Future of Paganism
Gods and Geeks in the Endless American Twilight
If the gods once possessed ordinary people (think the Mysteries or Santeria), it's the other way around today. Video games and 3-D movies are more immersive than ever before. Virtual reality might never have become an actual reality, but today's computer imaging technology allows for the next best thing. And riding the crest of this digital wave is a new generation of gods: superheroes, fantasy characters, and even the old gods and heroes themselves.
The ancient hero Perseus made use of divine technology in his adventures, so it's no surprise that he's re-incarnated this year (alongside a whole host of ancient deities) in two separate 3-D hits. Perseus appears as a troubled teen in Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, and as himself in the more successful remake of Clash of the Titans (the Olympians also appeared this year in Gods of War III, an ultra-violent Playstation blockbuster). It could also be argued that Iron Man is yet another spin on the Perseus legend, and Iron Man II is one of the top three earners at the box office this year.
The vitality of Geek Culture is now the driving force behind the new Hollywood event movies. Given the staggering costs of making movies, studios are using the geek media (particularly comics) as their de facto R&D wings. The top ten highest-grossing movies so far this year are all geek genre films -- superhero, fantasy, sci-fi. Of the 16 films to break the $100 million mark so far in 2010, only the geekish comedy Grown Ups, the noirish thriller Shutter Island, and the all-star rom-com Valentine's Day are not explicitly geeky, and only the latter qualifies as geek repellent.
The cuddly vampires of Twilight have no precedent in occult lore or fiction; they're superheroes. They're all beautiful, cultured, super-powerful and virtuous, and offer a fantasy in which a young girl's every wish is fulfilled (especially eternal love and eternal youth). We're not talking Nosferatu here: the X-Men is more like it. In fact, there are any number of superhero vampires in comic books with whom Edward Cullen and his family share at least superficial traits, as do the superhero vampires of the Underworld movies.
Upcoming big-screen incarnations of Green Lantern and Thor (a literal god, recast as an alien for the film) are the big buzz flicks of the moment, as are new Batman and X-Men sequels. But there is a limit to the public's geek enthusiasm. Violent anti-heroes like those seen in the brilliant Watchmen adaptation and the critically acclaimed Kick Ass don't resonate like unambiguously heroic figures as Batman and Iron Man do (though Kick Ass is shaping up to be a major hit on DVD). And there have been some spectacular geek failures: Speed Racer and Scott Pilgrim vs the World (in which the geek is the god), to name two.
As a lifelong geek (I was geek a long time before geek was cool, believe me), I'm constantly amazed by how much our pop culture seems like one great big comic book store. But as I argue in Spandex, everyone now feels the anxiety and helplessness that sent geeks, nerds and all of the rest of the outcasts into the warm embrace of escapism and fantasy. Those feelings show no sign of abating, giving current economic forecasts. And so geek subculture is now culture, period. Geek humor has colonized the networks as well: South Park, Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Big Bang Theory drink from the same well as Smallville. As if personifying some seismic shift, 80s uber-geek Jon Cryer shares top billing with 80s superstud Charlie Sheen on Two and a Half Men, the highest rated comedy on TV.