On most “favorite Christmas movie” lists, It’s a Wonderful Life takes grand prize. Did you know that It’s a Wonderful Life even made it onto the Vatican’s list of 45 outstanding films during cinema’s first 100 years?
I didn’t grow up watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year on TV, as so many people have. Having seen it once or twice a long time ago, I thought it would be worth re-watching and perhaps mentioning during the Christmas Special on the Salt + Light Radio Hour. If you have listened to previous Christmas episodes of the Salt + Light Radio Hour, you might know that for the show’s host, Deacon Pedro Guevara-Mann, It’s a Wonderful Life is not just a great Christmas movie. For him, it’s the greatest movie of all time. So I sat down to watch it one more time.
Need I admit it? I was wrong. It’s a Wonderful Life is not just an “okay Christmas movie.” After really watching it, my appreciation for this movie was transformed! It moved up from being somewhere on my “pretty good movie” list to on my top 20 list. And it’s worth way more than a mention; I ended up spending our entire segment discussing it with Deacon Pedro.
It’s a Wonderful Life is a great film for family viewing, for spiritual renewal, and for cinema divina.
You can listen to the Five Spiritual Lessons from It’s a Wonderful Life on the Salt + Light Radio Christmas Hour here, or browse below for a rambling version. And, if you are going to watch It’s a Wonderful Life this Christmas, go ahead and download the free movie guide here on our Pauline website, www.BeMediaMindful.org ! Even just browsing the list of themes or questions might enrich the appreciation you or someone in your family might have for this wonderful film.
It’s a Wonderful Life available on DVD, streaming.
1946, 2 hrs 10 min
Dir. Frank Capra. Starring Jimmy Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore.
In a nutshell: A great film in every way: artistically, dramatically, and narratively. It’s ironic (but in some ways appropriate to the message of the film) that the lack of appreciation for this movie partially destroyed director Frank Capra’s reputation as a filmmaker.
George Bailey is a good man who becomes desperate and thinks his life is worthless when he thinks he’s lost everything—through no fault of his own. In a miraculous answer to prayer, God sends an angel from heaven to show George how he wrong he is: that his life is indeed wonderful. The film is based on a solid short story (The Greatest Gift written by Philip Van Doren Stern—which you can find online), which is well-written but also gives the film scope to develop. The script itself is well-written, with the themes developing through the events, rather than the dialogue. (In other words, this is not a preachy movie. It is, like all great movies, a story.)
The characters are well-drawn—both as written and as acted. Jimmy Stewart’s George immediately draws us in—in part because of his goodness, but also because of his ordinariness and how he figures things out and then comes to making the right decision for that moment. George is also real in how he struggles when he is faced with sacrificing one of his dreams. (His habit of kicking whatever is nearby is a sure sign he is upset.) If you haven’t seen the film, stop here and continue reading after you’ve watched it. (Spoilers ahead!)
Windows to the Soul
So, why does It’s a Wonderful Life make such a great Christmas movie, in that it is entertaining, touching, and reminds us what Christmas is all about?
This is the thematic “lens” I chose for the movie guide: In self-sacrificial love, the Son of God comes to earth to save us, coming as an Infant born to a poor couple in a stable. George Bailey also has a mission to help others, but in the challenges and self-sacrifices he faces, he begins to doubt his personal vocation, his worth, and the meaning of his life.
Here are a few of my thoughts on the spiritual reminders or spiritual “windows” that It’s a Wonderful Life can help us to see more clearly. I hope that you add more of your favorite reasons for watching this amazing Christmas classic!
1. Image of manliness.
George Bailey offers us a noble image of manliness lived out in the vocation of husband and father—both physical and spiritual fatherhood. Interestingly enough, one of the meanings of the name “Bailey” is “protector” or “guardian.” Following in the footsteps of his father, George makes choices for his family but also for the well-being of the people of the entire community. He doesn’t just protect from evil but also provides for others through his self-sacrificing, kindness and generosity. For me, George’s portrayal of manhood as father and protector is noble—even Saint Joseph-like!
In his Theology of the Body, Pope Saint John Paul II presents us with an understanding of masculinity and femininity that is life-giving. In many ways, George and Mary are examples that powerfully resonate with what St. John Paul has to say.
2. Power of temptation.
It’s easy to take good people for granted, or to put people on a pedestal. And when things are going well for us, we can take that for granted, too. The best people, even the most generous people, get tempted. George is heroically virtuous throughout most of his life, and yet, every time George chooses for his family instead of himself, or to provide for others over his dreams of travel and education, he really struggles with it. He honestly expresses his anger and resentment, even though he makes the unselfish choice. In the end, these good choices become a source for his temptation to discouragement—and he almost gives over to it.
Today, our culture values individualism and “following your dream” to the point where we do not always consider the needs of others. We don’t talk much about the common good, or the responsibility of the strong to pay attention to those who aren’t as strong.(Who of us would change our career so that the financial well-being of our community would be assured?) It’s so easy to take on an attitude of greed or acquisition. If we aren’t interested in material goods, we seek to acquire other things: experiences, reputation, number of “likes,” etc. It’s a Wonderful Life is a timely reminder of the virtue of unselfish love, and also of the importance of cultivating prayer and the values we cherish most, so that a moment of strong temptation won’t overpower us.
3. Spirit of Poverty
In his films, director Frank Capra often treats issues of social justice with a Catholic sensibility. (You can read more about Capra’s Catholic vision in his films in this well-researched article.) George Bailey repeatedly gives up his own dreams for his family and to manage the town’s Building and Loan Company founded by his father, to prevent the wealthy and greedy Mr. Potts taking over the town. With his talents, George makes much of the little resources he has, sometimes inspiring others, too, to help save the town and create simple but homey neighborhoods for immigrants struggling to establish themselves.
George doesn’t just give up a successful career or making money. He also gives up his dreams of education, travel, his shared dream of a honeymoon with his bride, his life-dream of fulfilling his potential in the way that he envisions. George’s sacrifice of these dreams is his greatest struggle, suffering, and, in the end, becomes his greatest temptation. Focused on what he doesn’t have and what he missed out on, he is no longer able to truly see or appreciate the best part of his life.
And yet, it is poverty of spirit that helps him discover the true treasures in his life. The spirit of poverty is emphasized with the quote under the photo of George’s father in the bank: “All you can take with you is that which you’ve given away.” And Harry, George’s brother for whom George has sacrificed so much, sums up at the end of the film, “A toast…to my big brother, George. The richest man in town!”
George doesn’t just give away money; he shares in the fate of others who are struggling financially; he allows their plight to affect his decisions of how he is going to live his life. He lives the spirit of poverty: a way that helps others and responds creatively to injustice.
4. Discouragement and 5. The power of prayer.
(I’m combining lesson 4 & 5 here, so that I can add one more at the end.)
In the “heavenly discussion” early in the film, the angels comment that discouragement is worse than illness. George’s extreme discouragement—it’s not too much to call it despair—is a “spiritual illness” that influences how he sees everything. Doing the right thing becomes “too hard;” a life that holds many sacrifices starts to seem meaningless. As the audience who have witnessed George’s life, we clearly see that these thoughts are temptations. One of the startling moments in the film for me was one I’d forgotten: when George thinks that God’s answer to his prayer is a punch! I was startled by it because I have often felt the same way. Out of fear and weariness, I give in to discouragement and can no longer see the good in my own life.
Desperate as he is, George prays for help. As a vibrant, essential part of his community, George’s crisis is recognized by others and they pray for him, too. The angel Clarence uses some Dickens-like creativity to help George overcome the power of this seductive temptation.
When Clarence claims to be the answer to George’s prayer, it came to me to wonder how often others are answers to my prayers. When we are truly open to doing God’s will, when we sincerely pray “Thy will be done” in the Our Father, then we too, can be God’s answer to a prayer. This movie is very Christian in how it likes to turn things “upside down”: God does answer prayers, but in his own time, in his own way. God sees differently than we do. The little, ordinary person—the little ones of the Gospel—the ones for whom, like Mary, their weakness is God’s strength—are not necessarily so little in God’s eyes. How can we be the answer to someone’s prayer today?
6. Meaning and Giftedness of Life
The meaning of life—that every life has meaning, and that every life is wonderful—is the theme of film. Clarence’s line sums it up well: “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” (Or, as Galadriel says in Lord of the Rings: “Even the smallest person can change the course of the future.”)
What is impressive to me is that, despite his goodness, on some level George hasn’t understood this. Despite his kind generosity, his family, his achievements, and his great sacrifices for others, when George gradually starts to lose his faith, he discounts them all. It seems that he has been blind to the gift of his personal vocation and the true meaning of his life. Perhaps George never truly grasped the meaning of his life; perhaps he has always clung in some way to the dreams he thought he renounced. He simply dismisses or forgets the many lives he has saved or transformed, even discounting the friendships that mean the most to him.
Each of us carries a mental image of what success means, and we might, like George, feel like a failure if we don’t achieve that image. But is that “success” our vocation? Is it “success” that makes us truly happy?
For me, the question to ask myself at the end of this movie is, “What makes my life wonderful, here and now?” This is a great question to share on as a family after watching this film.
Recognizing the giftedness of our own lives doesn’t just make us grateful to be alive; it gifts us with joy and happiness, because we recognize how God is at work in our lives, how God continues to save us and love us, blessing us and gracing us.
Themes found in It’s a Wonderful Life: Sacrificial love, life-giving love, meaning in life, personal vocation, manliness, spirit of poverty, Christmas, giftedness of life, family, salvation, gratitude, power of prayer, discouragement, perseverance, social justice.
The Star, which opened wide in theaters on November 17th, is a playful yet respectful approach to the story of Jesus’ birth for little ones. In trying to do a bit too much, the story wanders off-course midway, but overall The Star is a competent animated version of the story of the birth of Jesus, both entertaining and accessible to children.
The Star is mostly told from the viewpoint of a young donkey, who longs for adventure and to do something “big” in his life. The donkey, who comes to be called Bo (a nickname for Boaz), escapes from his owner and hides in the yard of the newly-married Mary and Joseph. Bo meets Mary and is delighted by her gentle understanding and care. Mary seems to have a special affinity for all of God’s creation, and she adopts Bo despite Joseph’s protests.
Bo goes back and forth between trying to follow his own long-cherished dream of adventure (to work in the royal caravan) and his loyalty to Mary and Joseph. The entire second act of the film follows Bo’s desperate attempts to rescue Mary from the assassin whom Herod sends after the three Wise Men. This middle part of the story feels quite convoluted by Bo’s changing his mind several times about what he will do, and the various complications that ensue. The plot further falters because of the heavy-handed use of several Christmas carols, when the action simply stops. But the wandering plot has a purpose, as Bo learns from every mistake he makes and recommits to helping the Holy Family, whether his service is appreciated or not.
The filmmakers rose to the challenge of remaining true to the essence of the story of Jesus’ birth, all the while interweaving the fictional adventures of talking animals. From a Christian perspective, it is disappointing and somewhat contradictory that, in a children’s story about the birth of the King of Peace, both high points of the protagonist’s story are fights.
The visual design and animation of The Star is delightful and serve the story well to help connect the children with the characters.
The tension between Bo’s longing for adventure and his growing attachment to Mary form the core of Bo’s character development. The outstanding character in the story is Mary, the expectant mother of Jesus. She is lovably human and warm, but also clearly possesses—and exercises—great faith and love. Joseph, too, is appealing and manly. He really struggles with the idea of being chosen to be the foster father of the Son of God. Instead of showing Mary and Joseph as always calm and serene, the film shares several moments where Mary and Joseph react in a vulnerable and understandable way to the difficult circumstances they face. Their relationship and their encouragement to each other to have faith through difficulty is a joy to watch.
Bo is a hardheaded big-hearted donkey with a loyal friend in the not-so-practical dancing dove, Dave. Bo and Dave provide much of the enjoyable humor in the story. Bo’s growth in faithfulness, love, and discovering what is truly important in life might be a bit too complete by the end, but his growth and his adventures go hand-in-hand.
Several of the supporting characters are poorly drawn caricatures that fail to serve the drama or the humor, with particularly limited, overly-simple dialogue. The three camels who carry the wise men are often not funny, but irritating and even problematic: their attempts at humor included calling others by derogatory names. Name-calling is not a matter for humor in a children’s film. In one instance (which was unfortunately repeated), the name-calling might be construed as disrespectful to Christ and the Jewish people.
Windows to the Soul
In many ways, The Star is a wonderfully imaginative tale for children, set in the context of Jesus’ birth. The talking animals give kids an easy way to identify with the characters in the story, especially Mary, whose affinity with all creation—including the animals, no matter how humble—is a beautiful thread running through the film.
It’s hard to know at what age a child would most appreciate The Star. (This is true of many films, and why it can be so important for parents to watch movies with their children, and make sure to discuss it afterward.) Many moments in the film (especially the humor) seem to indicate that the film is for young children—toddlers up to 5 or 6 years old. But the super-scary assassin (perhaps a less-violent stand-in for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents?) could be problematic, especially as the tension of his threat grows throughout the film. And older children will enjoy the antics of Bo and Dave, as well as receive insights into the journey of faith taken by Mary and Joseph on their way to Bethlehem.
However, in a couple of ways, the script needed stronger writing. Name-calling portrayed as humor, fighting used for the “big scene” at the end of a film about the birth of Jesus, and some overly simplistic dialogue about “being good” and “being bad,” plus the fact that Bo’s adventures and growth sometimes overshadow the story of the Holy Family, means that the film could have been much stronger in telling the story of the birth of Jesus. But when we remember that the viewpoint of the film consistently stays with the animals—primarily with Boaz, the donkey—The Star becomes quite a remarkable and delightful retelling of the Christmas story.
Note for Parents and Teachers: Affirm Films has made some wonderful resources available to use before and after watching the film. Go to the movie’s site: http://www.thestarmovie.com/ click on Menu and then click on the Resources tab. From brochures, coloring and activity pages, to a family discussion guide (downloadable for free), this is a great opportunity to spend time with your children on the true meaning of Christmas.
You can listen to my review online on Salt + Light Radio here.
Have you ever had something hard to say to someone, and had trouble figuring out how to say it?
There are saints for that! Yes, we can find inspiration for what and how we communicate well beyond Dale Carnegie (although he has some great communication tips too). Below are some tips from a few saints, future saints, and great Catholics!
Rebecca Ruiz, in this succinct, well-written article, inspired the idea for my blogpost! I hope to read more of Saint Ignatius for myself, but my favorite tip of the seven that Rebecca picks out is #2: Create environments of “greater love than fear.” This tip doesn’t just work for conversation, but it resonates with my experience of working with actors. When I pick the right person for the role, and then create a safe atmosphere in which the actor can take risks and be vulnerable in his or her performance, then I invariably get a performance that is authentic.
In a classic blogpost, How To Give a Talk like Fulton Sheen, one of my favorite communicators, Brandon Vogt, shares the tips that Venerable Fulton Sheen casually offered in conversation. Several of his tips are similar to the tips of St. Ignatius.
Saint Francis de Sales is patron of writers and journalists for many reasons. But here is a new reason for me! In his Treatise on the Love of God (Book II, Chapter IV), which I am just getting around to reading, St. Francis speaks of both Creation and the Incarnation as God communicating himself in love to us! This is foundational in communication theology, and I never expected to find it in Francis de Sales from the 18th century. Here is a short quote:
God knew from all eternity that he could make an innumerable multitude of creatures with divers perfections and qualities, to whom he might communicate himself, and considering that amongst all the different communications there was none so excellent as that of uniting himself to some created nature, in such sort that the creature might be engrafted and implanted in the divinity, and become one single person with it, his infinite goodness, which of itself and by itself tends towards communication, resolved and determined to communicate himself in this manner. So that, as eternally there is an essential communication in God by which the Father communicates all his infinite and indivisible divinity to the Son in producing him and the Father and the Son together producing the Holy Ghost communicate to him also their own singular divinity; – so this sovereign sweetness was so perfectly communicated externally to a creature, that the created nature and the divinity, retaining each of them its own properties, were notwithstanding so united together that they were but one same person.
For years I have wanted to study St. John Paul II’s applied theology of communication. Someone else has begun this work, surprisingly using Ecclesia de America as the example of John Paul’s communication. Dr. Christine Mugridge and Sr. Marie Gannon, FMA, published a curriculum text, John Paul II: Development of a Theology of Communication, which I look forward to reading. This article introduces the text, but a shorter, more accessible introduction is here:
My very favorite works on communication (in addition to ALL of the papal Messages for World Communications Days 1967-ongoing), are the classic texts of SVD Father Franz-Josef Eilers, which I wrote about back in a 2011 blogpost. If you are interested in pastoral communication, evangelization, the spirituality and/or theology of communication, all of his books are awesome.
And finally, of course, Pope Francis has some very practical, down-to-earth advice on communication, which I have been able to find most easily in his talks on the themes of evangelization, communication, and family life.
Here are a few catch-up notes that are long overdue:
Best new site for Media Literacy from a Catholic perspective! Last week I posted here about the new Pauline Center for Media Literacy weekly movie reviews, which our sisters write from a Catholic perspective. But the site has more than just movie reviews, and we are adding new content all the time. Visit the new site and see how the faith we live by and the culture we live in intersect! www.bemediamindful.org
Media and Your Kids For families with kids, the CNN news site published a helpful article about young children using media: “Kids Under 9 Spending More Than 2 Hours a Day on Screens.” The article is based on a study by Common Sense Media–another favorite media literacy site that is helpful when looking at media for children. Along with this article, CNN published “New Screen Time Rules for Kids by Doctors.” The tips for “healthy digital media use” seem especially helpful, but in brief, here is what doctors recommend:
Doctors’ Guidelines for Screen Time for Kids
Screen time, or time spent using digital media for entertainment, should be limited.
|18 months and younger||No exposure.||Screen time can:
cause disconnect between parents and children (babies deprived of parents’ attention may develop behavioral issues)Prevent healthy brain development for infants because it limits face-to-face contactOverstimulate, which can cause distress and sleep issues
|2-5 years||1 hour per day
Only high quality
|Children at this age can’t differentiate between real-world and screen-world. In addition to high-quality programs, face-to-face interactivity onscreen (such as Skype or Facetime) is a good choice.|
|6 & older||Limit & Monitor||Screen time should never replace healthy activities (sleep, social interaction, physical activity)
Parents need to help children and teens navigate the media environment, just as they teach children how to behave off-line
Designate media-free times together (such as meals)
Designate media-free zones at home (such as bedrooms)
Set up a media plan for the family
Based on article: “New Screen Time Rules for Kids by Doctors” by Hailey Middlebrook, CNN
The World Congress for Child Dignity in the Digital World has made many of the speeches of the congress available here on the Congress website. The Centre for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome hosted the congress from October 3-6, 2017 .
Pope Francis offers his insights into his style as a communicator in today’s world: Pope Francis on Why He Gives Interviews. For Pope Francis, a “real meeting,” means “real conversation.” His best tip? He prays to the Holy Spirit ahead of time to inspire him with what to say.
“The truth will set you free” (John 8:32): Fake news and Journalism for Peace is the theme for the next World Communications Day on May 13, 2018. The Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication posted the theme on September 29th (the Feast of the Archangels Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel). The explanation follows:
The theme that the Holy Father Francis has chosen for the 52nd World Day of Social Communications 2018 relates to so-called “fake news”, namely baseless information that contributes to generating and nurturing a strong polarisation of opinions. It involves an often misleading distortion of facts, with possible repercussions at the level of individual and collective behaviour. In a context in which the key companies of the social web and the world of institutions and politics have started to confront this phenomenon, the Church too wishes to offer a contribution, proposing a reflection on the causes, the logic and the consequences of disinformation in the media, and helping to promote professional journalism, which always seeks the truth, and therefore a journalism of peace that promotes understanding between people. https://press.vatican.va/content/salastampa/en/bollettino/pubblico/2017/09/29/170929a.html
Online Evening Visit with Jesus At the conclusion of our online Facebook Live Novena to Our Lady of Fatima, Sister Kathryn and I decided that we would like to try to offer a simple Evening Visit with Jesus every night at 8 PM at the Facebook page: Ask a Catholic Nun. We are still getting it off the ground, but it’s a wonderful way to share prayer intentions and feel part of a community that prayers together every evening. I hope you can find the time to join us.
Meet the selfie-snapping Sisters of Snapchat is a fun article interviewing Catholic sisters using social media! Several #MediaNuns are included.
In my Salt + Light segment this week, in addition to comparing two of the latest summer blockbuster comic book movies, Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming, I briefly described a few other films I watched (and two I hope to see). I am planning to post about each, but as I have fallen way behind in my film commentaries, I wanted to introduce you to a couple of the films and my new favorite review column, written by a team of Daughters of Saint Paul at the Pauline Center for Media Studies’ site.
For independent film lovers:
The Florida Project (2017) — a “slice of life” film from a child’s perspective that explores the poverty and brokenness of families on the periphery: this mother and daughter live within the shadows of Disneyworld. (Sr. Nancy Usselmann’s review is here; Sr. Hosea and I will both comment on the film from various perspectives in an upcoming post.
A Quiet Passion (2016)—biopic of poet Emily Dickinson. The form and themes of this arthouse film suit the themes of Emily’s poetry (and her life!) See Sister Nancy Usselmann’s review, subtitled: The Aesthetics of a Poetic Soul.
Lion (2016)— the amazing journey of Saroo, a five year old child who is accidentally separated from his family by train and is lost, and his attempt to go back and find his brother and mother who loved him so much. (Based on nonfiction book, A Long Way Home.) Once again, Sister Nancy offers an insightful review.
And a couple of religious films:
All Saints (2017) The true story of Pastor Michael Spurlock and his All Saints Episcopal Church community. All Saints (reviewed here by Sr. Hosea Rupprecht, FSP) is releasing digitally November 28, and on DVD on December 12.
The Shack (2017) A great film for reflection and discussion.
I haven’t seen this one, but I’ve heard good things about:
And finally, I have to confess I am looking forward to seeing The Star with a niece or nephew, come November 17th.
This weekend, on Salt + Light Radio Hour, I talk about two of the latest theatrical superhero film releases: Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming. Both are a return to the lighter superhero film and more in tune with what I had come to think of as a “comic book” movie. Perhaps this is a reaction to so many recent superhero films Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Deadpool, Netflix’s The Defenders, Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and Daredevil, that are so dark and grim. Both Wonder Woman and Spider-Man: Homecoming are true superheroes, not anti-heroes, following a classic hero’s journey arc. It was also refreshing to see that both films seemed to be less violent overall, and more focused on special effects.
A Closer Look ~ Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman is a comic book movie with a strong fantasy bent—more of a fairy tale than most comic book films. A mythical past (rather than a scientific “accident”), magical powers associated with magical objects, and a “love at first sight” kind of romance. My childhood partiality for fairy tales has carried into adulthood with a strong partiality for fantasy. (If a story has a dragon, wizards, magic, and a hero(ine) with a huge handicap, I’m in!) But that is not all I found appealing about Wonder Woman: the acting is superb, the romance is an important and integrated part of the story rather than just an obligatory minor plot line thrown in for convention’s sake, the characters are interesting and appealing, and the entire story—while there are probably some loopholes—is solid, if not-too-surprising. I really enjoyed the special effects because not only was I blown away, I could follow all the action.
Wonder Woman’s warrior costume alone probably deserves a whole blogpost. Her costume is one of the reasons my mother wouldn’t let us watch the TV show when I was growing up, and I have always disliked the Wonder Woman character because of it. Unfortunately, the costume is kept in the film, but it is more tasteful than I expected. (Some day, I hope we as a culture can get beyond this kind of superhero costume that oversexualizes heroic characters.) Some references to Diana’s physical attractiveness are made; most are clearly meant to be distasteful. (A couple comments meant to be humorous I found offensive.) These comments, in addition to some splendidly awkward dialogue between character Steve Trevor and Diana, plus an implied night spent together, make the film suitable for a slightly older teen (and could also open the door for dialogue about why certain comments are disrespectful). The comic book violence focuses more on the special effects, but there is still plenty of violence.
Windows to the Soul
Two points about the film I especially appreciated. Diana Prince (aka Wonder Woman) is an amazing warrior, but she is also a woman who embraces her femininity. Wonderfully self-confident, she accepts and uses her powers, but is still very womanly. Her compassion, her passion to to “save humanity” from the violence of war—seeing war (or the god of war) as the enemy are all gifts that women can bring to the world. Diana Prince is, in many ways, a wonderful role model for girls today. (I think it is very, very cool that the first film about a superhero directed by a woman is about a female superhero, and I think Patty Jenkins’ directorial influence shows here.)
The film addresses the problem of evil head-on, not in a theological sense, but in addressing the question: “With all of the evil that human beings do, is humanity really worth being saved?” And in this sense, it is her experience of being loved, not her super-powers, that enable her to make the right choice and be true to her mission.
In her choice to see humanity in the midst of war’s depravity through the lens of love, I find that Wonder Woman is a Christ-figure. And it is this lens of love that gives a lightness to the film, even amidst the tragic circumstances. This sense of hope—that love makes everything worthwhile—is also present in the other superhero summer release, Spider-Man: Homecoming.
A Closer Look: Spider-Man: Homecoming
Like Wonder Woman, Spider-Man was a character I heard about from others, but didn’t grow up with. I became a fan with the Tobey Maguire films. (Spider-Man 2 is still, I believe, one of the best superhero movies ever made.) Like many others, I also wondered, do we really need another Spider-Man movie?
I don’t know if we needed one. But Homecoming is a light, entertaining, and worthy addition to the growing comic book movie collection, and it is better directed to its primary audience of pre-teens and teens.
With excellent acting, Homecoming is a superhero film that looks at how a superhero develops—and not just his superpowers, but how he matures as an individual to responsibly use those powers. In this film, romance is not much of a storyline, which is appropriate to a story about a teenager who has plenty of other things he needs to focus on.
Peter Parker is a super-believable and accessible character. His personal growth/hero’s journey through the film is, I think, immediately identifiable to pre-teens and teens. He is going through typical teen struggles, whose consequences are magnified by his superpowers. The plot is quite predictable (and also a bit messy in wrapping up, with three endings), but as a whole, the film is still enjoyable–especially with Tony Stark mentoring (!) the young Peter Parker.
Windows to the Soul?
In Peter’s search for his true identity and how to live it, he must “harmonize” these two very different aspects of his life: the “ordinary teenager” and the “extraordinary superhero.” The title of the film really is the theme: Peter needs to be at home with himself, and all the different aspects of himself.
In our own lives, we are called to bring together the different aspects of ourselves, especially our ordinary life with the gift of grace, or the life of God. In a time when we can feel so fragmented by a demanding world that vies for our attention and participation in a variety of roles, Peter Parker’s journey of unifying his various identities or roles into one life in which he can be most truly himself, is a journey to integrity all of us can learn from. It is not a decision or journey made in a vacuum, either: Peter’s commitment to the people of New York is his guide in his final decision. In this, Peter can also be seen as a Christ-figure—of Christ, the Good Shepherd.
Note: The PG-13 rating seemed appropriate; comic book violence and spoken sexual innuendo. There are also plenty of “in-Marvel’s-universe” jokes, from earlier Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Avengers movies.
A Question for Today’s Superheroes
In many ways, watching these two films reminds me of the times in which these superheroes were created, when Judaeo-Christian values were still mainstream and woven into many stories of the culture. As desirable as it is to have these values in both films, a “story hole” arises. Where did Peter Parker learn humility and justice tempered with compassion? Where did Diana’s conviction to guard and protect humanity come from? And where did each of them find the strength to live these virtues? If, as seems to be implied, our two superheroes lack the religious faith that creates such values as self-sacrificing love, humility, integrity, generosity, and kindness (to name a few), where do our superheroes get their values from?
While there are certainly many good people who do not have faith yet live good lives, it is also true that faith in God and God’s grace—whether known or unknown—is what gives us the strength and ability to love in a way that transcends ordinary human love. To love the betrayer, the enemy, the unworthy, the nemesis, is not always seen as an ideal any more. In today’s entertainment culture, revenge is seen as a matter of justice, and forgiveness as weakness. In watching several recent teen movies, I have been shocked by the blatant narcissism and utilitarianism of the protagonists: the happy ending is when the protagonist gets what she or he wants, no matter how they got it or who is hurt along the way. There is no recognition of moral values at all—it is what you succeed at, what you get away with, that counts. And everyone is okay with the blatant selfishness.
Yet, Peter Parker’s idea of justice is deeply Christian, as is Diana Prince’s.
It seems to me that superhero movies are successful right now in great part because they give us heroes with these kinds of virtues. On the one hand, these virtues are admirably presented as an ideal: as good, desirable, heroic. But I would also love to see more films in which these kinds of virtues are upheld, as well as positive reference to God and to the practice of faith as the source or strength of these kinds of virtues. (This is one reason I enjoy aspects of the Netflix series Daredevil—his conscience-driven behavior, qualms, and guilt, as well as his confessions and ongoing dialogue with his pastor clearly reveal his faith and his values deriving from his faith.)
The superhero is not a perfectly Christian model, yet superhero portrayals that are faithful to the spirit of the originals are deeply based in Christian virtue. I am not sure that any other culture but the 20th century Western, Christian-based culture could have created Spider-Man, Wonder Woman, or Superman as entertainment.
Is it possible to have Christian virtue without Christianity? These movies seem to say, “yes.” But as we have watched our society becoming post-Christian, we also have witnessed a troubling uprise in a blatant disregard for the importance of each human life. Christian virtue becomes much rarer when society is not built on Christianity, where Christian values and even the golden rule are no longer commonly held. Perhaps it is enough that superhero movies remind us of the ideals and virtues, attract us to them, and show us how how being Christlike—even in the face of great suffering and self-sacrifice— can transform us and the lives of others.