The “Christ Figure” is one of the most common tropes of cinema. It also has the reputation, at least among faith and film circles, to be an eye-rolling one because the Christ Figure has propensity to dominate the discussion of any one particular film whenever it is present. But there is something remarkable about the fact that the structure of the story of Jesus has explicitly and implicitly inspired writers and filmmakers, whether they be true believers or ardent atheists, for the 2000 or so years since his death (which we Christians remember today on Good Friday) and resurrection (which again if you are so inclined to believe it, we celebrate on Easter).
So it seems appropriate (at least to this film nerd) that on Good Friday I should comb through the plethora of filmic Christ Figures and pick out the best ones. But first, let’s define a Christ Figure. While there are different ways to go about defining a Christ Figure I generally think a character qualifies when they exhibit two or more of these qualities:
- “God” amongst people – The nature of these characters are not immediately obvious to others. They either intentionally hide who they are or the people around them are blind to their existence.
- Messianic Saviour – They have a mission to either change the world or save it. Or at the very least they have come to change and save the people around them.
- Beacon of Hope – They raise the hopes of people around them either by their existence or actions.
- Sacrificial – They lay down their lives (figurative or literal) for others.
And with that let’s dive into the list:
Edward Scissorhands from EDWARD SCISSORHANDS (1990)
Luke from COOL HAND LUKE (1967)
The Terminator from TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991)
Travis Bickle from TAXI DRIVER (1976)
Wonder Woman from WONDER WOMAN (2017)
10. Klaatu from THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL (1951) dir. Robert Wise
When Klaatu walks amongst the streets of Washington D.C. as an alien in disguise, the question he asks is not so much if humanity can be saved but rather should they be saved. He enters a world in which humanity is so fractured that the appearance of an alien spaceship is not enough to cause them to set their differences aside. It is a world with very little trust in it and a world where mutual self-destruction is very much on the table. ironically the 1951 film has been around long enough to go from shockingly contemporary to dated to suddenly very prescient again. Klaatu stands as a prophet, desperately trying to tell the world to repent of its ways or face destruction from a conglomeration of alien nations. In this way he could probably be more accurately described a “John the Baptist Figure” than a Christ Figure, but its my list. So he stays.
9. Superman from SUPERMAN (1978) dir. Richard Donner
It is with some irony that two Jewish comic book writers, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, managed to create in Superman the superhero who would most resemble Jesus. Superman is an alien who comes to earth as a baby after his planet Krypton is destroyed and crash lands in Kansas to a childless family who take him in and raise him as their own. Then, after taking the name Clark Kent and growing up in the Kent household, he discovers his true calling when he is drawn to the Fortress of Solitude where he encounters a hologram of his birth father who dispenses wisdom on both the nature of Superman’s powers and responsibilities and sends him out into the world to be its protector. So yeah, he’s an obvious Christ figure but in the hands of Christopher Reeve he’s also a pretty great one.
8. E.T. from E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL (1982) dir. Steven Spielberg
“I’ll be right here,” is the final words E.T. utters to Elliott before returning home on his spaceship, a fitting homage to Jesus’ own words “I will be with you until the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). When E.T. shows up in Elliott’s life, his world is in shambles. His father has left for unspecified reasons and Elliott’s mother is struggling to hold her family and herself together. Outside of his home he finds himself trapped in Spielberg’s suburbia, a place that has all the trappings of comfort but is ultimately sterile. So E.T.’s arrival is thus a miraculous visitation, drawing the family together and infusing Elliott with mystery, wonder, and adventure. But while E.T. provides Elliott and his siblings plenty to be entertained and amused by, it is its companionship that is most valuable and miraculous (that and his coming back to life after seeming death).
7. Babette from BABETTE’S FEAST (1987) dir. Gabriel Axel
Unbeknownst to an austere Pietist community, Babette, the refugee that they have taken into their care to serve as their chef, is actually a world-class chef. For more than a decade Babette tirelessly prepares (and slightly improves) the bland meals of this community in deference for their general wishes not to have anything to do with pleasure. When she by chance wins the lottery for 10,000 francs which theoretically frees her from indebtitude to the community but instead she decides to spend it all so that she can finally throw a lavish feast in their honour which bristles at their austere sensibilities. But their reservations are broken down by the exceptional quality of the meal which similarly also miraculously has the added effect of bringing the community together as the meal allows them to forgive old wrongs, bury old grudges, rekindle love, and spark joy. That all but a few know who she is and the sacrificial gift she has given with this meal makes it all the more powerful.
6. Iron Giant from THE IRON GIANT
Almost as typical as the trope of a Christ Figure is the trope of the lonely and misunderstood child and these two figures meet in The Iron Giant. Hogarth is a strange child who finds himself trapped in small Maine town at the height of the Cold War, when he discovers the mysterious Iron Giant. Together the two form a unique friendship, each with their own rough edges (with the Iron Giant’s rough edges being much more lethal) but each making the other better as the movie goes along. Inevitably though as any Cold War movie must do, paranoia and fear sets in the town and in the authorities leading them down a path of self-assured destruction. This leads, as anyone who has seen this movie will attest, to the actions that will perhaps make the Iron Giant the most obvious Christ Figure on this list.
5. Randle P. McMurphy from ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1985) dir. Milos Forman
While I was tempted to put Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver in this slot, I decided that Randle was the better antihero Christ figure. He comes to a mental institution without being mentally ill himself but rather as a means of getting out of his own prison sentence. Once in the institution he quickly surmises two things: First, that there is a lot of fun to be had even within the walls of the institution and second, that the tyrannical Nurse Ratched is suppressing the patients ability to be their fuller selves as a means of control. And so he becomes the agent of chaos in that place by breaking patients out to go fishing, throwing secret Christmas parties under Ratched’s nose, and being a perpetual thorn in the side of an unjust system. He brings the patients to life metaphorically and is ultimately struck down for it tragically, proving that the most dangerous thing to do is to usurp the status quo.
4. Neo from THE MATRIX trilogy (1999-200) dirs. Lana and Lily Wachowski
When Mr. Anderson is first told that he is in fact the chosen one who is meant to liberate those like himself living in a simulated reality called the Matrix and destroy the A.I. that controls them, he is quite understandably incredulous. Yet as anybody who has watched a decent amount of movies will be able to predict, he does eventually step into the role as humanity’s Saviour by unlocking the power of the Matrix and becoming the ultimate glitch in its programming. The end of the original movie promises some serious butt-kicking will ensue as Mr. Anderson assumes his role as Neo but the power of the underrated sequels is that they subvert the traditional role of a violent and insurrectionist saviour, sending him down a much more sacrificial and releasing path to redemption.
3. Frodo from THE LORD OF THE RINGS Trilogy (2001-03) dir. Peter Jackson
It is undeniable that there are multiple Christ Figures in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings saga (Gandalf and Aragorn in particular have their own strong claims). But I posit that it is Frodo who is the most compelling. He is the innocent one who takes up the cause of saving the world by being the bearer of the Ring of Power and giving his word to take it and destroy it at Mt. Doom. Though many try to take this burden from him, he chooses to bear it himself because in the hands of any one else the Ring will corrupt them and deviate from his purpose. And so the weight of the entire hopes of Middle Earth and the death-inducing weight of the Ring’s power itself rests on his tiny shoulders as he journeys from the safety of his paradise (Shire) into the gates of his own hell (Mordor) to fulfil his mission.
2. Joan of Arc from THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC (1928) dir. Carl Theodor Dreyer
An innocent champion of the people is slain. From the moment of her execution in 1431 she has been seen as a quintessential Christ Figure and one of the most evocative stories of Medieval Europe but, and I say this without any irony, it truly took until Carl Theodor Dreyer got his hands on the story that the true power of her unjust execution achieves transcendent heights. Renee Falconetti delivers one of the greatest acting performances of all time as Dreyer strips away all the usual trappings of film technique to focus almost solely on her increasingly distraught face during her last few hours before her execution. The end result is a stunningly brutal portrait of suffering and tenderness, grief and peace. As I stated in my previous post there have been umpteen adaptations of Jesus and as a result umpteen adaptations of Jesus’ trial before his execution. Nothing comes closer to approximating what that trial must have truly been like better than The Passion of Joan of Arc.
1. Baby from CHILDREN OF MEN (2006) dir. Alfonso Cuaron
In a dystopic near-future, the world has been struck by global infertility for eighteen years, causing governments to fail, wars to break out, and civilization is on the brink of collapse. Theo, the hero of the story, is a disgruntled and cynical former activist turned bureaucrat who gets roped back in with his activist friends to help get some refugees out of the U.K. when he discovers that miraculously one of them, Kee, is pregnant. And as allies slowly but surely get picked off Theo and Kee form an allegorical Joseph and Mary as he tries to get her to their own promised land. In the climax of the movie, Kee has to deliver the baby as they find themselves trapped in a war zone between the rebels and the British army. But the canon-fire and bullets stop the moment the soldiers on both sides hear the baby cry. Word quickly spreads through this war zone that the miraculous has happened and a child has been born. And for a brief moment for peace as both sides quickly move to get this makeshift Holy Family away from the fighting and into safety because the message is clear: unto them this day a child has been born and hope is anew.