As the city of Troy is burning in Virgil’s poem The Aeneid, our intrepid hero Aeneas is left to decide what little he can save from the fires of the barbarian Greeks as they lay siege to the once mighty civilization. With little time, the pious warrior prince ceases his son and the household deities, leaving behind even his wife, as the most important thing to protect from the flames.
From the Bronze Age until the time of Christ, it wasn’t considered odd for the concept of deity to be deeply tied explicitly to a place or a people. Yahweh was an explicitly Jewish diety. Most of the tribes surrounding Greece and Judea celebrated a specific parochial demigod that was tied to the identity and beliefs of that city.
These gods were both more and less personal than a modern religious believer’s understanding. They were not beings you had a personal relationship with—they were beings you bribed to avoid untimely death. At the same time though, they were a representation of place—much like a King or a Queen is the spiritual embodiment of their land or how a figure like George Washington is the spiritual embodiment of the idea of America.
Maybe it shouldn’t be surprising that parochialism is now bleeding into our pop cinema in that same fashion. Even years after pretentious comic book writers like Grant Morrison declared comic book characters the modern pantheon, superhero movies seem to be growing more incestuous in our culture. And that shouldn’t be too surprising as our popular culture is becoming extremely atomized and parochial in this same sense as well.
I was recently discussing the newest DC Comics film Black Adam with a progressive woman online who vehemently defended the film as a story of anti-colonialist justice.
“He’s not a typical antihero; he’s a revolutionary,” she said. “His people have been enslaved for over 5000 years. The justice system has failed them. He sees himself as their only liberation. While that may not line up with Christianity, unfortunately, it lines up with the way this sinful world often works. People noticed the BLM movement more after riots than peaceful protests. That doesn’t make it right. But it made people pay attention. Black Adam showcases a people rising above what colonizers say their situation should be.”
Naturally, the problem is that Black Adam has little meaningful moral content. It’s a dumb movie. This read though is probably loosely what the writers and directors of the film believe and wanted to express but its central characters are poorly motivated, inconsistently depicted, and laid out in what is otherwise a tedious and poorly written blockbuster.
These motifs are laid out in the body text of the film though and it is clear that whatever the film was trying to go for it does capture a handful of these images. It refers to its lead character as a demigod and shows him standing on the throne of his middle-eastern kingdom, worshiped by the people he saves through brutal violence. He eviscerates his enemies with ease and has no moral qualms about vaporizing or crushing those who oppose him.
Most of this is just intended to be funny and semisatirical—goofing on a genre where killing and murder are generally transgressive, ala Superman and Batman. Unlike more traditional western anti-heroes like Dirty Harry or Charles Bronson though, there isn’t a core sense of integrity or justice underlying this portrayal.
Black Adam is entirely parochial and his fans love him for exercising brutal violence against his oppressors.
This kind of myopic identification is not new but the degree to which people form their emotional attachments to these characters speaks of their values. I recall a tweet of a feminist woman on Twitter debating whether or not, in her personal headcanon, she would prefer to live in Wakanda or Themascura—the all-Black society in Black Panther or the all-Woman society in Wonder Woman.
Never mind that both of these isles are functionally ethno-states run on monarchical warrior cultures. Even those who proclaim that democracy is their highest virtue will happily throw it away to be truly among their people.
As the American Republic breaks down, the barbarians in our midst are reverting back to the tribal mindset—desiring the power and inclusion of the in-group. People want saviors and they want gods that serve them. They want their values at the top of the hierarchy and they want to cheer as their enemies are crushed and maimed. They want Neo-Pagan gods that reward them with power.
Whether or not you believe that Republicanism is the height of civilization, the west’s traditions advanced far out of the muck of warrior culture ethics a long time ago. We built cathedrals and great works of poetry on the idea that a weak God nailed to a tree rose from the grave and pardoned the sins of the world—uniting the western world under his name.
Now those cathedrals are empty and the barbarians are enjoying lesser gods—and they produce no temples worth noting. Aeneas founded Rome. The barbarians can’t even get J.K. Rowling #Canceled on Twitter.