Panthers and Prophets

Prophetic is a word I seldom use for movies. Prophetic, by the way, doesn’t mean predicting the future. Prophecy was about establishing rightness on the earth. Dress it up with God or dress it down to a girl being shot for wanting an education, prophecy is a necessary ingredient in being human. Black Panther is a prophetic movie. I don’t keep up with comic books, and many regions of the Marvel Universe are unexplored by me. I have no idea if the comics bear the strong message of social justice that this film does, but I left the theater blown away. If those who have the power could only be interested in good rather than personal gain, what a world we could have.

The message of not making race, but humanity, central is one that we have yet to learn. It is so basic, so simple that a child understands it. Somehow world leaders don’t. Any secret advantage is kept in order to make things better for ourselves. To make us feel more secure. To put us in the place of making decisions for others. In Black Panther even the enemy isn’t evil. Humanity is it’s own enemy. We sometimes forget that we have it within our ability to make life fair and equitable. We can share what we have and end jealousy. The Gospel of Adam Smith, however, has supplanted that of Jesus Christ. Just ask the one-percent. The one percent who haven’t most assuredly seen this movie.

I had no idea what to expect when I walked into that theater, but it was nothing short of an epiphany. As it has been from ancient times, one can always tell when they’ve been in the company of a prophet. We’ve come to dislike prophets because they make us uncomfortable. They possess something we can’t have. Integrity. The dignity of the conviction of what anyone can see is rightness. Such things can’t simply be taken, crammed onto a boat, and sold. Prophets bear the burden of speaking the truth. Black Panther may be unlike most prophets in that it is reaching a huge audience. And rightfully so. It is the antidote to the poison that’s surging through the veins of this country for far too long. Even those who will dismiss it simply as another fantasy—it’s a superhero movie—need to see this vision of what a world can be. It’s not very often that a prophetic movie appears, but the days of prophecy, it seems, aren’t over yet.

Avenge This

Recently rewatching The Avengers I noticed a subtext that had escaped me the first couple of times I saw it. When Loki explains to his victims why he is spreading his chaos, he uses a concept that many of us have been spoon-fed since 9/11—that freedom is not free. When he is asked from what he is setting humans free he replies, “Freedom.” He further explains that people really don’t want freedom, but they want to be led. This sounded so much like Bush administration rhetoric that I was put on alert for the remainder of the movie. Indeed, in the climatic scene much of Midtown is attacked, and who launches the nuclear device at Manhattan? The shadowy government figures who wish to remain anonymous. “Freedom is not free,” they seem to say, “support your government without question.” The scene of police and firefighters herding frightened citizens out of harm’s way looked an awful lot like footage from near ground zero.

Comic books, I have often reflected, are already story-boarded and some make excellent movies. Some are funny and some are serious. As a child I had only a handful of comics, but they were like movies for kids with modest means. Like an adult going back to the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you see many things that escaped you as a child. Comics may not be high literature, but comic book movies, at their best, are not far from it. The X-Men movies likewise introduce themes that rivet adult attention: prejudice, discrimination, the ambivalence of evil. The stories are didactic as well as entertaining. In the case of The Avengers, the characters, while overblown, all have their own agendas but government has only one: compliance.

Sometimes I read about the early days of the American experiment and wonder what went wrong. Yes, there are certainly times and issues that demand strong centralized government for survival, but when did those who castigate such strong control decide that they should take over? Who gains here? It certainly doesn’t seem to be the average citizen. Looking over the landscape after the last laissez-faire government, the only one who ended up hands-off were the very wealthy. Left with no social responsibility, they reign, resisting any taxation so that the burden of the increase trickles down to those who, in the words of Loki, really don’t want freedom. That’s perhaps the only thing we have in common here; no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived, they were searching for freedom. Or so they believed. Like a comic book, it has become mere fantasy for most, while Richie Rich happily continues on his gilded, but vapid way.

Mårten_Eskil_Winge_-_Tor's_Fight_with_the_Giants_-_Google_Art_Project

The Religion of X

X2While I never considered myself comically deprived as a child, as an adult I have come to understand that I missed quite a bit. Much of this comes through the Marvel Universe that I discovered through various superhero films that have captured the interest of the movie industry. Initially I felt a little silly looking for profundity among all those bulging biceps and impossible pecs, but I’m beginning to understand that just because a book is illustrated doesn’t mean it’s facile. All of this is a way of saying that I watched X2: X-Men United over the weekend. With my understanding of evolution and genetics, minimal though they be, I always find the “mutant” explanation a bit hard to swallow. Nevertheless, these heroes have such a multiplicity of gifts, and the movies are dark enough to suggest something deeper than guys running around in tights. All I know of the X-Men I learned through the first movie, and I’ve never watched the extras. X2 introduced a new character (to me) that seemed to have been designed for a blog like this.

Nightcrawler is portrayed as demonic in shape and coloration, resembling Iblis more than anything else, is the most religious X-Man I’ve so far encountered. His hideout in the movie is an abandoned church in Boston, and when he is discovered he is in the midst of praying. During the course of the movie he prays the rosary and recites Psalms, making him a truly conflicted character—demonic in form and devout in soul. Comic book writers have long drawn on religious themes, but the shaping of “profane” characters as “religious” would appear a venial kind of blasphemy to many. If cartoon characters, however, are to resemble the real world at all religion must play into the Marvel Universe. After all, it plays into the fantasy world of the Tea Party on a regular basis. The concept of a religious demon is biblical, as James notes in his epistle, “the devils also believe, and tremble.”

There is something deeper going on here, however. Nightcrawler not only believes, but worships. The issues of prejudice and racism are clearly present throughout the movie(s). And as the story comes to its climax, Phoenix—whose name already suggests resurrection—rescues her X-compatriots in an act of self-sacrifice. Religion, as it plays out in X2 is messy and ragged around the edges. But it is clearly present. In the Marvel Universe gods and humans mix with unnerving ease, and the gods aren’t always the most powerful of the heroes we meet. After seeing the movies I’ve come to realize that a developed backstory exists for this universe and some scholars of religion have begun to notice. And once that happens, a theology is never far behind. I suspect it will remain a matter of debate whether the book is better than the movie or vice-versa. In the meanwhile, I’m thinking I’ll need to find the third member of this trinity and see how the story ends.

Puny Windstorm

Nothing says wrath of God like a hurricane. Those of us along the Mid-Atlantic coast of the United States are hunkered down wondering what’s to become of daily life when the storm is over. Responses to the situation have been, well, religious. Store owners spraypaint prayer-like sentiments to Sandy on their plywood protection, urging the storm to be kind. Interviews are laced with language appropriately placating to a deity. The storm named after a mythical monster has become a god. Such responses are not limited to Hurricane Sandy, of course. In fact, when death is expected pleading with the powers that be is routinely recognized as Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’s bargaining stage of the dying process. We always hope that forces stronger than us might be willing to make a deal, cut us a bargain. The storm, given a human name, is personified as a deity. It is such a very human response to any phenomenon that forces us to realize just how small we are. Our egos may reach to the ends of the universe, but in reality we are fragile, scared children begging for the protection of a supernatural parent.

Last night as we were sitting here waiting to be hit, my family watched The Avengers. The juxtaposition of deities and heroes in the Marvel Universe fascinates me, and, of course, the movie has to explain that Thor and Loki are really only aliens perceived as gods. Compared with their human companions, they are immeasurably strong but they do not decide the outcome of the cosmic battle that devastates New York City. No, it is Tony Stark who flies the atomic bomb through the portal to the invading ice giants, saving humanity. Thor is too busy battling flying metal dino-whales. Humanity is responsible for its own salvation. The gods may help, but they alone cannot deliver. Against his protests of divinity, the Hulk bashes a protesting Loki into the floor of Stark Tower with the grunted huff, “puny god.” His only line in the movie. The portal, swirling hurricane-like over Midtown is forced closed and human technology, in the form of Iron Man’s admittedly cool armor, saves us all.

Hurricanes remind us that our technology can’t save us all. The advance warning may very well have spared many lives by the time this all blows over. As early as Thursday I was wondering if work would be called off or if I’d have to battle the rain and winds and storm surges to get to my office (which would have provided an awesome view of the final battle in The Avengers, facing, as I do, the Chrysler Tower and Grand Central). We have been warned. Our technology, however, can’t stop the force of the storm. Sandy may not be divine, but she is massive—much larger than any person who believes that there is some trace of divinity within him or her. As I sit here listening to the wind and the rain, I wonder what the weather is like in Asgard today.

Alien Deities

What with The Avengers making such a big pre-summer splash this year and all, I decided to refresh my memory and watch Thor again this weekend. In many ways it is a very impressive movie—very loud in the theater last year, and necessarily quieter in our apartment over the weekend. Often when I see a movie on the big screen I can’t keep track of all that is said or implied, especially when there’s so much action going on. Of course, Thor is an unusual hero in the Marvel Universe, being a god. Being supernatural is not limited to deities in that universe, but the other mutants are the results of science: the Hulk and his gamma rays, Captain America’s experimental treatment, and Iron Man’s good, old-fashioned engineering. They are modified humans. Thor comes from a different place. Upon rewatching the movie, the line about the Norse gods as beings from another dimension worshipped as gods came through loud and clear. Jane Foster comes to believe in the ancient alien hypothesis.

As a solution to the lack of omnipotence on the part of the gods, casting Thor and Loki into the role of aliens serves comic-book universes very well. In reality there are well-meaning and serious people who believe that any entity recognized as a god by human religions might have been a space traveler mistaken for divine. This is an idea I first encountered in Erich von Däniken’s Chariots of the Gods? (Hey, I couldn’t help it—I grew up in the seventies!) The world has enough high strangeness without von Däniken’s hypotheses, but in the case of Thor we have a fictional realm that explains how heroes gain their strength. The same could be postulated, I suppose, for Superman, but then, he never commanded a formal cult in antiquity.

Beyond the theological conundrum, Thor also participates in the nearly universal theme of resurrection. Realizing that his arrogance has led to the troubles of the human race, Thor faces the Destroyer (a creature with origins in the Hebrew Bible and Israelite mythology) and willingly lays down his life. This is generally the prerequisite for resurrection in any effective mythology. Of course, Thor returns and, like any good savior, rescues the world. Setting the story in New Mexico only assists in reasserting the mysterious events at Roswell where, like in the movie, something strange fell from the sky. In this subtext the feds rush in and commandeer the data, for people are not capable of making the correct decision. Yet, they leave the god behind. Marvel Studios has been rightly praised for its mastery of the genre. For those willing to look deeply, even Thor has its social commentary.