I watched the Snyder Cut of the Justice League recently. It taught me something about portraying spirituality in stories.
Comparing the Snyder Cut to the Whedon Cut made clear that, no matter how powerful you make a character, you must add syntheistic components for them to feel god-like. There is plenty of reason to view superhero characters in fiction as “gods.” They are supernatural, good, and iconic. It is easy to imagine using them as a spiritual focus.
But I rarely feel spiritual when I watch them. I don’t feel like they are gods. Why is that?
It isn’t the clear barrier of fiction between the character and the viewer. There are plenty of examples of fictions which spawn genuine spiritual practices. Star Wars served as the foundation of Jediism, Lovecraft’s work founded Chaos Magic, and the myriad alien stories like Close Encounters of the Third Kind are sources for UFO truthers. A clear fictional context is no barrier to spiritual information and religious modelling. So what is going on with superhero films? Why don’t they give me spiritual feelings?
The answer came to me when watching the Snyder Cut of Justice League. For those who don’t know, an internet campaign paved the way for Zack Synder to complete his original vision for Justice League after a personal tragedy forced him to step down from the project. The result is a competent film with a some memorable scenes. The two for me were Wonder Woman preventing a fascist terror attack, and a village singing a song when Aquaman left them.
It is the second moment I want to highlight.
After refusing to join Bruce Wayne at the beginning of the movie, Arthur Curry takes off his sweater and leaves a Nordic village he just helped. He brings fish on the king tide to feed them. Grateful, the village insulates him from Wayne, and gathers to watch Curry leave. Curry slips away in the water, rough and casual in his rejection of Wayne.
And then the village sings. They sing while they watch Curry, their savior, leave. They sing in reverence for his departure and for the hope of his return. A woman picks up the sweater he casually tossed aside. Holding it with solemn passion, she spends a moment to worship the relic, her feelings overcoming even her ability to sing. United in their thanks and hope, the village becomes one in these moments. Wayne leaves them to their vigil.
This moment was special to me. Curry was elevated by the villager’s reverence to more than just the person I was used to seeing him as in the movies. He became, briefly, a god in the truest sense of the word. He was holy, divine, and worthy of worship. His personality became a part of his divine character, of a force greater than any one person. He became the ocean; generous and tempestuous. His actions swelled with meaning as the villagers sang their song, his memory became a myth and hope.
Why was it special? After all, Curry had left the scene!
It is because syntheistic principles were on full display. Seeing the people and their reaction to Curry, the influence he had on them, the feelings they hold and the stories they tell, that is the mechanics of spirituality. It is not enough to watch Aquaman breathe underwater, destroy evil, or control the ocean. We must see people respond to his actions, we must watch people participate in them through ritual and reverence. This is the stuff that inspires spiritual practice. After all, spiritual practice justifies experiences, just as the villagers needed to justify Curry’s blessings and absence. So they participated in an event they have no control over; they sang in reverence.
Watching people worship encourages spiritual experiences.
This is closely related to the theory of Credibility Enhancing Displays (check the video in Further Study). Religion is transferred between people when we see each others “walking the walk.” Witnessing the methods people use in their spiritual practice, and seeing good-faith engagement with those practices is what spreads religious beliefs.
My experience has been that CEDs spread religious belief because they can generate spiritual experiences. While many spiritual practices are solitary, most are communal and are experienced communally. With a lot of reliability, spiritual experiences come from participation in ritual with a community. So, while we are watching this village worship Curry, it is easy for us to be drawn into their spiritual reverie. We become attuned to their spiritual experience and channel it ourselves. The distance of fiction can be compressed in these moments. By witnessing spiritual experiences, we may have them ourselves. We are social creatures after all.
In my future writing, I hope to utilize these principles I’ve discovered. Whether it be in my religious or creative writing, it may be a way of enriching my work.
Zack Snyder’s Justice League (The Snyder Cut)