What with the Norse god of mischief tearing New York asunder last year and his brother, the god of thunder, now saving London from a cosmic convergence, it’s hard to imagine anyone in the Marvel universe embracing atheism. To commemorate the release of Thor: The Dark World (2013), here are four oeuvres pertaining to gods walking among us.
Gods Behaving Badly (2007)
What happens when immortal beings become bored, ignored, and destitute? That is the question at the heart of Marie Phillips’ Gods Behaving Badly, wherein the twelve Olympians try to make ends meet in modern London, stripped of the power-ups once granted to them through worship and sacrifices: Aphrodite is a phone sex operator, Apollo a TV psychic, Artemis a dog walker, etc. The gods, however, haven’t stopped infighting or messing with mortals, and the world is put in peril when Eros gets in the middle of a squabble between the goddess of love and the god of the sun. What follows is cheesy, rude, a little iconoclastic, and funny as hell.
I will admit to a certain obsession with Greek mythology. I always found the idea of omnipotent gods full of human failings to be somewhat comforting. Gods Behaving Badly capitalises on this notion and adds a satirical twist that makes the novel a real page-turner. In our culture, we’re bombarded with stories of powerful immortals teaching us morals and scruples. Here we get to revel in the antics of beings who are selfish and crude, yet still manage to do some good in the world. That makes you think of some regular old humans, doesn’t it?
Back in the nineties, the comics world gave me a bad case of cognitive dissonance. On the one hand, the industry had been around long enough that its readers had now become the writers, subjecting the super-hero genre to an unprecedented level of self-analysis. On the other, we got ponytails, pouches, misogyny, foil covers, and hundreds of number one issues. Still, when I think of gods among men, I turn to this comics period and, in particular, the work of Alex Ross. His painted, slightly static, hyper-realistic art imbued each of his books with a unique feel that captured all the majesty of our favourite men and women in tights.
His best project, to my mind, is Marvels. Written by Kurt Busiek, the four-part series retells the emergence of the Marvel Universe between 1939 and 1974 from the perpsective of a photographer. I like the sense of strangeness Ross evokes by contrasting the real world against the sight of brightly colored titans battling above a city while civilians escape the debris. These glimpses are presented without the narrative explanation we’d get if we were following the super-heroes’ point of view, skillfully demonstrating how truly “other” these beings must have seemed. Perhaps calling them gods is a bit inaccurate, but they were a new thing to reject or accept on faith.
One of my favourite subgenres in B horror consists of the theological thriller, which is the term I’ve coined in reference to scary movies that draw from religious iconography. Not too many films fall into this category, for which I’ve established four simple rules. One: the characters inhabit the modern world, preferably a noir corner of it. Two: the politics of heaven and hell reflect those of humanity. Three: our hero has lost faith or is in need of redemption. Four: the myth is more important than the plot. Loosely based on the Hellblazer comics series, Francis Lawrence’s Constantine ticks all of these boxes.
Set in Los Angeles, the movie tells of a conspiracy by both angels and demons to bring hell on Earth. From there, Constantine takes some wild turns, introducing more concepts than needed, but it’s all in service to our loveable anti-hero: John Constantine (Keanu Reeves), a supernatural investigator barred from heaven on account that he doesn’t have faith in God so much as knows for a fact He exists. We almost root for the jaded curmudgeon to loophole his way back into heaven’s grace. You see, there’s one more rule to the theological thriller: the film reminds us that man wasn’t put on Earth to be helpless.
I find Greek mythology to be utterly fascinating. That’s why, for this contributors’ pick, I have decided to recommend the 2004 movie Troy, based on The Iliad by Homer. The story begins with Helen (Diane Kruger) secretly leaving her husband Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) for Prince Paris (Orlando Bloom). This leads to a war between the Greeks and the Trojans, which, in turn, culminates in a ruse by Odysseus (Sean Bean) to build a massive wooden horse in order to infiltrate the titular city. Yeah, I know. I’m getting into spoilers, but this is a 3,000-year-old story!
Of course, the gods’ actions and manipulations play a huge role in this epic. If they didn’t, it’d simply be a tale of two selfish lovers causing the deaths of tens of thousands of people. Aphrodite rescuing Paris at the last second after Menelaus defeats him, Athena causing Hector’s (Eric Bana) death through trickery, and Apollo guiding the arrow that kills the near-invincible Achilles (Brad Pitt) are all examples of the Olympians using mortals as their pawns to feed their own egos and selfish desires… Oh wait. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy doesn’t have divinities in it. The characters even scoff at the mere mention of their existence.
Never mind. This movie sucks.