Several times in the past months I’ve curled up in the comfy womb of a cinema and prepared myself for another Marvel adventure – The Winter Soldier, Days Of Future Past, previews of Guardians of the Galaxy…It doesn’t really matter which one I think of, each occasion has included an equally comfortable feeling of familiarity that every cinemagoer will recognise. We don’t know what we’re about to watch, and yet we do – and we’re OK with that.
Marvel Productions may begin each of its films with a flickering montage referencing decades of comic book stories, but actually it’s the same tale, told over and over again. We’re going to see a battle of epic proportions. It could involve epic monsters like Godzilla or epic machines like Transformers: Age Of Extinction. We don’t really mind. The unchanging variable we’re looking for is a hero we’ll hopefully admire enough to identify with. And even though this week he’ll have knives coming out of his fists, while last week he carried a shield, it will be the same hero. In fact, there are four key characteristics you can tick off in each and every successful film that will keep us coming back for his adventures again and again…
1. The hero is a lover
Hero or anti-hero, it doesn’t matter. Very early on in the film we’ll discover that his/her heart is captured by a deep and abiding love. It might be love of knowledge, country or even an ideal like freedom. This month’s animated remake of Tarzan introduces us to the most enduring love of all, that of one heart for another. From the day the animal-child heir to the Greystoke business empire saves Jane Porter from a viper’s bite, we know he is smitten for life. Of course that love can be complicated too, like that between Jupiter Jones and her genetically engineered bodyguard Caine Wise in July’s sci-fi opera Jupiter Ascending. But the important thing is that the hero can be trusted because they understand that most basic of human feelings.
2. The hero is challenged
Every hero faces a moment where the safety of their love comes into question, and the depth of that threat will ultimately measure the height of their triumph. This month will see the release of How To Train Your Dragon 2 and the return of Hiccup, the inept Viking boy who befriended the wounded Night Fury, Toothless. In the first film the matched pair had to defeat a monstrous dragon to save their village; in the sequel it’s the reaver Drago Bludvist who threatens to enslave their scaly friends. In reality is doesn’t matter whether it’s Godzilla’s flying lizard menacing Lieutenant Ford Brody, or the Guardians Of The Galaxy overcoming their own shortcomings. There will be an obstacle to overcome and that triumph will come at a price…
3. The hero sacrifices
A point will arrive in the film where all of the hero’s weapons, skills and pluck will fail him. In order to save his love he will have to sacrifice himself. In April’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier the title hero allows himself to be beaten to a pulp by the brain-washed Bucky in order to convince him of his undying friendship. In July’s Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes the genetically advanced primate Caesar will put his life on the line for his nation of simian followers. Of course it’s not always physical death that threatens. Death of a career, respect or a dream will suffice. But whatever death the hero ends up confronting, it will represent the end of a way of life, the end of happiness, the end of hope. Death is the ultimate villain because Death is the ultimate full stop.
4. The hero rises again
But have you ever wondered about the fact that, as a species, we’re not content to leave it there? Hollywood tried to make Death attractive in the evolution-driven movie Creation but it was a flop. We can’t accept that the final curtain should come down with the hero in the grave. We hunger for a resurrection moment, and most films oblige. Last month Wolverine managed to survive death in both the past and the future. Meantime in a neighbouring cinema Lego hero Emmet was flinging himself off the edge of the universe, only to return from the ‘real world’ courtesy of ‘The Man Upstairs’. This is the resurrection moment, and the best ones the big screen has to offer are those that benefit more than just the hero. Indiana Jones climbs back over the cliff to save Willie Scott; Gandalf returns from the beyond to rescue Middle Earth. It’s not enough for the hero to defeat Death. We expect their return will have positive implications for everyone associated with them.
Sound familiar? The stories that we entertain ourselves with are not just ways to wile away the hours. For thousands of years the humble story has been the preferred method for passing on truths that cut under ethnic and cultural differences. These story truths resonate with audiences all over the planet because they reflect the God who made us all, and who designed us to be part of a much larger tale. If you like, the best elements of the stories we tell each other today are the thousand fractured pieces of a mirror that reflects the greatest story every told – not the George Stevens classic, but the great story of God’s redemption of the world through Jesus Christ.
If all creation, “… waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed,” and longs for its liberation, “…from its bondage to decay,” is it any wonder that all culture in some way echoes that longing? Admittedly Emmet dying and rising to save his friends from Lord Business is a pretty dull reflection of the life offered to the world through Jesus’ resurrection. But the real wonder is not that we regularly see heroes rising to defeat death but that, in the wake of that one history-changing resurrection, we still refuse to see the real hero they’re pointing us back to.