8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

messianic character neo 8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

Though China has become an influential piece on the global chess board of late, the roots of cinema can be traced all the way back to the Western world. Following the inception of the movie camera in the early 1880s, films slowly grew in commercial prowess and once Hollywood established itself as an economic powerhouse in the 1920s, the motion picture became king. This western-centric ideology has spanned almost a hundred years, survived two world wars and, to this day, remains the crux of the cinematic world. In fact, the US was responsible for approximately 62% of the global box office share in 2012. So, while movies such as Hansel & Gretel and Transformers: Dark of the Moon performed better overseas and cinema markets in India and Nigeria continue to grow and diversify; the US remains the dominant force by quite a margin. And this dominance has consequences.

If the North American film market is the most influential in the world, it results in particular ideologies spawning and becoming normalised in their repetition. It’s the reason we have genres for our movies. Each motion picture adapts to certain conventions and subsequently tumbles into whatever box that matches its M.O. Horses and the outback? Western. Dark urban environment and crime? Film Noir. But there are other attributes that influence a genre beyond its physical production and script, in particular, within the filmic framework of the religious epic. Famous examples of divine narratives include The Prodigal Son in 1901 and Ben-Hur in 1959, but since then, the genre of religious epics has dissolved into a multitude of filmic styles throughout history. Alas, biblical representation evolves in tandem with the ever-shifting zeitgeist, and movies as a whole have shifted to incorporate religion metaphorically. Make no mistake, Christianity has weaned its way into many stories through the ages, from Paul Newman’s exemplary messianic protagonist in Cool Hand Luke to the otherworldly alien in Spielberg’s E.T., cinema has a long history with representing the Christ-like figure. It’s easy to understand why. After all, the Messiah archetype comes parcelled with a rich tapestry of themes ripe for adaption. The saviour complex and other heroic attributes are woven together expertly to create a character that is at once an unparalleled leader and social reject. It’s a social dichotomy. An inner paradox that serves the Messianic figure like a quintessential gene to the field of biology.

As human beings, we’re suckers to these types of narratives. That old good cop, bad cop routine? Well, it itself is a self-contained narrative, thereby making it easy to identify the opposing character traits like black from white. It’s become so commonplace because humanity has an inherent affection for the power of storytelling. Stories have been the currency of our civilisation since they were etched on the walls of caves millennia ago, and there’s reason we revel in their artificial worlds. In the end, they provide meaning. In order to grasp a story, we filter through the film’s minutia to gain a sense of where that rickety old moral compass is pointing. Because when an allegory transcends its fictional boundary and provides knowledge for the real world around us, these stories become timeless.

It’s the reason we take solace in religion and, in terms of cinema, religious narratives. Themes of redemption, selflessness and ultimate sacrifice are ones that strike a chord with the majority of audiences and, in the right hands, can create meaningful entertainment. Because when it comes to creating a Messiah-like figure, subtlety is perhaps the sharpest tool in a filmmaker’s workshop. With this in mind, it’s rather inevitable that not all attempts produce a coherent, symbolic story, but when they do, and all the religious elements coalesce, it can produce powerful cinema.

So, with a certain caped immigrant crash landing in theatres this month for Zack Synder’s Man of Steel, let’s take a look at the most memorable messianic characters of modern cinema.

Be warned, spoilers abound for all films discussed. Plus, these choices represent the modern Christ-like characters, so while films such as Terminator, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Lion King all host messianic figures, you won’t find them on this list.

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1) Harry Potter

messianic character harry potter 8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

“He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!” Well, maybe in Brian’s case, but for J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard, the Messianic qualities are plentiful. Spanning eight lucratively successful films, the Harry Potter franchise is the highest grossing film saga of all time. As an intellectual property, it has become a modern epic and established itself as both a literary and cinematic phenomenon. And yet, perhaps one of the most overlooked elements in the adventures of the boy wizard is the allusions to biblical myth. As a matter of fact, J.K. Rowling’s bespectacled hero is an excellent example of the Christ-like archetype in a post-modern era.

Harry is often referred to as the ‘chosen one’. The ‘boy who lived’ and he is, above all else, humanity’s one remaining hope against the maleficent Voldemort. It is he who galvanises the divided society – in Rowling’s universe; neatly represented as Full Bloods, Half Bloods and Muggles – to conquer the pure, nose-free embodiment of evil. One of the most prevailing devices in a messianic narrative is the way in which the protagonist’s arc encompasses death and resurrection. For Harry, discovering that he was in fact the final horcrux forced him to lay his life on the line in order to kill Voldemort. In sacrificing himself in the Forbidden Forest, Harry effectively places the needs of the many above his own and, ultimately, rises to new life as a wizarding saviour.

From humble beginnings in Privet Drive to overthrowing The Dark Lord himself, the upward trajectory of Harry Potter has a plethora of Messianic tropes. One would argue that many of the Christ-like characteristics become apparent in the ultimate film, although as Harry gradually realises his destiny throughout the course of the films via the John-the-Baptist-like Dumbledore, it becomes clear that J.K. Rowling’s wizarding universe has a subtle, yet conceivable religious dynamic.

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2) John Coffey

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“I’m sorry Mr. Jingles, but I gots to go.” Executed for a crime he didn’t commit, the character of John Coffey in Frank Darabont’s The Green Mile is bestowed with many messianic traits. Framed for the murder of two young girls, the gentle giant is put on death row where his saviour-esque qualities emanate to all those around him. Adapted from Stephen King’s eponymous novel, this is a story that very much alludes to the latter part of Christ’s life. His final days as a misunderstood healer are mirrored remarkably well within the narrative, and the way in which Coffey is juxtaposed with his two in-mates mirrors the good thief and bad thief that Jesus was crucified alongside at Calvary.

There are many other similarities within The Green Mile that suggest the film’s underlying religious foundations. For example, Coffey’s supernatural healing ability is most certainly paralleled with Christ, plus, when the child-like character describes his psychic ability, he says it resembles ‘pieces of glass, stabbing him in the head’, itself serving as an allegorical crown of thorns. During the film, Melinda gives John a pedant of St. Christopher, the patron saint of healing, as a gift for reliving her of a cancerous tumour. Additionally, the way in which John coughs up tiny spores painfully after each healing emphasises the struggle he goes through in order to help. His unique ability greatly affects those around him and, even after he is gone, his life has affected both Tom Hank’s Paul Edgecomb and Mr. Jingles in gifting them everlasting life.

Here is a character that chose death. Tom Hank’s sympathetic prison guard grants Coffey with an opportunity to escape his capital punishment, but he refuses. The fact that it was Billy the Kid who we later find to be guilty of Coffey’s alleged crime shows just how Michael Clarke Duncan’s misconstrued hero was executed for who he was, rather than what he did. A point to note, too, is that his initials are that of Christianity’s messiah, further emphasising the religious DNA in The Green Mile’s anatomy.

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3) Neo/Thomas Anderson

messianic character neo 8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

In 1999, the Wachowski siblings delivered the quintessential sci-fi blockbuster. Seamlessly combining action set-pieces with a high-concept storyline, The Matrix was an instant classic and remains, to this day, one of my all time favourites. But looking closer at the famous green-tinted binary code, you’ll uncover an inherent Messiah complex at the film’s core. Within the context of the plot, The Matrix is a simulation, a purgatory-like realm constructed by futuristic artificial intelligence in order to enslave humanity. After being freed from this hyper-reality, Thomas Anderson – who operates using his hacker alias Neo – must fight to save Zion which, in 2199 (roughly), is the last remaining human city in a world ruled by machines.

After meeting the formidably intelligent Morpheus, Neo’s gradual realisation of his own destiny is apparent. Like tumbling down the rabbit hole, he’s found himself at the crux of the rebellion and is, ultimately, mankind’s only ray of hope in the dark, post-apocalyptic world. His mission has been foretold in prophecies and Morpheus himself states that the resistance have been waiting for the arrival of ‘The One’ for hundreds of years. Enter Neo. Of course, it would be easy to over-intellectualise the film with grand spiritual claims, but there are undoubtedly messianic undertones in the Wachowskis’ creation. Mr. Anderson’s undertaking to save the world is a messianic task, and the fact that he is reborn after his liberation from the power plant further emphasises his Christ-like journey. Even the role of the Oracle as a psychic visionary lends the film a religious dynamic.

Of course, it all comes down to subjective opinion. Waking up from a monotonous existence into a new world echoes Muslim beliefs, so perhaps The Matrix is a broader amalgamation of worldly religions rather than drawing exclusively from Christianity. The computer-generated alternate reality, and the way in which it subdues an entire civilisation resembles the opium effect, so perhaps the film criticises religion as much as it champions it. Ultimately, to quote Morpheus, “You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.”

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4) The Iron Giant

Iron Giant messianic character 8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

The Matrix wasn’t the only film to come out in 1999 heralding a messianic figure. Brad Bird’s directorial debut The Iron Giant was released at the turn of the millennium and came packaged with a spiritual message within its towering metallic anatomy. Adapted from Ted Hughes’ 1968 novel, the story revolves around an enormous robot who, after crash landing on Earth with no memory, finds a friend in a young boy named Hogarth Hughes. It’s a heart-warming tale and one that is complimented, rather than smothered, by a religious dynamic, thereby allowing it to hold up more than a decade after its initial release.

While previous films that I’ve mentioned have looked at the saviour complex, The Iron Giant is an honest portrayal of humanity’s reaction to a messianic figure. After crashing in a small town named Rockwell outside of Maine, the robot’s presence unsettles the local community, so much so, he inadvertently induces mass panic. It’s an apt portrayal of societal paranoia. After all, here is a film set during the Cold War. At a time when Russia launched their Sputnik satellite into orbit and humanity fretted over the risk of nuclear war so, in this sense, The Iron Giant tapped into the zeitgeist with ingenuous accuracy. One of the film’s most poignant moments is when Hogarth and the giant are discussing death, particularly the robot’s own sense of mortality, as it contemplates its place on Earth.

During the climatic moments, The Iron Giant chooses to sacrifice himself in order to save the local town. Hunted by government agents, the titular being is a victim of humanity’s fear and, echoing Christ’s self-accepting banishment, sacrifices himself for the innocent – what’s more, the ending also hints to the machine’s resurrection. As a moral fable, The Iron Giant is an excellent film that, for a children’s animation, doesn’t shy away from themes of violence and prejudice.

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5) Truman Burbank

Truman Burbank messianic character 8 Of The Most Memorable Messianic Characters In Modern Cinema

Though Peter Weir’s satirical drama will go down as a candid critique of reality television, within the confinements of The Truman Show’s world, there is also an intrinsic set of biblical subtexts. Ed Harris plays Christof, a god-like being who manages a self-contained hyper-reality that encompasses Jim Carrey’s titular everyday man. The film takes place in the artificial world of Seahaven which hosts many parallels with the Garden of Eden – for instance, Christof’s character is very much the embodiment of god, who creates the utopian realm as a paradise for his son. Of course, the film deviates from religious scripture in how Truman rebels against his governing deity, and yet, the protagonist still retains certain messianic qualities.

While many Messiah-like figures in modern cinema are crafted using Jesus Christ as the stencil, Truman Burbank is an example of how biblical allusions can refer to other prophetic, religious figures. The fact that Truman must cross the sea in order to reach freedom echoes the parable of Moses, additionally, the religious symbolism, such as walking on water and the way he falls in a crucified pose after being struck on the boat, conveys the visual references to a messianic figure.

The Truman Show serves as a memorable commentary on the ramifications of a society that is at once voyeuristic and de-sensitised, but the film also gives us a messiah-like character that undergoes a journey of personal and emotional growth in Truman – the ‘true man’ – Burbank.

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6 & 7) Maximus Decimus Meridius & William Wallace

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Though each of these films is grounded within different periods in history, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart share a common denominator in the messianic archetype. What’s more, both can be labelled as historical classics. The former is Scott’s masterful swords-and-sandals epic with the latter being actor/director Mel Gibson’s sword-and-er…kilts blockbuster? Regardless, these two films were released within five years of each other and both tout tales of devotion, freedom and, ultimately, sacrifice.

Maximus’s journey in Gladiator is a revenge-fuelled odyssey. Following the sudden death of Emperor Marcus Aurelius, his power-crazed son Commodus causes unrest in the Roman corridors of power by sentencing our heroic general to death. Maximus narrowly escapes, but fails to reach his family in time to save them. And so, he enrols for the Gladiator games and uses his swelling popularity to challenge the immoral Commodus. As the story progresses, Maximus succeeds in the triumph over tyranny and his willingness to die for his people results in his untimely death in the Roman Colosseum. Perhaps the most symbolic messianic segment is the penultimate scene when his body is carried out of the arena by a group of slaves. He is their saviour. The man who laid down his life for their cause, and Maximus’s ascending arc from social outcast to an influential and inspiring hero echoes many of cinema’s messianic conventions.

Historical inaccuracies aside, Braveheart retains its place as one of the greatest films of the modern era. It’s a one-dimensional, mythic tale of Scottish upheaval spearheaded by none other than William Wallace in the 13th century. Adorning tribal-esque face paint, the character of Wallace shares strands of DNA with other Messiah figures, and valiantly fights for Scottish freedom against the adversary. As the narrative progresses, Wallace knows full well that his fight is against the odds and, in one of the film’s more emotional scenes, prays to his God. “Lord, give me the strength to die well,” he says. Not only does this portray him as a paragon of belief and idealism, it also mirrors the way Christ prayed in the garden of Gethsemane. Wallace, like Jesus, knew that his hour was near and even after his eventual execution; his ideology was enough to inspire his people as eloquently illustrated in the film’s closing moments.

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8) Christopher Nolan’s Batman

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For all the realistic and gritty qualities that Christopher Nolan melded to The Dark Knight Trilogy, his cinematic portrayal of Batman brought a certain spiritual angle to Gotham’s caped crusader. From Bruce Wayne’s globe-trotting odyssey in Batman Begins to his personal sacrifice in The Dark Knight Rises, Batman’s journey from banished vigilante to a worshipped hero is brilliantly realised and it’s a tribute to Christopher Nolan and his team that the story never feels contrived or predictable. And over the course of the three films there are a plethora of reasons to parallel Nolan’s Batman to the messianic archetype.

Bruce Wayne’s self-sacrificing traits are perhaps most evident during the finale of The Dark Knight. Spurred with his go-save-the-world-attitude from the first movie, the world’s greatest detective goes head to head against his arch nemesis The Joker, which forces him to take the blame for Harvey Dent’s death in order to maintain the reputation of Gotham’s White Knight. Enduring this sacrifice for the salvation of others who don’t deserve it is unquestionably a messianic trope, and the interchange between Commissioner Gordan and his son cements Batman’s representation as the true anti-hero. “The hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now.” Bound by principles, Mr. Wayne is the silent guardian, the watchful protector who will go out of the way for his city because his belief in the people is so unwavering.

This symbolism is further emphasised in the concluding film, particularly when Bane extradites Bruce to the arid prison. It’s a metaphorical hell. A dark underworld that our hero must ascend from in order to return to his people. What’s more, Talia Al Ghul is a modern interpretation of the Judas archetype, a trusted ally that betrays Batman when he is most vulnerable. Even the ending can be interpreted as Bruce’s resurrection into a new life following his city-saving sacrifice. It’s interesting, after all, once all those components coalesce you not only have a magnificent trio of movies, but a cinematic trilogy that will go down as one of the modern greats, and the religious subtext adds a fresh and remarkable dynamic to Nolan’s magnum opus.

Why so serious, eh? At times it would seem studying a film through a religious lens is tenuous. Everybody brings different baggage to the movies and different cultures will always have individual and unique spiritual contexts. And yet, the aforementioned hegemony that Hollywood has been empowered with over the years has brought about a slew of film characters that try to emulate the messianic archetype. As a business, Hollywood is rather fond of trends and our popular culture isn’t exactly short of stories orbiting around Christ-like figures or tales containing biblical motifs in some capacity. However, it is these which stand on the cinematic pantheon as memorable characters. Heck, look at how Zack Synder is bringing Superman back to the silver screen after a seven year hiatus. Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s creation has been the pioneering messiah figure since his inception in 1938 and it’ll be interesting to see how audiences receive the latest filmic adaption this coming June.

What did you make of the list? Is the messiah archetype as effective as it should be? If you’d like to pitch in with your own modern messianic figure, drop your thoughts in the comments below and be sure to tell us if you’re excited for Zack Synder’s Man of Steel, too.

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