Why do contemporary audiences love superheroes? One answer seems obvious: they make us feel powerful.
As beings made in the image of God, we long for justice. As fallen creatures, however, we often lack the means—or bravery—to bring that justice about. Comics, movies, and TV shows about caped crusaders and teams of mutant heroes provide us with something we crave: an imagined space where we can explore what it’s like to uphold righteousness with reckless abandon, even in the face of cosmic evils that dwarf those dogging us in the here-and-now.
Well, as of a few weeks ago, there’s yet another new superhero on the block—only this time, he’s toting a Bible and sporting a clerical collar.
On May 22, AMC presented its pilot for Preacher, the latest project from Breaking Bad co-producer and writer Sam Catlin. Based on the late-‘90s comic of the same name, Preacher follows Jesse Custer (Dominic Cooper), a small-town Texas minister with a sordid past and a disillusioned faith. By the end of the pilot episode, Jesse joins the superhuman ranks when a mysterious, celestial being (called “Genesis” in the comics) possesses him, giving him god-like abilities.
Early reviews have been mostly positive. Preacher looks to be fresh spin on an old formula, taking the superhero story’s concerns about justice and power and projecting them into the life of a church’s world-worn shepherd. It’s also grim, gritty, and violent. Like Breaking Bad before it, Preacher isn’t afraid to portray the troubling, taboo, and degenerate. (Flannery O’Connor fans will feel right at home.) Christian audiences are likely to wonder, then: is Preacher just a churched-up Game of Thrones with basic cable boundaries and a God-shaped absence? Or will its treatment of the body of Christ and the ones who lead it be rich and honest enough to make it worth watching?
The final answer to that question will probably only come in the long run, but the pilot gives some early hints of promise. While it raises some interesting issues, the first episode mainly focuses on establishing the backdrop against which Jesse’s journey will unfold. And, as with most superhero tales, it wants us to see its protagonist as essentially powerless from the start.
Before Genesis possesses him, Jesse is—by his own admission—a “bad preacher” in search of absolution, a “drinkin’, fightin’, swearin’” mess with a cryptic, violent past. His failing country church can’t even afford to keep the air conditioner on, let alone keep up with the megachurch up the road (which, it turns out, just added a Starbucks to their lobby). As far as God’s concerned . . . well, whatever love Jesse may have had for him once, it’s chilled considerably.
Nonetheless, he aims to serve his people, and the struggles he faces are familiar ones for ministers: the first pastoral act we see him perform on-screen is amending a crude re-lettering of his church’s sign. During the Sunday service, it’s clear that none of his bored congregants—with the exception of sincere organist and young widow Emily Woodrow (Lucy Griffiths)—care much about what he has to say. But there may be good reason, as Jesse himself seems to think God has turned his back on him.
Despite his ministerial failures, Jesse’s thirst for righteousness is admirable—though it sometimes leads him to abandon the high road for the low. For instance, when a young boy asks him to address his father’s abuse of his mother, Jesse tries to play it straight, deflecting the boy’s plea to “hurt him” by reminding him that “violence makes violence.” But when the situation goes south, Jesse’s own sins resurface: the father provokes him into a furious barroom fistfight, which ends in the preacher snapping his opponent’s forearm in half across his leg—as sure a sign as any that despite his desire to change, Jesse’s outlaw past is still close on his heels.
Amid his spiritual darkness, however, there are still glimmers of hope. Perhaps his most shining moment in the pilot is his conversation with Eugene Root, the sheriff’s teenaged son whose face was horrendously disfigured by a past suicide attempt. Eugene also expresses a sense of God’s distance: “I used to pray to him, and I would hear him talk back,” he says. “But now it’s just—it’s just real quiet. Do you ever think that there are some things so bad even God won’t forgive?”
Jesse’s reply contradicts his own doubt—or reveals his hope. “No,” he insists. “No matter what you’ve done, if you need him, he has to be there for you. That’s the whole point. God doesn’t hold grudges.”
While we might not be able to relate to Jesse’s careless approach to holiness, his concern for his people makes him a compelling antihero to cheer for. He’s less a preacher, perhaps, than a doubting man’s pastor, a wandering shepherd to some very lost sheep. We want to see him empowered. Jesse may be a simmering pot ready to boil over, but something about him is reminiscent of the Old Testament prophets, calling heavenly fire down on the heads of the wicked, the abusers, the workers of injustice.
If there’s an area where Preacher disappoints, though, it’s in the thinness of its vision of the faith. For all its pious window dressing, the show’s Christianity is noticeably Christ-less. There’s talk of forgiveness, sure—everyone seems to be longing for it—but not of grace. From the pulpit, Jesse preaches about humility, but his sermon comes across as a moralistic pep talk and little else. In the face of evil, the choice before the characters seems clear-cut: either sit back and allow the wicked to prosper, or take up your cross and use it to beat the devil out of them.
Its theological shallowness and brutal violence might make it a hard sell, but Preacher still has a lot of promise. Its greatest success is in acknowledging humanity’s smallness, our inability to achieve the justice we so desperately crave. What remains to be seen, then, is whether Catlin and his team will walk the well-trodden path of the “great power, great responsibility” superhero arc, or whether they’ll take a narrower road that acknowledges the insufficiency of even our most superhuman efforts.
There are already hints of that message in the pilot’s conclusion: after his possession, the effects of Jesse’s first (unknowing) use of his powers during the show’s final moments are ruinously grotesque. Like the show itself, he’s too wracked with sin and doubt to slip easily into the role of “hero of the faith.” But will the God of Preacher ever appear to mend him?
Episode 2 of Preacher premieres June 5 on AMC.