Does humanity need gods? Lex Luthor, Superman’s eternal nemesis, answers early on. After Luthor compares himself to Prometheus, an accomplice retorts: “Sounds great, Lex, but you’re not a god.” “Gods are selfish beings who fly around in little red capes and don’t share their power with mankind,” Luthor snarls. He’s in agreement with Lois Lane, who has won a Pulitzer for an op-ed titled “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman.” Superman, you see, has just returned to Earth after a five-year absence spent searching for his lost homeworld, Krypton. “How could you leave us like that?” Lois demands. “I moved on; so did the rest of us. That’s why I wrote it. The world doesn’t need a savior.”
Is she right? In one scene, as Superman floats above the Earth, we hear his alien father in a voiceover. Human beings “can be a great people,” Jor-El says. “They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all—their capacity for good—I have sent them you, my only son.” The line, of course, echoes John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.” When Marlon Brando first spoke it in Superman (1978), it was the earlier movie’s only explicit Christian reference.
The recent installment not only resurrects the line; it piles on further biblical allusions. “You wrote that the world doesn’t need a savior,” Superman himself tells Lois, “but every day I hear people crying for one.” Isaiah 19:20: “When they cry to the Lord because of oppressors, he will send them a savior.” Later, as Superman tries to save the world from Luthor, the villain plunges a Kryptonite dagger into his side. John 19:34: “One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear.” And then, after saving the day by hurling Luthor’s death machine—a rapidly expanding new continent that threatens to destroy the United States—into outer space, a poisoned and exhausted Superman plummets to earth, his arms outspread at right angles to his body and legs, a crucified figure lacking only a cross. He remains in a coma until his son (Lois Lane is the unwed mother in this updated Superman: don’t ask) restores him to life. He leaves his hospital room empty until a nurse discovers it, just as Mary and Mary Magdalene find Jesus’s empty tomb.
Superman’s heroism thus answers the movie’s fundamental question. In one of the last scenes, we see Lois struggling to write a new essay: “Why the World Needs Superman.” Perhaps the nation’s recent superhero obsession, from the smash Spider-Man movies to The Dark Knight (the biggest film of 2008) to the TV hit Heroes, owes more than we commonly recognize to religious impulses. As Gabriel McKee writes in The Gospel According to Science Fiction, “There are inherent messianic qualities in the . . . concept of the superhero—an individual with exceptional abilities who sacrifices part of his or her life for the greater good.”
Both The Matrix and Superman Returns show the hero’s discovery of his powers. We see Neo learning martial arts almost instantaneously through the cable leading to his brain—a computer nerd’s fantasy; in a euphoric flashback, we watch the young Clark Kent finding out that he can fly. No parallels to these episodes of joyful self-discovery exist in the New Testament. But turn your attention from the canonical Bible to the Apocrypha—in particular, to the Gospel of Thomas, one of the so-called Infancy Gospels, stories of Jesus’s childhood nearly 2,000 years old—and you’ll find the child Jesus animating clay sparrows, restoring people to life, and even exacting revenge on his enemies. “He was again passing through the village,” the text relates, “and a boy ran up against Him, and struck His shoulder. And Jesus was angry, and said to him: You shall not go back the way you came. And immediately he fell down dead.”
If that last story sounds vaguely familiar, maybe you’re one of the millions around the world who have read Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), the first installment in J. K. Rowling’s unprecedentedly successful seven-volume series of fantasy novels, the first five of which have been made into blockbuster movies. Early on in The Sorcerer’s Stone, before Harry discovers his magical powers, his loutish cousin Dudley punches him in the ribs during a visit to the zoo. Unconsciously, an angry Harry makes the glass separating Dudley from a boa constrictor disappear. We soon learn that Harry, like so many of today’s fantasy heroes, is marked for greatness from infancy as the only person who can defeat a world-crushing evil. The final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Interminable Sequels—no, wait, that’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—has Harry (you guessed it) choosing to die to save the world and then returning to life, after a brief journey to an afterworld resembling (note the place) London’s King’s Cross railway station.
One reason that Disney finally made a movie out of C. S. Lewis’s Christian allegory The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 2005 may be that popular fantasy has become increasingly religious at heart. Peter Jackson’s brilliant film adaptations of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, on the other hand, probably don’t fall into the category of messianic fantasy, despite a quick episode in which the wizard Gandalf experiences a sort of death and rebirth; Tolkien’s chief inspiration was political, not religious, and Jackson remains faithful to that intention.
The best illustration of the science-fiction and fantasy world’s recent shift toward Christian themes, though, is the most successful sci-fi franchise in history. George Lucas’s Star Wars appeared in 1977 and instantly became a huge hit. It told the story of Luke Skywalker, a gifted youth raised by his uncle and aunt on the planet Tatooine, who soon finds himself caught up in the struggle between a group of noble rebels and an “evil Galactic Empire”—in the words of the movie’s famous opening scene, in which a few prefatory sentences of exposition crawl slowly into a distant field of stars. An old man named Obi-Wan Kenobi, one of the last remaining members of the virtuous “Jedi knights,” takes Luke under his wing, but he must sacrifice himself to the Empire’s dreaded Darth Vader to save the young man from capture. In the end, Luke joins the rebels and helps win an important battle against the Empire. To date, Star Wars has grossed nearly $461 million in the United States, making it the third-biggest film in American history.
It doubtless owes much of that success to mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose book The Hero with a Thousand Faces described certain features of the “standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero.” The adventure’s outline was simple: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” Many myths shared even more than this, explained Campbell; for example, “the first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or an old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” Think of Arthur, Merlin, and Excalibur.
Such scholars as Otto Rank and Lord Raglan had earlier written comparative studies of hero-myths. In 1936, for instance, Raglan compiled a list of characteristics common to many mythological heroes: “The hero’s mother is a royal virgin”; “the circumstances of his conception are unusual”; “he is also reputed to be the son of a god”; and 19 others. But it was Campbell’s book that Lucas stumbled upon as he wrote his screenplay. “It’s possible that if I had not run across him I would still be writing Star Wars today,” Lucas acknowledged later. Presumably, too, he would never have invented the “protective figure” Obi-Wan, who gives Luke a “lightsaber” not long after meeting him.
Scholars have noted the correspondence of parts of the Christian narrative to the hero-myths, and perhaps this affinity accounts for what little Christian imagery does show up in Star Wars. “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” Obi-Wan warns Darth Vader. But it’s largely an empty boast: after his death, Obi-Wan does nothing more than appear as a sort of ghost from time to time. The movie’s main plot spends far more time on outer-space dogfights. Two sequels swiftly followed: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983). Both were entertaining, but neither drew on Christianity.
As the world knows to its sorrow, Lucas revived the franchise in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, the first movie in another Star Wars trilogy that chronicled events prior to those in the original three movies. Episode I, as The Phantom Menace is also confusingly known, differed from the first Star Wars movie in many respects, among them a plot that no suspension of disbelief could render convincing and dialogue that sounded even more mechanical coming from the people than from the robots. In one respect, however, The Phantom Menace consciously mirrored its predecessor, portraying a Jedi knight—Qui-Gon Jinn, played by Liam Neeson—who meets a talented Skywalker boy, this one named Anakin (Jake Lloyd), on the Tatooine sands.
But where the original movie never deified Luke, The Phantom Menace describes Anakin—the future Darth Vader, Luke’s father—in terms so messianic as to make Neo blush, repeatedly calling him “the Chosen One.” The source of the term is in Luke—the Evangelist, that is—where Jewish leaders say of the soon-to-be-crucified Jesus: “Let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!” The movie is fuzzy about who exactly has done the choosing, however—a failure doubtless rooted in Lucas’s carelessness with plots.
The Phantom Menace proves equally vague when prophecy enters the story. When Qui-Gon first intimates that Anakin may be the Chosen One, another Jedi knight says, “You refer to the prophecy of the One who will bring balance to the Force,” but we never learn who prophesied and when. The prophecy echoes the Gospels’ repeatedly stated thesis that certain passages in the Hebrew Bible foretell Jesus’s coming.
“The Force” is one detail in which the new films are actually less spiritual than the old. In the 1977 movie, Obi-Wan described this mysterious entity as “what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things; it surrounds us, penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” In the 1980 sequel, Yoda—a character, created by Jim Henson, who looked suspiciously like Kermit the Frog and sounded suspiciously like Fozzie Bear—instructed Luke to “feel the Force around you: here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere!” Such language, smacking of the period’s flirtation with natural mysticism, gave way in the new movies to an explanation more in keeping with our current fascination with molecular biology: the Force, we learned in The Phantom Menace, was actually the product of microorganisms in the blood. It’s as though Lucas, instinctively realizing the intellectual poverty of the New Age, gave it up, exchanged it for something resembling science, and then turned, elsewhere in the script, to a far older, more powerful story.
That story, though, he inverted. Anakin will be not the world’s savior but its destroyer, more Antichrist than Christ. He will slaughter nearly all the Jedi knights and—after almost dying at Obi-Wan’s hands and enduring a sort of rebirth as the masked Darth Vader—help remake a galactic republic into a dictatorship. Still, in one respect he is explicitly a Christ figure. A bit of early dialogue between Qui-Gon and Anakin’s mother, one Shmi—names aren’t Lucas’s strong suit, either—reveals that Anakin is the product of a virgin birth:
Qui-Gon: You should be very proud of your son. He gives without any thought of reward.
Shmi: Well, he knows nothing of greed. He has a—
Qui-Gon: He has special powers.
Qui-Gon: He can see things before they happen. . . . The Force is unusually strong with him, that much is clear. Who was his father?
Shmi: There was no father. I carried him, I gave birth, I raised him. I can’t explain what happened.
What did happen? Not to Shmi, whose curious reproductive history the Star Wars movies also never bothered to explain, but to the Star Wars movies themselves—whose earlier trilogy mostly avoided biblical inspiration but whose more recent installments shifted so sharply toward Christianity? More generally, why has mainstream sci-fi and fantasy as a whole become so religious? One reason may be the religious revival that the United States and much of the world have been undergoing since the 1970s. This “revenge of God,” in French scholar Gilles Kepel’s phrase, has seemingly begun to be felt even in secular Hollywood.
But another reason surely lies in geopolitics. During the sixties and seventies, popular American science fiction looked to the stars and saw a Cold War there. Consider Star Trek, the franchise that, as a TV show from 1966 to 1969 and later as a series of movies, chronicled the adventures of Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and the crew of the USS—“United Starship”—Enterprise, representatives of a democratic United Federation of Planets that held an uneasy truce with the warlike, autocratic Klingon Empire. The real-world parallels were unmistakable. “Of course Star Trek was about the Cold War,” critic Paul Cantor recently observed. “The United Federation of Planets was the United States and its free-world allies, the Klingons were the Soviet Union and the Communist bloc.”
The original Star Wars films were similarly political at heart. Like Star Trek, they portrayed a universe caught between two great rivals, one free and democratic, the other hierarchical and autocratic. Not for nothing did the first film use “evil Galactic Empire” to describe Darth Vader’s dominion. (One wonders whether Ronald Reagan drew his famous excoriation from Lucas’s hit.)
When the Soviet Union began to thaw in the mid-eighties and collapsed entirely in 1991, however, that neat good-versus-evil scheme resonated less, and mainstream science fiction started to cast about for alternative inspirations. Often it failed. Star Trek, for example, continued to imitate geopolitics as it launched a phenomenally boring new TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, in 1987 (it would end its run in 1994). The Federation and the Klingons were now at peace, and the Enterprise resembled a spaceborne United Nations, a bustling enclave safe enough for the crew to bring children with them. So yawn-inducing was the galaxy that the show frequently sought to introduce drama with a device called the “holodeck,” a virtual-reality entertainment area where the characters could cavort in more exciting locales—the Wild West, say, or 221B Baker Street. Two more Trek series, Deep Space Nine and Voyager, tried to restore excitement—the first was set on a frontier space station, the second in a galaxy far from our own tedious one—but with little effect. Too often, the Star Trek franchise called to mind the end of history on an intergalactic scale.
But while Star Trek floundered, other sci-fi, less committed to explicit Political Relevance, seized on a ready-to-hand story that exerted enormous power on American audiences—and not only because of its biblical source. The story has roots deep in humanity’s ancient past, as Campbell, Raglan, and Rank understood. It is a story that, in one variant or another, our ancestors told one another so long ago that its sources are as mysterious as the story itself.
Messianic sci-fi movies and TV programs, despite their own interest in parthenogenesis, did not spring forth fully formed from the New Testament. Science fiction of the written kind has long taken advantage of the cultural power of the Christ story. In fact, two of the twentieth century’s most popular sci-fi novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune and Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, were overtly messianic, a fact noted by the sizable critical literature that exists on the books.
Christian themes aren’t an entirely new development in filmed science fiction, either. In the Terminator franchise—which produced three fine films as far apart as 1984, 1991, and 2003—robots from the future repeatedly attempt to kill the suggestively initialed John Connor, a man destined to lead humanity in a war against the robots. Connor’s birth is positively paradoxical, if not miraculous: a warrior sent back in time by Connor himself to fight the first movie’s robot killer sleeps with Connor’s mother . . . conceiving Connor. Richard Matheson’s 1954 novel I Am Legend, in which the world’s last surviving human being battles vampire-like creatures, has inspired three Hollywood versions, but The Omega Man (1971)—in which Charlton Heston is first nearly crucified, then saves the world with his (antibody-carrying) blood, and winds up speared through the side and dead in, once more, a T shape—is more suggestively Christian than either The Last Man on Earth (1964) or last year’s Will Smith vehicle I Am Legend. Even in that most political of Cold War sci-fi movies, The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), we meet an alien who adopts the name “Carpenter” and, after being killed by the earthlings among whom he has landed, returns to life to offer them peace or a sword. Steven Spielberg’s E.T. (1982) similarly gave us a being who descended from heaven, cured disease miraculously, and then returned from death.
Yet despite the evocative power of the Christian narrative, it seems likely that geopolitics will return to mainstream science fiction, now that we realize how terribly exciting—I use the adverb carefully—our world still is. In fact, it’s already begun to happen. A fifth Star Trek series, called Enterprise, began its four-season run on September 26, 2001—just 15 days after 9/11 and just before our subsequent war against the Taliban—with the good guys fighting a new race of aliens called, by a curious coincidence, the Suliban. The action-packed series quickly became the best Trek since the original, and its references to 9/11 and the War on Terror only became more explicit as the show went on. In Enterprise’s penultimate season, aliens terroristically destroy a swath of Florida and the Enterprise goes on a mission to hunt them down and punish them.
Then there’s Battlestar Galactica. The corny 1978 original mercifully died after a single season. Five years ago, however, the franchise was reborn—first as a three-hour miniseries, then as a weekly show—in a compelling new form. As in the original, the show’s heroes, the last remnants of a human civilization destroyed by mechanical beings called Cylons, are fleeing their persecutors and seeking Earth, the legendary planet of their origin. But instead of the clunky robots of the 1978 series, the new Cylons are indistinguishable from human beings—a detail that helps turn the show into an ongoing examination of the War on Terror: Is it ethical to torture Cylons, for example? Other questions also echo our current conflict: How should the show’s hero deal with members of a (human) fifth column that has tried to sabotage his ship? How much access to sensitive information should he grant to an apparently hostile reporter? The show declines to answer straightforwardly, instead presenting viewers with a world whose politics, like our own, are filled with moral ambiguities and difficult trade-offs.
Now that science fiction again has politics to draw on, will it abandon its religious impulses? Predicting the future is a task best left to sci-fi writers themselves, but I’d bet not. In a genre less committed than most to the this-worldly, there will always be messiahs to save the world from evil robots or invading aliens. And at movie theaters and on TV screens nationwide, there will always be legions of worshipful fans.
Benjamin A. Plotinsky is the managing editor of City Journal.