Evil Archetypes of Pop Culture: the Crusader

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By Shawn StJean

It seems as if Universal Studios’ inauguration of their “Dark Universe” franchise, beginning with The Mummy, should have monster-genre fans everywhere uncovering easter-eggs and salivating, in werewolf-fashion, for future installments.  What’s next?  Creature from the Black Lagoon?  Dracula?  Frankenstein?  Given the success of Marvel Studios and its web of interconnected sagas, and the generosity of audiences even toward the far-less compelling DC Comics movie adaptations, this seems a logical gamble in the Hollywood and Pinewood of 2017 and beyond.  More interesting to me, as I combine a sort of hit-and-run mini-review here with a broader, deconstructive cultural analysis, is how the real villains of The Mummy are not the title character and the soulless zombies she creates from humans by draining their life-force (souls) to revivify herself.

The film itself makes a dubious beginning to re-introduce the Dark Universe into the 21st century, relying as it often does on relentlessly flat jokes, and worse, convoluted exposition in favor of any attempt at plot or characterization.  One could call Tom Cruise merely miscast, if his part weren’t so deplorably underwritten: supposedly a profiteering soldier who steals Mideastern relics, he mostly blinks his eyes and shakes his head through the bulk of the narrative, eventually alerting the audience for the dozenth time that the Mummy has a telepathic entry to “inside his head.”  Rather, it’s Russell Crowe, playing Cruise’s antagonist Dr. Henry Jekyll, and his minions, who warrant our serious attention here.

Jekyll, keeping his nefarious Hyde persona barely at bay with regular injections, leads a secret society of monster-hunters with the self-appointed mission to rid the world of evil.  He’s willing to go so far as to facilitate the Mummy’s obsession with her “Chosen,” Cruise, allowing him to be killed with a sacrificial dagger and incarnate the Egyptian god of Death, Set, so that he can then be “obliterated” under controlled conditions, “a sacrifice for the greater good.”  I’ve discussed human sacrifice at length previously in this series, but here it points us back to the deep motivations of Jekyll, our modern-day crusader.  Edward Hyde, grappling with Cruise, points out “It’s Jekyll who wants to kill you,” whereas he wants a partnership with the sergeant.

The archetype of the crusader, not one that springs to mind immediately, nevertheless forms part of the canon of recurring iconic figures in myth.  Self-adorned in the garb and acoutrements of a White Knight, the Crusader’s single-minded pursuit–a holy mission–brings him/her repeatedly into a death-struggle with what s/he imagines to be incarnated evil (but which is only a projection of the knight’s own private sin,)  and may even suffer a savior/God complex, as here.  Think Ahab: the white whale represents, to him, the sum total of all evil–not coincidentally having deprived the Captain of his own leg in a previous encounter.  In order to slay Moby-Dick, Ahab will sacrifice his ship and the lives of his entire crew, yet rationalizes this insane quest just as Jekyll here: keep an eye on the big picture, fellas.

The film has great potential in this regard, but squanders several opportunities to fully realize its themes.  Cruise is called a thief and mercenary on the surface with the soul of a good man attempting to emerge, whereas Crowe is a respectable doctor and leader hiding a soul of evil and “chaos” just beneath his respectable exterior.  His three-piece suit is the shield and cloak and sword-oath of a crusader, 900 years later, working ostensibly in a righteous cause, while committing atrocities along the way.  The capture and subsequent torture of the Mummy should help us realize this, but the film has buried any sympathy we might have had for the title character under its unnecessary agenda of portraying her as wholly evil.  And the contrast between Crowe and Cruise is never made direct enough; the yin and yang never bleed into each other.  Crowe’s Jekyll does indeed have the final words: “it takes a monster to fight a monster,” but it echoes too much like sequel-pimping.  We haven’t been shown the knights of the second Crusade desecrating Mesopotamian and Egyptian crypts, only told.  The crusader-knights turned to zombies, a refreshing turn from the usual T-virus, should help.  The mummy has reanimated their corpses to continue the mission they had in life–mindlessly carrying out someone else’s political agenda.  But the film is neither so subtle as to emphasize this impressionistically, nor so obvious as to have someone shout it out.  And honestly, as for sequels, I’d be happy never to see Cruise’s character again.

A crusader, like any soldier drafted into a foreign war, has to believe in the worth of the cause.  And yet, the deep disillusionment in the face of true horror in and around battlefields transforms the idealistic campaigner into a monster.  The cycle of post-Vietnam movies imported the process to American cinemas.  The best of the protagonists become world-weary and learn to hate the crusade itself; of course, since Universal is hoping to kick off a franchise, Jekyll can experience no such awakening.  We saw it most explicitly in Oliver Stone’s Platoon, but it may have been Sean Connery in 1976s British Robin and Marian who expressed it most succinctly:   “I keep thinking of all the death I’ve seen. I’ve hardly lost a battle, and I don’t know what I’ve won. ‘The day is ours, Robin,’ you used to say, and then it was tomorrow. But where did the day go?”  Perhaps only coincidentally premiering during the year of America’s bicentennial and following the final withdraw from Vietnam, the film nevertheless carried the message of counterculture from an empire whose sun had finally set on ocean slicks of blood.

And thus Cruise and his army cronies import the crusade against “insurgents” into modern-day Iraq.  The ruins and crypts and mass  graves and the walking dead are what empires leave behind in their quest of manifest destiny.  See, Egypt hadn’t much taste for expansion–the film stretches noticeably to bury the mummy in the Persian gulf, ancient Mesopotamia, seeming to want us to make the connection to the global political stage of modern day, to function as social criticism against American Empire–yet it can’t resist the weight, or rather lack of it, of its special effects, star power, and declared identity as traditional, if updated “monster movie.”  Essentially, it sells out.

What’s missing from the narrative of The Mummy, failing a major rewrite, is for Cruise to have a genuine epiphany, whether accomplished through his psychic connection or whatever silly device: it’s men exactly like Jekyll, in complicity with men like himself, that create the mummies of the world in the first place.  The civilians, the displaced farmers, the maimed and burned children, the revengers all haunting the wasted landscape.  But this would bring him and Crowe’s character into an irreconcilable conflict.  Instead, Universal seems to want to move them into formation of some half-assed Scooby Gang.

One final note: it’s perhaps a curious feature that the Mummy made her way to London, but watch for that motif as the series progresses: Stoker’s Dracula and Shelley’s Frankenstein both relied upon the device, which goes back at least as far as Beowulf.  A curse earned abroad must always, whether in the diseased persons of returning soldiers, or in boxes of stolen treasure, or in the more amorphous forms of displaced, refugee souls, make its way home.

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X-Men: Days of Future Past. A Momentary Essay on Time Travel and Paradox

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By Shawn StJean

The Seventies were to be a long decade, verging well into the next, that preoccupied itself with time travel–possibly because the present looked more worth escaping than ever.  The Sixties had ended, and no predicted revolution after all.  At Kent State and Jackson State Universities, Spring 1970 arrived amid hails of gunfire and youthful blood.  Our leaders had all been killed off, or had fled the field.  Vietnam extended itself into America’s longest and most wasting war since the 1770s. Over in Britain, holdover hippies sent their North American cousins The Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed and Pink Floyd’s interminable “Echoes,” but we kids had the freakish and edgy X-Men rising in popularity even over The Avengers, featuring its man-out-of-time leader, Captain America. Apocalyptic disaster films like The Towering Inferno filled the panoramic screens of theaters, until Jaws and Star Wars stuck us with the expensive blockbuster, and Science Fiction enjoyed its dark, silver age: Alien, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Escape from New York, and even Back to the Future assured us of a bleak, dystopian future over the horizon.

Still, as in most American storytelling, the underlying message, even in this era of pessimism, remained (with apologies to The Who,) that the kids will be alright.  No matter how many individuals have to die, the species will survive—and thrive.  In fact, the pages of Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “Everybody Dies,” as the cover of X-Men issue #142 falsely declared, showed us that even death can be nullified by time travel, that in war no one needs to die.  But at the same historical moment, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C. was being erected, in one of those fundamental nexuses of popular versus political culture.

Time travel functions as sci-fi’s ultimate Platonic/Romantic plot device, designed to dramatize the power of free will: “No Fate but what we make.”  The mode is, ultimately, only kids’ stuff: a sort of apology that grown-ups make to children—or the children within ourselves—for screwing the world up so badly.  It signals our wish and our intention to do better.  A long history of racial hatred (whether signified by machines against the human race, or white humans against humans of color—allegorical “mutants,” in Marvel-speak) stands as one of our most shameful legacies, gladly retracted if we could.  But, ultimately, such retraction can only be a gesture: not just because it can’t happen in the physical universe, but because it can’t happen psychologically.

Sophocles knew this, 2500 years in the past.  His great protagonist, Oedipus, receiving the famous prophecy warning him against patricide, flees Corinth.  But rather than resolving not to kill anyone, in his hubris he slays an unknown traveler at a crossroads (archetype of free will, whether here, in Ford’s 1940 The Grapes of Wrath, or half-a century later in Ron Howard’s Cast Away.)  Thus, in attempting to escape his destiny, by his own hand he brings it to pass, in one of literature’s quintessential dramatic ironies.  He fails to learn, “The worst things will turn out well, if they are taken well.” And in 1982, a defense super-computer-system named Skynet failed in exactly the same fashion. By sending its agent, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, into the past to kill the mother of its adversary, Skynet actually forced fugitive Sarah Connor to become the warrior woman who could train her son, John, to eventually defeat it.  It created its own destroyer.  Oedipus Rex and The Terminator share the same fundamental structure: By attempting to subvert the limitations/consequences of living in linear time, we actually conjure the very specters we most desperately fear into existence.  This is not that different from the average human being, backing off a cliff to avoid a snake.  We manifest our reality: we create with our minds what external reality cannot.  Any attempt to alter the past collapses upon itself.

Thus, no honest Time-Travel story can function without paradox, on either the plot or the character level.  A Wolverine (here I’m referring to the film adaptation that premiered this week) who can change the past and return to a utopian present in which Jean Grey still lives, for example, would never need to return to the past in the first place, nor would he be a man who could possibly appreciate his “revised” life as much, never having lost Jean.  The nonsensical closed-loop ending is pure wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s common to all of us: we’ve all said things we would have expressed differently, given a second chance, and done things we would gladly take back.  On the other hand, we can never change and grow if we don’t ram ourselves up against our own limitations, and make mistakes.  The only time travel possible is to live as we were made, one moment at a time, crawling into a future and trying to earn the good will of those who await us there, not apologizing to those left behind.

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Marvel’s Mega-Events—Stan, Stop the Madness!

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I’ve been reading comics for 40 years. No, they didn’t call them “graphic novels” then, in some attempt to lend them the air of legitimacy.  I well remember the first “real” graphic novel: The Death of Captain Marvel. Whoa—a super-hero dying of cancer, with the cover image an homage to Michelangelo’s sculpture, Pietà, the Dying Christ (religious allegory a specialty Jim Starlin’s, inherited from his Adam Warlock forbears)—that was a next-level event.  It signaled a demand for literacy among the next generation of readers—kids who were growing up with the challenging and allusive lyrics of Springsteen, Rush, and Pink Floyd, and watching Star Trek in syndication—those same kids who are now grown up, many still reading.

At age 15, I could barely afford to buy this deluxe-format beast, of course, at the $5.95 cover price.  They were 15 cents when I began as a kindergartner, just up from 12 cents, and I scraped the money together for my first, personal issues by tipping up the clothes-dryer, and by plunging my little paw between the bench seats of the family sedan, and later shoveling snow for the neighbors.

Take it from me, Civil War (2006-07—seven brief issues, but it stretched to every mag Marvel published at the time, dozens of books) was the best thing Marvel has produced since the bronze age.  If you haven’t read it yet, I envy you the experience—it saved comics for me.   It could have been just another 1980s “Secret War”—again, I’m dating myself.  And Secret War was not bad, for its time, but it wasn’t written for adults —not really.  The coven of creators behind Civil War brought us something far more epic, far more mature and thoughtful, than just two big groups of costumed adventurers rumbling against each other.  I distinctly recall, aside from the death of Captain America, which functioned as an epilogue, several moments in particular: Sue Storm/Richards (The Invisible Woman) telling her husband, Reed (Mr.Fantastic): “I’ve never been so disappointed in you.”  Peter Parker joining the wrong side and embracing technology over intuition, because he believed he was doing the right thing.  Captain America clarifying for us that a real patriot must always be ready to defend his country against its government.  Family member against family member, and every worthwhile character trait that decades of creative teams made part of the Marvel mythology, drawn upon, epitomized by those moment of conflict.

Well, they couldn’t leave well enough alone.  A succession of crossover mega-events has followed, in a blatant attempt to sell overpriced magazines (the ridiculous four-dollar cover price is a subject for another lament.)   World War Hulk, Secret Invasion, Fear Itself, Avengers vs. X-Men, just to name the biggies.  No.  These things should come once per decade, at most—like they say in the mafia, “every once in awhile, to get rid of the bad blood.”  It takes away from the really fine moments in them to dilute the Marvel Universe this way.  An epic is more than the running time of the movie or the number of pages between the covers–it’s what’s at stake.  And I’m not talking about the destruction of the Earth by Kree and Skrulls, either–I’m talking about what our youngsters–the living heroes of tomorrow, learn from the experience.

Now they’re rebooting—I think—New Avengers.  Again.  Seriously.  The New-new-new Avengers.  What used to be Marvel’s best book, but, like some over-circulated photocopy,  more diffuse and unclear with each new iteration.  And how young does a kid need to be before he’ll fall for the old “I have issue #1!” scam, anymore?  Then, you’re taking candy from babies.

In the final analysis, every real hero is an individual, not part of some mob.  Read the immortal Amazing Spider-Man #33.  Stan Lee is a hero of mine—I’ve written about him elsewhere.   Back when he was a writer and leader, and not a media mogul doing fun film-cameos and leaving the important decisions to bean-counters, he was one of those human beings with what folks living through the ‘60s and ‘70s called soul.  He could actually inspire brand-loyalty in children, ones sensing the tepidness of the competition across town, great as some of their characters might be.  But, as has been said of many heroes in many tales: where is he now?  What soul gem can resurrect him?

Excelsior???

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