Thoughts On: Clash Of The Titans - Cinematic Mythology & Numinous Fantasy


Clash Of The Titans - Cinematic Mythology & Numinous Fantasy

Thoughts On: Clash Of The Titans (2010)

A look at the quality of meaning in modern mythological narratives.

Clash of the Titans is a fascinating film, not necessarily because it is particularly good, but because it is trying to engage mythology in a somewhat new manner. Whilst many would assume that this is based on a Greek myth, the Greek-ness of Clash of the Titans is highly questionable. At its heart, this appears to be a highly Christianised myth about a dichotomy between good and evil, God and Satan, Zeus and Hades. As a result, this feels more like Faust than a story about Perseus. However, it bears another particularly modern trait that has been around since the 1930s and 40s and the Universal "Monsters Assemble" movies. This trait is the conglomeration of numinous entities (figures with God-like qualities) and we are, of course, experiencing it like we never have before with the comic book universe films and the resurgence of monster movies (King Kong, Godzilla), all whilst Universal are trying, and failing, to bring back their monsters. Clash of the Titans brings together many mythological figures with its reference not just to a basic Christian dichotomy of God and Satan, but integrates into itself elements of Islamic mythology/Arabic folklore via the Djinn and Nordic folklore with the Kraken. Alas, whilst the movie is entertaining and, in my view, doesn't need to be loyal to its sources, it falls into the same trap as most other 'numinous assembly' movies.

The fundamental problem of many of cinema's numinous fantasies and mythological narratives is that they do not show any understanding of themselves and/or fail to move beyond a basic recognition of their own semiosis. Building upon this, whilst Disney are usually, and historically, brilliant at doing this, Marvel are pretty awful in this regard. For example, works such as Cinderella, The Lion King and Moana, I believe, not only understand elements of their fairy tale, folkloric, religious or mythological roots, but build on them. Cinderella then takes symbols of Cinderella's mother, father and self - the birds, mice, dog and horse - and not only has them play a part in the narrative, but build meaning. And Moana, a little like The Lion King, concerns itself with the ascension of a monarch or leader via the death of the good side of one's family and confrontation of the remaining negative side. However, whilst The Lion King deals with this story on a fundamental level, Moana does so by substituting good and evil for male and female. Much more can be found in Disney's works and it is with their analysis that you can see some examples of successful cinematic mythology and numinous fantasy. However, let us come back to Marvel.

I believe that Marvel movies only ever present archetypal characters and character journeys, they never do more than this. As a result, there are elements of Marvel's films that bear the potential to say and mean much of substance, but simply fail to do so. We can find three examples of this in the first Avengers movie, Thor: Ragnarock and Deadpool. Firstly, Avengers. This is so nearly a film about the shades of self. In such, its many different characters come to represent different elements or forces of the mind: Hulk, a monster, Captain America, the good, Iron Man, resourcefulness, Thor, strength, etc. Because this is (sort of) what they represent in and of themselves, they have appeal; characters like Hulk invigorate the parts of ourselves that we know bear the potential for chaos, and as a result, his narratives are so often about attempting to integrate the monster we can be into the person we should be. However, a character such as Hulk has not been utilised properly in this regard, and this reveals itself in the Avenger movies; he does not represent the possible chaos of the team in a substantial manner. The same can be said of Captain America and Iron Man. In the later Marvel films that follow The Avengers, Captain America still represents the good, however, he tries to make a decision for the greater good (protecting Bucky) that turns on him. Similarly, Iron Man represents technology and resourcefulness, but has his resources (Ultron) turn against him. In both circumstances the archetypes embody theme and conflict (in turn, meaning). However, because they are not engaged as symbols of meaning, Marvel movies do not express much about the different shades of personality and the human struggles that come along with them. In turn, the likes of The Avengers does not show how the monster, the human encased in technology, the pure and good patriot, etc. must come together to defeat a force of chaos. This is why the best Marvel can do these days is make us laugh.

When we look to the likes of Thor: Ragnarock, we see the most explicit example of how Marvel steal mythology without understanding it. So, it is without any understanding of Norse mythology, Norse Gods, Giants and concepts such as Ragnarock, that Marvel constructs a bland Arthurian tale of kings that does and says little - apart from entertain and make us laugh. (You can read more about this here). But, what is most ironic is that Marvel don't even understand themselves.

Deadpool is supposed to represent Marvel deconstructing themselves. Whilst I understand that Deadpool isn't apart of the MCU (yet), this remains true. Deadpool is then a basic prince, princess and dragon story wrapped up in the Marvel formula - and it tells you this. However, whilst Deadpool uses this base understanding of the manner in which Marvel take classical narratives and modernise them - the prince becomes a techno-knight and his dragon artificially intelligent; man becomes dragon (spider, ant, panther, wolverine) via industrial waste and fights against industrial giants - it doesn't understand the process of symbolic transformation. What the X-Men movies sometimes do well, Deadpool then fails to do. The X-Men movies are about what is within you being emphasised - your genes changing and expressing themselves as a mutation - and use this to comment on being a social outcast (a geek, a problem child, a weirdo, a delinquent). Deadpool, the character, goes through the same process of transformation; he is tortured until his mutation is expressed. And this resonates with the idea that he, like his girlfriend, is inherently 'fucked up', but able to do good because of that fact. Nonetheless, whilst this source of meaning is recognised, it is not tapped. In such, Deadpool's defence mechanism, a little like Spider-Man's, is his ability to retain a sense of humour. It his ability to be a clown that, in a way, makes him strong. Conflicts come with this. Are there some things you have to take seriously to overcome? Or maybe the only way to overcome real problems is not to take them so seriously? These are questions almost raised by Deadpool, but they aren't capitalised on, nor are they complexified via drama. If they were I am confident that the film would have much greater depth and complexity - in turn, would mean much more to the audience.

Many more examples could be brought up of films that nearly function as true, meaningful narratives can. But, we should return to Clash of the Titans as this is the film that inspired these thoughts within me; it also comes close to providing a successful narrative of the kind we are discussing and so may shine some light on how to better insert meaning into a narrative through the conglomeration of numerous symbolic/numinous figures.

Clash of the Titans, as discussed, brings together a Christian ethic as well as Islamic/Arabic and Nordic characters within the context of a Greek myth. It does so to produce a story about what it means to be a fisherman - in the Jungian sense. In his essay, 'The Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious', Jung suggests that 'water is the commonest symbol for the unconscious'. In another essay, 'Concerning Rebirth', Jung speaks of the act of fishing as consequently exploring the unconscious. In respect to this, it is fascinating that Perseus is a fisherman. What is more fascinating is the fact that, whilst many Greek myths and stories, for example, those centred on Jason or Odysseus, concern the sea, sailing and fisherman, Clash of the Titans is about a fisherman in the desert. To be more specific, Clash of the Titans sees Perseus fall from the throne, literally thrown into the sea, before being pulled out by a fisherman, later, almost, drowned by a God, which sees him move into forests, then a desert, then the underworld, and back out to a coastal city where he must defeat a sea monster and potentially become king again. What becomes clear with reference to Jung is that Perseus falls into an unconscious malaise (as represented by the sea) with the opening of Clash of the Titans. It is the sea that raises him to a man, and it is the sea that he must leave once his father dies. These events symbolise the birth of a bastard child, which is to say, a child born without an attachment to the universal masculine: the Logos (the word of God). Uncoincidentally, Perseus, the bastard child, is a demi-god, left on earth by his true divine father. His earthly father, a king, a person who is closest to God, refuses to accept him. The Logos then abandons him two times over and so his attachment to the knowledge of the masculine in the universe is severed. He falls into his unconsciousness with his mother alone: into the sea, and simultaneously the universal feminine (life). Looking over Perseus in the original Greek myth was Athena, Goddess of wisdom and protector of cities. However, looking over him in Clash of the Titans is Io. This makes some sense as she is his immortal ancestor - a great, great, grandmother (she was one of Zeus' lovers). For one female demi-god to take care of her descendent in this regard implies that maybe she had the divine powers to protect and watch over him like Athena would have. Alas, Perseus falling into the sea is him falling into the feminine - which is what will characterise his unconsciousness.

In this domain, Perseus finds a new earthly father. He is made a passive and contemplative man, a 'fisherman' who delves into his own depths in search of something. However, just like Perseus cannot discover what it is that is wrong within himself - cannot know who is real father is - his family cannot find any fish. Who to blame but the gods?

A hatred and distrust of the gods brews within Perseus. But, it is when he witnesses the fall of Zeus that Hades calls upon him, destroying his earthly father, pulling him from the sea and the feminine and beckoning him to delve deeper, to come to the underworld. It is now that the king calls upon Perseus, that he is brought near to the domain of the gods again, where he is not only sent on his quest, but meets his positive anima and protector: Io. The journey is one towards the negative anima, Medusa, the female that turns males to stone, who turns them into unchanging, hardened earth. To journey towards this, he must go into the desert, into the opposite of the feminine ocean, and face what creatures arise from its depths (scorpions). He must also confront his earthly father that abandoned him. Before he can defeat this father, he must control the negative female archetype, Medusa, but before this, he must find her. And to find Medusa, he has to defeat what emerges from the masculine landscape to kill him. He must bypass the scorpions to find witches, more dark female archetypes, who bear wisdom: an eye. Overcoming the tricksters, Perseus must venture towards the underworld and cross more dark water to find Medusa. All the while, he is challenged with accepting the gifts of his heavenly father: the black Pegasus and a sword.

Perseus can only accept these gifts after he overcomes Medusa, the debilitating female archetype, by learning how to overcome her skill as an enchantress; a snake that will solidify his insides, that will prevent him from remaining a fluid human, balanced between matter and liquid, feminine and male. Having managed this, Perseus can escape her cave, the deepest darkest place of the underworld that he ventures into, to confront his kingly father - who destroys his anima, Io. Without his protector and connection to the firmament, he must don his heavenly father's sword (he must reconcile with the higher Logos) and destroy his negative animus - his kingly father. In doing so, he can take flight on the black Pegasus, the steed of an anti-hero and incomplete god.

Riding back to the king who sent him, Perseus has the chance to confront his transcendent negative archetype: Hades-turned-Satan. He must then confront the negative male archetype that rules the underworld, the deepest part of his unconsciousness, by defeating his demon; the Kraken, the monster the resides in the deepest waters. And he defeats him by turning the debilitating female gaze onto him, and in turn, preserves a good female archetype of earth, the princess. Perseus, incomplete, refuses to assume the throne, instead, rides toward the gods on his dark Pegasus. And that brings the film towards a close.

So, nearly is this a powerfully symbolic movie, a Nietzschean drama that is about a boy who witnesses the death of God, who is born without a father and is psychologically damaged by this. In overcoming what is broken within himself, in re-establishing a positive connection with the universal male and female, he comes to represent a bastardised society, abandoned by their father, pulling together and attempting to become better people by confronting all that comes from 'below'. However, Clash of the Titans feels quite weak and incomplete in these regards. And this is largely because it doesn't understand what it is trying to do. Most fundamentally, it then fails to balance male and female forces; for example, it fails to give Io a sensical and complete role and it fails to depict a rounded and satisfactory redemption of, or confrontation with, the king that attempts to kill Perseus. What's more, it inserts needless characters and conflicts within the story that aren't attached to symbol and theme. As a result, the movie feels flat and rather pointless upon reflection; at best, it stutters a hero's journey. However, what the movie does somewhat well, is make the Perseus myth its own by instilling into it some of its own logic. If more movies can do this, and can do so consciously, paying attention to what it is that they are symbolising and saying, I believe a there will emerge far better cinematic mythology and numinous fantasy.

So, to end things openly, I'll leave things with you. What do you think of Clash of the Titans and other mythological/fantastical movies? How much does meaning matter and how can the right amont be re-instilled into cinematic narratives?

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