wachowski, 1999)
While Christianity seems to fill the film with plenty of thematic detail, Ford insists that the problem/existential question offered from Buddhist philosophy is essential. This problem is, “our ignorance of existential reality. If we could perceive the true nature of reality and the path to enlightenment...then we could overcome our ignorant state and achieve the insight of a Buddha.” (Ford, 2000) This is a quote used by ford which can be found in two verses of the Dhammapada (a Buddhist text) and relates closely to the quote from the movie by Morpheus which was included in the last cell of the table above. The Mahayana notion that the world which we perceive as our reality is merely a production of our own minds is also inextricably linked to the themes which are presented throughout The Matrix. Ford also suggests links to Buddhist practice in that the training that Neo and his associates undertake is a form of meditation and that the cycle of Samsara, which Buddhist believe humanity is born into is similar to the way in which the participants are programmed into their lives in the matrix.
“A movie can devote not only words but also active visual expression – extended expression at that – to its perspective.”(Flesher & Torry, 2007, p.1) For this reason, film becomes a powerful medium through which filmmakers can manipulate religion in order to serve a variety of purposes. Throughout this essay it has been demonstrated how the filmic and mythic construct of the superhero can be and is readily adapted to portray religion and its ideals to audience members. This is achieved by not only portraying events in religious history, but also in reflecting the values, attitudes and beliefs within the secular superhero. In doing so, many believe that the once traditional expression of religion – through organised institutions – has now been carried to the secular world and is enhanced by cinematic attendance and discussion.
By Kelly Freyling