Are you a Catholic nerd? Does finding analogies and underlying Christian themes in science fiction and superhero movies seem like the perfect way to spend a day? Then James Papandrea’s latest book, From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films is the book for you.
Papandrea describes the book, saying: “In this book, you will find all the Christology a Trekkie, Whovian, or Matrix Dweller needs to know. This is not a book for theologians; it’s a book for insightful, imaginative people who love stories about heroes having adventures that take them out of the ordinary world and into alternative worlds.”
But James Papandrea doesn’t examine movies joyfully exclaiming, “Yay! It’s a Christ figure!” Instead, he carefully and knowledgeably explores more than a dozen science fiction heroes and identifies which kind of “Christ figure” the hero is and what that says about the story’s vision of Christ, humanity, and salvation. He astutely analyzes figures like Batman, Captain America, Doctor Who, Superman, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman – just to name a few.
In the interest of being scientific, Papandrea even gives each hero a Numerical Orthodoxy Score based on the description of Christ in the Nicene Creed, Christianity’s common definition of orthodoxy.
Here are five of our favorite superhero critiques – just enough to whet your appetite for adventure before diving into From Star Wars to Superman:
1. Salvation in Star Wars masquerades as Christianity
Star Wars spans multiple generations of avid superheroes fans. The first film was released in 1977, while a new generation of fans is exploring the world of Star Wars through films like The Force Awakens, recently released in 2015.
“Something that has always bothered me about Star Wars is the idea that Anakin Skywalker was predicted to bring balance to the Force,” Papandrea writes. “But it seems as if, before he enters the picture, things are leaning towards the good side. The Jedi are strong, and the emperor has not yet come to power. And then Anakin apparently brings balance to the force by bringing more evil!” He goes on to argue that the Force is impersonal (while the God we know and trust is personal and omnibenevolent).
In an interview about the creation of Star Wars, George Lucas said that he hoped his films would lead young people to have faith in God, “more a belief in God than in any particular religious system.” But, as Papandrea explains, Lucas created a gnostic view of God that makes Him the author of evil, and puts the “burden of salvation on every individual.”
2. The crucifixion of Spider-Man
In every superhero movie, comic book, and story line, human beings cannot save themselves (even with an impressive army and commanders). They need a savior, a superhero. Papandrea argues that superheros like Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and Spider-Man are all metaphors for an Arian Christ-figure. Each one of them started out as mortal men who were elevated to heroes through various means. “This means that they each depict a savior who represents a ‘Christology of ascent,’ rather than the incarnation,” he writes.
For Spider-Man, a bite from a radioactive spider propels him to hero status. In the 2004 Spiderman 2, film goers witness Spider-Man’s crucifixion on the front of a train. “His arms are stretched out in cruciform position, and he tries to stop the train from crashing and killing people aboard,” Papandrea writes. “He appears to die and is carried aloft, again in cruciform position, by a grateful crowd of train passengers.” This scene is repeated on a ferry in the latest Spider-Man, film, Spider-Man: Homecoming. Papandrea argues that Spider-Man’s story emphasizes that any mere human can become a hero. He is, in fact, the personification of human potential.
Does this make Spider-Man an orthodox Christ figure? Papandrea writes that this is actually following the story life of adoptionist/Arian Christology, “in which the savior is presented as an example to follow, and salvation requires following the example. Salvation is not simply passive: it requires participation; in fact, that participation is represented as a responsibility,” he writes.
3. Time travel and the incarnation
The premise of the Terminator centers around android assassination missions. Androids are sent back in time to kill their targets, and rescuers are also sent back to attempt to save the victim of the assassination before history is changed.
Throughout the movie series, the importance of human life is emphasized. Sarah Connor cannot kill the “inventor” of Cyberdyne’s new artificial intelligence technology, and a teenage John Connor gives the Terminator a single command to not kill any human being. But another major theme of the series is the occurrence of incarnations.
“In time-travel stories in which there is a Christ figure, often the time travel itself represents the Incarnation, as the Christ figure travels back in time to bring salvation to the inhabitants of the world in the past,” Papandrea writes. The Terminator has two natures: part human and part machine. But it’s humanity is an illusion, since the Terminator cannot compassion, and it has no sense of fear. It’s only imitating humanity, and can never experience feelings, being hurt, or fear.
Ultimately, Papandrea argues, the Christology of the Terminator series is gnostic. There is some humanity, but the humanity is incomplete. As John Connor’s wife, Kate, says in the film, “He’s not human. He’s not really human.” The Terminator never really becomes one of us – so it can never connect us truly to God. “As a gnostic version of a savior,” Papandrea writes, “it has an element of ‘divine’ intervention, but it lacks the element of solidarity with humanity that allowed the real Christ to give His life, not only for our benefit, but on our behalf.”
4. Superman and Moses
Although he’s an alien superhero, Clark Kent passes as a normal human being. Although he is often compared to Christ, Papandrea writes that Superman’s beginnings parallel the story of Moses. He arrives to earth in a spaceship version of Moses’s basket, saved from the destruction of his home planet by his parents. They launch him into space, hoping that he will land on a planet that will support his life.
In a twist of events, he lands on Earth. The Earth’s sun gives Superman more energy than his DNA is used to, and he finds that he is stronger than any human being and is bullet-proof. He keeps his powers secret until the innocent need protection. But because he isn’t human, he never experiences fear until faced with Kryptonite. In Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Batman tells him “You’re not brave. Men are brave.”
Superman isn’t the full orthodox Christ figure because he’s missing the component of vulnerability. “Jesus Christ voluntarily chose to limit Himself in order to become incarnate as human. In other words, to become truly human, He had to set aside some divine prerogatives and accept the limitations and vulnerabilities of the human condition,” Papandrea argues. “We call this His kenosis, a Greek word that means emptying.” Superman never becomes human, so he can’t accept the limitations of humanity. There is no kenosis.
5. Free will and the fall in the first Matrix
The Matrix trilogy is centered around the question of self-awareness. Trinity puts it best in the film, saying, “It’s the question that drives us, Neo . . . What is the Matrix?” The very word ‘matrix’ implies an organized and rational structure of things. For the Matrix films, the ‘matrix’ is a world made entirely of code. While most of the characters are content to live in the Matrix, others are sure that something isn’t quite right with their life.
“The world of the Matrix is one in which people are oppressed and exploited. They are imprisoned and enslaved, but they don’t know it. In fact, they are generally happy enough not to question reality,” Papandrea writes. But the Matrix doesn’t take into account human sinfulness or the fact that without free will, humans cannot be happy.
“What you need, in the universe of that Matrix films, is to know yourself – not to know God, or any higher power, but to know that you are a higher power,” he explains. This cynical view leaves each character questioning the reality of everything, instead of resting in the unmoving reality of God.
Want to explore more superheros?
Inside James Papandrea’s new book, you’ll find all of these superhero stores and more! Here’s a sneak peek at the table of contents:
- What Heaven is understood to be in the LOST universe
- Time travel as incarnation in The Terminator: a compelling analogy
- Regeneration as resurrection in Doctor Who: Is it Christ-like?
- How Pleasantville reverses the dynamism of the Fall
- The baptismal significance of the plane crash in LOST
- Pleasantville: a twisted version of Eden
- The incarnation of the Christ-figure in Planet of the Apes
- Tron’s parallels between Christianity and the Roman Empire
Get a copy of From Star Wars to Superman today!