The trouble with angels: Heavenly messengers according to Hollywood

Has Hollywood ever gotten angels right? Has it ever even come close?

SDG Original source: Catholic Digest

Ask ten people to pick their favorite movie angel, and most will pick Clarence from It’s a Wonderful Life. Frank Capra’s beloved Christmas film is a true classic … but of course Clarence isn’t really an angel. He’s a human spirit, a holy soul in a sort of purgatorial, transitional state, seeking full entry into the communion of the blessed saints.

The popular eschatological confusion that we “become angels” when we die may be a headache for catechists, but only a curmudgeon would object to a Hollywood fable taking this sort of creative license. Still, there’s no reason for all movie angels to be as angelically incorrect as Clarence.

With all the fantasy, spectacle, and even piety of over a century of Hollywood history, one might expect at least a handful of angelic characters compellingly imagined as heavenly, non-human beings — at least as non-human as Mr. Spock, if not Tolkien’s Ents.

In reality, most big-screen angels (excluding brief appearances in Bible films and the like) fall into one or more of the following groups:

  1. angels who were once human
  2. angels who become human
  3. angels who fall in love with humans
  4. semi-fallen angels with non-heavenly agendas
  5. agents of destiny tasked with maintaining The Plan

Many movie “angels” (like Clarence) are originally from earth, not heaven; examples include Angels in the Outfield (the 1951 original as well as the 1994 Disney remake), The Heavenly Kid (1985), and The Preacher’s Wife (1996), starring Denzel Washington — a remake of The Bishop’s Wife (1947), starring Cary Grant as an angel who is not a former human.

Unlike Clarence, whose only earthly interest is George Bailey’s salvation, many ex-mortal angels seem interested in the sorts of earthly things they cared about in life. The angels in the outfield may care about helping people, but still and all they’re former ballplayers winning games. (That said, the 1951 original is modestly charming, and the Disney version, unseen by me, has its fans.) And Denzel Washington is no less stirred by a pretty woman’s attention — a married woman, at that — than any red-blooded mortal man.

There’s no indication that Cary Grant in The Bishop’s Wife was ever a mortal, but his romantic tension with Loretta Young, who is married to Anglican cleric David Niven, is no less palpable. Call me a grump, but I find this icky on both counts, even if both Grant and Washington eventually walk away from their wedded love interests — unlike most romantically entangled angels, who wind up abandoning the angelic state.

These include male angels who fall for human women, like Nicolas Cage in City of Angels (1998), loosely inspired by Wim Wenders’ art film Wings of Desire (1987); and female angels who fall for human men, as in I Married an Angel (1942) and Date with an Angel (1987). These aren’t necessarily “icky,” although the only film in this vein I would recommend (as art, not theology) is Wings of Desire.

Ickiest of all, perhaps, are semi-fallen angels such as John Travolta’s foul-mouthed, beer-swilling, womanizing Michael (1996), Paul Bettany’s very different Michael in the apocalyptic action thriller Legion (2010), and Tilda Swinton’s creepy Gabriel in Constantine (2005).

Even in this category there’s one example that, while controversial, I appreciate: the Ent-like Watchers in Darren Aronofsky’s Noah (2014), beings of light crusted in rock, estranged from the Creator but not corrupted against him. Some find their rock-monster appearance silly, but they have a non-human gravity that adds something to the very limited cinematic vocabulary of angels.

Then there are the agents of destiny, tasked with keeping people on their appointed paths in life, love, and death. For life and love, there is A Life Less Ordinary (1997) and The Adjustment Bureau (2011); for death, A Matter of Life and Death (1946), also known as Stairway to Heaven (with Niven again), and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) with its remakes, Heaven Can Wait (1978) and Down to Earth (2001).

Are these agents angels at all? Their concern isn’t necessarily salvation or the good, only The Plan — though sometimes it seems love may be bigger than The Plan, as in the masterful Stairway to Heaven and the modestly diverting Adjustment Bureau. Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Heaven Can Wait also have their charms, even though both are undermined by the same awkward ending.

As intriguing as some of these depictions are, none of them really offers a compelling picture of heavenly, non-human beings working for God’s glory and our good. A great big-screen depiction of angels remains to be made.

Notes on age-appropriateness: It’s a Wonderful Life, Angels in the Outfield: family viewing. A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and Heaven Can Wait: teens and up. Wings of Desire, The Adjustment Bureau, and Noah: mature viewing. Other films mentioned are not necessarily recommended.

Religious Themes, Trouble With Angels