An archetype that American society at once both resists at every turn, and professes to believe
This editorial may contain spoilers for readers who have yet to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and Marvel’s Logan. It also contains potential spoilers for readers unfamiliar with Schindler’s List, The Dark Knight Rises, and Marvel’s The Avengers.
Our class on the problems of the Holocaust representation in art and memory was critically analyzing the films of Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. Our discussion eventually turned—as it seems all film criticism must—to the Christ-figure in contemporary and specifically American media. The story and figure of Christ undoubtedly features prominently in the literature of the West: Alistair McGrath has written extensively on Christian imagery and archetypes in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, and much has been made of the parallels to Christ in The Matrix, John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, and Star Wars.
I think, however, that the immediate equation of any character who sacrifices of their own self as a “Christ-figure” is too simple, too lazy. Our class discussion on Holocaust representation overwhelmingly agreed on the fact that strong Christian themes in Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful are thematically disingenuous—even dangerous—when we consider that in the 1930’s and 1940’s the Church all too often made peace with Nazism at the expense of Europe’s Jewish communities. But our class also came to the conclusion that Oskar Schindler, at least, is less a “Christ-figure” than he is a Christian saint. The innocent victim—the proper “Christ-figure”—of Schindler’s List is not Schindler, but rather the little Jewish girl in the red coat in Kraków Ghetto, whose death seems to “convert” Schindler.
Schindler sacrifices his fortune to save hundreds of lives, but his sacrifice is more akin to a Christian saint, convert, or martyr than to Christ himself. Why is the distinction important? Because a quick reduction of all heroes and heroines in American cinema to “Christ-figures” ignores the elephant in the room: America’s preferred hero, more often than not, comes closer to a Nietzschean übermensch (meaning “Superman”) than it does to Christ.
The progressive Christian magazine Sojourners published an article last week by Adam Erickson, who argued that “while many Christians demonize Nietzsche with their words, they actually agree with him with their actions.” Erickson suggested that Nietzsche understood but consciously rejected Christ; on the contrary, according to Erickson, “while [today’s Christians] profess Christ, they actually believe in Dionysus; they actually believe in a god who justifies their violence rather than leads them in the way of forgive.”
Hollywood undeniably makes use of Christ-figures regularly. And yet the Christ-figure, who was crucified and killed by the state without glory or honor, is in direct tension with the quintessentially American fascination with indestructible, unstoppable supermen. Part of this is cultural and part of it is economic. Take Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises for example. At its conclusion, Batman pilots his Batplane into the sunset, carrying with him a nuclear bomb that was set to destroy Gotham City. At first, we are led to assume Batman has become a Christ-figure, giving his own life so that others in Gotham may continue to live, even if corruption and vice has dominated Gotham at every turn. But Nolan can’t kill off his hero; instead, Alfred the Butler sees Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne wining-and-dining on vacation with Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman.
It’s a nice ending, but the emotional impact of Batman’s sacrifice is considerably dulled. A remarkably similar scenario occurs in Marvel’s first Avengers film, when Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man intercepts a nuclear missile headed for New York City. Taking it to a portal in the heavens, Captain America warns him he’s taking “a one-way trip.” But on what ought to surely be a fatal fall from the sky, the Hulk catches him, breaking his fall. Iron Man nevertheless lands hard and for a solemn moment we are led to think he is dead. However, Iron Man wakes up at the sound of the Hulk’s roar, frantically asking: “What just happened? Please tell me nobody kissed me.”
Iron Man’s willingness to sacrifice himself is not interrupted by this chain of events and yet the impact of his heroism is trivialized by them. We are spared the image of Iron Man’s broken, Christ-like body and instead given a hero who has somehow survived all and remained intact. Death cannot touch him and moments later he’s asking his comrades about shawarma.
There’s an economic impetus for this new kind of hero. Specifically, refusing to kill Iron Man off allows Iron Man to continue to function at the center of future Avengers films. Iron Man is popular and so Marvel has millions of dollars invested in his endurance. But there is also a cultural parallel to be made. The spirit of American capitalism is the spirit of empire—it asserts that the exceptional will always come out on top. This hero endorses capitalist meritocracy at home and U.S. military interventionism abroad by suggesting, like Nietzsche, the strong should pursue their own interests, rather than the interests of the weak.
The Roman empire two thousand years ago and the American empire of the last century both believe in Dionysus, according to Erickson’s article in Sojourners. Preference manifests in the way Rome and America think about heroism as mighty and impenetrable. The hero of empire is exactly the opposite of the hero of Christianity (at least at its foundation), which emphasizes meekness, forgiveness and resurrection that only comes after an inglorious death.
Christ-figures exist in American media, but perhaps not as dominantly as some would suggest. And, where Christ-figures do exist, they often undermine the basic assumptions of American imperialism and exceptionalism. On the other hand, across from Avengers or The Dark Knight Rises, is another superhero film: Logan.
Like with Schindler, it is hard to make the case that Logan is a re-imagined Jesus of Nazareth. Like with Schindler, we’re closer if we think of Wolverine as a Christian martyr, convert or saint. His general disposition is not one of charity or love; rather, he comes to sacrifice himself out of love only after he has been converted by the love of another: his daughter. In perhaps our most stark distinction between Logan and the other films, our hero dies fighting for others.
Our hero dies.
There won’t be another Wolverine film, at least not with Hugh Jackman. His story ends with his death. That’s not really remarkable; all of our stories end with our death. But that’s exactly why Logan carries an emotional and spiritual weight that the other two films lack.
Meanwhile, John McDowell has argued in the Star Wars saga there are several Christ-figures, rather than one messiah-figure rising above the rest of the cast. But the original films still seem dominated more often than not by supermen (Jedi) with super abilities (the Force), detached from the masses living under the Empire. Though he wrote it to reject American imperialism in Vietnam, George Lucas’ Star Wars stories ironically told a narrative that had both Christian and American-Nietzschean themes.
The most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, Rogue One, does something quite different. Rogue One gives us a glimpse at the heroics of a small band of rebels (even terrorists, one might say) who give their lives one-by-one to get the Death Star plans into the hands of the Rebel Alliance. I remember watching Rogue One in theaters and noting the reactions of the children around me, who could not understand why Jyn and Cassian and nearly every other character in Rogue One ends up dying. The Rogue One crew ends up successful in bring “hope” to the rebel cause, but it is a hope they’ll never see and hope that costs them their lives in painful, unglorified moments of death. And it is no coincidence that the anti-imperialist political content of Star Wars is stronger in Rogue One than it ever was in the original saga, precisely because it lets go of Nietzsche’s invincible übermensch and opts for the heroes who die.
The American hero of The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers is one of empire. It denies or disregards death, as opposed to the Christ-figure who only emerges victorious in myth after fully entering into death. Batman and Iron Man, in their invincibility, ultimately uphold death’s power and in doing so justify the power of empire. Only through embracing death, and facing it head on, are the heroes of Logan and Rogue One able to conquer fear, death and empire. There’s nothing heroic about death or dying, but death cannot be effectively fought if our heroes pretend it doesn’t exist.
Right now we have a President who professes a faith in Christ while acting as a Pontius Pilate, dropping the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, striking Syria and threatening North Korea. Trump’s insistence on military might rests on the assumptions that heroism looks like force and that the possession of power automatically justifies the use of force. But when we see the Christ of the right-wing acting like Superman, we can assume it’s not Christ, but rather an American trope masquerading as Christ.
The Christ-figure is that of a hero who died to set others free, or so the story goes. The Christ-figure doesn’t deny or evade death, but rather goes into it and comes out of it. The atheist and Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton, in his book on Hope without Optimism, wrote that: “The singer Sinead O’Connor once remarked in the course of a television interview that she found the resurrection so much more joyful than the crucifixion, as though, like choosing a color scarf, one could plump for the one or the other option depending on one’s temperament. It is the quintessence of optimism. She did not see that the resurrection is hopeful precisely because what it redeems is the agony and desolation of the cross.”
Christians just finished celebrating Easter, the holiday marking Jesus’ resurrection. But the idea of resurrection, which embraces death to overcome death, is not unique to Christianity. Resurrection has existed in human philosophies and religions in any number of contexts and though it has not always been put to use for subversive means, it has implications and prospects for rejecting the narratives of empires and of people in power. Like Eagleton, we don’t need to be Christian to understand that this hero-myth is much richer and than the flat hero-myth of America, where supermen always saves the day and never dies.