Netflix wastes its brilliant premise and ending twist in “The Chosen One” on a shallow treatment of religion that actually makes one grateful that the faith-based film industry alternative exists.
“The Chosen One” is a TV series based on the first part of the graphic novel trilogy “American Jesus” by legendary comic book writer Mark Millar (“Ultimates,” “Civil War,” “Kingsman,” “Superman: Red Son” and “Wanted”). The six-part first season is based on the first graphic novel in the trilogy, titled “Chosen,” and follows a 12-year-old boy named Jodie who gains powers that resemble Jesus’ from the gospels and starts to believe he might be the second coming himself.
I read “American Jesus Part 1: Chosen” as a teen many years ago. I was always impressed by its premise and particularly its ending twist (which we’ll get to later). The idea of a kid who grew up on superheroes — and “chosen one” stories like “Star Wars” and “Lord of The Rings” — believing that it not only was happening to him but that he was the person that whole modern “chosen one” trope was based on, Jesus, was a deeply relatable way to subvert a whole host of genres. It also made the questions Jesus poses when he confronts people who need a savior more personal.
This, of course, even more deeply resonated with me because I was a superhero fan and a Christian — something I shared in common with the writer or the original graphic novel series.
Mark Millar told the U.K.-based Daily Express:
“As a boy, I did a painting for my mum of the Sacred Heart of Jesus with a red robe over his shoulders – and I thought, ‘This looks like Superman’s cape’. It must have been the most muscle-bound Jesus ever, but my mum still put it up. He looked like the Hulk. A superhero is a guy who tries to help people and there’s a constant element of self-sacrifice so the two ideals didn’t feel so far apart. I found the same ethos in Marvel Comics I found in a Catholic school.”
When the show is leaning into this premise of ordinary kids who would probably read comic books becoming a messiah and disciples, it really works. Jodie and his friends are a rascally band of scamps like you’d see in “Stranger Things” or the throwback ‘80s movies that inspired that show. When we see these kids and their relationship attempting to grapple with the potential messiahship of their friend, and the ways that it eventually tears them apart, it is poignant and affecting.
When we see all the members of the town with their own levels of religious belief or general brokenness encounter a savior whom they almost treat as a fairy tale until they encounter him for real (and how they react to it) we get a reflection of ourselves and the beautiful and toxic ways we try to get any potential messiah to meet our needs.
It’s pretty obvious why this would be a perfect story to tell today. What with TV evangelists claiming prophetic power to predict future events who are gaining thousands of followers (even after they get their prophecies wrong) and political leaders being treated as messiahs by their voters, exploring in a deep way how our contemporary need for a messiah can draw out the best and worst of us is almost a gimme.
Sadly, despite having way more time to expand the story than the original comic did, the show feels far less developed and less relatable than the original. Like so much of Hollywood’s treatment of religious topics, the characters and themes are taken at a shallow, surface level and don’t reflect deeply most of the questions that real people would have being in a situation like that. The characters who all have their own issues with God or with each other and have to confront their own felt needs or lack of felt needs for a savior are therefore not given much screen time to be fleshed out. That means much of what’s interesting about exploring a Jesus in the modern day is wasted. (“Midnight Mass,” as bad as that was, does a much better job of this.) And in a bizarre departure from the comic, Jodie and his friends don’t talk about the pop culture of superheroes and “Star Wars” that framed their understanding of the Jesus story they think they’re in.
This is particularly true with the final twist (spoiler alert!) — something that is the original story’s real stroke of genius.
At the end of the story, Jodie finds out that he’s not actually the second coming of Jesus but the antichrist who’s going to lead the world astray. This is a brilliant twist because it allows the story to explore what it would like to be a normal kid who has to deal with messiahship without getting into the messy theological territory of having a necessarily sinful Jesus. It also cleverly indicts the audience for so easily believing someone could be the chosen one in a great mythical adventure rather than the villain or the sidekick — much the same way classics like “Dune” and modern “Blade Runner 2049” did.
But the show butchers this revelation both by tipping its hand too soon and by rushing the reaction to its reveal. (To be fair, the original graphic novel rushed the ending, too). Almost from the very start, the show makes you feel like the people guiding Jodie are sinister. And at the end, instead of giving Jodie time to come to that realization and letting him deal with his whole self-perception shattered before coming to acceptance, he instantly accepts his new evil role.
This is particularly disappointing because — if they do make more seasons — it’s not going to get better for Christians going forward. The next chapter of the graphic novel trilogy introduces the real second coming of Jesus. And she’s a girl. That means the majority of Christians who see Jesus as “the Son,” a meaningful statement in relationship with the father, won’t be able to take this series seriously.
And this gets to why religious films made by the faith-based industry are important. Because these stories are important and Hollywood is far too removed from the faith of most people who actually have it to make movies about it.
This is why the faith-based film industry got started in the first place. As Tyler Smith explained in his documentary “Reel Redemption,” Christians were initially very happy to have Hollywood tell stories about their faith, from “The Ten Commandments” to “Ben Hur” to “The Robe.” This Hollywood was close enough culturally to the imagination of everyday Christians to tell stories that they would recognize and accept as their own. But with “The Last Temptation of Christ” portraying Jesus as a sinful man, Christians and Hollywood were officially divorced. Christians then started the long process of creating their own faith-based alternative.
Even today, as much as I rag on faith-based films (and will continue to do so), no one can deny that they are dealing with the questions that a large segment of actual Christians are dealing with when they are wrestling with their faith — whether that’s feelings of cultural marginalization (“God’s Not Dead”), fatherhood (“Courageous”), forgiving your parents (“I Can Only Imagine”), why God sometimes doesn’t answer prayer (“I Still Believe”), abortion and adoption (“Unplanned” and “Lifemark”), desire for revival (“Jesus Revolution”), spiritual warfare (“Nefarious”), how to balance faith with dreams (“American Underdog”) or concerns about sex trafficking (“Sound of Freedom”).
I often don’t agree with these movies’ treatment of these issues. I also can’t deny they have their pulse on the concerns of the actual faith-based community, and that is a humanizing and worthy thing itself.
You would think that Hollywood could find Christians and other religious people to come and write or direct faith-based stories. But Hollywood has a way of attracting or forming people who will not “get” real religious life and questions in the same way that they don’t. Millar, for example, claims Christianity himself. Yet almost no Christians would claim Millar’s version of the Christian story as representing them.
That’s why it’s so great that — even though they have a long way to go — faith-based films are getting better. Dallas Jenkins’ similarly titled “The Chosen” proved it’s possible to make a high-quality series about Jesus that Hollywood types love and Christians still feels represents them.
Each season did what “The Chosen One” tried to do, but failed, by taking a man who claims to be the messiah and seeing all the people who interact with him, all in their own way, with their own brokenness and their own expectations, forced to reckon with themselves when they reckon with him.
Humans are religious people. That’s why a story like “The Chosen One” is so potentially moving. But just like it usually takes Black filmmakers to best tell the Black experience or female filmmakers to tell the female experience, it takes people connected to their religious beliefs and communities to tell stories of faith.
So here’s to being reminded why the faith-based film industry exists. Here’s hoping it lives up more and more to its promise.
The first full season of “The Chosen One” is available to stream on Netflix.
–Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers. His other work and contact info can be found at his website josephholmesstudios.com.
Reprinted from ReligionUnplugged with permission.