I will go ahead and qualify this article in a few ways. First of all, I am fully aware of Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. It is actually a personal favorite. I also hold a degree in Classical Civilizations and have read parts of the Old Testament in Greek and the New Testament in Latin. I have studied many of the hero myths in their original languages and was reared on such books as Edith Hamilton’s Mythology (also highly recommended by the way.) As a child of my times, I also grew up reading comic books and watching movies. The point is that I am well aware (as much as anyone can be) that the themes discussed here are ancient (and in some cases more ancient than Christ) but I am choosing in this article to specifically address how the Resurrection of Jesus seems to be a storytelling staple hidden in modern movies. Believe me, that is more than enough discussion for one article. I will take these in the chronological order in which they were released.
[Warning the following contains medium to high spoilers of the following movies: Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, The Matrix, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Superman Returns, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2]
Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984): On some level, if you phrase it right, The Search For Spock is practically a jumping off point for discussing religion. Lets look at the plot and a few of the highlights. First of all, the movie is directed by Leonard Nimoy. Then in the movie, you have a character named Leonard (who is inhabited with the spirit of a man who gave his life to save others when he did not have too). So you can really see it as the director of the movie vicariously discussing religion through his main character. This is not completely dissimilar from the works of Virgil to be perfectly honest. If you dig a little deeper into the Star Trek mythology, Leonard’s father was named David. So, you have a child of David searching for the meaning of the afterlife. Spock’s body is on a planet called Genesis and his spirit is in Leonard McCoy. The point of the movie is to rejoin the two. Incidentally, this does happen, and when Spock emerges he is wearing a white robe. During the course of the film, the leader of the journey (Captain Kirk) is powerless to stop the death of his own son (David, again) who is protecting not only Spock but another woman (Lt. Saavik). Kirk will ultimately also sacrifice his own ship (everything he loves) and take the Klingon ship (taking the form of the enemy in order to live among us.) The central line in the story is that “sometimes the needs of the one or the few outweigh the needs of the many.” Basically, stating a common tenant of Christianity that if only one person throughout history was to be saved, Christ would have done the same thing again.
The Matrix (1999): You can argue that The Matrix ripped off everything from Rene Descartes to Grant Morrison comics to the frenetic stylings of John Woo. You might be right as well. The basic story though seems to have been greatly influenced by the Biblical account. What you have is a reluctant savior who does not necessarily want or understand the mantle that his birth has thrust upon him. In an act of self sacrifice though, he is willing to risk and ultimately loses his own life to save a friend. He is killed by an authority that is not unlike himself. He is resurrected by love for his one day bride (as Christ will one day be reunited with the Church) who is actually named Trinity. He is tempted to give up the mantle, doubts himself, and asks to be released from it before ultimately accepting his destiny. As an added bonus, after is ressurection – he is seen flying in the very same city that he was previously executed in.
The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (2005): Now, I know that a knee jerk reaction to the inclusion of this one is that author of the original novels (C.S. Lewis) fully intended for the character of Aslan to be a depiction of Christ. That is one of the reasons why Christian parents have been pushing children to read Narnia books for generations now. Of course, he meant it and the thread has passed on to the movie. That does not make it any less relevant or any less of a reason to use it. In fact, with the carefully crafted story – it actually makes it more of a reason. For those unfamiliar, in order to save an unworthy and rightfully damned child – the King Aslan (a lion) lays down his own life for the boy. He does it willfully. He also knows when he does it that he will be resurrected. Aslan first appears post-resurrection to a child who is female. No one initially believes her. Aslan also leads his forces to a righteous victory at the end over the cold forces of the Queen and her minions. It’s a classic story that is very well done by Walden Media. It is also an excellent starting point for any discussion of the Passion or the Resurrection.
Superman Returns (2006): There has always been a bit of the story of Jesus in the story of Ka-El. A child from another universe who assumes the identity of a mortal man living among us with great power and (to steal a phrase) great responsibility. However, the Superman The King references are never so clearly spelled out and examined as they are in Bryan Singer’s film. First of all, Superman has to return from a long journey as Jesus had to return to Jerusalem during the tax season. The world that he comes back to does not know how to treat him and questions why he has left for so long. The story starts with him talking to his mother seemingly knowing that forces are aligning already against him. Eventually, he will be struck down by materials of his own world and leader from his own town (Kryptonite and Lex Luthor respectively) as Jesus was struck down by his own people and a leader from his own town (Pilate). Superman does rise and flying into the sky as Jesus was resurrected. There is even a scene in which he spreads out his arms in a cross like fashion above the clouds. Again, Singer himself was more than happy to imply that all of the allusions in Superman Returns were entirely intentional.
Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009): OK, lets just state this one outright. Dying is kind of Optimus Prime’s thing. He dies. He comes back. He does it in this movie (usually this is accomplished by what in the Transformers mythology is referred to as the Matrix or Creation Matrix.) He died in the 1986 Transformers animated movie. In that one, he gave his life and the Matrix was taken up by another. However, astute watchers of the series will also know that Prime was back in the series the next year as well. Prime even gave up his life in a wagering chance game in the Transformers comic book and was reborn having downloaded his consciousness onto a floppy disk. Which I believe is the most magical explanation for Prime’s return in any medium. Prime dies. Prime comes back. Its just kind of what he does. Again, Prime does not have to do anything for the human race. He is obviously not one of us. He may feel greater responsibility to the followers of his own kind (the Autobots) but over and over and over again Prime dies for the sake of the human race that shuns and fears him.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (2011): Again, intentional work by the author does not make it any less true. The questions through the first six books of the Harry Potter series were “Will Harry Potter die?” and “Can a Harry Potter movie gross 400 million domestically?” The answers came back respective – well Yes and No. Harry Potter does purposefully sacrifice himself to Lord Voldemort’s death curse in order to release a part of himself that is Voldemort. Don’t make me get into how this is all accomplished any more really than that. Let’s just say that it happens. This is done to fullfill a prophecy and Harry is marked from birth in order to fullfill it. In doing so, Potter then vanquishes the evil that has stalked his whole life and gives way for the liberation of others. As young boy, he had talents that he did not understand. He also did not necessarily want or always accept the fate thrust upon him. Is this all what J. K. Rowling meant when she wrote it? Again, very possibly. There are a lot of different influences going into the Harry Potter universe. It just certainly does not mean that one child or promise cannot be used ro retell the story of another.
It is again true that the story of Jesus holds no actually exclusive place in history on the story of resurrections. Even in ancient times, there were the stories of Gilgamesh and Osiris that similarly told of Kings and Gods that were resurrected. It is also true that you have stories of chosen ones ranging from Skywalker to the Inheritance trilogy. On these however, it does seem to specifically link to and arise a discussion of the story of the death and resurrection of Christ no matter what your core beliefs may be about the event itself.