Comic Book Saviors and Science Fiction Prophets

The story of the savior and the prophet have come in many forms, and recently I examined two instances of this story archetype in different media. Sometimes, the would-be savior is massively powerful, and other times this prophetic figure is miraculously intuitive or possessed of hidden knowledge. In Marvel Comics’s The Avengers: The Korvac Saga, the story is of a highly intelligent and super-powerful man-machine of the future who is transformed from a more typical villain of intergalactic scope into an aspirant to be the one who controls the course of all life for eternity. Characters of untold power from the ancient myths such as Odin, the All-Father of the Norse gods, and Zeus, the supreme god of Greek and Roman tradition, possess no ability to foresee or challenge the power of this being. This story arc from 1977-1978 turned out to be an enjoyable read and a refreshing experience because of my years spent away from the world of comics and immersed in the field of English education as a teacher and a language arts content specialist. The villainous character Korvac becomes the super-being known only as “Michael.” He chooses a female immortal as his mate and plans to end all of the petty temporal conflicts of history. He plans not on destroying but rather redirecting and controlling the course of events and action in the universe.

The relationships between the Avengers characters resonate at times in an unexpected way. The characters of Captain America and Iron Man—longstanding Marvel Comics figures of high status, active wisdom, and tremendous field generalship—argue and challenge each other over the leadership of the group with a real humanity. They are ironically more real in some ways than their live-action movie counterparts. While the dialogue in these comic stories might not be seen by some as the graphic arts equivalent of the novellas of Henry James, I found in this reading that there are many moments in which the craft of the characters and their authenticity is quite vivid. Fundamental questions are put forth and also answered definitively but with an appropriate complexity. These questions are as follows: What if an all-powerful being who has greater knowledge than we do steps forward to assume ultimate authority? What if his claims of knowledge and power are possibly authentic? What if humans can surrender their temporal lives of error and choice to be led by a seemingly perfect being? And the answers are provided: It doesn’t matter what kind of perfection is promised to us (or forced upon us) if we cannot voluntarily navigate the paths of life and live according to our ability and choices. And thus, this need to be free and self-determined produces the desperation, curiosity, and warlike spirit that pushes us to oppose the power of gods, kings, and prophets–and to win out. What the Avengers win is not glory but a reaffirmation of the idea that life is a struggle and a process.

As a Religion major and a lover of dialogue and ideas, there was a brief sequence of dialogue that struck me. In Avengers # 171, there is a moment when the superhero and Norse deity Thor is with his fellow Avengers in a Christian convent that has an attached chapel. As they are walking in search of a hidden enemy, the character named Scarlet Witch has this short but scintillating exchange with Thor:

Scarlet Witch: You seem a bit uncomfortable, Thor!

Thor: Aye, Wanda, verily! This house of Christian worship hath no regard for the Asgardian God of Thunder!

Scarlet Witch: Should it?

Thor: Nay, Milady! E’en my father, mighty Odin, who is called All-powerful, doth lay no claim to supreme divinity…and yet, t’would seem that many mark my very existence as an affront to this edifice!

Whenever I see examples of transference of principles or philosophies, even in the smallest gestures, I am always interested in those moments. This sequence involves a very high-level awareness of religious assumptions and concepts on the part of the character of Thor, and to a certain extent, Wanda as well. The comment by Thor that even his powerful father does not claim supremacy in divinity serves as the subtlest critique of religion imaginable. It is possible that Thor is conceding to a higher power and uneasy because of it, but it is just as possible that he is questioning the idea of such a concentration of supreme power. An irony is achieved perfectly because a character of legend walks in the actual world of the story, while the church’s almighty God is put almost into the realm of myth. It is a remarkable moment in a comic magazine, which some might associate with serial adventures on par with costumed cowboys and Indians. However, experienced readers of the many outstanding illustrated stories in the comic and graphic novel genre know that these stories have produced many of these insights and significant moments.

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Religious themes and criticism are more overtly on display in the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, which was originally released in 1989 and was directed by William Shatner. Just a few days after having read the Avengers story arc referenced above, I took a new look at this film, which I believe has a shaky reputation among Star Trek’s most devoted fans. The story involves a character named Sybok who is an apocryphal half-brother to the character Spock. This Sybok is a man who rides into view on a galloping horse on a nearly defunct ‘planet of peace’ and immediately converts or wins over almost everyone he meets by a combination of telepathy and empathy, putting them in touch with their “secret pain” that he says we all carry in some way. Unlike the “Michael” character in the Avengers story, Sybok is not all-powerful, but he appears to be an interesting combination of a snake-oil salesman and a genuinely psychically skilled and ultra-intuitive person–albeit one who is openly very emotional and idealistic.

As I watched the film, I enjoyed revisiting its challenge to religion, salvation, and prophecy. The idea that a compelling prophet, a deity, a paradigm shift, or an overpowering insight will solve the major questions of life and definitively direct our pursuits is put to the test in the film (if sometimes in a ham-handed way), and this notion is found wanting in the film’s general assessment. A refreshing element in the film’s second half is that the antagonist, Sybok, played with sincerity and some pluck by actor Laurence Luckinbill, does not play out as a liar or a being lacking in self-reflection. The plot of the film is unevenly stitched together, and the premise of flying to the center of the galaxy to encounter the supreme being is patently absurd. And yet there is something to the film that hangs on and makes its point in a way–probably due in part to the rich and impressive soundtrack. One of the most striking commonalities between the Avengers storyline and the film is that the self-possessed antagonist in each story takes a final course of action at the climax that saves the lives of the heroic individuals who have opposed him.

In an interview in 1996 with Terry Gross of NPR, Roger Ebert stated that what he may think of as a bad movie can be altered with the passage of time. Ebert says that 20 or more years later a movie can “become more interesting…simply because of the time that has passed. It is now a time capsule. It has intrinsically interesting information in it that I couldn’t see at the time because when I saw it, it was now.” So a film may reveal information about the time in which it was made. Seeing this movie again made me think of the zeitgeist of the time and current events of the period. The televangelist scandals of Jim Bakker and his wife and Jimmy Swaggart had been major tabloid and media events of the late 1980’s. The character of Sybok may have been developed partly as a criticism of the charismatic religious “answer man” who is not what he purports to be. To his credit, William Shatner aims deeper than strictly the send-up of the religious hypocrite. In a line that is both wise and sentimental at the end, Captain Kirk responds to Dr. McCoy’s question, “Is God really out there?” Kirk says, “Maybe he’s not out there, Bones. Maybe he’s right here—human heart.” Ten or fifteen years ago, I didn’t appreciate that line very much. However, now I feel that that this way of thinking about life and spirituality shouldn’t be underestimated. These visual stories are simply more recent forms of our ancient cave drawings, and they fulfill expression of old yearnings and questions in their own methodology. The two sagas explore the self-appointed supreme savior and the charismatic prophet with much spirit and constructive skepticism.



April 5, 2014