Student spotlight #14: A Saviour from the East

Today’s essay continues our theme of contemporary messiahs, or super saviours, which we’ve explored over the past few days. What makes this one a little different though is that the super saviour figure appears in a Japanese animated fantasy film, Princess Mononoke (more details here), rather than the more typical Western superhero brand. The author of this fab essay is Isabelle Steinman, who hails from sunny Hawke’s Bay. Isabelle is studying a Bachelor of Arts and Science conjoint, majoring in mathematics, physics, and philosophy. She hopes to carry on to do postgraduate study and likes the idea of working in academia one day. She took our Bible and Pop Culture class because, although an atheist, she has always been interested in religion, particularly religious art and architecture, and is fascinated by the impact that religion has on everybody’s lives, regardless of their personal beliefs.

Although I’ve never seen Princess Mononoke myself, Isabelle’s essay has made me want to watch it – so, whether or not you are familiar with this film, I’m sure you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say.
Ashitaka
Ashitaka

Princess Mononoke– a Story of Gods, Demons and a Cursed Messiah

Isabelle Steinmann

mononokeMessiahs are everywhere in pop-culture. Characterised by a selfless passion for justice, a black and white moral code, extraordinary powers and an outsider status they maintain a strong connection with divinity or spirituality whilst remaining human. (Reinhartz, 2009). These Christ figures appear not only in Western culture but also in the East as is demonstrated in Hayao Miyazaki’s 1997 animated film, Princess Mononoke.

 After being cursed while killing a demon that was attacking his tribe, Ashitaka is forced to cut his hair, leave his people and journey far to the West in order to meet his fate. He arrives in a land caught in a struggle between the humans of Irontown and the gods of the forest. As he is able to move between the warring sides, he befriends both San, the ‘daughter’ of the wolf god Moro, and Lady Eboshi, the mistress of Irontown. Ashitaka possesses many Christ-like qualities. He is set apart from other characters by his unusual ways and his extraordinary strength and he is driven by a commitment to justice for which he eventually sacrifices himself and is resurrected.

Throughout the film, Ashitaka ‘otherness’ is emphasised. His unusual origins and extraordinary strengths distinguish him from other characters. Often referred to as ‘stranger’ or ‘outsider’ (Miyazaki, 1997), it is clear that the other characters do not see him as one of them. Ashitaka comes from the marginalised Emishi tribe that was believed to have been eradicated hundreds of years earlier. Separated from the culture that was advancing towards a technological future, the Emishi people are portrayed as the ‘guardians of ancient wisdoms of the forest’ (Bigelow, 2009). Unlike the other humans in the film, Ashitaka grew up with a strong connection with and respect for the natural world. We see this when Ashitaka saves two men of Irontown, carrying them home through the ‘forbidden forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). While the men are terrified of the ethereal kodama (tree spirits), Ashitaka trusts the spirits to guide them through the forest saying that they are ‘a sign this forest is healthy’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka’s unusual origins give him a different perspective to other characters in the film. He is not worried about wealth or power but has a deep-seated interest in nature and the preservation of life.

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Ashitaka is also separated from other characters by his incredible, but still very human, strengths. The nature with which he returns the men to Irontown grants him a mixed reception. While the townspeople are grateful that their men are alive, they do not wholly trust this strange man who managed to travel through the taboo forest with two badly injured men; it is something they would not have dreamed possible. Ashitaka’s strength and fighting abilities seem almost unnatural to the other characters. ‘You fight like a demon’ (Miyazaki, 1997), one character tells Ashitaka. This emphasises both the magnitude and nature of Ashitaka’s powers. His strength, determination and archery skills, while god-like in measure, are human powers in essence. Ashitaka is only human and he does suffer under human hardships. This is important as, in order to be a relatable, and therefore successful, messiah he must have ‘the same limitations and weaknesses as an ‘ordinary’ and finite human being’ (Deacy, 1999).

Despite his humanity, it is still through a screen of suspicion that the other characters respect Ashitaka for his strengths. Mysterious, powerful, and therefore potentially dangerous, Ashitaka must be ‘othered’. It is this outsider status, which is common for messiah figures (Kozlovic, 2004), that allows Ashitaka to move between worlds and act in a messianic role. Messiahs, as semi-holy figures, must represent desirable values whilst being set apart from the rest of us. They are figures that we should aspire to be like. Human, and familiar enough to be relatable while being separate enough to revere.

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Ashitaka’s incredible strength is balanced by his incredible love and respect for life. He is driven by a desire for peace and committed to his beliefs in justice. When these two values come into conflict, Ashitaka suffers. He wants to end violence but often must use violence to do so. When we first meet Ashitaka, he is protecting his people from a terrible demon. The creature seethes with writhing, black worms but even so Ashitaka first tries to reason with it. ‘Calm your fury, oh mighty lord’ (Miyazaki, 1997), he pleads. However, when the beast threatens some villagers, Ashitaka is forced to take decisive action, killing the demon with his bow and arrow. Ashitaka knows what is right but he still struggles to enforce it. He wants to protect the innocent and fight for the weak or ashikta 2marginalised but it pains him to take life and he does this only when there is no other option. We see this again when Ashitaka reflects on killing two samurai who were brutally attacking another village. ‘I was wrong to fight in that village’, he says, ‘two men are dead because of me’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Although he knows his actions were justified and that his skills gave him a unique power to help the defenceless villagers, he still feels a ‘reluctance to use those skills to do harm’ (Kraemer, 2016). Ashitaka’s complex moral code separates him from classic messiah figures. He does not rationalise the violence he uses but instead feels the weight of every life he takes. He is cursed not only with the mark on his arm but also by the guilt of the violence he must use.

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Ashitaka’s desires are different from all other characters in the film resulting in him not taking a side in the conflict. It is not any particular victory that he wants but an end to violence. When questioned what it is that he desires, he says ‘What I want is for the humans and the forest to live in peace’ (Miyazaki, 1997). The other characters see the forest and the town as completely divided, different and unable to mix. But Ashitaka does see not the division between them. To him, all life is simply sacred. No matter what you must ‘love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). When San and Eboshi become involved in a vicious fight, Ashitaka intervenes and delivers a stirring sermon. His curse manifests itself as black, swirling tendrils as he shouts to the shocked and terrified crowd, ‘This is what hatred looks like! This is what it does when it catches hold of you! (Miyazaki, 1997). Ashitaka fight is not against against humans or gods but against hatred and it is his ‘willingness to meet violence with love’ (Kraemer, 2016) that is his greatest weapon.

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Ashitaka’s image as a messiah figure is cemented in the other-worldliness of his resurrection and in his sacrifice. Miyazaki is careful in the way he portrays Ashitaka in these scenes. Although they are rich with godly powers, Ashitaka’s humanity is emphasised. As a messiah figure, Ashitaka is human touched by divinity. He is not a divine being himself but he is influenced by the gods and demons that are present in his life. This is epitomised in his resurrection. After Ashitaka is shot, San takes his lifeless body to a sacred island in the middle of the forest. She places a small plant above his head, a life to take in return for his. After she leaves, we see the forest spirit approach and revive Ashitaka in a strange, dream-like sequence. During the day, the god, who duty is to ‘give life and take life away’ (Miyazaki, 1997,) takes the form of a deer like creature with many antlers and humanoid face. We see flowers and plants bud, bloom, wilt and die under the creature’s feet as it walks. The forest spirit looks upon Ashitaka and the plant as the leaves of the plant wither and drop. In the morning, Ashitaka’s bullet wound is healed but the cursed mark remains. Although Ashitaka undergoes what is definitely a divine resurrection, it is not any divinity of his own that saves him but his pure heart. It is the forest spirit who, deeming Ashitaka worthy of resurrecting, saves him thus ensuring Ashitaka remains fully human.

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In the stunning climax to the film, Ashitaka sacrifices himself to atone for humanity’s wrongdoings. Eboshi and the other humans have shot off and taken the forest spirit’s head. The ghostly shell of its body spews out deadly black liquid and long arms which search for its head. Ashitaka catches the carriers of the head and demand they give it to him to return before everything is destroyed. ‘Human hands must return it!’ (Miyazaki, 1997) He shouts. Humanity as a whole has sinned, they have turned their back on nature and committed the ultimate atrocity; killing the ‘very heart of the forest’ (Miyazaki, 1997). Messiah figures feel a duty to ‘take on the sinfulness of those around them’ (Kozlovic, 2004). Ashitaka must, therefore, act as a representative of humanity and sacrifice himself for their transgressions.

PM7As he and San hold up the head for the god, they become covered with cursed marks. They are sure of their deaths but stand strong and true. With their sacrifice, they save not only themselves but all living things as a wash of new life spreads over the ruined land. Ashitaka not only possesses many of the characteristics of a messiah figure, his life and death also mirrors that of Christ in many ways. Just as Christ’s death gave humanity ‘forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7), Ashitaka’s sacrifice saved the world. His resurrection and sacrifice mark him as a clear messiah figure.

PM8Messiah figures in film are used as symbols to exemplify the characteristics and values that filmmakers want to promote (Deacy, 1999). In Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki teaches us a respect for life, as he said in a 2004 interview ‘We should treasure everything because there is a kind of life to everything’. He uses Ashitaka to convey a message of peace and environmentalism. Although Princess Mononoke is not explicitly religious, it does draw from Shinto mythology and beliefs and reflects many of the tenets of Western religion. Shinto faith ‘stresses relation and connectedness’ (Bigelow, 2009). This is an important theme that develops through the film as the characters realise relationships they were not previously aware of. In one of the last scenes, one of the townspeople comments ‘I didn’t know the forest spirit made the flowers grow’ (Miyazaki, 1997). As Christ literally gave a blind man sight (John 9:11), Ashitaka metaphorically opens the peoples’ eyes to the interdependent relationship between the town and the humans (Kraemer 2016). Although Miyazaki’s messiah may be more implicit than those typically found in Western culture, the ideals he teaches of love, peace and respect are essentially the same.

PM9In conclusion, Ashitaka acts as a messiah figure to spread a message of peace. Miyazaki sets Ashitaka apart from other characters with Shis strange customs and extraordinary powers to make him able to move between warring sides. He is not the fully-assured messiah we see all too often in the West, but a saviour racked with guilt and uncertainty about how should carry out his mission without just creating more violence. Like Christ, He is fully committed to his beliefs and ready to sacrifice himself for them. In Princess Mononoke, Ashitaka not only learns to ‘see with eyes unclouded by hate’ (Miyazaki, 1997) but also teaches us to do the same.

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Bibliography

All Biblical references are from the New International Version

Miyazaki, Hayao. 1997. Princess Mononoke. film. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki. Produced by Studio Ghibli. Toho.

Bigelow, Susan J. 2009. “Technologies of Perception: Miyazaki in Theory and Practice.” Animation: an interdisciplinary journal 4 (1): 55-75.

Deacy, Christopher R. 1999. “Screen Christologies: An evaluation of the role of Christ-figures in film.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (3): 325-337.

Kozlovic, Anton Karl. 2004. “The Structural Characteristics of the Cinematic Christ-figure.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 8.

Kraemer, Christine Hoff. 2016. “Between the Worlds: Liminality and Self-Sacrfice in Princess Mononoke.” Journal of Religion and Film 8 (2).

Reinhartz, Adele. 2009. “Jesus and Christ figures.” In The Routledge Companion of Religion and Film, edited by John Lyden, 420-439. Taylor and Francis.

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Political Supersaviour

Today’s Bible and Pop Culture essay comes from Bachelor of Arts student Jessica Marshall. Jessica has just finished her second year of her Arts degree, majoring in history and English. She was born in Manchester, in the UK, but has lived in Auckland since she was ten years old. Jessica hopes to be a journalist once she finishes her studies. Like Christiane Amanpour and Kate Adie, she is passionate about wanting to hold people responsible in the court of public opinion, in order to ‘right the wrongs’ that we see too much of in the world.

Jessica chose the wonderful TV series West Wing as the focus of her essay, and her evaluation of President Bartlet as a contemporary saviour figure casts a cynical eye at contemporary US politics. Enjoy.

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Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet: The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed

By

Jessica Marshall

At this point in time, politics in the United States has become a mockery of the democracy it claims to stand for. So, in the time of such a travesty, we must look to fiction. The television series The West Wing (1999-2006) created and written by Aaron Sorkin has the greatest example of a President (fictional or otherwise) that the United States could hope for in Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet. As one writer put it, ‘One of the only things that has made life worth living for left-leaning liberals … is the small fact that, for one hour … [George W. Bush] is not the president’ (Clark 2005, 224). And unlike most presidential characters, Bartlet is multi-faceted and layered (Parry-Giles and Parry-Giles 2006, 153). In this essay, I will argue that Bartlet shares a number of features with the figure of the contemporary messiah or ‘supersaviour’, who Jewett and Lawrence identify in their discussion of the American Monomyth (2002). I will do this through analysing several storylines and episodes of West Wing, including the Pilot (1×01), the shooting storyline (1×22 – 2×02), the episode ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2×22) and, finally, the parabolic episode ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (3×01).

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There’s a phrase that came out of the protest movements of the 1960s: ‘The personal is political.’ It seems to be a sentiment that has continued over the decades, even going so far as to enter into the fictional White House, making itself pronounced in the pilot episode of The West Wing. One character, Josh Lyman (played by Bradley Whitford), deals with a faux pas with regards to the religious right. This is how our hero, President Jed Bartlet, is brought into the picture. Josh is forced to apologise for the faux pas. In the midst of this meeting, after another staffer – Toby – becomes frustrated with the recipient of the apology over racist comments she has made towards Jews, a debate over the Ten Commandments breaks out between Toby and one member of the religious right, John Van Dyke. Van Dyke makes the claim that ‘Honour thy father’ (Exod. 20.3) is the First Commandment. An argument ensues between Toby and Van Dyke in which Toby explains that ‘Honour thy father’ is, in fact, the Third Commandment, to which Van Dyke responds with the question ‘Then what’s the First Commandment?’ At this moment, President Bartlet walks into the room, answering the question correctly. Here, Bartlet combines the selfless zeal of a man who rescues a staff member he should have fired for a one-liner (Josh) with the zealous saviour who rescues the White House from evil. Yet, perhaps his behaviour is not entirely selfless (Lawrence and Jewett 2002, 6). Bartlet’s granddaughter, twelve-years-old, received a death threat from an over-zealous fringe group going by the name ‘The Lambs of God’, all because – in an article – she stated her opinions on reproductive rights. Bartlet, having already corrected them on the order of the Ten Commandments, then poses a question to those present in the room: ‘From what part of holy scripture do you suppose The Lambs of God drew their divine inspiration when they sent my twelve-year-old granddaughter a bloody Raggedy Ann doll with a knife through its throat?’ It is in this scene that Bartlet proves one of his messianic superpowers, according to the American Monomyth: his intelligence (Primiano 2009, 99). It shows up again and again throughout the show’s run, but the message is always the same: you would be best advised not to go up against him in a battle of wits.

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Perhaps the best storyline that Aaron Sorkin ever tackled as the writer on The West Wing – and one of its most controversial – was that of the Roslyn shooting. Here, we see two resurrections. In flashback, we see the resurrection of Bartlet the politician and in the present we see the resurrection of Bartlet’s staffer, Josh Lyman. While the second resurrection is important to another storyline, one I will discuss later, the first is the more interesting. At the beginning of the flashback, it looks like Senator John Hoynes (the Vice-President in present time) will win the Democratic nomination. Bartlet, on the other hand, is the dark horse, the outside candidate no one expects to succeed. As a woman in a New Hampshire bar says to Toby, ‘I didn’t even know Bartlet was running’ (‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ 2000). In the following scene, however, Bartlet again proves his intelligence; during a speech in Nashua, New Hampshire, he talks about the economy and taxes – not exactly a rousing topic, let’s face it. But then, when asked about a vote in Congress over the New England Dairy Farming Compact (he voted against a bill that would have given dairy farmers more money, but caused the price of milk to rise), Bartlet responds simply with ‘Yeah, I screwed you on that.’  It is one of those turning points for an election campaign. Normally, these occur during the presidential debates after the parties have announced their nominees (for example, Kennedy vs. Nixon in 1960 or Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988; see Spacey and Brunetti 2016). That this could happen so early in a campaign that next to no one had even heard of is nothing short of miraculous. He continues, saying, ‘One in five children live in the most abject, dangerous, hopeless, backbreaking, gut-wrenching poverty… I voted against the bill ‘cause I didn’t want it to be hard for people to buy milk… if you expect anything different from the President… I suggest you vote for somebody else.’ It’s an honesty we rarely see in politicians, it’s endearing, it makes you want to vote for the guy who admits that he stiffed his own constituents and it raises from the dead a campaign few even knew existed. In reviving the campaign with one speech, Bartlet resurrects his career as a politician and, therefore, himself.

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One of the most heart-breaking moments in this television series comes when President Bartlet yells at God in the National Cathedral in the episode entitled ‘Two Cathedrals’ (2001). It is flashback-heavy episode, as Bartlet deals with his grief for his secretary and friend, Mrs Landingham who has died in a car crash. The speech (a chunk of which is in Latin – the language of the traditional Catholic mass) is juxtaposed against Bartlet’s memories of his abusive father. In doing this, it pits God against Bartlet’s own father. The anger Bartlet felt towards his father for years is mixed in with his ire towards God in his moments of grief: ‘”You can’t conceive nor can it, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God,” says Graham Greene. I don’t know whose ass he was kissing there ‘cause I think you’re just vindictive. What was Josh Lyman? A warning shot? That was my son.’ He all but screams, the sound of his voice echoing across the empty Cathedral. His anger is easily understandable. Christians are reminded that people are all ‘God’s children’ (Rom 8.16). Yet, even the most devoted of followers, the most desperate to please the father, cannot do so and even if they try their best to do so, God still takes and takes and takes. He’s taken Mrs Landingham, the only parental figure Bartlet had left, handed him a case of remitting-relapsing Multiple Sclerosis, and had his staffer, Josh Lyman – a man Bartlet has come to see as his own son – shot. Why? Bartlet, himself, asks this question: ‘What did I ever do to [Jesus] but praise his glory and praise his name?’ Confused and angry, Bartlet admits that he has lied to the American public with regards to his MS diagnosis, but surely that makes him like Jesus sending his disciples away before his crucifixion – he does not want the people around him to suffer because of who he is or the suffering he has to endure.

The final episode I wish to talk about is the first episode of the third season, entitled ‘Isaac and Ishmael’ (2001). Officially, a special rather than an actual episode (at the beginning of the episode, the cast inform us that it does not fit in with the normal plot). It was filmed and aired within the four weeks after the events of September 11th, a point at which the majority of the entertainment industry avoided referencing even the idea of violence, let alone terrorism (Jones and Dionisopoulos 2004, 21). It is parabolic, as students from the Presidential Classroom programme wind up in the midst of what the Secret Service calls a ‘Crash’ (meaning that the White House has been breached). For a small moment, as his staffers – Josh Lyman, Toby Ziegler, Sam Seaborn, C.J. Cregg and Charlie Young – are in the midst of fielding questions regarding terrorism, President Bartlet walks in with his wife, Abbey. Here, he is asked by a student whether or not there is something noble in being a martyr. To this, he replies with the line ‘A martyr would rather suffer death at the hands of an oppressor than renounce his beliefs. Killing yourself and innocent people to make a point is sick, twisted, brutal, dumb-ass murder… we don’t need martyrs right now. We need heroes. A hero would die for his country but he’d much rather live for it.’ Here, Bartlet crosses borders. His speech comes at a time in American history when they need a leader, a time when the Patriot Act was being passed with little to no forethought as to what it could do. In giving this speech, the United States is given a leader, a hero to quote the character himself, one who will not simply go to war because it is the easier option. The speech reminds people of who the enemy really is: not one particular race (as had already been explained earlier in the episode) or a particular religion but anyone who commits heinous attacks against America and its people. It is Bartlet’s sermon on the Mount moment, but instead of preaching to the poor and downtrodden, he preaches to those who form the future of society: children. Instead of saying ‘Blessed are the poor for theirs is the kingdom in heaven,’ he says that America needs a hero and, like any Messiah, allows for the phrase ‘and I am it’ to go unsaid (Matt. 5.3).

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There was a reason I subtitled this essay ‘The Fictional Messiah U.S. Politics Always Needed’ and, yes, it has to do with my own political leanings. It also has to do with the fact that Jed Bartlet, a creation of Aaron Sorkin’s own mind, represents the best of all the Presidents of American history. He’s honest like Lincoln, witty like Kennedy and Reagan. There’s an idea known as the cult of leadership and it’s normally applied to dictators like Stalin or Kim Jong-Il. In The West Wing, I believe we have a leader, albeit fictional, we could add to a list of political messiahs who actually deserve the cult of leadership. He is honest, a reviver of dead political campaigns, intelligent and he does not even realise that he is a hero. Jed Bartlet is the man America needs to bring it back from the abyss.

Bibliography

All references to the Biblical Text are from the New International Version (NIV).

Written Sources

Clark, J. Elizabeth. ‘The Bartlet Administration and Contemporary Populism in NBC’s The West Wing’ in Michael Hammond and Lucy Mazdon (Eds.), The Contemporary Television Series. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2005. Pp.224-243

Jones, Robert and George N. Dionisopoulos, ‘Scripting a Tragedy: The “Isaac and Ishmael” Episode of The West Wing as Parable’ Popular Communication Vol.2 (1), 2004, pp.21-40

Parry-Giles, Trevor and Shawn Parry-Giles. The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2006

Primiano, Leonard N. ‘”For What I Have Done and What I Have Failed To Do”: Vernacular Catholicism and The West Wing’ in Diane H. Winston (Ed.), Small Screen, Big Picture: Television and Lived Religion. Waco, Texas. Baylor University Press, 2009, pp. 99-123

Shelton Lawrence, John and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.

Electronic Sources

‘George H.W. Bush vs. Michael Dukakis’ Race for the White House, directed by David Bartlett, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016.

‘Government Surveillance’ Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. Produced by Liz Stanton. United States: Avalon Television and Partially Important Productions, 2015

‘In The Shadow of Two Gunmen Part One’ The West Wing, directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2000

‘Isaac and Ishmael’ The West Wing. Directed by Christopher Misiano, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

‘John F. Kennedy vs. Richard Nixon’ Race for the White House, directed by Christopher Spencer, produced by Kevin Spacey and Dana Brunetti. United States: CNN, 2016‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Pilot’ The West Wing. TV Series. Directed by Thomas Schlamme. Written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 1999.

‘Two Cathedrals’ The West Wing. Directed by Thomas Schlamme, written by Aaron Sorkin. United States: NBC, 2001.

[1] John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero, Grand Rapids, W.B. Eerdmans, 2002, p.6