I used to think everyone was wooed by the characters and qualities they admired onscreen. Turns out, many aren’t even aware of the ways movies subtly impress upon us visions of character, virtue, and vice.
“It’s just a movie,” someone will scoff, as if a multimillion-dollar work of art isn’t worth taking seriously. Unfortunately—given our natural human inclination to be bad unless we’re striving to be otherwise—this obliviousness tends to increase film’s capacity for evil, while minimizing its potential to promote good.
The fact is, we resonate (or don’t) with films in large part because we see ourselves in them—either who we are now or who we hope to be. We connect with films on the basis of realism (how it matches the world as it is) and fantasy (how it depicts a world we wish were real). When it comes to the narratives we celebrate, then, we ought to consider: Why do we find cynicism more convincing than hope? Why do we consider villains more relatable than heroes?
And if films imitate life, and vice versa, how can we argue that they are “just” movies?
What If Hope Were Convincing?
In 2010, CNN reported that fans of the hit film Avatar (2009) were experiencing suicidal thoughts because “they long[ed] to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora.” A thread on Avatar Forums generated 2,000 comments on “ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible.”
Site administrator Philippe Baghdassarian said, “The film was so beautiful . . . I think people saw we could be living in a completely different world.” Avatar had a harmful effect on viewers’ mental health because it revealed the gap between the ordinary and the extraordinary—without offering any hope of a real-world solution. The film was “just” a fantasy, but it spoke to people in a very real way.
We resonate (or don’t) with films in large part because we see ourselves in them—either who we are now or who we hope to be.
Often, when people call a film “realistic,” what they really mean is that it’s dark and cynical, with little to no light at the end of the moral tunnel. Game of Thrones was lauded as a more realistic version of The Lord of the Rings, despite being littered with more sex, violence, and tragedy than the average person could reasonably experience in a lifetime.
For those of us who don’t ride dragons to work or wear swords on casual Fridays, the most relatable thing about George R. R. Martin’s gritty fantasy series was the character development—and by “character development,” I mean the characters’ fatal flaws. The darker and more tortured the characters, the more realistic they’re said to be. Yet Tolkien’s black-and-white treatment of good and evil gives us a glimpse of something Martin’s doesn’t. And unlike Avatar, that glimpse is enough to give us hope.
What If Goodness Were Realistic?
What’s true of fantasy is also true of other genres. The cynicism that infects postwar literature is intensified in films like Maleficent (2014), Joker (2019), and Cruella (2021). Each features a protagonist who’s also the antagonist. Each gives these “biagonists,” or “dualagonists,” a sympathetic origin story. And each essentially blames society for their behavior. The idea is, evil is a condition rather than a choice (i.e., the “nature vs. nurture” debate), when arguably it’s both: Paul exhorts us to kill the sinful nature of our “natural man” and nurture the new creations that we are in Christ (Rom. 6:5–6; Eph. 4:20–24; Col. 3:8–11).
Fortunately, most of us aren’t evil queens, mentally ill clowns, or “misunderstood” fashionistas. Thanks to common grace, the Maleficents, Jokers, and Cruellas of the world are the exceptions, not the rule, of humanity. Perhaps this is why we love these villain stories—they provide a safe distance from our depravity (I’m not nearly as bad as she is!) while also validating our fallen nature. Meanwhile, heroes remind us how we fall short of their examples. Perhaps it’s more gratifying to watch films that remind us of ourselves—and allow us to “be as we are”—than to watch those that challenge us to grow.
Maybe it’s easier to say movies are “just” movies than to admit that the goodness or badness we see onscreen is—or can be—within ourselves as well, and is thus our responsibility to address.
What if We Wanted to Change?
We have this idea that evil is more interesting than good, but as any good English major can tell you, technically it’s conflict and contrast that make stories interesting. And in a fallen world, choosing good can create just as many conflicts as choosing evil. It’s not perfection that makes you a hero. It’s how you choose to live in spite of your flaws.
Perhaps it’s more gratifying to watch films that remind us of ourselves—and allow us to ‘be as we are’—than to watch those that challenge us to grow.
We’ve come to see perfection as a high and holy noun. “Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect,” Jesus said (Matt. 5:48). And we think, Impossible. But “perfect” is an active verb as well as an adjective: “to perfect” something is to acknowledge and work to refine its imperfections.
The show Poldark is a perfect example of how living with integrity is anything but boring. Like Aragorn and Ned Stark, Ross Poldark is essentially a man of honor. In modern terms, this means he cares about what’s right, takes personal responsibility for his actions, and avoids faults of the weaselly variety. His wife, Demelza, in addition to these qualities, is also exceptionally kind.
Ironically, stories set in the past—even if mythical—seem to provide the best role models for this kind of character development. They show us the world as it could be, if only we were courageous enough to build it, one virtuous life at a time.
What if Movies Could Help?
Human nature isn’t interesting enough to bear the laser beam of interminable scrutiny. The most interesting thing about us is that we bear the image of God (Gen. 1:26–28). Maybe that’s why we’ll spend eternity worshiping him and forgetting ourselves.
Maybe life would be more interesting if we started those dress rehearsals now—if we became serious about the supporting role we’ll play in heaven (Eph. 6:10–20), calling “curtains” on “selfish ambition and conceit” (Phil. 2:1–4). Maybe we should celebrate movies that point us in the right direction: upward toward God and outward toward man. Maybe the best films come together at the crossroads where those two highways meet. They provide visions of our best selves, those selves that follow the call of Jesus to “deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24).
Regardless of whether film is the cause or the effect of our behavior—art imitating life or the reverse—movies aren’t “just” movies. They mirror us and we mirror them. But whether the good or the evil mirrors us more accurately is entirely up to us.