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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