Great movies are rife with symbolism. For instance, in the iconic final scene of The Godfather, religious imagery is juxtaposed with brutal violence to show Michael Corleone’s moral erosion; in the equally iconic final scene of Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board, Carrot Top forces his enemies to fart when they’re lying. The farts symbolically represent lies.
Okay, maybe certain movies handle their symbolism more effectively than others. In fact, there are some films that hide their metaphors so well that audiences don’t even realize that they’re there at all—we think that we just watched a silly superhero movie, when in reality, the filmmakers were focused on something entirely different to give the story depth. We rounded up a few of our favorite examples.
1. The X-Men movies are a parable for gay rights.
In a wider sense, the X-Men films are about general tolerance, but films in the franchise regularly include plot points that can be applied to the LGBT rights movement. After all, the first films are about teenagers who discover their powers during puberty—the first film has characters expressing a wish to be “normal” before gradually coming to accept themselves and their new abilities.
Later films in the franchise made the connection more explicit. X-Men: First Class used the catchphrase “mutant and proud,” and its plot centered around a pharmaceutical company that has found a “cure” for superpowered mutations. There’s even a “don’t ask, don’t tell” joke.
The original trilogy also had two notable gay actors: Sir Ian McKellen, who played Magneto, and Ellen Page, who played Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand.
“X-Men was a gay man’s delight because it was full of the most amazing divas,” McKellen said in a presentation at the annual Governors Ball Music Festival. The legendary actor also shared a few recollections about his (now out-of-the-closet) co-star.
“The thing about Ellen was that she spoke very quietly,” McKellen said. “Now I know that’s the fashion in movies today—there’s far too much whispering going on in films. Ellen was speaking very quietly for the benefit of the camera. I thought: ‘This girl’s nervous! If she was a bit more confident, she’d be speaking a bit louder maybe.’”
“Lo and behold she comes out as gay woman, and my God has she found her voice. Good on you, Ellen. From afar now, I admire her. Wherever she is, she’s got my congratulations and love.”
McKellen told Buzzfeed that he specifically signed on to the X-Men movies because he understood them as a metaphor for gay rights.
“I was sold it by [director Bryan Singer] who said, ‘Mutants are like gays. They’re cast out by society for no good reason,’” he recalled. “And, as in all civil rights movements, they have to decide: Are they going to take the Xavier line—which is to somehow assimilate and stand up for yourself and be proud of what you are, but get on with everybody—or are you going to take the alternative view—which is, if necessary, use violence to stand up for your own rights. And that’s true. I’ve come across that division within the gay rights movement.”
2. The Dark Knight is about the war on terror.
More accurately, it’s about the actions that the George W. Bush administration took to fight terrorism in the wake of 9/11. That’s a pretty heavy subject to tackle when your protagonist dresses up like a bat, but when you’re director Christopher Nolan, you do what you want.
A number of academic papers have made the case that The Dark Knight is about the limits of vigilantism and authoritarianism when faced with a terrorist—and Heath Ledger’s Joker certainly qualifies as a terrorist since he’s running around burning money, blowing up buildings, and generally doing everything he can to make people feel unsafe.
Really, you don’t need to look too hard to see the metaphor. Batman uses harsh interrogation techniques and a citywide (warrantless) phone surveillance system to track down the Joker, who taunts the Caped Crusader with acts of nihilistic violence. The Joker aims to force Batman to sacrifice his ideals, and while the supervillain ultimately fails, Batman ends up fleeing from police after taking credit for Harvey Dent’s crimes to preserve the fallen politician’s clean image.
“The film is about the need for public resoluteness in the face of terrorism, and about the inherent limitations of relying on vigilantism,” John Ip of the University of Auckland wrote of The Dark Knight. “Therefore, unusually for a film about a superhero, the film is ultimately about reaffirming law, legal institutions, and popular courage.”
That’s one interpretation. To some critics, the allegory is that the people of the United States want to believe the best about their country, but in order to defeat evil, the government needs to do terrible things. To others, it’s about the limits of those tactics—Batman makes serious mistakes by going above and beyond the law.
The film ultimately leaves the interpretation up to the audience, which might explain why it’s such a classic.
3. Groundhog Day is all about Buddhism.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a cynical weatherman who finds himself living through a time loop of a single day (the titular holiday). Over the course of hundreds of loops, he learns the importance of living in the moment and helping other people. It’s a profound message—and it’s basically a crash course on Buddhism.
“My mother-in-law lived for 35 years in a Zen Buddhist meditation center,” director Harold Ramis told NPR. “I called her right away on the weekend, and she said they saw it—the abbots and the senior monks. She said they loved it. They thought it expresses a fundamental Buddhist concept.”
Later, Ramis said that the point of the movie was fundamentally Buddhist, even if he didn’t specifically write it with a religious purpose in mind.
“Serenity is an illusion, but if anything is possible and I can do anything, then there’s a limitless capacity to do good,” Ramis explained to director Judd Apatow in a piece published on Lion’s Roar. That’s what Groundhog Day is about. In Groundhog Day, Bill destroys all meaning for himself. Buddhism says our self doesn’t even exist. The self is a convenient illusion that gives us ego.”
Sadly, ego played a significant role in the Groundhog Day’s production, as Murray and Ramis sparred over the film’s approach (Murray wanted to make a serious philosophical film, while Ramis wanted to make a more lighthearted comedy). While the two had worked together regularly prior to Groundhog Day, they stopped speaking for 21 years after the film’s release. Ramis later said that Murray’s rejection hurt him deeply.
“I’ve had many dreams about him, that we’re friends again,” the director told The A.V. Club about Murray. “There was a great reunion feeling in those dreams. Bill was a strong man. [John] Belushi had that before, too. He was a rock for us. You’d do a movie with Bill, a big comedy in those early days, just knowing he could save the day no matter how bad the script was, that we’d find something through improvisation.”
The friends eventually made up while Ramis was on his deathbed. Later, Murray attended the premier of a Broadway musical based on the film and was reportedly emotional during its conclusion.
“The idea that we just have to try again,” Murray said of the story’s message. “We just have to try again. It’s such a beautiful, powerful idea.”
4. The Shining might be about the fate of Indigenous peoples.
Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is regularly listed as one of the greatest horror movies ever made. Based on the book of the same name by Stephen King, it’s full of haunting imagery—and a surprising number of references to Native Americans.
Kubrick rarely commented on the symbolism in his work, but the director was a notorious perfectionist who carefully controlled every aspect of every scene. The book version of The Shining didn’t contain references to Indigenous peoples; that was entirely the director’s choice.
For example, in the scene where Jack Nicholson’s character goes to the job interview that eventually lands him in the Overlook Hotel, a piece of Native American art hangs on the wall (somewhat out of place in an otherwise nondescript office). The scenes in the storeroom prominently feature cans of Calumet baking powder, carefully positioned to show off their Indigenous mascot.
The hotel’s carpeting also seems to be heavily influenced by Indigenous art, and at one point, a character remarks that the Overlook was built on a Native American burial ground. That line of dialogue seems to confirm the source of the supernatural horror—but it’s not in the book.
The main proponent of this theory is ABC’s Bill Blakemore, who wrote a piece (link opens a PDF) for The Washington Post explaining the film’s symbolism. He sees The Shining as the story of the genocide of Indigenous peoples.
“The first and most frequently seen of the film’s very real American ‘ghosts’ is the flooding river of blood that wells out of the elevator shaft, which presumably sinks into the Indian burial ground itself,” Blakemore wrote. “The blood squeezes out, in spite of the fact that the red doors are kept firmly shut within their surrounding Indian-artwork-embellished frames. We never hear the rushing blood. It is a mute nightmare. It is the blood upon which this nation, like most nations, was built, as was the Overlook Hotel.”
Kubrick didn’t comment on the theory, so we have no way of knowing whether or not he intended the film as an allegory. However, Blakemore makes a compelling case, and in recent years, the theory has gained more credence among Kubrick fans; it was recently featured in the documentary Room 237, along with several other The Shining fan theories.
5. Inception is about making a movie.
There’s an old saying among scriptwriters: Every film is about the process of trying to make a great movie, except for Carrot Top’s Chairman of the Board, which is about how to make the worst movie possible. Seriously, don’t watch it.
But watch closely, and Christopher Nolan’s Inception seems especially dedicated to that concept. The main character struggles to get back to his children, symbolically representative of the filmmaker’s goal to create something perfect. To do so, he must literally enter the world of dreams—a world where he’s not fully in control, despite his technical adeptness. The deeper he goes into dreams, the more he risks being separated forever from the real world—and the greater the chance that he fails at his mission.
It’s heady stuff, and The Awl’s Maria Bustillos has a more in-depth analysis of the various symbols in Inception that can be applied to the creative process. Nolan himself has commented on the theory.
“I didn’t intend to make a film about filmmaking, but it’s clear that I gravitated toward the creative process that I know,” the filmmaker told Wired. “The way the team works is very analogous to the way the film itself was made. I can’t say that was intentional, but it’s very clearly there. I think that’s just the result of me trying to be very tactile and sincere in my portrayal of that creative process.”
The symbols might not be entirely straightforward—hey, otherwise they wouldn’t be symbols—but Nolan accepts the idea that his film is essentially about his filmmaking process.
“One of the things you do as a writer and as a filmmaker is grasp for resonant symbols and imagery without necessarily fully understanding it yourself,” he said. “And so there are interpretations to be imposed on the film that aren’t necessarily what I had in my head.”
6. RoboCop has the reputation of a dumb, ultra-violent action movie.
The film follows Alex Murphy, a cop who dies during his beat, gets resurrected by the Omni Consumer Products corporation, and uses an array of state-of-the-art cybernetic implants to fight crime. It’s tremendously stupid stuff—until you realize that it’s a satire of American culture that makes use of Christian symbolism. No, seriously.
In a documentary on the RoboCop DVD, director Paul Verhoeven says that he intended to portray RoboCop as a Christ figure whose resurrection offers society a last opportunity for redemption.
“The figure of Jesus has always fascinated me,” Verhoeven said. “When I got the script, I realized that RoboCop had something to do, for me, at least, with Jesus. These themes of crucifixion, resurrection…even at the end, where Murphy is walking over the water, the line that Murphy says there—‘I’m not arresting you anymore’—I thought that was an American Jesus.”
More broadly, the film satirizes consumerism; Omni Consumer Products, a major corporate entity, has full power over the Detroit police department, and they’re more concerned with profits than actually fixing the issues causing the city’s crime wave. RoboCop is an authoritarian figure who eventually embraces his humanity.
And you thought that it was just a film about a robot bringing bad guys to justice. Sadly, the RoboCop sequels don’t have the nuance or intelligence of the original, and a RoboCop cartoon show missed the point completely—but given the subtlety of the satire, perhaps that’s understandable.
7. Aliens is an allegory for the Vietnam War.
The original Alien was a horror movie, but Aliens is closer to a war movie. Lieutenant Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) goes with a group of soldiers to LV-426, a colonized planet that has been ravaged by xenomorphs. The soldiers have a huge technical advantage, and they’re confident that they’ll wipe out the alien menace quickly.
Of course, that wouldn’t make for much of a movie. When the soldiers arrive, they’re quickly overcome by the xenomorphs, who strike from the darkness and use their superior numbers to their advantage. Director James Cameron acknowledges that he drew heavily from the Vietnam War to make the story believable, and rewatching the movie with that in mind, it’s difficult to miss the metaphors.
“The dialog itself, the idiom, is pretty much Vietnam era,” Cameron told writers Jean-Marc and Randy Lofficier. “It’s the most contemporary American combat ‘warspeak’ that I had access to. I studied how soldiers talked in Vietnam, and I took certain specific bits of terminology and a general sense of how they express themselves, and I used that for the dialogue, to try and make it seem like a realistic sort of military expedition, as opposed to a high tech, futuristic one. I wanted to create more of a sense of realism rather than that of an interesting future.”
That also explains why Ripley decides to go back to the alien planet; she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“[People] think she goes because she’ll get her job back, but that’s not the case,” Cameron explained. “There’s no amount of money that could do it. One of my biggest problems writing the film was coming up with a reason why she goes back. It had to be psychological.”
“One of the things that interested me is that there are a lot of soldiers from Vietnam, who have been in intense combat situations, who re-enlisted to go back again. Because they had these psychological problems that they had to work out. It’s like an inner demon to be exorcised. That was a good metaphor for her character.”
Granted, it’s also a fun shoot-em-up thriller, so we wouldn’t recommend reading too far into the allegory. Cameron used the conflict in Vietnam to ground Aliens in reality—and given that it’s one of the best science fiction films of the last century, we’d say that he succeeded.
8. The Wizard of Oz is all about populism.
We’re cheating a bit here, since The Wizard of Oz is based on the book of the same name by author L. Frank Baum, and in this case, all of the symbolism comes from the original work. Still, we’re willing to bet that you didn’t walk away from the legendary musical thinking, “Wow, the populist movements of the late 1800s really had some decent points about fiscal policy.”
Here’s the theory, as explained by historian Henry Littlefield in a 1964 editorial (link opens a PDF): Dorothy represents the American people, innocent and slightly naive. She follows a yellow-brick road, which represents gold-backed currency; Emerald City (which is, uh, green) represents fiat money—currency that isn’t backed by anything of substance. That’s why the titular wizard is a little man hiding behind a curtain; he seems powerful, but he’s ultimately much less powerful than he seems. The allegory goes as far as you’d want to take it. Some readers believe that the Tin Man represents the American worker, while the Cowardly Lion is a stand-in for a contemporary politician.
Depending on your interpretation, The Wizard of Oz is either an endorsement of populism and the gold standard or a satire of it. Both interpretations are somewhat contentious; one Baum biographer believes that story contains no symbolism, and that Baum’s intent was to entertain children, not to educate adults.
However, in the 1902 stage version of The Wizard of Oz, Baum made an explicit reference (link opens a PDF) to Theodore Roosevelt and several other references to the politics of the time, which lends some credence to the theory. He also wrote editorials about U.S. policies towards Native Americans and owned a Republican newspaper, so it’s not too much of a stretch to suggest that his most famous work contained some indirect references to the political events of the time.
Perhaps this is another case where the writer himself wasn’t aware of his symbology—or maybe the fairytale had some surprising depth. In any case, it’s something to keep in mind the next time you’re tapping your toes to “If I Only Had a Brain.”