Somewhere, an expert on Ancient Greek mythology is crying. Probably a lot of experts on Ancient Greek culture. As enjoyable as Wrath of the Titans might be in offering charming (if a little shallow) spectacle, it doesn’t necessarily offer the most faithful depiction of Ancient Greek deities. It isn’t the only film to get things drastically wrong – Disney’s Hercules comes to mind. Presenting these mythical characters and creatures for modern audiences and sensibilities, the archetypes are skewed and twisted to conform to religious associations which most audience members might find familiar. In particular, these sorts of films often adopt a decidedly Judeo-Christian view of Ancient Greek gods. However, watching Wrath of the Titans, I couldn’t help but feel that the film was not only acutely aware of that narrative shortcut, but perhaps even cleverly exploiting it – developing the character arc of these ancient gods and transitioning them into the archetypes that we know and recognise.
Hades tends to suffer in films using these classic characters. He’s the guardian of the underworld and – since we erroneously equate Olympus with heaven – that puts Hades firmly in hell. Such depictions present Hades as something of a Satan analogue, typically portraying him as villainous or scheming. Certainly Wrath of the Titans does this, as he plots his revenge on Zeus. However, such portrayals tend to gloss over the fact that Hades was (compared to his fellow deities at least) relatively decent. He did abduct Persephone, but the pair did marry afterwards. He might manage “the underworld”, but that doesn’t just include Tartarus (presented here as a realm of fire and brimstone), but also Elysium (paradise).
Of course, it’s easy to take the narrative shortcut. After all, most viewers are only casually familiar with the mythological figures, and it’s efficient to equate them with Christian archetypes, even if the myths themselves seem somewhat incompatible. It is hard, for instance, to reconcile the Zeus of legend with a benign father figure, although many films try to make the comparison. Given that Liam Neeson has played another Christian analogue in The Chronicles of Narnia probably makes it a bit easier to swallow, even if a lot of classical scholars take considerable offense to this relatively shallow portrayal of the Greek pantheon.
However, I was watching Wrath of the Titans and a thought occurred to me. I should include the usual disclaimers that this is just a crazy movie theory that I came up with and probably bears relatively little relation to what was intended or what other people will read into the film. It’s probably a notion that doesn’t hold any water and that you will find quite ridiculous. However, on the other hand, I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if Wrath of the Titans was attempting to portray a transition from the Greek pantheon towards the Judeo-Christian monotheistic system. I found myself pondering if Wrath of the Titans was actually the story of how these old gods eventually evolved into the Judeo-Christian God.
Yes, I acknowledge that it sounds just a little bit crazy and – more importantly – not what was happening on screen at all. Still, it fit rather well with the use of conventional Christian imagery within the film itself, turning a standard Hollywood practice into something that might – just might – be a little bit smarter. Still with me? Good, then I’ll try to explain.
Wrath of the Titans picks up a few years after Clash of the Titans. Clash of the Titans was essentially a film about how the mortal citizens of Greece decided they’d had enough of their deities acting like arrogant and pompous jerks, and would stop worshipping them. Now this may sound like an atheist sentiment, but the message did get a bit lost in translation. Especially in the closing scene when Perseus told his father, Zeus, that the gods could get stuffed, only to ride off on a blooming Pegasus with his resurrected girlfriend. Still, it looks like Perseus’ central message got through, despite the fact today’s press would have a field day with his hypocritical Pegasus-riding girlfriend-resurrecting anti-magic stance.
So, as the movie opens, Zeus visits his son in a rare moment of father-son interaction. It turns out Perseus has been withholding visiting rights on his son, and Zeus is only able to visit his grandson as he sleeps at night. That’s interesting, because Greek gods tended not need to appear to humans in visions, because the myths allowed them to directly interact. It’s later faiths that would reserve the interaction between gods and mortals to visions and dreams. Zeus explains that the gods are weakening and that they might not be able to keep the world turning any longer. Obviously, they have some loose ends to tidy up first, but Zeus’ subtext is quite clear: pretty soon you guys won’t have Zeus to kick around anymore.
The movie takes this death of the gods as a certainty, to the point where it drives the actions of the various divine characters. Hades, for example, rails against his potential death. He seems to believe that humans will still continue to be granted eternal life after the Greek gods have moved on. “For us there is only oblivion!” he shouts, angrily. This is an interesting position because it assumes two things:
(a.) the gods only exist because human belief allows them to exist; this was implicit in the first film, where prayer affected their power, but here it seems mankind can collectively will them out of existence; logically, one might wonder if human belief can shape them as well; and
(b.) life after death is a universal constant that exists beyond the power of the gods; though Hades might cease to exist, the underworld won’t; and so human belief doesn’t necessarily shape all the physical laws of this universe.
If human will can kill gods, it stands to reason that it can also shape and define them. It isn’t that they’re independent actors who only gain power from prayers, they are actually defined by them. Lack of belief doesn’t just weaken them. It leads them to cease to exist.
So I wonder if it’s possible for gods to change and evolve. Is it possible that the Greek gods seen here would evolve into the more modern Judeo-Christian God? If so, is Wrath of the Titans about that transition, that seismic shift of these non-corporeal entities from the classical forms into the more all-powerful and all-knowing Christian God? It’s an interesting question to think about, and – I think it’s possible to argue – that sort of “death of Greek gods and rebirth as Christian God” theory makes the Christian imagery and archetypes seem like clever ways of hinting at the idea.
It is telling, for example, that all but one god die over the course of the film. One deity returning from the first film is lucky to have three lines before passing away. Another divine character is introduced only to be killed off a few scenes later. It definitely seems like Wrath of the Titans is the story of the death of the old gods, and I think it hints at what might take their place.
“No more sacrifices,” Zeus claims at one point, reflecting on the change coming. “No more gods.” It’s easy to imagine the same words being spoken by Catholic missionaries visiting pagan communities. After all, Christianity managed to convert so many pagans by coopting their religious beliefs into the faith. Halloween and All Saints Day, for example, began as pagan feasts, incorporated to convert natives and locals. That is how young religions grow, and – in the real world – many Greek gods and archetypes would be assimilated into the Roman pantheon. Indeed, some Bible stories seem uncannily similar to Ancient Greek legends.
While telling the stories of the dying Greek gods, the story is rich with Christian imagery. Trinities are very important over the course of the film, for example. Zeus, Hades and Poseidon plan to band together to stop their father from destroying the world. Perseus, Andromeda and Agenor embark on a quest to save the world. The three tridents of the aforementioned gods assemble to produce the Spear of Triam – perhaps “Spear of Destiny” would have been too obvious.
On top of that, there is an argument that Perseus himself is something of a stand-in for Jesus Christ, being both divine and human at the same time. While Clash of the Titans saw the character reject his divinity, Wrath of the Titans sees him embrace it. Zeus even claims that it makes him stronger, somehow. I mention this because there’s an interesting train of thought that traces the development of the Catholic Church’s teaching on Jesus to the Greek idea of demi-gods:
A clue to this inquiry may be found in a sentence from St. Justin’s First Apology. Here Justin states that the birth of Jesus is quite similar to the birth of the sons of Zeus. It was believed in Greek thought that an extraordinary person could only be explained by saying that he had a father who was more than human. It is probable that this Greek idea influenced Christian thought.
It’s a fascinating idea, and Perseus embracing his divinity (and his humanity) makes him a more consciously Christ-like figure here than in the first film. (Of course, there’s also the fact that he, unlike Christ, has a family – presuming one discounts DaVinci Code style conspiracy theories.)
Despite the wealth of female characters in Greek mythology, Wrath of the Titans is a decidedly masculine affair. None of the goddesses of note appear over the course of the film. The seer Io is dead before the film even starts, perhaps symbolising the death of the old belief systems. There are none of the trappings viewers expect from these sorts of old-fashioned belief systems, no omens or seers or prophets. Instead, there are just the children of the gods, with Perseus being literally the son of a god.
Indeed, Perseus and Zeus spend quite a deal of the film on relatively equal footing, connected with one another. Although it’s Zeus who winds up trapped in the classic crucifixion pose, the two seem connected with one another – as if one in spirit. It’s Perseus who gives his father the energy to escape and it’s only together that they can teleport out of the underworld. Zeus also gets considerably more divine in this sequel. Not only is he a more attentive father figure, he also has his hair and beard go distinctly white for a significant portion of the film – evoking classic depictions of the Judeo-Christian God.
When seeking an absent god, the technical Hephaestus, he is described in archetypal terms like “the maker” and “the fallen one”, recalling Christian terms for both God and Lucifer. The emotional climax between Zeus and Hades hinges on the notion of forgiveness – an essential part of Christian belief, but hardly one that these characters would have been overly familiar with. When Perseus tackles a mythological creature in Tartarus – one I assume to be a minotaur – the beast actually looks more like a horned demon (a sort of Hellboy type figure).
Of course, all of this is very circumstantial, but it’s an interesting way to read the film, as a story charting the evolution of the concept of the Greek deities into the more monotheistic religions that would follow. I admit that it’s hardly the most convincing of logic, but it kept occurring to me while watching the movie.
I think the moment it finally clicked into place was towards the end of the film, with one god left standing. I won’t spoil it by revealing who it might be. With his entire belief system in ruins, and left entirely alone, he muses, “Perhaps I am stronger for it.” I can’t help but wonder if that lone wandering god decided to set up shop elsewhere, with a slightly different brand of religious thought.
Filed under: Movies | Tagged: Ancient Greece, clash of the titans, Clash of the Titans (2010 film), greek, greek mythology, hades, Jonathan Liebesman, liam neeson, Perseus, ralph fiennes, Sam Worthington, Titans, Wrath of the Titans, zeus |