Somebody save me, Let your warm hands break right through - Somebody save me, Don’t care how you do it, Just save… save… come on, I’ve been waiting for you …
One of the hallmarks of any given action being labelled as “heroic” is the idea of ‘saving’ someone from a dangerous or unfortunate situation, especially when said circumstance is out of the victim’s control. It’s a rudimentary method schoolchildren use for telling the difference between good guys and bad guys- the good guys save someone, the bad guys put people in a position which requires saving. It seems obvious, but rescuing someone from danger and making sure they’re safe is about as close to a “universal good” as you can think of, whether your lens is philosophical, religious, or mythological.
This may have its roots in biology - as a species, we naturally feel the urge to assist one another. It may have its role in ancient philosophy, where great minds laid out some of the foundations for ethical behavior eons ago. Perhaps it first grew in religion: it could very well be that humanity does truly exist in a fallen, vulnerable state where we subconsciously yearn for some being to lift us up, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. Perhaps there is no such subconscious yearning, and instead, we simply wish for a hero because we are aware of the many danger and shortcomings of our world, and we use this imaginary figure as a way to fantasize about the world being a better place.
That is where the myth of the Messiah comes in. Throughout time, geography, and culture, humans have tried to imagine what an ideal rescuer would look like. Often times, the person is birthed or created as a designated intermediary between mystic and human. Other times- it’s a human who attained some degree of divinity. In either circumstance, the result is a superhero - one who can save the world, and grant us a better understanding of righteousness, heroism, and hope.
Today in TGC, we going to begin our study of Messianic figures in geek canon by introducing and examining three of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy “Chosen One”s- and we’ll delve in a bit to what makes them so remarkable. At the end, we’ll see what we can learn from these fictional saviors’ examples, as well as ponder what other characters might fit this particular archetype.
Messiah #1: Superman
Superman is possibly the easiest comparison to draw to a modern Savior myth. His origin story, though written by Jewish story artists Siegel and Shuster, have interwoven an enormous amount of Judeo-Christian mythology into his own retelling.
Sent to Earth by his father as “The Last Son of Krypton” for the betterment of mankind- the messages his father (Jor-El) sends with him include almost direct scripture from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible:
Jor-El: The son becomes the father, and the father the son... They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. 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.
[Insert relevant scripture of your choice here]
While John and Martha Kent are slightly better off than impoverished immigrants Joseph and Mary - the resulting adoption and raising of the new Messiah figure intertwines again around age 30, when both Clark Kent and Jesus of Nazareth are called away by their respective fathers to begin their quest to save the planet through the working of great miracles, but most of all, through their innate goodness, wisdom, and infallible conscience.
Schoolyard discussions and online forums often complain that Superman is “too goody-goody”, or “too overpowered” - such critics of the Superman myth claim that no driving sense of heightened stakes can exist with a hero whose powers are virtually limitless. As a writer - I understand where they are coming from. It is incredibly difficult to watch Superman in any given scenario and feel a sense of dread or anticipation. Those blue tights do not spell intense drama to me. But, I would say to those detractors, you’re missing the point of what Superman really is.
His myth is not the typical “Hero’s Journey” - he’s not in the kin of a mortal striving to become their best self. In a lot of ways, he’s already transcended that - he’s already tapped into his godlike potential, and although Clark Kent still has some mortal problems to cope with on a regular basis (romance be damned), Superman is primarily a figure of limitless righteousness, and perfect justice. He is, for the most part, an incorruptible figure, whose only real trials exist in the relationships he struggles to form with humanity, even as he hears their pleas from everywhere all at once.
In this way, he mirrors a Judeo-Christian Messiah. He is most definitely better than everyone else - but instead of placing himself in a place to conquer or rule, he exists as a servant of the people, a defender against tyranny, and a consistent reminder that we can have hope - that good can always triumph over evil, and that there is no such thing as “too good to be true”.
Messiah #2: Neo
Neo’s origins seem a far stretch from the wholesome upbringing of Clark Kent- the beginning of The Matrix involves an already adult-version of the protagonist as a late-90’s cybercriminal with a deadbeat office job. His eyes are opened not by an omnipotent father figure, but rather, by Morpheus, a proselytizing mystic who is searching for “The One” - a prophesied savior figure who will bring an end to a centuries-long conflict between Man and The Machines.
Neo’s quest, unlike Superman’s, is not to use his already-developed sense of justice in the service of lesser beings. Instead, Neo is a more aligned with the “Conquerer/Deliverer” side of the Messiah coin - his mission: to see through the deceptions and lies of the virtual world and to directly confront and ultimately defeat the cause of humanity’s great deception. His powers (awesome wire-fu aside) - stem primarily from his philosophical clarity - and his understanding that mastering your own perceptions is the key to mastering the external world.
It is a different take on the Messiah’s purity, but still one very much in line with the myth as told by various religious and philosophical backgrounds. Guatama Siddhartha, the man who eventually became the Bhudda, began his journey to ascension by similarly escaping an a world built to deceive him (in that instance, it was a palace devoid of any suffering or death). The ability of one “Chosen” to save or redeem an entire population is also seen in the figure of Moses - who single-handedly spoke for God against the oppressive powers that be (were?) and used his own brand of super-powers to force the Egyptians into surrendering the captive Hebrews into their own Zion. (Well played, Wachowskis).
Towards the conclusion of his story, Neo’s tale takes a much more New-Testament, "Messiah as a sacrifice" angle to the Savior myth. Instead of conquering the oppressive deceivers by force and defeating them in battle, Neo takes on the role of an Atonement-maker, brokering a peace between the Machines and Zion.
The Christian symbolism is not subtle, either.
Messiah #3: Avatar Aang
And now for something completely different…
In Avatar, the Last Airbender, the world has been thrown out of balance by an invading imperial force, and only one being can stop them - The Avatar, a bridge between the denizens of the natural world and the spirit world.
In this instance, the Avatar is a young boy who literally ran away from his prophesied destiny, plunging the world into a hundred years of war and oppression. Thanks to his mystically-powered cryogenic stasis, he is preserved for the ideal moment in history. At the time of his arrival, some believe he will never come. Others say he arrived too late. Few believe his tale, even as he displays and proclaims time and again that he has come to right the world’s wrongs.
Aang is a fascinating take on the Savior myth, because of the key twists that set him apart from his fellows. First of all, he is young. The series begins with him at age 12, and the entire series ages him only two more years. To see a character wrestle with a divine destiny is hardly a rare occurrence, but seldom do stories spend so much time investigating the toll said destiny takes on a young boy who just wants to have fun, and live a normal life. Secondly, Aang is one of the only modern messianic figures I’m aware of who is directly related to the theory of reincarnation. Aang’s past selves are active mentors in his life, passing on wisdom and even some of their own emotional baggage. This makes for an interesting conversation - if the Avatar (i.e. Messiah/Savior) is consistently reborn, how much of Aang’s identity is his own? Furthermore, if the Avatar is in a state of consistent reincarnation, does that mean the world will never “stay saved” - and that humanity will always be in need of a bridge between our natural and spiritual worlds?
To look for a surviving religious interpretation of reincarnation in the form of a spiritual guide, one need not look any further than the twitter account for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. According to his own website:
“The Dalai Lamas are believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are realized beings, inspired by the wish to attain complete enlightenment, who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help all living beings.”
In this case, we see this mantle as a voluntary act of service, chosen by a superior being to guide and assist all other life. In Aang’s case, he did not readily accept this destiny, but by the end of his journey, he willingly laid down his life so that the cycle could continue, and the role would continue to be fulfilled. It is interesting to note that he does this by attaining a level of self-mastery, somehow managing to maintain his own personhood amidst the power of the trance-like “Avatar State”.
These three entities - Kal-El, Neo, and Aang, are only nicking the tip of the iceberg of the myth of the messiah. While each of them feature exceptional (and flashy) combat abilities, the true meaning of their myths in the collective subconscious is that they provide examples of what it would take to “save the world” - whether that means an infallible code of ethics, an effort to see through the “deceptions” of physical reality, or a destiny of being bridge between worlds for the sake of all humanity - we can all view these stories and appreciate them as being worth our while. They can help us answer tough ethical choices by asking, “What would Superman do in this situation?” or by forcing us to confront and eventually accept a type of unity within our metaphysical as well as the physical sense of self.
As we wrap up until next time - the question which springs to my mind is this: who are the messiah figures in your personal brand of geekdom? If you need rescuing, which figures do you turn to for examples of exceptional virtue? What would a being as perfect as you can imagine be like? We’ll follow up next time with Messiahs, pt. ii, and we’d love to have some feedback about who you’d like to see brought into the discussion.
Until next time - geek on.