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Book Reviews
From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films

by James L. Papandrea

Reviewed by
Matthew Bowman


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A Christian examination of popular culture is, of course, hardly new. One can find, without expending much effort, plenty of examples of such books, both positive and negative. On the positive side, few books are as famous and even somewhat controversial as John Granger's Looking for God in Harry Potter, which examines the incredibly popular Harry Potter series from the perspective of medieval philosophy and Christian allegory. On the specifically Catholic side, there are several examples, including Fr. Roderick Vonhögen's excellent book Geekpriest: Confessions of a New Media Pioneer.

James L. Papandrea's From Star Wars to Superman: Christ Figures in Science Fiction and Superhero Films may well become the new standard for such studies. It combines the semi-scholarly approach of John Granger's book on Harry Potter with the genre-ecumenical, find-them-where-they-are-flaws-and-all style of Fr. Roderick, with perhaps even a touch of John C. Wright thrown in for seasoning.

The best way to understand what I mean is to do a brief but focused comparison and contrast with Looking for God in Harry Potter. While an excellent book, and one I used as a source for my thesis on Harry Potter in college, it suffers from numerous flaws. These include a slight but very noticeable confirmation bias, glossing over negative examples, reaching too far in places, and splitting a few too many hairs all at once. However, it also brings an excellent balance of academic and popular techniques, letting many readers approach topics that they might never have encountered or might have been inaccessible behind scholarly language, such as the topics of symbolism, medieval philosophy, and even elements of Catholicism despite it being a Protestant-focused book.

From Star Wars to Superman does not set out to prove that the sources it examines are intended as 100% Christian stories. Rather, it treats each as similar to Christ's parables, where an exact one-to-one ratio to doctrine is less important than the applicability of events and images to Catholic themes. Instead of seeking to prove that the entire story is one great allegory, this book focuses instead on what comparisons can be drawn between fiction and reality, and what we can learn from both positive and negative spiritual elements. This approach is not to be discounted or dismissed. Fiction has an incredible power to reach into our imaginations and allow us to examine new ideas – or, more frequently, old ideas in new ways. This goes even further for fantasy and science fiction. Both G. K. Chesterton and J. R. R. Tolkien, in Orthodoxy and “On Fairy Stories,” respectively, wrote about the necessity of fantastic stories to heal our minds and prepare us to return to the ordinary, everyday cycle of our lives. And, as already mentioned, Christ Himself greatly favored the parable, the story, as a teaching method; perhaps the Supreme Author of the Universe might know a thing or two about the way He wired us to receive information.

In From Star Wars to Superman, Papandrea focuses exclusively on science fiction and superheroes, setting aside all other forms of fantastic fiction for now. He focuses further on four categories of such stories: aliens, alternate realities, time travel, and superheroes. These categories can, of course, overlap; but the author picked examples that are solid representations of each genre. Each of the first three categories has four specific examples each, while the final category of superheroes focuses on types of heroes rather than specific stories. Each entry is then divided into either six or seven sections. These are:

  • Summary: Papandrea begins by explaining what the story is, and why it is important. He includes a wealth of details necessary to understand how it relates to the coming examination, including background details and plot elements. Obviously, spoilers abound in each entry.

  • Anthropology: Here, the author examines the source material's relation to humanity. Papandrea looks at what each example means when it comes to how humans interact with each other, what we can learn, and what we can avoid. In effect, this is a secular examination, albeit not one in a true vacuum with respect to God. After all, it leads into the next section

  • Christology: Here, Papandrea examines the Christ-like figures for each entry. In his introduction, he defines this element as attempting to answer Jesus' question, “Who do you say that I am?” I would further define this section as attempting to see whether, and by how much, each figure matches up with the example Christ gave us. That isn't simply living a superficial Christian life, but rather how much each Christ-like figure picks up his or her cross to follow in the footsteps of Christ Himself. These figures may not be Christian themselves, and in point of fact may not even be great role models for children; but their actions can often point to elements of Christ's life or what He attempts to teach us every day. As the author again points out in the introduction, “The interesting thing is that even science fiction stories that are antagonistic to faith often turn out to be stories of faith in one way or another. In this book, I'm interested in sci-fi that is an allegory for the Christ event – even when the author is trying to explain it away or replace it.”

  • Soteriology: In this section, we are given a look at how each entry relates to our soteriological end: that is, our salvation in Christ. As each Christ-like figure, to a greater or lesser extent, points toward Christ Himself, so to0 does the resolution of each story point to how these savior figures perform their saving acts

  • Script and Scripture: Here, we look at how each story matches up to scriptural teachings. Again, this is not a one-to-one goal, but rather an effort to point to elements in a story and how they relate to the larger picture of what God tries to teach us.

  • Heresy: This section is not present in all entries, but is nonetheless what leaped out at me most strongly in my initial read. Most books that attempt to match Gospel truths up with popular fiction fall short, in that they wish to ignore the bad or sometimes just incomplete elements that don't serve their goal. Papandrea doesn't do that; instead, he actively goes out of his way to bring up how these imperfect stories also match up to imperfect beliefs in the real world, ranging from Monophysitism to Gnosticism to others that most ordinary people, even Catholics, have never heard of – and yet have likely encountered from time to time under different names. G. K. Chesterton defined a heresy as a portion of the truth taken as a whole truth, and Papandrea uses these flawed stories as an excellent way to explain how these heresies can disguise their lack of a whole truth. I myself have heard a priest accidentally endorse Arianism during a homily, and I have lost count of how many otherwise good and faithful Catholics can slip up and start down the road to heresy through a sincere but mistaken belief that just because it doesn't make sense to them in that moment, it can't make sense at all.

  • Score: Finally, Papandrea uses a somewhat arbitrary yet very instructive scoring method to rate each story and how close it matches orthodox Christianity. I found myself surprised at some stories' scores, yet I could not fault his reasoning. I normally shy away from scoring methods such as these, but he makes it work as a capstone to truly excellent examinations. A chart can be found at the back of the book for all the entries, and the author invites any reader to comment on it to him via Twitter

Papandrea concludes with an examination of science fiction in general, albeit one that makes heavy references to The Matrix. In this final chapter, he addresses the point that science fiction often attempts to be atheistic, even when it fails to do so precisely because the authors don't understand what they are trying to remove. Papandrea notes that we are hardwired for three things: heroism, in which we have a drive to appreciate and follow the path of Christ; heresy, in which our free will can lead us astray; and for the Trinity, for God, for the salvific imagery so common to these kinds of stories. Recognizing these is important for understanding how these popular stories became popular in the first place. These final few pages are an excellent close to Papandrea's book, and should not be skipped over.

Ultimately, the best thing this book has going for it is its accessibility. I've rarely seen such a good balance between a scholarly analysis and a popular account. Almost any reader could pick this up and be able to enjoy and understand it, despite how deeply it delves into the esoterics of scripture, theology, and religious philosophy. As I said, it may well be the best model for this sort of serious account of what popular fiction can teach us, whether focused on religious beliefs, history, culture, philosophy, or physics. If that seems a bit strong, then I encourage you to look at it yourself and decide.