Saturday, March 31, 2012

Wrath of the Titans: Transcending Political Chaos

Jonathan Liebesman's Wrath of the Titans is great! I had high expectations for this--and I made numerous preliminary political observations of the film, and it exceeds my expectations--and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Again, I can't understand other critics refusing to enjoy a film (and just between you and me, given the choice between seeing Wrath of the Titans or The Hunger Games at the theater, and waiting for the other to come out on DVD, I would go to the theater to see Wrath of the Titans in 3D and wait to catch The Hunger Games, because the later isn't going to suffer any loss on your TV screen).
So why is this film so political?
Great use of 3D throughout the film, wonderful SFX! The film utilizes two themes we are going to continue seeing this year: ruined kingdoms and someone trying to take back "lawful" control of the kingdom; this accurately reflects American politics today and the upcoming election in November.
2012 is an election year; all art, including film, exists within a political context which gives birth to the expressions within culture that require discussion. Through symbols and structure, by knowing what the audience knows, the artists and film makers (consciously or unconsciously) create a piece under the guise of entertainment that either speaks to our own beliefs or challenges us; Wrath of the Titans is no exception, and through the mythology of the players and careful structuring of conflicts, the film sends a loud message that chaos has been unleashed upon our own political atmosphere and the time to act is now.
The Titans unleashed: Minotaur, Chimera, Makhai, Kronos.
Well, actually, "now" isn't really "now" anymore, because films are anywhere from 1-3 years behind the current events; it's not the film's fault, it's just the way things happen, and that may be the underlying cause for complaint by some critics; two years ago, this political message would have been viable, but now the economy is so far gone, and voters seem to be so upset (at least I am) that the political transcendence the film calls for may seem hokey to some, however, the moment of forgiveness and reconciliation is so well done, it's still potent.
What is the conflict within Perseus? Having defeated the Kraken ten years previously, and married Io who died during child birth, Perseus swore to her that he would not lead their son Helios (a demi-god) to the sword or teach him the ways of war. Perseus' father, the god Zeus, comes to Perseus and asks for his help to defeat the Titans being released and Perseus says no because of his promise to Io and he wants to raise his son. This is one of those obvious moral dilemmas when you must do one in order to do the other (join the fight so his son will have a world to grow up in) but it's also a call to voters, especially those who haven't voted before, that the "end has begun," and before we had weapons, like the gods, we had power, and we--like Perseus--have to use that power wisely to save the world.
The key to understanding the film is Kronus, the ancient father of the gods, including Zeus, Hades and Poseidon. As a titan, Kronus is associated with chaos and darkness, especially since he tried to always devour his children. But the three brothers united and combining their powers were able to overcome the darkness that both gave birth to them and tried to destroy them. What circumstances do these elements of the myth describe?
The American Revolutionary War.
Kronus, he looks like chaos and darkness as a mass of lava and ash, his son Hades agrees to deliver his brother Zeus to Kronus so Kronos can take Zeus' power and become strong again. What is so well realized and executed in this final battle scene between Perseus and his grandfather (since Perseus is the son of Zeus) is that Perseus has to enter into Kronus with the spear (the thunderbolt of Zeus, the trident of Poseidon and the... and the... thingy from Hades; he's usually associated with the helm of darkness, and he uses that in the film, but he has a physical weapon and I don't know what it's called) and throw the spear into the stomach of chaos so unity can destroy chaos, light destroy dark.
When America came out of the War for Independence, the political in-fighting (chaos) and lack of a clear path to be taken as to unity and economy and laws (darkness) gave birth to opposing sides, the Democrats and the Republicans (they only came to be called this later, but this is easier) and there were also political independents who are still with us today. The political organization overcame the chaos threatening to tear the country apart in its infancy, and even though that chaos was the cause of the American political system as it is today, the releasing of it is now chaos and the system can't stand it, potentially destroying the entire country, even the world.
The temple of the gods in ruins. Zeus tells his son Perseus that because people have neglected praying to the gods, the gods are losing their strength and their power to protect and save the world.  The gods have become so desperate to insure their own survival that a prayer to the war god Aries means that he will come and, instead of saving you, destroy you and offer you to his grandfather, Kronus to save his own skin. By the time Perseus realizes that he has to do something, Zeus is all ready bound and being drained in the Underworld, Tarturus, but Zeus' brother Poseidon hears the prayers of Perseus and comes to relay to his nephew what has happened and what he must do. Greek idols are a thin veil indeed for the religious persecution many are feeling today as their liberty to pray is under attack and that being a cause of our weakening political strength, but it's clear also, the refusal of many to prayer, or sheer negligence, is also weakening the country and contributing significantly to our ever-growing decline.
Up to this point, Wrath of the Titans suggests that the same kind of political instability and chaos this country suffered during and around the end of the American Revolution is attacking us today, that just as Hades permits the walls of Tarturus to fall, and the demons to escape, and refuses help to rebuild unless it's on "his terms," so our political leaders (and one specifically) are failing, not only this country and the world, but themselves. (There's a beautifully and well-done scene of forgiveness between Zeus and Hades that could have worked politically two years ago, but not today, and that's the reality of the time it takes to make a film and everything that has occurred since).
Draining Zeus of his powers feeds chaos and darkness. Zeus' son Aries, the god of war, has betrayed his father, and Aries' "sibling rivalry" for the love and affection of Zeus against his half-brother Perseus, is fuel for his warring internal conflicts that has deadly consequences for all. Is there a "war" that the Republicans gave birth to which has turned and betrayed them, robbing them of their power? One of several things Wrath of the Titans does well is emphasize the family relations and how everyone is related to everyone else.
When Kronus begins making his appearance, there is the great spewing of the volcano that must invoke the last days of Pompeii in the mind of the audience, with the fire and ash cloud reminding viewers of the devastation caused by 9/11.  But Perseus has been successful in assembling the spear of the gods three weapons so he can face Kronus. What does the spear mean? Unity. And it has to be yielded by someone who is a peace maker, not a war monger, because that power of unity is the one thing chaos can't digest so it's the only thing that can kill him.
Agenor, the son of Poseidon that no one knows about except Poseidon, Perseus finds him in jail and solicits his help to find "the Fallen" god to get inside Tarturus; who, or what, does Agenor symbolize? Political independents and those who generally don't vote. Perseus has been fighting his half-brother Aries outside the walls of Tarturus, and Perseus laments that he knows he can't beat the god of war; Agenor gives Perseus a pep talk about how he was in prison just a couple of days ago, but he's in this now (going from someone working against society through crime to someone working for society by achieving unity). Just as Aregon is known as "the navigator," political independents will be major players in "navigating" the political future of the country with their potential swing vote.
One of the many aspects of mythology to be incorporated into the film as a political metaphor for today is Tarturus, the Underworld. Hephaestus, the fallen god of Olympus who fashioned the weapons of the gods and built the prison for Kronus, tells Perseus and Queen Andromeda, that the mind is the real labyrinth, and the Underworld will cause them to turn on each other and turn on themselves, but finding the right path will lead them to Zeus. Tarturus, then, can be taken as a metaphor for the political process because of all the rules of Congress, the Judiciary proceedings, and the power and limitations of the President and the rights and power of voters (not to mention that it is ever-shifting and never the same).
The outer gates of Hades leading to Tarturus where Zeus is imprisoned.
Hephaestus, the creator of the labyrinth, gives them the map so they can get through, but that isn't enough. Just as Aregon gets frustrated by continually running into dead ends, so many American voters are feeling frustrated at the dead ends of justice and the political process not permitting us to exercise real power and hence, express our will.
Aregon holding the map and trying to decipher the path to take, Andromeda behind him and Perseus bringing up the rear end. They are attacked, split up and lost, but still mange to get to Zeus and free him.
This metaphor provides relief to angry Americans, but there's another dimension to the labyrinth that is timely: the Minotaur. As a metaphor for the mind, the labyrinth symbolizes a man's progression into himself. As Perseus gets separated from Aregon and Andromeda, he sees his young son Helios wandering the labyrinth, and Helios asks him, "It's cold in here, isn't it?" then Helios turns into the Minotaur and viciously attacks Perseus; why?
Why is the half bull and half man minotaur associated with male sexuality? Because of the urge (stronger or lesser in various men) to behave like a bull in their sexual practices. The minotaur takes the form of Helios to trick Perseus, but it also reveals to the audience how a man not only protects his son from worldly danger, a man protects his son from becoming a sexual animal, and that is the great lesson a father passes onto his son, controlling his own emotions, lusts and passions. If Perseus fails in this lesson, then Helios will "grow cold," in forever unsatisfying sexual relationships.
Helios isn't really there, it's a trick of Perseus' mind, because the reason Perseus is going through all these trials is for the future of his son, but he's also thinking of the possible future with Andromeda, and that's why Helios (as the projection of Perseus' mind) talks about the "cold" because Perseus' wife is dead and Perseus wants Andromeda to warm his life up again with her love. But the other side of that same coin is the pure lust in Perseus' heart for Andromeda that he has to overcome, not only to have a genuine relationship with Andromeda, but to get out of the labyrinth and save his father. The minotaur has become important because we saw him in Immortals (please see Immortals & Divine Deeds for more), we will be seeing him in Snow White and the Huntsman and it's easily argued that Shame is about the minotaur that Brandon Sullivan (Michael Fassbender) has surrendered to and is suffering the consequences because he won't battle the minotaur the way Perseus does.
Andromeda. How many other women are we seeing with bows and arrows? There is Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Merida in the upcoming animated film Brave (and there is at least one more I can't remember right now); why? Diana, goddess of the hunt, is often depicted with bow and arrow as the vestal virgin who refuses to marry and leads a life amongst the animals instead. It could be a challenge to women to chose between the hunt (for world success) and marriage and how more women are choosing the hunt.  
It would be easy for either political side to claim moral and narrative superiority in this film (the Democrats saying it supports their position and the Republicans saying it supports their position) and that possibility also contributes to the political atmosphere right now: both sides are fighting to "own the narrative" of what their struggle is about. But what is certain is the fall of the great and mighty powers that have been (Zeus, Aries, Poseidon, Kronus) and the rise of those who have been pushed off to the side, the fallen: Aregon, Hephaestus, Andromeda--even Perseus as a fisherman. The reversal of the power structure and the gathering of, as Zeus says, "Every strand of power," does indeed reflect how times have changed.
Bill Nighy as Hephaestus. There is a wonderful characteristic he has, that of talking to Bubo, the owl many of us remember from the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans. Why does he do this? For two reasons. One, because the makers of Wrath of the Titans know the audience is mentally referencing Clash of the Titans and that means we, too, are having a conversation with the film, Bubo being an iconic symbol. Secondly, Wrath of the Titans wants to have a political conversation with Clash of the Titans: 1981 was a vintage year for film because--like today--there were dramatic changes taking place that made film the perfect arena in which to discuss them, and Perseus's struggle over himself symbolized the rampant sexuality that film was seeing as destroying society (AIDS was discovered at this time and it was feared it could wipe out the world) and while Hephaestus talking to Bubo invokes everything in Clash of the Titans, when Andromeda asks, "Which one of you is in charge here?" and Hephaestus says he is, it clearly establishes the here and now political agenda as being sovereign, but still wanting to remind us of how history repeats itself (for more on the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans and Perseus' inner struggle, please see The Medusa Within: Clash Of the Titans).
Wrath of the Titans is a completely different film from Clash of the Titans from a couple of years ago (and I am very happy to relate that there is no sex or nudity, one brief kiss, and no foul language) but Zeus and Hades making peace with each other and forgiving each other to unite together and battle the political and threatening chaos and darkness descending over the world is a welcome solution to a disintegrating kingdom; it might just be too late for us today to make those same concessions (just observation). But it does a wonderful job of emphasizing the power each of us has, and the responsibility that comes with power.