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This story collects into one several pieces published in Crisis Magazine and Aleteia.
At the turn of the last century, Mark Twain loved poking fun at the tidy religious stories that were told in his day, even as he produced his own versions. The stories led to a payoff that dealt a death-blow to wickedness and a cheery boost to saintliness, all neatly summed up in a secondary character’s sermonette.
When movies came along, they followed the same formula, but in a condensed, visceral format. You knew what you would get in the Hollywood of the Hays Code: morality plays that would pit the false against the true. The best movies, as with any work of art, transcended their times, but retained a trace of the pattern.
Writers have spent the decades since the dissolution of the Hays Code in the 1960s pedaling quickly away from the mistakes those stories made. And that’s a good thing. Gone went the assumption that the only happy ending was an artificially perfect one. Gone went the presumption that God’s plan is knowable to man, and that it’s pretty much our own plan, super-charged.
But the problem was, after Hollywood got to a good place, it kept pedaling — and eventually created its own formula, its own typical mistakes. They are the mistakes of a different culture from the one that invented movies — a post-religious culture. I’ve counted 10 (and left the last one expansive enough that you can add your own).
Before we start, though, a caveat: In identifying the mistakes in these movies, I do not mean to say, “These films are without artistic merit and have no redeeming value.” Quite the contrary. The movies I use as examples often have something important to offer. I simply mean to warn against falling for the mistake along with the rest of the story.
1: Images don’t count.
You and I and our aunts’ friends would never think of going together as a group to sit and watch a live sex act. We wouldn’t enjoy it — and if we did, we would feel like perverts (for good reason). It would disgust us to learn that a group of coworkers had done such a thing. But many Hollywood producers want us to believe that getting together to watch a sex act in enhanced form — in giant color images, intercut with close-ups and punctuated by exciting music — is a perfectly normal way to spend a Saturday afternoon. Which is to say, many Hollywood producers want us to be perverts.
We should decline the invitation.
The real difference between watching a live sex act and a simulated sex act on the screen is that after the first, you need to confess voyeurism; after the second, you need to confess pornography. The lasting impression the images make on our brain is very similar: It’s the chemical stimulation of a hormone, not the excitement of emotions by human drama.
Seeing sexualized nudity chemically alters your brain, triggering a biological response that is meant to bond you more closely to your spouse. In other contexts it causes real harm. Research has shown that teens who watch sexual activity on television are more likely to get pregnant — and that watching pornography makes adults more likely to support redefining marriage and redefining gender.
The Catholic Catechism strictly forbids pornography, which it defines as the depiction of a sexual act — a definition that would include even films that are only briefly “pornographic,” from Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence’s Passengers (2016) to the Elton John movie Rocketman (2019), not to mention 2009’s The Reader, which mostly features a passtime very different from reading together.
When we are being honest, we all know that watching other people in their intimate moments is not romantic: If you Google “Most Romantic Moments in Movies,” you will get lists of scenes that exclusively include fully clothed people, because nudity crowds out drama and human feeling.
2: Violence Is Awesome.
Gore also crowds out drama and human feeling. If you or I saw a person get shot or knifed or blown up in the parking lot of a movie theater, we wouldn’t simply remember it for the rest of our lives, it would become a focal point of our history. If it came up in conversation, we’d tell people, “I’m dealing with it.” But movies assume we can watch the same thing in billboard-sized slow motion without consequence.
War movies in the old days had a lot of guys clutching their breasts and falling, dying in a way that seems silly by today’s standards. But I am just as inspired by The Longest Day as I was by Saving Private Ryan; ironically, the old D-Day movie may in some ways tell the tale of human dignity better by not continually shocking my system with so accurate a depiction of human roadkill.
Worse, movies have been teaching us for years that violence solves problems, that guns are necessary to reach our goals, and that the victims of violence can shrug off their trauma.
As soon as you see a villain in a movie do something atrocious — like the British officer who torches a church in Patriot (2000) or Marvel Movie villains such as the Nazi officer who becomes Red Skull in Captain America (2011) — you know that you will be expected to cheer a violent act of revenge against this person and his evil friends at the end of the movie, and probably more than one. Examples of this are endless. In Taken (2008), Liam Neeson can do whatever he wants to the villains because they are human traffickers. In John Wick (2014) the bad guys deserve whatever is coming because they are thieves who killed a puppy.
Almost as bad as the original trope in these movies is the tendency for films to show violence as having no real effect on those who are involved in it. Compare the ending scenes in two 2013 movies, White House Down and Captain Phillips. The father-and-daughter protagonists in the former go through a harrowing experience then shrug it off and joke during a fun helicopter ride. Tom Hanks as Captain Phillips is so traumatized by his encounter with pirates that he can barely speak, a much more credible — and ultimately more satisfying — account of violence.
We should all react to violence like that. Santiago Ramos, writing in The Catholic Key, said the martyrdom scene toward the end of the 2012 movie For Greater Glory was impossible for him to appreciate because of the action-movie-awesome-violence that preceded it. We are all more numbed to killing than is good for us.
3: The ‘Glamor of Evil’ Mistake.
In baptism, we reject Satan, his lies and empty promises, and the glamor of evil. Hollywood apparently hasn’t made that promise. In movies good people are almost always good looking and bad people are unattractive. In real life that’s not the case at all, and the more we think it is, the more often we will fall prey to good looking bad guys.
You see this mistake in nearly every big-budget film. I love the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy, but it is a perfect example. In the books, hobbits are strange looking creatures; in the movie the lead hobbits are played by good-looking actors. Meanwhile, the orcs are uniformly hideous, proving just how evil they are.
You see this mistake on the level of casting, as in Concussion (2015), in which Will Smith plays real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu and in Hacksaw Ridge (2016) where Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss. Neither is model material, but both are models of virtue. You also see a version of this mistake in design elements, where evil is given an attractive sheen, such as the gorgeously shot wickedness in V for Vendetta (2005) or Joker (2019), whose lead character moves through a beautifully colored urban landscape just like Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver (1976). In a related problem, serial killers look great in many movies, such as Christian Bale in American Psycho (2000), and Zac Efron as Ted Bundy, Darren Criss as Andrew Cunanan, Matt Smith as Charles Manson, or Jeremy Renner as Jeffrey Dahmer in recent films.
Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, in both the animated and live action versions, attempts to work against this trope and ends up reinforcing it, with the tacit message that “Being kidnapped by an ugly person is bad … unless that person turns out to be rich and attractive.”
4: Hubris Wins the Day.
Movies tell you that the more unquestioning you are of your own abilities, the more likely you are to succeed. The ultimate hero is the skilled loner: James Bond, Jason Bourne, Neo.
This is the reverse of the classic literary arc. In traditional literature, first a protagonist triumphs; then the bad guys fight back and get the hero into an impossible bind; if the hero believes only in himself, it’s called hubris, and he fails. This kind of story is called a tragedy. But if the hero turns outside himself for help — to God, country, friends, lover, second mate, or even a faithful dog — he wins.
Take an old story like Treasure Island or Kidnapped. Each features a boy who is thrust into a situation where he faces the bad guys virtually alone. But Jim Hawkins and David Balfour don’t “believe in themselves,” and in so doing, overcome their foes. Rather, each sees his weaknesses so clearly that he grasps for anyone who can help him, even outlaws.
In our day’s kids’ stories, from Star Wars heroine Rey to Moana and Kung Fu Panda, the opposite is the case. The trope is so prevalent that Toy Story 2 even jokes about it: The toy dinosaur is surprised that “believing in yourself” isn’t the way to defeat Zurg in a video game.
And it isn’t just action heroes. Years ago, I went to see the Hannah Montana 3-D concert movie with my eleven-year-old daughter because we were intrigued by the nearly 100% positive reviews at Rotten Tomatoes. The lyrics of one of the first songs went as follows: “Life is hard or / It’s a party / The choice is up to you / Life’s what you make it / So let’s make it rock.” Hannah’s message: By looking inward, one finds the resources necessary to create the fate one wants. Hubris wins the day.
This movie mistake comes from, and feeds, radical individualism. In these stories, the self is the important thing; others are just props, obstacles, or boosters on the hero’s stage. But this error leaves audiences ill-equipped for the real world, where true success comes only to those willing to see their shortcomings and trust others.
5: Religious people aren’t normal.
Since most people in Hollywood aren’t religious, they don’t seem to understand what religious people are all about. In fact, their knowledge seems limited to knowing that we believe impossible things and want to spoil their social lives. As a result, they often portray religious people as stupid or warped.
Even when Hollywood is trying to be nice and reach out, they seem incapable. Often, the highest praise Hollywood can pay to religion is the backhanded compliment of making its practitioners merely banal instead of baldly malevolent.
It’s not hard to find examples. In such classics as Field of Dreams and Shawshank Redemption, Christians are harsh, close-minded killjoys. In Pulp Fiction, we meet a crazed gunman who quotes Scripture. In the X-Men movies and the 2019 post-apocalyptic film I Am Mother the Catholic character is the bizarre loner. We love sitcoms because they show the fun in normal life, but in our most beloved sitcoms, from Leave it to Beaver to Friends, from The Cosby Show to The Office and Parks and Rec, none of the delightfully normal people we meet are churchgoers.
Believers are thrilled when we see characters expressing their faith on the screen. Hallmark movies are popular for exactly this reason. We cheer when we see the women in Hidden Figures (2016) pray, and love that films as different as The Irishman (2019) and Les Miserables (2012) acknowledge religion’s redemptive role. But these exceptions should just make us realize how conspicuous by its absence religion usually is — for instance when no Christians are persecuted in Gladiator’s Colosseum, and when Unbroken (2014) and 42 (2013) tell stories of faith-filled real people who on the big screen have little or no faith at all.
Why are normal religious people missing from Hollywood? For starters, because God was missing first. Speaking of which …
6: Movies don’t know God.
The real God is a mystery. In a crude analogy, he is both the computer programmer who writes our world’s code, and the power source that keeps the whole thing running.
But Hollywood chops God in half: He is no longer a person, he is just an energy source. Star Wars makes that explicit, naming him the Force and describing him as a non-personal center of ubiquitous energy. Other movies pray to the same God, without ever describing him so theologically. The romantic comedy My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), depressingly, places the Force at the center of Orthodox Christianity. The Polar Express (2004) practically portrays faith in the Force as salvific.
And the more Star Wars movies get made, the weirder the Force gets. God is odd in much the same way in Wrinkle in Time (2018) and Disney movies with a spiritual bent from Frozen (2013) to Encanto (2021).
Pixar’s Coco (2017) is a great example of a movie with a strange understanding of God. Catholics cheer the religious imagery in the first half of it, but then are puzzled by the afterlife it envisions, where people last as long as their family remembers them. “But wouldn’t Jesus remember them?” a child might ask For that matter, wouldn’t their family members in heaven remember them? After all, the ancestral divinities in Black Panther (2018) can remember their progeny — but then they are also a strange take on God.
Marvel movies do have some promising “real-God” moments. The most celebrated is Captain America’s remark in The Avengers (2012): “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” But ultimately in the Marvel universe, God is more Ultron than Trinity.
7: Dreams always come true.
For Disney princesses, unflagging optimism and high expectations always pay off. But many people who have suffered the real-life ostracization and degradation that Cinderella or Belle faced have sadly found that not all dreams come true, even when you desperately want them to.
Still the Disney princess “dreams always come true” ethic reigns in stories from High School Musical (2006) to A Boy Called Christmas (2021). It dominates romantic comedies too, from Crazy Rich Asians (2021) to The Lost City (2022), in which true love is the dream that will always come true.
What’s the harm in dreaming a little? None at all, if it is just a little. But we tend to overload ourselves with stories that say wonderful things will inevitably happen, and then when not-so-wonderful things actually happen, we are crushed by disappointment.
The fact is, our dreams don’t come true. Something like our dreams sometimes comes true, but usually only if we work hard for it. For that reason, good antidotes to this mistake are work-hard movies like 2004’s Miracle (they didn’t dare dream of what they got), or 1993’s Rudy (who got something less and yet more than his dream) or boxing movies from Cinderella Man (2005) to Creed (2015). Disney’s 1998 original animated Mulan is a hard-work movie. The live-action 2020 remake, alas, is not as its heroine effortlessly triumphs.
The romantic-comedy version of the “Dreams Always Come True” mistake can be especially pernicious. Dream hard enough, and you can end up feeling like a failure just because a picture-perfect mate never swept you off your feet. Worse, while your normal relationship with a fellow weak human being is noble and good, your dream might convince you that it’s shabby and lame. Worst of all, you may be so committed to a romantic dream that you ignore the warning signs in a terrible relationship until it’s too late.
There is nothing wrong with being a middle-manager at a supermarket, even if you once dreamed of being a rock star, and there is nothing wrong with being a soccer mom in a ranch-style bungalow rather than a princess in a mansion. But our movies might convince us there is. Which brings up another error …
8: “I love you” is about me, not you.
Pope John Paul II taught us that “Love is self gift.” Pope Benedict XVI reminded us that “Love is not practiced as a means of achieving other ends.” Mother Teresa showed us that “to love is to sacrifice.”
These great Catholic figures of our time have told us over and over again that love is all about serving a beloved, and not about using someone else to satiate our own needs and desires.
None of them say that the pinnacle of love is saying “You complete me” to another person, ala Jerry Maguire. Yet, in story after story, that’s what love means: “I love you” is a way of saying “You are a great boost my real true love: me.” Aristotle distinguished between self-seeking loves of pleasure and utility on the one hand, and real love on the other. But many movie relationships are loves of pleasure — from Sleeping Beauty to 50 Shades of Gray — or loves of utility, from the understandable need for a financial future in Jane Austen stories to the creepy need for fame in Phantom of the Opera.
Marriage Story (2019) with Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansen is a cautionary tale about this mistake, but the best antidotes are “sacrificial love” stories from Rick and Elsa’s in Casablanca to Carl and Elle’s in Up and self-giving adventure stories like Apocalypto and Avatar.
This is true love. I love you, and that love is a mystery, but it means I will serve you, no matter what. Princess Bride teaches this lesson with a smile; A Beautiful Mind, with a grimace. What each of these films recognize, though, is that love isn’t an emotion, it’s a set of actions. Audiences know that’s true; it’s one reason Titanic did so well, while Pearl Harbor flopped. Titanic is the biggest money-making movie of all time, in large part because the man dies for the woman; his actions, in the end, show true love — and women couldn’t see it enough.
9: Technology Uber Alles.
One of the problems with treating people as objects who bring you happiness is that you soon realize that other objects are more reliable and efficient.
Technology is a savior in many movies. James Bond has his gadgets, but they are nothing compared to Tony Stark’s in his Iron Man suit. Brainy movies like Ex Machina (2014) ponder the question of technology and too often seem to find that human beings pale in comparison to a good machine.
Mostly, though, technology in movies is just awesome. Batman or, er, the Dark Knight, is powerful because of lots of great training yes, but also lots of great technology. In the Marvel Universe there are indestructible shields, supernaturally powerful hammers, and even the villains have awesome villain gizmos. Obadiah Stone has an even greater super-suit than Iron Man and the Tobey Maguire’s Spider-man is nearly outmatched by Doc Ock’s arms or the the Green Goblin’s flying skateboard of flame. Speaking of which, impossible flying machines abound in these movies, from Falcon’s mighty mechanical wings to the flying military base in Avengers.
What they all have in common is technology. While ancient wisdom is great in Black Panther, Vibranium makes it a whole lot better — and everything at one point or another is done in pursuit of Infinity Stones, which are the ultimate technological Gizmos of Power. And in real life, lo and behold, we all look to technology to save us, and find ourselves feeling startled and betrayed when it does not.
10: Immorality is the key to happiness.
The final mistake: Movies often teach the reverse of traditional concepts of good and evil. They’ll have the lead character succeed in his mission by breaking one of the commandments — and not just the sixth; also the seventh, in heist movies; or the first, in Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness (2022) in which Doctor Strange happily uses witchcraft to win the day, a decision which, in classic stories like Doctor Faustus, never ends well.
In fact, in film, the Commandments, notably the fourth, are often obstacles to happiness. In kids’ movies from Little Mermaid (1989) to Moana (2016) to Turning Red (2022), disobeying parents is the best path forward — a strange lie for us, as a culture, to keep telling our children.
Lying is a good thing in many movies, though, from School of Rock to Romantic comedies such as You’ve Got Mail and The Proposal. So is killing — notably, for Catholic dads, in the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies, where both Wormtongue and Sauron’s messenger are dispatched in ways that would have enraged J.R.R. Tolkien. Which brings us full circle back to the Violence is Awesome mistake.
In closing, don’t get me wrong: I don’t think any of the movies I’ve mentioned is without redeeming value. Nor do I think any of them ought to be banned.
It’s good to know the mistakes, though, to remind ourselves (and our children) what life is really like. At Benedictine College Media and Culture, check out these movies for future men and future women and proudly Catholic movies that tell the truth about who we are.