First of all - geek culture as we know it owes a tremendous deal to the Marvel Cinematic Universe; normalizing C-list heroes like Iron Man into not only geek culture, but popular culture in general. Being a fan of comics, previously a stereotype linked to poor hygiene and a lack of social grace - has now become something that can be discussed at virtually all levels of society, and has bound together multiple generations - everyone loves Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man, from my parents to the students I teach.
It is a storytelling undertaking the likes of which have never been seen - with more money and talent thrown into the mix than could even be imagined even 20 years ago - and while Iron Man was a marked success - no one could have predicted the worldwide, cross-cultural appeal the MCU would eventually generate.
Endgame, while not the end of the MCU, does feel like the end of what we have been building towards for over 20 films - and while it has had numerous glowing reviews and undeniable commercial success - I want to dive into what makes it tick. We’ll explore the moments that are exceptionally effective, as well as those that might have fallen a bit short, and we’ll do our best to understand what made those decisions practical for the brilliant writers and directors.
Obvious spoilers ahead - so let us dive in.
Part 1: A Proven Track Record
I should begin by confessing that the initial reaction after seeing the original Avengers was “I cannot believe how they pulled this off - how did they manage to make so many characters each feel pivotal and important and interesting and all their dynamics and arcs flowing together so well!” Joss Whedon blew my mind with his script and directing - balancing humor with gravity and brainstorming moments that left me giddy with a delightful combination of surprise and satisfaction. Surprise because so many moments caught me off guard - and satisfaction because the story felt authentic - the characters acting in ways that made sense for their character arcs, motivations, and conflicting interests.
While I enjoyed the vast majority of the MCU Phase 2, it was Captain America: Civil War (which is essentially an Avengers film itself) raised the bar even higher. That film introduced dynamic new characters and gave us payoff for all the characters we already knew. Even more importantly - it balanced surprise and satisfaction on an entirely new level - our heroes fighting against each other felt authentic - it felt true to what we knew about each of them going forward. You understood who was fighting and why, and the stakes felt enormously high. The central conflict was so pivotal - individual freedom vs collective security - and the friendship of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark was the emotional core of it. That was what cinched the deal- it gripped us even more than the dazzling fight choreography. It was, and in my opinion still is, the greatest of the MCU films to date.
As we entered into Infinity War - our heroes were fractured. It made it easier to write- having scenes with only groups of 4-5 to deal with, instead of having the entire collective of Avengers all bickering in a room. That’s the reason Dr. Strange, Iron Man, Spider-Man get beamed up. It’s the reason the Wakanda-based Avengers start off separately from Vision and Scarlet Witch, and why Thor couldn’t go straight to Earth. Well, that, and he needed a new weapon (even though the entire character arc of Thor: Ragnarok was him realizing he didn’t need a weapon to be the God of Thunder… I suppose you could argue that by having Thanos defeat him in the first scene, you give him motivation to seek out Stormbreaker. I guess that works.). The film works by weaving together separate plot threads and attempting to have them converge all in one climax.
The issue, I felt, was that our separated storylines split our attention in two. We go from the attack on Titan (Spider-Man, Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Star-lord, Drax, and Mantis) almost winning to the fight back in Wakanda. Our characters aren’t communicating with each other - and while it’s handled artfully, split focus is, at least in Aristotelian terms, less-than-optimal storytelling. Still - I felt Inifinity War was a tremendous success. Again- each character acted like themselves. Thor got a bit more serious than he was in Ragnarok, actually being challenged and driven to defeat Thanos due to personal stakes. Tony’s relationship with Peter gave him a nice emotional depth that previous iterations of Iron Man might have been missing out on. Even Hulk, traditionally a difficult character to write, had an interesting dynamic going on with the whole, “Hulk-won’t-come-out” challenge.
The “emotional cores” of the story were something like:
And while those did cover a decent chunk of characters, it certainly didn’t include all of them. Several sidekick-level characters have virtually no lines and just show up for the fight scenes - a necessary concession, I know. Once again, to the writers’ credit- they balance emotional core (what I might term “true storytelling”) with all the delightful flash and flair of the superhero genre.
The real clincher of Infinity War- the thing that set it apart from all that had come before, was the villiain’s arc. Thanos, like all great antagonists, doesn’t cast himself as a bad guy. He has conviction, he has a plan, he has his own justifications for what he is thinking. He has emotional depth explored by his relationship with Gamora and at the end, he gets what he wants. He saves the universe, by his own definition, at great personal cost.
His victory - watching heroes we’ve known and cared about for years fading to dust, was emotionally wrenching, and his cathartic solace at the end, having fulfilled his task, was terrible and also carried with it a strange type of beauty. Thanos was compelling because as much as we despised him for what he did, we could almost, almost imagine he was right all along. We could understand what he wanted and why, which made the catharsis (by definition, a mixture of fear and pity for our heroic characters) all the more poignant.
Part II Next Week!
The Lord of the Rings: The Pros of Oligarchy
Tolkien’s world is one where the natural state of the world is decay. Every good thing in Middle-Earth is fading. The time of the Elves and Ents and great heroes - the time when Gods and men and magic resulted in fantastic tales of bravery and heroism. Heck, even the bad guys are getting less badass then they used to be - no more armies of Balrogs or shapeshifting hellhounds roam the land by the time we get to the tale of Frodo Baggins.
(This video by wisecrack does a really great job explaining the depressing state of decay that permeates Tolkien's fallen world, as well as the silver lining that may exist due to divine interventions)
When looking at the governance of Middle-earth, we have a few cultures we can look at. Firstly, the Shire. The home of hobbits is, by most accounts, a sort of Utopia for Tolkien. It is based in no small part on his childhood home, and is protected by a strong sense of innocence and disregard for the rest of the troubles of the world. In the Shire, the populus does have an elected mayor, but he doesn’t do much. They have Sherriffs to keep the peace, but for the most part, they’re only called upon to help find lost pets and the like. In the Shire, there is no need for a strong government of any kind, because the society itself functions based on traditions and earthy goodness. Shire folk share with their kindreds, as evidenced by birthday parties (where hobbits give gifts, rather than receive them) - and because of their love of growing things (and good tilled-earth), there is no scarcity of food or drink for the lot of them.
Henry David Thoreau said:
Government is best which governs least.
However, can we take this laissez-faire approach to our own governance? I submit that we cannot - and I think Tolkien would agree with me. Why? Because his ideal world is based on some very strict social contracts that we simply do not have in place in modern society- social contracts regarding hospitality (even of uninvited dwarves), neighborship, and shared values.
“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.”
In short, because greed exists, we cannot have the idyllic, laid back lifestyle of Hobbiton.
What other governments are explored in Middle-Earth?
Well, like it or not, oligarchy and monarchy seem to be top contenders. Take for instance, the realms of Elvenkind. By the time we meet them in the Third Age (the era of Lord of the Rings) there are only three Elfhomes left on Middle-Earth; Lothlorien, Rivendell, and the Grey Havens. (Mirkwood is also a realm of the Elves, but the wood-elves have a different government and culture altogether)
Each of them are ruled by a leader who has proven themselves capable - these individual elves have long histories and come from special lineages, although their rule is not necessarily a monarchy. Elrond leads Rivendell - he founded it as the Last Homely House, and it is his. We do not actively see Elrond command troops or dictate law, but we do see him as a leader at the Council - a sort of medieval fantasy United Nations, as it were. He gains this position by coincidence (or Providence, depending on your point of view) - but he has respect from all parties involved due to his renowned wisdom and power. This is a sort of meritocracy, or maybe even an oligarchy. The rulers and decision makers for each of the free-peoples of Middle-Earth who meet at the Council of Elrond are all beings of some import - Legolas is a prince representing Mirkwood, Boromir is the son of Gondor’s Steward, Gimli is the son of Gloin, a great adventurer and cousin to the King Under the Mountain, Gandalf is of the Maiar (the closest allegory to the uninitiated is that he is essentially an angel sent by the Gods). These people together make the decision to take action against Sauron, the Dark Lord, only after carefully discussing and weighing their options together as a collective.
Another Council at play in Middle Earth is The Council of the Wise. While they aren’t seen in the books, they are mentioned in the appendices and played a pivotal role behind the scenes, driving out Sauron (The Necromancer) from Dol Guldur during the events of The Hobbit. The White Council includes the Istari (Wizards) - Saruman, Gandalf, Radagast- as well as the Elven Ring Bearers, Elrond, Galadriel, and Ciridan the Shipwright (who later bequeaths his ring to Gandalf). This Council is kind of the Justice League of Middle Earth - the superheroes. Each member of the council has incredible foresight, insight, magical prowess, and yes, wisdom. They are the ones playing directly against Sauron, while many others, even kings, are merely pawns in the true battle against evil.
Looking at the monarchies of Middle-Earth, we have quite a range to choose from. Some, like the Kingdom of Rohan in the Third Age, were ineffectual due to placing trust in the wrong people. Others, like the Kingdom of Doriath, were bastions of strength and prosperity where a righteous king and queen ruled together for ages before treachery undid them. We have the bizarre kingdom of Mirkwood (the only non-meritocratic elf realm) - where darkness constantly creeps at the borders, and also noteworthy is the Kingdom of Numenor - an island nation that grew so proud of its accomplishments that its king was tricked by Sauron (read: Evil) into attacking the realm of the Gods. It did not go well for the Numenoreans.
Of course, one could not fail to mention that the third book in the Lord of the Rings series is The Return of the King - wherein the rightful king who has long been estranged from his people finally returns to set things right again in the world after vanquishing the latest incarnation of evil (read: Sauron). Aragon, as king, has some supernatural prowess, namely in healing people by laying his hands on them, along with herblore. He is incredibly brave and seeks to regain his family’s honor (and right to rule) by succeeding where his ancestors failed - namely by resisting temptation to seek powers beyond that which were rightfully his. In short- he was a reluctant king, and if Douglas Adams says that craving power makes you inept for it, then being reluctant to take power is a strong indicator of a great leader.
So what are the advantages of a monarchy? Well - for starters, little to no bureaucracy. In fact, in the failed kingdoms of Middle-Earth, a bad adviser who interferes with people’s access to the King is regularly what causes the inevitable downfall of the monarchy. (Grima Wormtongue, Sauron). Meanwhile, a good king or queen significantly impacts their entire domain, even to the point of nature itself being more fertile and beautiful because of their righteous domain.
Does Tolkien think we ought to have a meritocracy? A monarchy? A polite anarchy?
I must admit, having to not worry about politics and trusting in a super capable awesome superhero of a king sounds pretty appealing to me - but we have to remember, Middle-earth is in decline. The “blood of Numenor” (the Kings of Men) is “all but spent” - meaning that the right to rule is diminishing and fading,even as far back as the third age (which, in theory, is an ancient myth about the world we live in today). Even if we could suddenly appoint a monarch, finding one who is destined to lead or rule righteously would be phenomenally difficult to locate.
(This is where I point out that the correct connections to be made here may be more religious than practical. #coughcoughJesuscough*)
Hideeho there, neighbors and fellow geeklings,
Today I want to combine the worlds of politics and pop culture to make my own beliefs make sense.
Good and Evil:
To best conduct this discussion, let’s talk about value systems. What are things that are inherently “good” or worthy in fictitious universe- where good and evil are easy to see?
Star Wars: The Dark Side and the Light
One of the most blatant uses of light and dark in the space opera genre, Star Wars explores the foundations of what makes actions (and people) morally right or wrong. While there is some fiddliness with some of the tenants I placed (how peaceful are warrior monks, anyways?) - I want to give the “Dark Side” a fair shake of things.
George Lucas molded the Jedi philosophy out of religion’s greatest hits - his goal was not to found a new form of worship so much as find a way to touch on universal themes that would resonate with audience members everywhere. There are elements of Christianity (see my post on the Geek Messiah for more on that) - but a hefty chunk of Jedi-ism comes from Buddhist philosophy - that desires can be traps, and that living in harmony with the universe is the pathway to a truer sense of enlightenment.
The Dark Side, then, is the opposite - instead of trying to change yourself, bridling passions and opening your soul up to the promptings of the universe - Sith gather as much power as possible to manhandle the universe, shaping it to their will. Vader’s ability to choke a snide critic of his belief system is something many of us wish we could do - telekinetically make our wills manifest to punish those who wrong us. It speaks to our basest desires for power and control over a seemingly chaotic universe.
The Jedi would have us do just the opposite - remove our ego from the situation and live in harmony, even with forces that oppose us.
So - what then, are ramifications of Star Wars political philosophy?
Well, Star Wars would have you say that people who strongly vie for power shouldn’t be trusted. People who cannot control their anger are inevitably corrupted by it. While ambition may seem like a boon - it can be a vice, especially as it leads one to pursue ultimate freedom - a state-of-nature wherein their actions have no moral relevancy in regards to other human beings.
This is a bit of a quandary, isn’t it? To quote an entirely different sci-fi author, Douglas Adams,
“The major problem—one of the major problems, for there are several—one of the many major problems with governing people is that of whom you get to do it; or rather of who manages to get people to let them do it to them.
To summarize: it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.
To summarize the summary: anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”
Who would Star Wars say would be ideal leaders? Interestingly enough - NOT a Jedi! The good guys in Star Wars kind of suck at governing. In fact, the Rebel Alliance’s attempt to restore a democratic republic to the galaxy backfires tremendously, resulting in the rise of the First Order (an even more totalitarian military extremist fascist group than the Empire ever was) and the devastation of several populated planets. Ooof.
Republic are being swept away” #smugTarkin) - showing how, through war, fear, and frustration with bureaucracy, a power-hungry religious extremist with a nasty dark side (literally) can seize power and be lauded for doing so.
“It was really about the Vietnam War, and that was the period where [President Richard] Nixon was trying to run for a [second] term, which got me to thinking historically about how do democracies get turned into dictatorships? Because the democracies aren’t overthrown; they’re given away.” - George Lucas, 2005.
So… what are we to do? What are we to learn? The only powerful political advice I see coming from Star War’s binary duality is that the “good guys” are the ones who come together and work with diverse groups - races, genders, and even species - to fight for to have their voices heard across the galaxy. I would argue, then, that Star Wars would cast its opinion on politics towards a democratic and diverse ideal, where citizens of the galaxy govern themselves, while the “baddies” are faceless, mono-cultural stormtroopers with a fascist leader.
...continued next week in part II and finally, the week after in part III...
It appears, in my gusto to share the good word about a few of my favorite Sci-Fi/Fantasy messiah myths, that I neglected to spend enough time delving into the initial query of what makes a “Savior” - at least - in Geek Canon terms. I hope to rectify this today before we get into a few examples (and counterexamples) of the Messiahs of Geekery!
The word “messiah” is Hebrew in origin, with the closest literal translation reading “anointed one” or “anointed king”. It was used in ancient times to refer to kings and prophets of the Jewish culture, and eventually, it was connected to a prophecy that a great political leader will come rescue the world and reign over a paradisiacal, Messianic Age. This prophecy is what eventually led to the birth of Christianity.
In my previous article, I mentioned that “saving the world” is one of the main criteria for fulfilling the role of a “Messiah” (which I originally translated as “Savior”) - but perhaps a better criteria would involve “ruling the world” or, to be a bit more open-ended (and aligned with the Christian interpretation) “leading the people in a new and better way of life”.
I still believe the three exemplar from part 1 of this series, Kal-El (Superman), Neo (The Matrix), and Aang (Avatar: The Last Airbender) all qualify as messianic figures - each of them usher in a new age during their adventures. For Superman, his role in forming the Justice League leads humanity into a golden age of heroes. Neo brings an end to a cycle of war and devastation by offering himself as a willing sacrifice to the Machines, and paves the way for humanity to make a choice to live either in the Matrix, or in Zion. Aang, by ending a 100-year reign by the Fire Nation’s oppressive dominion, also goes on to bring his people (the Air Nomads) back from the brink of extinction..
Today, I’d like to focus on another criteria before diving back into Messiah mythos. Besides just being “world-savers” or “paradigm shifters” (roles that also are shared by mortal, less-than-Messianic-figures), I would like to talk today about Messianic figures as they relate to their role as a “bridge between worlds”.
In some senses, it is extremely explicit. Aang is called a bridge between the spirit world and the… other one. (Living? Mortal? Normal? We’re not given a stated name for the Non-spirit-world) . This is explored in greater depth in Legend of Korra, where the origin story of the Avatar’s role is recounted- the Avatar was originally a regular human who bonded his soul with the manifestation of light and peace (Raava). This bond has lasted through numerous reincarnations, and it is what grants the Avatar immense physical and spiritual power.
For Kal-El, being a bridge between worlds means holding a dual identity as both a nigh-unto-omnipotent alien, and a mild-mannered reporter. This duplicitous identity is important because it clearly demonstrates Superman’s vulnerabilities (and no, I’m not talking about Kryptonite) - Clark Kent has fears, frustrations, confusion - he’s not only human, he’s super human. He’s clumsy and a dunce at romance - things that make him relatable. The disguise is not merely a tool to hide his identity - it’s just as much a part of him as the tights and cape, if not more so. (I think there’s an interesting argument to be made about which one is the “real” Superman. I’m firmly in the “Clark Kent is the person, Superman is the disguise” camp). By being “of both worlds” Superman can embody our mortal foibles, as well as our potential for limitless greatness. This is a key factor in fulfilling his role as a Messianic figure.
For Neo - he ascends from an initiate to becoming “the One”. His powers begin by transcending the physical (well, digital) world.
So, hindsight being what it is, I’d like to set forth my list of criterion for what makes a mythological Messiah:
1) Possessing a degree of divinity - more than human, but nevertheless still connected to humanity.
2) Having an explicitly stated destiny or mission to save the world/galaxy/universe/etc
3) Shifting the existing (generally oppressive) paradigm, enabling a new, better future.
To accompany these new criteria, I’d like to set forward a few more examples of modern retellings of the archetype of the Messiah - but this time, I want to examine one particular version of the myth where things are a bit different from the biblical norm.
Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader
Now, justifiable prequel hate aside, Star War’s “Chosen One” is a pretty tried-and-true fit for the criteria presented above. Firstly, he obviously possesses some degree of divinity, being literally conceived by the mystical energy known as The Force- and our second and third criteria are both explicitly addressed in The Phantom Menace- where he is set before the Jedi Council. The wise Jedi Masters debate whether he is the true fulfillment of the “prophecy” about his coming - stating that he will one day bring balance to the Force. (Interestingly, we are never told the exact verbiage or circumstance of where this prophecy came from).
So, this virgin-birthed boy wonder comes from his humble desert origins on a quest to bring redemption to mankind balance to the Force. Seems good!
The twist, however, is that this story does not go on to claim our story’s destined savior does not go on to live a life devoid of failure. Sure, he’s a natural prodigy in lightsaber duels, piloting, and manipulating beautiful women the Force - but he’s plagued by impulsiveness, a disregard for the rules of his order, and arrogance.
Anakin Skywalker is a good “what-if” version of what might have happened if Christ had succumbed to the temptations in the desert. For those geeks less familiar with New Testament scripture, the story is summed up as thus: at the beginning of his ministry, Christ journeyed into the desert to pray and fast. After 40 days and nights, the Devil appears and tempts Christ with three requests. The first - he asks for Jesus to turn stones into bread. After all, he hasn’t eaten in a long time! Jesus refuses, proving his dominance over his own human appetites. The second temptation the Devil asks Jesus to do is to test the limits of his angelic protectors by jumping off the pinnacle of the temple. Jesus again refuses, proving his humility and resistance to showing off his supernatural abilities. Finally, the Devil offers Jesus the entire world - domination over every earthly kingdom, if only he pledges fealty to Satan himself. Jesus refuses a third time.
Now, let’s juxtapose this with Anakin’s motivations and temptations. Anakin’s first temptation (and failure) away from his master is the ability to forsake his attachment and affection for Padme. We get an interesting line about the relationship between compassion (which Anakin calls “Unconditional Love”) and attachment (which is forbidden) - but Anakin refuses to resist his passions, instead, he justifies them and acts on them. This is again demonstrated by his need to rescue his mother, who has been kidnapped and tortured by a tribe of indigenous nomads called Tusken Raiders. While most people agree that saving another human being (not least of all your own mother!) from torture/pain/death is an inherently good thing - what Anakin fails to recognize is that his duty should take precedence over his emotions. This, again, is a direct correlation to a deep, instinctual affection - something the Messiah figure is supposed to set aside or overcome, but instead, Anakin fails, and prioritizes it (and in a way, himself) over the duty that has been laid out before him.
The closest Skywalkeresque parallel to Christ’s second temptation (Hurl yourself from the temple, prove that angels will save you) may be the pursuit of Zam Wessel. Anakin, trusting in his own abilities, leaps from a skycar and hurtles thousands of feet through crowded airspace, landing (of course) exactly on the speeder he was looking for. I hesitate to call this a blatant temptation - Anakin does it himself, with no prompting or enticements - but the literal example of throwing yourself from a high place and trusting your status as “the Chosen One” to save you seems to be a close fit.
If we consider this temptation more metaphorically - it’s really all about an abuse of the power and title of being the anointed one - the one with the destiny. Anakin repeatedly makes this mistake throughout his story - from ignoring directions (“Stay in that cockpit”) to blatantly whining about not being accepted into the Jedi Council. Anakin has a flair for the flashy and does not hesitate to use his powers to manipulate or intimidate. He fails the second temptation.
The final temptations is an offer from the devil - Serve me, and I will give you everything. This is most easily correlated to the role of Palpatine - a friend of Anakin’s, who offers a “pathway to many abilities, some even considered to be unnatural” in exchange for his service. Again, Anakin is motivated by what could easily (on the surface) be termed “benign intentions” - he is convinced that Padme will die in childbirth, and the Jedi refuse to help him learn to stop death (as death is part of the Way of the Force, and should not be a source of sorrow for one who has prioritized his duty over his attachments). Anakin, unlike Christ, does in fact vow allegiance to this dark power, and in a sense, gains dominion over the entire galaxy… But not before losing his reason for vowing allegiance in the first place. Ironic, isn’t it?
Now, at this point, you might be saying “Yeah, but ObiWade, Darth Vader really isn’t a Messiah figure at all. He’s pretty blatantly failed the three main tests he was supposed to undergo, and besides, he’s the bad guy in the Original Trilogy.”
Is he though? Don’t forget - it is Vader, not Luke, who defeats the Emperor, and thus brings balance to the Force. Luke, for all his bravery and self-sacrifice, coming to face the Emperor and Vader in the name of his duty as a Jedi - loses. Earlier in the series, the sage master Yoda claims that “Only a fully trained Jedi Knight, with the Force as his ally” has a chance at defeating the Emperor. Interestingly enough - Luke is not fully trained. Anakin, however, is.
Anakin fulfills his destiny by bringing balance to the Force. He disposes of the galaxy’s most powerful dark-side user, Palpatine, and sets up his son, Luke, to build it anew. We’re still figuring out exactly what happened next, but for his part in the story, Anakin gets a Messiah’s ending, complete with a resurrection from his “death” at the hands of Vader to his ethereal return, standing alongside his space-version-of-angel brethren, Obi-Wan and Yoda. He leaves the galaxy a better place, and defeated the ultimate evil of his time.
All this is to say - the exploration and subversion of a myth still relies on the same story beats that have been told for centuries. Whether the setting of the myth is ancient Mesopotamia or a galaxy far, far away - the forces of good and evil are often embodied and epitomized by larger-than-life characters who represent ultimate good, ultimate evil, and in the case of Vader, a combination of both. The line between spiritual and physical is crossed in figures who represent humanity’s best shot at redemption and enlightenment - and even though they may stumble, or even outright fall from their destined path - they wind up back in it, and the story resolves with hope and a new, brighter future.
Stay tuned for next time - where we examine another component of geek mythology - the maternal goddess. In the comments below- let me know which fictional characters you think of that embody the characteristics of ultimate motherhood!
Somebody save me, Let your warm hands break right through - Somebody save me, Don’t care how you do it, Just save… save… come on, I’ve been waiting for you …
One of the hallmarks of any given action being labelled as “heroic” is the idea of ‘saving’ someone from a dangerous or unfortunate situation, especially when said circumstance is out of the victim’s control. It’s a rudimentary method schoolchildren use for telling the difference between good guys and bad guys- the good guys save someone, the bad guys put people in a position which requires saving. It seems obvious, but rescuing someone from danger and making sure they’re safe is about as close to a “universal good” as you can think of, whether your lens is philosophical, religious, or mythological.
This may have its roots in biology - as a species, we naturally feel the urge to assist one another. It may have its role in ancient philosophy, where great minds laid out some of the foundations for ethical behavior eons ago. Perhaps it first grew in religion: it could very well be that humanity does truly exist in a fallen, vulnerable state where we subconsciously yearn for some being to lift us up, regardless of whether we deserve it or not. Perhaps there is no such subconscious yearning, and instead, we simply wish for a hero because we are aware of the many danger and shortcomings of our world, and we use this imaginary figure as a way to fantasize about the world being a better place.
That is where the myth of the Messiah comes in. Throughout time, geography, and culture, humans have tried to imagine what an ideal rescuer would look like. Often times, the person is birthed or created as a designated intermediary between mystic and human. Other times- it’s a human who attained some degree of divinity. In either circumstance, the result is a superhero - one who can save the world, and grant us a better understanding of righteousness, heroism, and hope.
Today in TGC, we going to begin our study of Messianic figures in geek canon by introducing and examining three of my favorite sci-fi/fantasy “Chosen One”s- and we’ll delve in a bit to what makes them so remarkable. At the end, we’ll see what we can learn from these fictional saviors’ examples, as well as ponder what other characters might fit this particular archetype.
Messiah #1: Superman
Superman is possibly the easiest comparison to draw to a modern Savior myth. His origin story, though written by Jewish story artists Siegel and Shuster, have interwoven an enormous amount of Judeo-Christian mythology into his own retelling.
Sent to Earth by his father as “The Last Son of Krypton” for the betterment of mankind- the messages his father (Jor-El) sends with him include almost direct scripture from the Old and New Testaments of the Bible:
Jor-El: The son becomes the father, and the father the son... They can be a great people, Kal-El, they wish to be. They only lack the light to show the way. For this reason above all, their capacity for good, I have sent them you... my only son.
[Insert relevant scripture of your choice here]
While John and Martha Kent are slightly better off than impoverished immigrants Joseph and Mary - the resulting adoption and raising of the new Messiah figure intertwines again around age 30, when both Clark Kent and Jesus of Nazareth are called away by their respective fathers to begin their quest to save the planet through the working of great miracles, but most of all, through their innate goodness, wisdom, and infallible conscience.
Schoolyard discussions and online forums often complain that Superman is “too goody-goody”, or “too overpowered” - such critics of the Superman myth claim that no driving sense of heightened stakes can exist with a hero whose powers are virtually limitless. As a writer - I understand where they are coming from. It is incredibly difficult to watch Superman in any given scenario and feel a sense of dread or anticipation. Those blue tights do not spell intense drama to me. But, I would say to those detractors, you’re missing the point of what Superman really is.
His myth is not the typical “Hero’s Journey” - he’s not in the kin of a mortal striving to become their best self. In a lot of ways, he’s already transcended that - he’s already tapped into his godlike potential, and although Clark Kent still has some mortal problems to cope with on a regular basis (romance be damned), Superman is primarily a figure of limitless righteousness, and perfect justice. He is, for the most part, an incorruptible figure, whose only real trials exist in the relationships he struggles to form with humanity, even as he hears their pleas from everywhere all at once.
In this way, he mirrors a Judeo-Christian Messiah. He is most definitely better than everyone else - but instead of placing himself in a place to conquer or rule, he exists as a servant of the people, a defender against tyranny, and a consistent reminder that we can have hope - that good can always triumph over evil, and that there is no such thing as “too good to be true”.
Messiah #2: Neo
Neo’s origins seem a far stretch from the wholesome upbringing of Clark Kent- the beginning of The Matrix involves an already adult-version of the protagonist as a late-90’s cybercriminal with a deadbeat office job. His eyes are opened not by an omnipotent father figure, but rather, by Morpheus, a proselytizing mystic who is searching for “The One” - a prophesied savior figure who will bring an end to a centuries-long conflict between Man and The Machines.
Neo’s quest, unlike Superman’s, is not to use his already-developed sense of justice in the service of lesser beings. Instead, Neo is a more aligned with the “Conquerer/Deliverer” side of the Messiah coin - his mission: to see through the deceptions and lies of the virtual world and to directly confront and ultimately defeat the cause of humanity’s great deception. His powers (awesome wire-fu aside) - stem primarily from his philosophical clarity - and his understanding that mastering your own perceptions is the key to mastering the external world.
It is a different take on the Messiah’s purity, but still one very much in line with the myth as told by various religious and philosophical backgrounds. Guatama Siddhartha, the man who eventually became the Bhudda, began his journey to ascension by similarly escaping an a world built to deceive him (in that instance, it was a palace devoid of any suffering or death). The ability of one “Chosen” to save or redeem an entire population is also seen in the figure of Moses - who single-handedly spoke for God against the oppressive powers that be (were?) and used his own brand of super-powers to force the Egyptians into surrendering the captive Hebrews into their own Zion. (Well played, Wachowskis).
Towards the conclusion of his story, Neo’s tale takes a much more New-Testament, "Messiah as a sacrifice" angle to the Savior myth. Instead of conquering the oppressive deceivers by force and defeating them in battle, Neo takes on the role of an Atonement-maker, brokering a peace between the Machines and Zion.
The Christian symbolism is not subtle, either.
Messiah #3: Avatar Aang
And now for something completely different…
In Avatar, the Last Airbender, the world has been thrown out of balance by an invading imperial force, and only one being can stop them - The Avatar, a bridge between the denizens of the natural world and the spirit world.
In this instance, the Avatar is a young boy who literally ran away from his prophesied destiny, plunging the world into a hundred years of war and oppression. Thanks to his mystically-powered cryogenic stasis, he is preserved for the ideal moment in history. At the time of his arrival, some believe he will never come. Others say he arrived too late. Few believe his tale, even as he displays and proclaims time and again that he has come to right the world’s wrongs.
Aang is a fascinating take on the Savior myth, because of the key twists that set him apart from his fellows. First of all, he is young. The series begins with him at age 12, and the entire series ages him only two more years. To see a character wrestle with a divine destiny is hardly a rare occurrence, but seldom do stories spend so much time investigating the toll said destiny takes on a young boy who just wants to have fun, and live a normal life. Secondly, Aang is one of the only modern messianic figures I’m aware of who is directly related to the theory of reincarnation. Aang’s past selves are active mentors in his life, passing on wisdom and even some of their own emotional baggage. This makes for an interesting conversation - if the Avatar (i.e. Messiah/Savior) is consistently reborn, how much of Aang’s identity is his own? Furthermore, if the Avatar is in a state of consistent reincarnation, does that mean the world will never “stay saved” - and that humanity will always be in need of a bridge between our natural and spiritual worlds?
To look for a surviving religious interpretation of reincarnation in the form of a spiritual guide, one need not look any further than the twitter account for His Holiness the Dalai Lama. According to his own website:
“The Dalai Lamas are believed by Tibetan Buddhists to be manifestations of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and the patron saint of Tibet. Bodhisattvas are realized beings, inspired by the wish to attain complete enlightenment, who have vowed to be reborn in the world to help all living beings.”
In this case, we see this mantle as a voluntary act of service, chosen by a superior being to guide and assist all other life. In Aang’s case, he did not readily accept this destiny, but by the end of his journey, he willingly laid down his life so that the cycle could continue, and the role would continue to be fulfilled. It is interesting to note that he does this by attaining a level of self-mastery, somehow managing to maintain his own personhood amidst the power of the trance-like “Avatar State”.
These three entities - Kal-El, Neo, and Aang, are only nicking the tip of the iceberg of the myth of the messiah. While each of them feature exceptional (and flashy) combat abilities, the true meaning of their myths in the collective subconscious is that they provide examples of what it would take to “save the world” - whether that means an infallible code of ethics, an effort to see through the “deceptions” of physical reality, or a destiny of being bridge between worlds for the sake of all humanity - we can all view these stories and appreciate them as being worth our while. They can help us answer tough ethical choices by asking, “What would Superman do in this situation?” or by forcing us to confront and eventually accept a type of unity within our metaphysical as well as the physical sense of self.
As we wrap up until next time - the question which springs to my mind is this: who are the messiah figures in your personal brand of geekdom? If you need rescuing, which figures do you turn to for examples of exceptional virtue? What would a being as perfect as you can imagine be like? We’ll follow up next time with Messiahs, pt. ii, and we’d love to have some feedback about who you’d like to see brought into the discussion.
Until next time - geek on.
It is a wonderful age in which to be a geek.
The most popular show on television is a fantasy epic complete with dragons, magic, and an entire lexicon of highly detailed names – places, people, swords, and languages themselves, each custom-crafted to the culture and geography of the imaginary world of Westeros. Game of Thrones has earned more Emmy awards than any other show in history, and its viewership (some 8.9 million viewers, as of the most recent season finale) has saturated mainstream culture.
A new Star Wars movie has come out every year for the past three years (and with Solo coming soon, it will be four)- and each one has dominated the box office upon its debut. Even the polarizing latest installment has proven to be a financial success on a global level, and fans such as myself are enthralled waiting for the next installment. Disney has committed itself to Star Wars fans by investing millions into the construction of “Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge” – a 14 acre immersive experience at its theme parks, replete with life-sized spacecraft and a cantina stocked with Blue Milk just like Aunt Beru used to pour. It’s set to open in 2019, and the eight-year-old version of me still can’t believe I’ve lived to see this dream become reality!
The Marvel Cinematic Universe has taken the superhero film genre to a previously unimaginable new level – making even obscure comic-book heroes (Rocket Raccoon? Iron Man?) into household names, and creating the largest and most financially successful series of films ever designed – coming to its apex in the two part film “Avengers: Infinity War” this summer, but not before breaking presale records (again) with the star-studded cast of Black Panther. Never before has a film franchise managed to spin a story with continuity between 23+ feature length films, as well as 10 television series – all featuring an incredible array of talent in both the production, design, and acting casts.
Comic convention festivals have become a regular, annual occurrence – a perfect chance to congregate with like-minded nerds, geeks, otaku and fans. Attendance at San Diego Comic-Con has been growing every year, and the event has sold out for the past 10 years. The events have become so popular that recently San Diego has recently won a lawsuit trademarking the name “con”, which is why you see other cities, such as Phoenix, having to change the names of their conventions (although “Phoenix Comic Fest” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, in my opinion). Never worry, though, because new conventions are propping up all over – anime viewing conventions, horror festivals, Renaissance Faires and more have made the way to meet and rub shoulders with your fellow nerds more accessible than ever before!
Speaking of accessibility – video games have become a pastime shared by the majority of the population (65% of households include at least one person who identifies as a “gamer”). The industry now has the talent and technology to churn out dozens of award-winning games a year, and the conversation of games as an artistic medium has been launched, spawning exhibits in museums, galleries, and convention centers. Virtual Reality, once a mere figment of Stanley G. Weinbaum’s imagination in 1935- now, a real-life novelty whose potential is rapidly being mined for. Master film-maker Steven Speilberg states that VR-dominated reality (as is explored in the book and upcoming film Ready Player One) is a prophetic “amazing flash-forward…” of what our world might be like in the near future.
Even without VR being readily available (yet) – the internet’s influence coupled with amazing advances in modern gadgetry now allow streaming media to be shared and savoured across the continents and in virtually any space – in my current viewing lineup, I enjoy BBC’s Doctor Who and Sherlock along with TokyoTV’s Attack on Titan! – each directly imported from across the pond(s) in either direction to any device in my home, backpack, or pocket.
As a born and bred geek (my mother met my father while listening to Weird Al Yankovic’s “Yoda” – the stuff of romance, there) – I am exhilarated by the discussions going on online and in person, touching each and every one of my fandoms – predictive theories based on deep textual analysis, the creation and sharing of artists inspired by the same stories, characters, and worlds that I enjoy – the communal aspect of “Fandom” has become a huge part of my way of life, and I am immeasurably grateful for the friends and memories that being a “geek” has allowed me to make.
That concept – “Fandom” – is what brought me to begin this series. Maybe because I think too much, maybe because geeks invariably seek validation, or maybe because I hypothesize that other people out there feel the same way I do- that “Fandom” is more than a trite hobby that occurs when one places too much emphasis on their choice of entertainments. The idea that there might be much larger, philosophical ramifications of the stories that the world has come to know and love- that’s what brings me here.
Joseph Campbell once proposed that every myth that humanity has ever told is connected, somehow, to a “collective subconscious” – a type of dream that all society shares, and that the myth attempts to realize. These myths may include legends of great beings battling terrible villains, or might recount the creation of the world. Myths tell the stories of a man becoming a hero, through trial by obstacle, antagonist, or fate.
Myths often are religious in nature – telling the stories of gods and spirits, of a “chosen one” and the prophecy surrounding it. The tales may recount grievous wrongdoings, or related tales of redemption and reconciliation.
It is my proposal that Joseph Campbell is entirely right, and that our collective subconscious has invested value into these stories as our modern mythology.
Furthermore, these myths merit serious analysis to determine their philosophical and spiritual impact. If these stories are so spectacular that they capture the imaginations of millions of human beings around the world – there must be something that causes that resonance. Why else would the stories of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, or Naruto Uzumaki each garner such a devoted fanbase?
It is the mission of The Geek Canon to treat the mainstays of geek culture as if they were a type of scripture – to pore over the details of modern mythology in order to decipher deeper meaning in the collective subconscious.