The Christ Figure in Film: The Passion of the Christ and Man of Steel
As viewers, we require a sacrificial hero with salvational purpose, who will overcome trials and tribulations, bearing our suffering as their own. This is exemplified in figures like Jesus, who appears frequently on film in many forms besides his own, and the superhero Superman. Jesus Christ, according to the religious teachings, was God incarnate, and suffered for the sake of the human soul. In a more modern occurrence, Superman becomes the Christ figure, with the same hopes and desires for humankind and our salvation. They have a compelling love for humankind, so much that they are willing to give their lives for our benefit. But the human trust in the hero is solidified only when the hero is willing to die for us. A selfless hero evokes passion and a connection in the viewer, and because of this sacrifice, the hero becomes someone we can sympathize and identify with.
Humanity has re-told and re-adapted these stories for decades, and the times in which they are adapted are significant in understanding the human need for a hero to lead them when it seems hope has been lost. Through the re-telling of these stories, it can be said that humanity has need for a sacrificial hero who will walk among us and willingly die for our salvation, as if their sacrifice depends on our survival. In Jesus in the film The Passion of the Christ (2004), Superman in the film Man of Steel (2013), these heroes represent a utopian ideal that the viewer hopes, through repetition, can make a better world.
The Meaning of Jesus and His Sacrifice
Before delving into the representation of the Christ figure in The Passion of the Christ and Man of Steel, it will benefit us to start with the Christ figure as seen in the New Testament Bible, who, through his example, inspired a religion which flourishes still today. His life and death is mainly present in the Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus is a central figure in the Christian faith, and he is held in that faith as the Son of God and the Messiah. According to the Bible, he is born in Nazareth of Mary and Joseph, and is destined from the very moment of his birth to die for the sins of man. After he is baptized and overcomes temptation, Jesus travels and performs miracles to assert his divinity. When his disciple Judas betrays him, Jesus is arrested and condemned by a Jewish judicial group and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. He is then crucified and dies. After the first day of the week after the crucifixion, his tomb is empty, as he has been resurrected from the dead.
The first question that the Christian faith has to answer is: why did humanity need Jesus? Jesus is constantly proclaimed throughout the Bible as the redeemer and savior of our souls. In the Bible, the archangel Gabriel proclaims to Joseph, Mary’s husband, that “‘…she [Mary] will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins’”(Matthew 1:21). The archangel Gabriel proclaims from the very start, the annunciation of Jesus, that he is destined to save his people from their sins. According to Christian theology, Jesus was needed for many reasons—the first is because of the fall of humankind in the garden of Eden. Because God gave Adam and Eve free will, their one imperfection was sin. In Genesis 3:1-4, they ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which lead to them being cast out of paradise to live as mortals on earth. Because of the first sin, Jesus had to be born because humanity became cut off from God. Without the sacrifice, humanity was doomed, with no hope after death. Jesus had to pay the penalty for their sins through his own death, as the sacrificial lamb, and his resurrection demonstrates the promise of the ascension of our own souls. According to Christian theology, Jesus was also needed so that humankind would have someone to believe in—a hero that they could follow and identify with. This hero has endured for centuries, and Jesus has become a figure to idolize and strengthen the believer. The Christ figure, in many ways, has become the essence of the hero, and has transcended into film.
The Passion of the Christ: The Humanity of Jesus
The film The Passion of the Christ depicts Jesus as a hero that humankind can follow and identify with, because Jesus is shown with compelling humanity. The film is centered around his selfless sacrifice for the good of humankind. Directed by Mel Gibson and starring Jim Caviezel as Jesus Christ, it depicts Jesus according to the New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Centered around the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, the film begins with his temptation in Gethsemane, moving to his torture and death, and ending with his resurrection.
The film opens with a Bible passage: “He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; by His wounds we are healed,” (Isaiah 53). In this passage, Gibson is addressing this question: why would God allow him to die? This Bible verse explains that Jesus suffered on the cross so that humankind could have hope. Through his wounds, humankind is healed. Jesus took human suffering as his own. This is why Gibson’s adaptation of the Christ figure is significant in understanding the sacrifice—Jesus died a violent death so that humanity could have an ideal to strive towards. He is portraying this violence more dramatically and more realistically to make the audience understand the significance of Jesus’ crucifixion. Therefore the death of Jesus, his passion, was necessary to prove to the believer that God is a suffering God, and willing to take human pain as his own.
What is even more impactful is the unconditional willingness Jesus has in giving his body up for the souls of humanity. In the film, Jesus says calmly during the last supper, “This is my body that I give up for you.” The film has a series of flash backs during the Last Supper, in which the body and blood of Christ is given as a covenant of his promise to save us. The key words are “give up”—these words are important in understanding the sacrificial hero. Jesus is giving up his body in sacrifice.
The film also appeals to the humanity of Jesus. Where other adaptations saw him as beyond the fear that a human would in fact feel when faced with death, Gibson shows Jesus feeling actual fear. Gibson’s Jesus is a man, a human like us. He struggles to overcome the torture and accept God’s plan. Jesus has doubts and fears as every human feels. There are many moments throughout the film where Jesus experiences doubt, and psychological and emotional suffering. These scenes convey a more compelling image of a hero, and Jesus’ immense will and strength to do what he knows is right.
The film begins with his temptation in a very compelling scene, in which Satan appears and asks him who his father is. Jesus continues to pray for strength to do what he knows is right, as we see Satan’s serpent slithering closer to him. The audience can see that Jesus is weakened by fear, for he knows the pain that he will have to experience.
The sky is dark, and the foreboding rays of the moon, mysterious and ethereal, light the visage of Jesus, as if he is between two worlds. Jesus is feeling the weight of the oppressive fear, he knows he cannot escape his purpose. Caviezel is sweating profusely—he is crying and praying in frantic and desperate spurts. You can see through Caviezel’s acting that Jesus is profoundly frightened. In the film, one of the apostles asks what he is doing, to which the apostle Peter responds “I think he is afraid.” This is a side of Jesus not normally seen in cinema—he is the more human Jesus. Faced with the ultimate sin and his impending death, audiences can see and relate to this desperate time. Gibson shows Jesus is reacting to immense pressure with intense fear and uncertainty, which is something all humans feel when we are faced with an obstacle that makes us uncertain of our own future. We feel his every emotion, and this makes his sacrifice all the more compelling and personal.
However, after the encounter with Satan and Jesus’ arrest, the film becomes extremely graphic and has intense visual violence, centered around his physical torture. The viewer witnesses in graphic detail all of the pain that Jesus experiences, as if Gibson himself is nailing the torture and suffering to our eyes. This transition from the psychological temptation to
physical torture makes Jesus and his experience all the more real, which makes the impact of his sacrifice all the more lasting. It is especially difficult to see the torture as someone who idolizes Jesus completely, but through visually experiencing the torture he went through, the viewer is changed. The viewer, through visual stimulation, can see the pain Jesus experiences. Gibson makes the eyes of the viewer an altar, and the sacrifice of Jesus is displayed before the eyes. Therefore, Gibson creates a bond with the viewer, for we are witnessing in gruesome detail the paintful, final 12 hours of Jesus’ life. It becomes more intimate, and makes him less of a God and more of a man, forcing our sympathy.
Gibson ends the film with his resurrection, so it is not completely wrought with violent torture. The viewer sees Jesus live again, which makes Gibson’s ending more hopeful. But it is never a comfortable experience to witness your hero die, and even though it follows with a resurrection, the experience of viewing the film can be difficult. But regardless, it is the human condition to have a hero, Christian or otherwise, overcome fear and doubt, even death itself. A figure of hope, or a Christ figure, represents a utopian future, nourishing our need for hope and awakening the soul to act. This gives the viewer strength when they witness another rise up when they are in doubt. This relates to the reason why Jesus was created, and lived humbly as a man: to allow humanity to be able to identify with him. The Passion of the Christ has been criticized heavily for many reasons, mainly for its violence, which many critics saw as taking away from the true meaning of Jesus and his sacrifice. But however harsh the criticism, the film did extremely well. It made over $600 million during its theatrical release, becoming the highest grossing R-rated film in the United States, and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time. It can be argued that the success of this film is largely attributed to its intense realism and faith to the ideals that Jesus represents. Even though The Passion of the Christ was dominated by violence, it ends with his resurrection, which captures the idea of the destiny of humanity and a higher purpose after death.
The Christ figure itself has been an ever present companion to the characteristics of heroes in many stories and films. The Christ figure and the sacrificial hero is an essential figure of hope in many stories throughout the ages, and there are frequent instances in stories and film that a Christ figure is represented. The story of Jesus has been adapted time and again, as he represents the ideal hero that humankind can strive for. But there are other heroes who have emerged throughout time that can be argued as another representation of the Christ figure—namely, superheroes.
Superman: the Sacrificial Hero in Man of Steel
In Man of Steel, the origins of the superhero Superman, played by Henry Cavill, is depicted. The film opens with the planet Krypton facing unavoidable destruction because of its unstable core. Scientist Jor-El and his wife Lara launch their newborn son Kal-El, the first naturally born Kryptonian child in centuries, to earth after infusing the codex of the entire Kryptonian race into his cells. Kal-El’s ship lands in Kansas. He is raised by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who name him Clark. On earth, Clark gains superhuman powers, and is warned by his adopted father not to use them for fear that society would reject him. After Jonathan’s death, Clark spends several years in hiding, afraid to show the world his true power. But he is forced to come out of hiding when Zod and his followers, exiled from Krypton when they attempted a coup, threatens the destruction of Earth. After Clark gives himself up to the hands of his enemies, he learns of their true intentions: to re-build Krypton over the destroyed earth. At the end of the film, Superman saves the world at great cost, but vows to continue to save earth in his lifetime.
Superman is one of the most lasting icons of our modern popular culture, mainly because he is a deified version of ourselves. Superman represents a utopian ideal—the idea that humanity can be united by a single hero, who sacrifices himself to save us. In this utopian, perfect world, humanity can live under the protection of a virtuous and selfless hero. Because he came from a dying world with the purpose of making earth a better place, Superman has the ideal qualities that humanity needs in a hero. Like the Christ figure, Superman is using his humanity as a strength, while maintaining that he is in a sense “divine,” because he is from a world beyond our own.
The fact that he emerged from a world far more advanced than ours, but seeks to make ours better through the knowledge of the mistakes Krypton made, makes him a stronger hero. He is taking the best of both worlds literally, giving humanity an ideal to strive towards. For example, Jor-El’s consciousness speaks with Clark in the beginning of the film, explaining his origins and the reason why he was sent to Earth. Jor-El says: “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” Jor-El is telling Clark that he will lead humanity to salvation, and help create a better world. Jor-El is explaining that Clark will stand for humanity, and become a figure for the utopian ideal of hope. The “S” on his uniform is confused as being simply the letter “S,” when in fact it actually means “hope” in the Kryptonian world. Even his uniform means “hope,” further conveying the ideal that Superman represents.
Parallels Between Jesus and Superman
Humanity looks to Christ figures and heroes like Jesus and Superman in times when we are in need of a hero to carry our burdens for our salvation. The fact that the stories of Superman and Jesus have been re-told and adapted frequently, speaks to our need for a sacrificial hero in troubled times in history. The timing of the release of The Passion of the Christ was significant as well. It was released in 2004, and Superman Returns, another film with the character Superman, was released in 2006, when the United States was still recovering from 9/11, and deeply involved in the “War on Terror.” This war has had lasting impacts on our country as we continue to fear terrorist attacks. The war has had uncertain outcomes, and developed a more uncertain purpose in the recent years. The creators of the films must have felt that society needed to be reminded of the utopia that Jesus represents, and that he died for a better world. We were in need of a figure of hope during this crisis that was occurring around us, and to be reminded that America stands for that utopia. Because these heroes are so willing to give their lives for others, the creators of the films wanted us to hold onto that American value of saving people in their time of need.
When Man of Steel was released, the world was going through uncertain times as well. To name a few world events that occurred before the release of Man of Steel, the 9.0 magnitude earthquake occurred in 2011 in Tohoku, Japan, and Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. These were disasters caused by nature, which is always an unpredictable and uncertain power on our earth. From observation, because of the increase of technology, we lost a bit of our sense of personal connection with one another as a race. During these times, we were longing for a figure to lead us to salvation and unity among one another. In all of the time periods that these films were released, humanity was in desperate need of rescue, and we needed heroes to believe in.
His purpose as standing before humankind and leading us to salvation is one of the many ways that Superman can be paralleled to the Christ figure. Superman’s name in itself is a direct allusion. The name “El” comes from a root word in the Hebrew scripture meaning “God.” Because Kal-El is son of Jor-El, he is the son of God. Like Jesus, Clark also experiences extreme apprehension before becoming Superman. When Lois Lane discovers that Clark is the “mystery man” that saved her in the cave, she asks him to let her tell his story. Clark replies by saying, “My father told me that if the world found out who I really was, they’d reject me…out of fear. I let my father die because I trusted him. Because he was convinced that I had to wait. That the world was not ready. What do you think?” This can be paralleled to what happened when Jesus reveals that he is the Son of God in the Bible. Jesus is met with hostility and is condemned by his own people—rejected because they fear him. Clark is afraid that the world was not ready to see someone supernatural rising before them to save the Earth because they would fear him. When Superman does come out of hiding, it is because Zod threatens to harm humanity. In a
later scene in the film, Clark is sitting in a church and begins to talk with a priest, feeling real human weakness. His eyes are lowered in prayer, and his thoughts are tortured, for he knows that he is the only one who can stop the destruction of humankind. As the viewer witnesses these private moments, the tormened thoughts of Superman, this makes his character like Gibson’s Jesus. During this scene, Clark seems less like a God and more like a man. He asks the priest if there is a chance to save earth by giving himself up to Zod. Clark says, “Zod can’t be trusted. The problem is, I’m not sure the people of earth can be either,” he begins to walk away. The priest, seemingly being elevated by the presence of Superman, responds by saying, “Sometimes, you have to take a leap of faith first. The trust part comes later.” This can also be paralleled with Jesus, because his faith in humankind is what drives him to his ultimate sacrifice, and he takes a leap of faith, trusting in God. Jesus knows that humanity will condemn him, but after his death and resurrection, they finally recognize him as the Son of God. Jesus had to take this leap of faith in order to earn the trust and faith from humanity. After Superman saves the Earth from Zod at great cost, after he takes this leap of faith, humanity finally trusts him.
These Christ figures, Jesus and Superman, seem to be moving effortlessly thought time. The Christ figure has given our society a hope and an ideal to strive for. These specific heroes have dominated our cinemas, inspiring generations to strive for a better world. This ideal is representative of a utopian future that we cannot help but imagine being possible. There will always be conflict, there will always be injustice—but believing in something greater than yourself, a higher version of yourself, a being, or a superhero, will motivate us to try to make the world a better place. We are consistently motivated by these examples, and they are the fuel to the fire which brightens the world around us. The heroes of Jesus and Superman represent an ideal, and the world is saved by their willingness to give their lives for humanity.
“Crazy Credits.” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0335345/trivia?tab=cz&ref_=tt_trv_cc>.
Man of Steel. Dir. Zack Snyder. Perf. Henry Cavill, Russel Crowe, Amy Adams, Diane Lane. Warner Bros, 2013.
“The Bible in Pop Culture. (cover story).” Time 169.14 (2007): 44-45.
The Passion of the Christ. Dir. Mel Gibson. Perf. Jim Caviezel. Icon Productions, 2004.
What do you think? Leave a comment.