X-Men: Apocalypse came out this week just as Captain America: Civil War is leaving the theaters, and both share the basic premise that the good gods may come into conflict with each other. This is a feature of polytheism that we sometimes forget about: the gods and goddesses, venerable, just, and holy though they are, do not always agree. Unlike the Hebrew sovereign God, to whose will every good thing conforms and finds freedom in such conformity, the ancient deities, like the natural forces they commanded and embodied, might resist and oppose each other. Why is this theme so attractive to us today?
Most film majors have heard of Joseph Campbell's "monomyth." In fact, there are a number of works like Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers that attempt to teach writers how to use the structure of the monomyth to compose their stories, leading to an educational and market-based amplification of an already dominant and domineering narrative structure.
The monomyth is the heroic story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, Achilles and Patroclus, David and Jonathan, Odysseus, Aeneas, Jesus. Through their trials and losses, they are reborn victorious and worthy to rule and prosper. The monomyth goes hand in hand with monarchy; it is one of the most potent expressions of royal ideology. It has been said that the monomyth exhibits an initiatory or therapeutic structure, and this may be true. The monomyth initiates and integrates our psyches into identification with a sovereign subjectivity, a reborn self that knows and possesses mastery over itself and its world. The American dream that each person who conforms to the ethic of hard work and self-sacrifice will in the end flourish and rule over his or her domain assumes just such a sovereign self as its natural end.
As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence argue in The American Monomyth, the heroic ideal is transformed in our post-monarchical, post-colonial world. Our heroes tend to behave like Cincinnatus, not Alexander; they are servants of a democratic system and voluntarily recede into it. However, that sacrifice is yet another proof of our heroes' worthiness to possess their godlike powers. They are part of a harmonious system with coherent, mutually reinforcing ideals. Or are they?
Do we not actually sense that our system is not turning us into little sovereigns? We are, instead, the servants of debt, of global forces we barely comprehend, let alone master, of dimly known internal desires and frailties, of bodily weaknesses and communal guilt, of location and environment. And perhaps this is why we have found pleasure in the spectacle of cinematic divine combat: gods fighting, not with monsters, but with each other. Civil War may illustrate a conflict between the traditional and the American monomyth, represented respectively (and counterintuitively) by Captain America and Co. and Iron Man et al. And Apocalypse may superficially affirm that true victory will always go to those who remain faithful to and keep faith in their communal ties. However, they are both obviously really about letting us watch a cosmic wrestling match between the gods. Like the Iliad, the pleasure of Apocalypse is to watch the strong and noble display their strength in battle.
Polytheism assumes a messy world of evolution by tooth and claw as well as by friendship and community, a world of contradictions and uncertainties, a world of worlds. The polytheist is a pragmatist, turning to this god for one reason, that goddess for another, and to that other god in case the first is fickle or angry or asleep. And increasingly we confront the knowledge that promotion of one ideal or value may, in this technically advanced, global system of systems, conflict with another that is also worthy and good. You may serve the ideal of environmentalism, and I may want to advance women's rights. He may faithfully serve the interests of his business while she advocates for her nation-state. In a world of competing ideals and diverse traditions, the priestly technocrats who claim to know how to manage everything, who claim to see the one true god, are either liars or fools.
Whereas each of the individual hero movies, depicting the different superheroes' heroic journeys, followed the monomythic formula to anoint them as sovereigns, Civil War and Apocalypse offer viewers a refreshing break from hero worship, reminding us of why a monotheist like Plato found Homer so unseemly. In Apocalypse - spoiler alert - we happily watch the united mutants defeat "Elohim," God. (And, one might note parenthetically, monotheism once again gets traced back to ancient Egypt, and this God appropriately desires in good monotheistic fashion to have absolute sovereignty over every human and mutant will through the acquisition of Professor X's powers.) Like Zarathustra, we accept (and the slavish, childish part of ourselves perhaps quietly mourns) the fact that God is dead, for ours is a world of gods--multiple, contradictory, and conflicting. Yet, one could argue that this is a good thing. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James states,
The divine can mean no single quality, it must mean a group of qualities, by being champions of which in alternation, different men may all find worthy missions. Each attitude being a syllable in human nature's total message, it takes the whole of us to spell the meaning out completely.
James here expresses confidence in a stable human nature and its total message, but unlike those who claim to know it, he claims all of life and history as a quest for it. Perhaps there is some higher harmony of our ideals, a banquet at which each and all may sit down together in peace and plenty. But to arrive at it, we must continue the vital apocalyptic struggle to uncover it through communicating with each other, advocating for our little truths and personal values - our household gods - and recognizing our worlds' confusion and incompletion - our civil war.