Marvel Movies : Trading on Myth Without the Magic

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Ronan the Accuser (above) the main villain from Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy film. Different in tone Guardians has a soul or a certain “magic” missing from most Marvel movies.

Within the Marvel comic book universe their stable of superheroes and villains are often cherry picked versions of once pagan gods, in particular and popularly the Asgardian universe of Thor. Marvel, however, chose many decades ago to remove the magic and turn these gods into super men whose technology was indistinguishable from magic.

In removing the “magic” these demigods went from omnipotent, and psychologically beguiling to so forthright and predictable that any morally ambiguity has been washed away. Pseudo-science and technology are the gods of Marvel movie and comic book universe. That is the joy of pulp science fiction.But in the process of creating something new, something was lost.

Stripped of their core magic, the gods of Scandinavia were syncretized again. Where Christianity did it in medieval times, the modern Marvel comic book movie replaced the mystical or fantastic with an pseudo-technology. Turning myths to science fiction, to infuse it with ‘science’ is a natural modern process of re-interpretation. Yet, does the techno-mystical of the Marvel universe reward the viewer with bigger answers that only spur bigger questions? The heroes relate and revel more in quantum mechanics than maleficia or miracula. And this exposes the weakness.

Ultimately, Marvel’s movie universe trades on the name of gods, religions and magic but never delivers. Instead it does the skeptic’s bait-and-switch, turning magic into theoretical physics and exposing the divine as the little man behind the curtain. Effectively these movies kill the mysterium tremendum and puts an expiration date on ageless myths.

Rituals of Asgard in the Thor movies are glossy pomp and circumstance. They carry no weight or gravitas. It becomes merely super powered men wielding directed energy weapons. The magic is gone. Yet tonally this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy establishes a dark faith with the introduction of the maniacal antagonist Ronan the Accuser (top) that is unlike any other entry in the Marvel movie universe. Ronan’s emergence from a pool of blood, ritualistically attended to by servants, dressed in armor and symbolically painted implies a developed ritual, something that is performed for effect rather than application for pure ornament. Drab gray and a stylized medieval coif turns Ronan into a dark knight on a crusade.

Ronan’s several monologues carry the weight of laws of the old faiths, a vengeful despot in a vanquished kingdom. Under Gunn’s direction and script co-written with Nicole Perlman, Ronan’s dialogue has a tone akin to an Old Testament king defeated by King David or a passage from the Mahabharata, and that feeling triggers something inside the viewer. Something bigger, older, and more  ominous. You fear Ronan more than most of the cookie cutter bad guys who sneer, smirk or cheekily seduce viewers.

Using technology to drown magic and its connection to myths, these movies crush the uncanny, the fear, with a pithy quip and some techno-babble. There is no sense of awe or wonder in the clash of peoples, nations or even galaxies. It is an arms race where the familiar hero becomes almost indistinguishable from his enemy in the power they seek or wield. And that makes sense since for the most part, comic books were born at the height of the Cold War. Technology and stampeding science created new heroes and villains and no deity was required for the narrative. Superheroes are creations at the height of the scientific-cultural-revolution with no room for gods. The magic of unconventional solutions is missing from many of these Marvel movies. Instead it falls back on the hackneyed turning the weapon on the bad-guy motif, generally spiced up with a snarky one-liner.

Can science fiction or comic book movies integrate traditional magic or myths? Absolutely. It should not be the domain of hazily constructed fiefdoms of the fantasy genre. Magic, faiths or religions integrated in a science fiction universe require a close reading of the myths or epistles. Instead of ancient characters being conveniently and quickly cherry picked by authors and screenwriters in order to populate a universe. The gods of myths breath deeply in much of modern fantasy. Why not science fiction too?

Within the Marvel stable there is Dr. Strange, a “sorcerer” who has yet to be knit into the new movie plan. What will happen to this occult figure when/if he is thrust into the techno-babble of Tony Stark? Or will his magic be denuded,  Midichlorian-ized, by the Marvel movie scribes?

Superheroes can be  fun and escapist, no disagreement from me on that. They are men and women of technology, generally, performing superhuman acts against calculating evil. They are our modern myths. Yet, if we look back at the ancient tales and myths and compare them to now, the magic is gone.

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