Let’s talk a little bit about hope, shall we? Let’s take a closer look at the stories that we keep in our hearts; those tales that change us on the inside. From stories written in the Old Testament to new ones played out on screens, we can see similar themes of anticipated hope and of life’s meaning coming to fruition only when characters have struggled with fear and elements of self-sacrifice.
The theme of self-sacrifice for a greater good is a strong one. You’re as likely to find examples in Dickens’ stories as you are in contemporary films.
In Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities we meet Sydney Carton, a down-and-out lawyer whose life undergoes a dramatic and redemptive transformation. Near his introduction, the alcoholic Carton says things like ‘I am a disappointed drudge, sir. I care for no man on earth, and no man on earth cares for me’. But then he develops unrequited love in Lucie Manette, a woman who becomes engaged to a prisoner whom Carton once defended in court. When the prisoner, Darnay, is found guilty of a new crime, he is sentenced to death by guillotine. Carton steps in and takes Darnay’s place, affording Darnay an escape and a reunion with Lucie. Carton commits the ultimate act of self-sacrifice – losing his life so that another may live. Reflecting on this act, Carton is attributed the famous line: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known’.
This exact line is recited in The Dark Knight Rises when Bruce Wayne escapes to Gotham from The Pit, showing his determination to persevere for the greater societal good, only to willingly lose his life (or at least appear to) so that others might live and might have hope. Batman discovers the truth that action is the fulfillment of belief when he says ‘It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me’.
Redemption also often brings lasting character change. In The Iron Giant, the character of Giant is programmed to destroy any threat in the form of a weapon. Hogarth, the young boy who discovers the fifty-foot robot, shows Giant two comic book issues: Action Comics featuring Superman, and Atomo, The Metal Menace about a monster made of metal. Given the choices of two diametrically opposed comic book characters, Giant decides that he wants to be like Superman, using his powers only for good. Near the end of the movie, in the face of an incoming missile, Giant turns to Hogarth, and says: ‘You stay. I go. No following’. Hogarth had helped Giant change for good, and Giant’s change of heart ended up saving humanity.
Redemptive motifs like these are played out in just about every Marvel and DC movie. In Avengers: Infinity War, Dr Strange contemplates all the possible scenarios for the Avengers’ fight against Thanos. He sees fourteen million negative outcomes to one positive one. And so, of course, Strange and the other heroes accept the challenge of almost certain defeat, putting their lives on the line for the betterment of humanity. In Logan, the protagonist’s will to keep on living and to keep the next generation of mutants safe is spurred on by a dependent child, Laura, who he must deliver to a place of refuge called Eden.
And so, of course, Strange and the other heroes accept the challenge of almost certain defeat, putting their lives on the line for the betterment of humanity.
We can also see examples where stories mirror each another, reiterating important and poignant themes. For example, a scene in John Krasinski’s 2018 film A Quiet Place mirrors that of the Old Testament story of Moses.
Moses was born into hostility and his life was immediately threatened due to the Pharaoh ordering for all male Hebrew children to be drowned in the Nile. But his mother saved him by hiding him in a bulrush basket along the Nile. He was then discovered by the Pharaoh’s daughter, who adopted him and endowed him with a bright future.
In A Quiet Place, the mother character places her baby in a box that floats away from her on the water in a flooded basement, while evil incarnate lurks just beneath the surface. The entire movie sees the family battling close calls, until the father makes the ultimate sacrifice to save his newborn baby. Aside from the obvious similarities in babies being placed in safe, hidden spaces and of being protected by parental love, both situations involve meeting the enemy near or on water, and of a matter of life or certain death for innocents. Water, in both cases, represents freedom and hope.
Each of these examples might seem far-fetched from real life. So how does this apply to us? I believe we can let these stories inspire our everyday lives by allowing their actions to seep into our hearts. I can remember the very stories that changed me. The first was when I was a child lying on my living room carpet, my head propped on my hands as I watched an old tube television in which Christopher Reeve as Superman flew around saving people, including his lover Lois Lane. As an adult, I read Flannery O’Connor’s short stories like Parker’s Back and Greenleaf which turned my life upside down with their rich and shocking symbolism of salvation through the lens of southern gothic’s grotesque imagery. As Batman says in Batman Begins: ‘People need dramatic examples to shake them out of apathy’.
That’s why Iron Giant’s story sticks with you long after it’s been viewed. When Giant is soaring through the atmosphere to meet the missile head-on, he hears Hogarth’s voice, telling him ‘you are who you choose to be’. Giant says ‘superman’ as he meets the missile – a touching reminder of the heroism of helping others.
Header image by Jason Thibault, used with permission.