Do you want to attempt to give your protagonist depth while avoiding character development? Are you willing to use a trope that countless others have tried? If you’ve answered yes, then the Christ allegory is the theme for you. The Christ allegory is often made because it’s easy, almost everyone in the western world knows something about Jesus. But because it’s a comparison often chosen (usually in an improper way) this makes it tiring and even laughable at times. The directors who use it aren’t ‘wowing’ the audience with a deeper level of meaning, they’re cashing in on an overused theme in order to give their films some slow, pretty moments.
It has been used as a literary theme time and time again, from Gandalf to Simon in Lord of the Flies. It has allowed authors to grapple with themes like power, redemption, and martyrdom, yet these implications don’t always translate to film. Trying to squeeze a complex overarching theme into a two hour movie where it isn’t the main idea is no easy feat.
There are two films I’ve chosen that exemplify the weakness of using this tired trope. Both the Hollow Crown’s Richard II and Man of Steel suffer from similar problems, one of which is that they both lean heavily on style. The directors of these films chose the Christ allegory because it fit into their stylistic mold, unfortunately in Richard II’s case this doesn’t make sense and with Man of Steel it comes off as sanctimonious. Unfortunately this also contributes to the feeling that the characters aren’t relatable, as it pits them against impossible odds and makes them look like martyrs.
Richard II is a gorgeous film, the costumes and sets are wonderful and make the film feel authentic. I can see why the director thought a Christ allegory would work in Richard II, given that the titular character is often justifying the divinity of the throne. He surrounds himself with luxurious items and works hard to make sure that everyone knows that God gave him his position. The problem is that Richard is a very flawed, both in personality and political acumen. By emphasizing that he’s in an elevated position, he isn’t able to connect with the people he governs, not that he really cares about them anyway. These obvious flaws make it hard to feel sympathy for him when he’s modeled after Christ.
Early in the film Richard watches the progress of a painting of Christ, one with multiple wounds in the upper torso. The placement of these wounds corresponds with the arrows that hit Richard as he’s assassinated, the white cloth around his torso further emphasizing the connection to Christ. The rest of the film is filled with images like this, which are striking yet don’t mesh with Richard’s character. A more interesting comparison would’ve been between Richard and Bolingbroke (the man who usurps the throne) as a contrast of frivolity and realism in politics.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the grittier tone of Man of Steel, but there is when the film isn’t coherent. Clark’s father, his guide, tells him that it might have been okay to let a bus full of children die in order to keep his power a secret. Flash forward, he’s actually killed someone and he lets out a scream of agony. What are we supposed to make of this juxtaposition? If you’re trying to get us to think about the effective use of power in a morally grey world, why would Christ be your chosen figure? Someone who drew strict lines between good and evil doesn’t fit into Snyder’s universe.
Most of the movie is Clark struggling to figure out what to do with the power he has, but just because he has it doesn’t mean that he’s connected to Christ in some way. Superman was conceived by Jewish comic book writers and has connections to the story of Moses as well as the three pillars of Judaism (peace, justice, and truth) Snyder misinterpreted this as a questioning of power rather than a foreigner doing good in the land that he lives.
Both of these films are examples of why using the christ allegory carelessly is dangerous, especially when you think that it invokes some profound meaning in your audience. When we see it being attempted, it’s hard not to let out a collective sigh. We’ve seen it before and there’s little that can be done to make it profound again.