Noah and Moses: Escaping into the American Monomyth

Loosely based on biblical narratives and packed with plenty of action, are the plots of Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings more escapist, superhero fare than anything else?

Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings represent Hollywood’s recent cinematic forays into the Judeo-Christian mythological universe. Darren Aronofsky’s Noah features a rugged Russell Crowe as Noah, while Ridley Scott’s Exodus pits Christian Bale’s Moses against his boyhood companion Pharaoh Ramesses in an epic battle for the fate of the Hebrew people. Loosely based on the biblical narratives and packed with plenty of action, the plots of these films are more Batman and Spider-Man than anything else. Noah is the disturbed and distant but resourceful crusader who saves humanity, while Moses is a brainy hero with a heart much like New York’s teenage webslinger.

Some have imagined that these movies are just the beginning of a Judeo-Christian Universe to rival those of Marvel and DC, but the ease with which these directors have taken liberties with biblical accounts has shocked others, for whom these narratives matter as religious and spiritual truth. Supernatural creatures, such as the fallen angels/stone golems/Watchers who aid Noah and his family, make it clear that these films are not about the Western monotheistic religions, but about heroes and villains in a universe of divine beings and supernatural events. Moses and Ramesses squaring off in the middle of the Red Sea underneath a gigantic wave hearkens more to a Wild West Showdown at High Noon than to the text of Exodus 14:26-28.

Of course, Aronofsky and Scott are certainly not bound to honor the concerns of religious communities. In fact, decrying the lack of biblical values in these movies simply diverts attention away from exploring the values that these narratives do promote. For example, observers of Noah have pointed to its focus on stewardship of the environment, while Scott has been praised for his portrayal of Moses as a “skeptical humanist” and his attempt at natural explanations for the plagues of Egypt. Nevertheless, I find that both films share a more troubling message for moviegoers: a message of escapist fantasy that is deeply imbedded within their plot lines.

Joseph Campbell’s idea of the “monomyth,” introduced in his The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), is helpful here. Campbell analyzed myths from around the world and observed that the monomyth is a plot line that unfolds in a roughly predictable sequence that ends with victory for the hero: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” ((Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 3rd ed. (California: New World Library, 2008), 23.)) In other words, the hero moves from the ordinary world of known human experience into an unknown extraordinary world of heroic adventure, and then returns to the ordinary world after resolving the conflict. Campbell’s observations have proven remarkably influential within the film industry, and many examples share elements of this basic hero journey pattern.

Others have refined Campbell’s observations, however, and nuanced his claims. In The American Monomyth (1977), and later, The Myth of the American Superhero (2002) and Captain America and the Crusade against Evil: The Dilemma of Zealous Nationalism (2003), co-authors Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue for a very specific “American monomyth.” Through their analysis of American pop culture beginning in the 1920s and 30s, these scholars find that in this version of the monomyth, the happy archetypal community is threatened by evil and can only be saved by a hero who works outside the established channels of power and authority. The hero rejects the democratic values of American society in order to save it, and cannot fully return to the community of which he or she was once a part.

Classic examples of the American monomythic hero are Spider-Man and Batman, who operate outside the bounds of conventional law and order as masked vigilantes. The leaders of New York and Gotham are quick to take credit for the extraordinary work of these superheroes, but they also keep their heroes a safe distance from civil society. In both narratives, it doesn’t make sense for the institutions of New York or Gotham to really succeed at crime prevention on their own, because that would make Spider-Man and Batman irrelevant. Jewett and Lawrence’s point is that in this plot line the people (read: American democracy/civil society) fail to adequately confront the evil before them. An outsider hero must come and “save the day” in the most un-democratic way possible. Lawrence argues that this is an escapist fantasy: “We call this experience ‘mythic redemption’ and see it as the secularized counterpart of the much older religious idea of redemption.” The American monomyth promotes escapism and the worship of heroes who are different, special, and somehow “other.” The framework reinforces the belief that we cannot do what they do, and we are discouraged from active involvement in our deliverance from the evils of the world.

What then of Noah and Exodus: Gods and Kings? These films appear to promote the American monomyth in the same fashion as the vigilante mythologies of superheroes. Both Noah and Moses are somehow special or chosen, both save their people – who are noticeably inept to organize and overcome their circumstances together – from evil, and both are aided by supernatural powers (God/special powers/abilities) to which they have almost exclusive access.

During the final scene of Noah, the title character has saved his family from the flood and overcomes his dangerous fanaticism, only to find himself drunk and naked before his sons. But, despite his subsequent return to sanity, Noah is psychologically damaged. The future of humanity will flourish best in his absence. Moses’ outsider status throughout Exodus is readily apparent as well. He is not an Egyptian, but he is not really a Hebrew either, having just rejoined his people after living most of his life as an Egyptian prince. Like Noah, Moses will not live to see the fruits of his labor. In the final scene of Exodus, the Hebrews carry a wizened Moses in a covered litter, surely during their forty years of wandering in the desert; Moses sees God one last time before the credits roll.

The message of mythic redemption in Noah and Exodus resonates with American movie audiences, and the box office takes reflect that. Both ranked number one for their opening weekends, Noah has a domestic gross of over a hundred million dollars since its release last March, and Exodus has already exceeded forty million dollars in domestic gross sales after only three weeks. Elements and scenes within these movies may promote environmental awareness, freethinking, or even the more traditional biblical values of obedience and love. Even so, their plots, much like their Marvel and DC counterparts, encourage viewers to see Noah and Moses as outsider heroes whose function is to save the people and then go away. But, is this underlying message – one that seems to do very little to reinforce the value of the mundane work that communities do on a daily basis to make their world a better place – actually all that bad? Might these types of narratives – biblical or otherwise – also engender a heroic sort of sentiment among fans, sharing affinities with phenomena like the “real-life superhero movement,” which they can extend within their own communities? If so, perhaps in their promotion of escapism and hero worship these narratives end up advancing what they seemingly discredit.

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