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.


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.

Merry X-Man

XMenComic books were hard to keep up with for a kid of limited means. Consequently, I never heard of the X-Men until the movies started coming out. Since I suppose I fit the profile of the guy whose life has devolved into day after long day in the office, superheroes are burdened with living life for me. I’ve watched the X-Men movie a few times, but after reading Jeffrey Kripal’s Mutants and Mystics my latest viewing took on a different angle. Of course, Mageto is presented as being separated from his parents at a concentration camp in Poland as the film opens. A child on trial for his ethno-religious heritage. That, and the fact that he’s a mutant, lends him a perspective on evolution not shared by many. His scheme to transform world leaders into mutants is premised on his understanding of evolution. He tells Senator Kelly, however, that God is too slow. That apparently minor line may bear more weight than it seems at first.

I can’t see the title “X-Men” without thinking of Xmas. Probably the fact that it is now mid-December has something to do with it, along with the bumper crop of Keep Christ in Christmas media this year. Yard signs, church marquees, bumper stickers. People who don’t know the history of their own holiday fear that they’re losing its meaning. Already by the twelfth century the abbreviation Xmas was in use—this is a centuries old tradition that predates American white Christmases by several hundred years. The X is not a substitute, but rather a symbol. A religion that has lost its appreciation of symbols has become just another set of onerous laws.

Maybe we can learn a lesson from our X-Men and their too slow deity. Not having read the X-Men when I was young, and even now noting that there are just as many X-Women as Men, I had to puzzle out the name on my own. Of course, it wasn’t too hard to see the connection of Charles Xavier with his clan of adopted mutants, and therefore the origin of their X. It is a symbol and no one disparages Cyclops his sight or Storm her lightning (miracles all) for having an apocopated title. I think, too, of how the Grinch stole, and returned, Christmas. Dr. Seuss created a tale that captured the essence of Christmas without so much as a religious vocable in the the book. And his eponymous character has come to represent all those who refuse to celebrate when occasion calls for it. So when God is too slow, X-Men, or even a Grinch in a pinch, can keep the X in Xmas.