Thoughts on ‘Rampage’

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to see Steven Spielberg’s film about a world bounded only by the imagination, the ultra-hyped latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a Dwayne Johnson vehicle based on a cheesy arcade game. Guess which I think was the best. Go ahead; guess.

Rampage is basically a sci-fi channel original movie with a big budget and a crew that knew what they were doing. It’s incredibly silly, kind of stupid, and a ton of fun. Dwayne Johnson (more on him in a bit) plays an asocial ex-special forces primatologist (you know, one of those) who comes to work one day to find his favorite gorilla, George, has grown much larger and more unstable over the night. Turns out the experiments of an evil corporation have fallen from their corporate space station (again, one of those) and have resulted in three mutated, out-of-control monsters: George the Gorilla, Ralph the Wolf, and Lizzie the Alligator (who doesn’t get named in the film). They all end up in Chicago, where Johnson, with the help of a smug, faux-cowboy federal agent and a good-looking, oft-endangered scientist (the fact that I can describe the female lead thusly earns the film an extra point right there) try to find a way to stop the monsters and the evil corporation while saving George if possible.

Rampage is one of those delightful films that has no illusions about itself: it doesn’t think it has an important statement to make about corporate greed or animal rights or anything, it just wants to tell a fun little adventure involving giant monsters on a rampage. Just about everything it does is in service to that end, which makes it a surprisingly solid and streamlined film. There are holes, of course, that’s to be expected, but at least so far there’s only one or two that really stand out to me, and the movie was entertaining enough that I didn’t really care. Once accept the premise and the film holds together fairly well. And it lives up to the title, with the three monsters tearing up Chicago, the human cast, and each other in satisfying and creative ways.

Speaking of the human cast, after the incredibly bland characters in Black Panther, this was breath of fresh air. The characters aren’t especially deep or well developed, but they have personality, sometimes almost too much. The moment we meet the female lead, we see she is a little bumbling and absent minded, and that her life is a mess. We thus immediately like her because she both has a clear character and is the underdog. Likewise, it would have been incredibly easy to have the federal agent be just a stiff; instead he’s got this hilarious faux-cowboy persona, with accompanying permanent smug grin that he somehow uses to convey every emotion. Even the villain, though a pretty generic evil businesswoman is given a bit of extra personality by having a loser brother who hangs around her panicking the whole film (she also has a pet rat; parallel, perhaps?).

As this indicates, the film has a pretty good sense of humor: actually found myself laughing out loud at some of the lines. Like when the loser brother takes out his frustration at losing the multi-billion dollar space station by smashing a scale model, his sister notes they’ve lost “Ten Billion, plus twenty-thousand for the model you just broke.” Or the heroine’s excuse for hanging up on her boss: “I’ve gotta go; the car in front of me just…exploded.”

Basically, these aren’t deep characters, but they are serviceable for the kind of film this is, and they are constantly enjoyable to watch. Though they’re stock characters, the writers made an effort to inject a little life into them. Again, contrast Black Panther where the love interest’s entire personality is ‘earnest and capable action girl, but not the other one.’

As for Johnson, he’s basically playing a variant of his usual character, which is perfectly fine with me. He’s given the added dimension of being mildly misanthropic and having a chivalrous streak. Though I joked about his career path, the film actually does give him a fairly plausible backstory of special forces – anti-poaching team – primatologist. Basically, his character makes sense on his own terms. His connection with George is cartoonishly exaggerated (he apparently can convey complex instructions like “look after the new guy because he’s confused” with a few simple signs), but it gives an extra layer of emotional investment to the story.

Watching this film, one thing that struck me about Dwayne Johnson is that he really knows how to make his characters heroic. Like, when the bullets start flying the first thing he does is throw himself in front of the girl and try to shield her. Then he risks his own life to save the guy who has been nothing but rude to him and whose fault the whole situation is in the first place. Even outside the action sequences he’s polite, chivalrous (e.g. rebuking George for making lewd gestures in front of the girl), and generally a stand-up guy. I like the way he tries to talk down the two MPs who come to arrest him and the girl before knocking them out. And I love his description of his last encounter with poachers: “They shot at us and missed. I shot at them and didn’t.” (why do I remember so many more lines from this film than the other two?). In sum, yes, I’d call this guy a legit hero.

(By the way, the heroes of this film are two super-masculine men and a cute, feminine girl. The villains are a soulless, dominating businesswoman and her weak, sniveling brother. Not sure if there’s any meaning to be gleaned from that, but it made me like the film even more).

I just realized that, of the three films I’ve seen recently, Black Panther had the least impressive hero. The kid in Ready Player One was kind of weak, but he at least had a moment where he made a hard call to protect the girl, and he had to struggle a little and grow a little, and the story ultimately depended upon him. T’Challa was effectively useless without his powers, which could literally be given to anyone and which he loses because he made a series of terrible decisions for no reason and gets back through no effort of his own. He never has to sacrifice anything or make a hard decision for someone else; the arc of the film is the villain gets power because of the hero’s incompetence, then the hero is rescued by his friends and comes back to stop him before he can seriously misuse it, all in the final third of the film. There was little sense of what was at stake; we didn’t see people being threatened or in danger, we just heard Killmonger ranting about how he wants to kill women and children.

In Rampage, on the other hand, during the climax the characters are constantly worrying about the civilians. We see people in danger, and when the crisis is over we see people expressing relief and reuniting with loved ones. We are given a clear sense of what our heroes were protecting and that they succeeded in doing so.

Actually, my biggest problem with Rampage is that it ends too abruptly: I would have liked to see an epilogue showing what happens to the characters afterward. It seems so obvious that I’m kind of amazed they don’t have one (I also would have liked to see some smooches between our two leads, but oh well).

So, that’s Rampage: it’s nothing great, but a very solid, very enjoyable B-Movie that, in its own simple way, outdoes the giant A-pictures it goes up against. I feel kind of like Johnson’s character here: preferring the company of a gorilla to ostensibly more engaging companionship. Here’s hoping Infinity War proves to be the lovely geneticist who will make me care about the human race again (a convoluted metaphor, but I think it holds up).

More on Black Panther

One of my favorite YouTube critics, Maulr, absolutely tore into ‘Black Panther.’ After watching his video, I think I still liked the movie better than he did, but…yeah, it’s really not a well-put together film at all.

Something he brings up repeatedly is that there really is nothing binding T’Challa to the Black Panther: it’s all a matter of who has the special juice and the suit, both of which Wakanda has an apparently unlimited supply of. Why on Earth wouldn’t they mass-produce an army, or even an elite force of Black Panthers, which would effectively make Wakanda invulnerable to attack? Heck, they literally have spare Black Panther suits lying around the lab, and they’re apparently so easy to make that his sister makes two just so that he can have style options: why wouldn’t the other characters put one on toward the end the film? Or, to take the other side of the equation, why doesn’t Wakanda give their elite guards the performance enhancing juice, especially when they go off on dangerous missions?

Also, we know from the Infinity War trailer that Wakanda will be invaded by Thanos: will they start passing out Black Panther suits then? Because what possible reason could they have for not doing so? As of this film they have at least three functional suits, and the survival of the world is at stake: give one to Captain America for God’s sake!

The frustrating thing is that this would be so easy to fix: just make it so that the physical powers are not the result of a fruit, but are inborn to the royal family. That would at once give us a reason why only T’Challa could be the Black Panther and put their whole society on a more reasonable basis (as it is, though I like the idea, it doesn’t make sense for the most advance nation on Earth to choose kings by combat, but if it’s limited to the royal family – only those with the panther powers – it would be more understandable). It would have greater symbolic power (the royal family being the ones with the power to protect their people) and make both T’Challa and Killmonger more unique figures and make their rivalry matter more. Likewise you could make the panther suit an ancient artifact of which the knowledge of how to make it has been lost, which would solve the question of mass-producing it and make the suit itself matter more (as it is, it’s as if Asgard could churn out Mjolnir’s on an assembly line, but didn’t for some reason). Make Vibranium more limited, or balance it with other forms of unobtanium to explain their sci-fi tech (as it is, the fact that Vibranium does literally everything is just silly, especially since apparently stone-aged tribes were able to both mine it and figure out how it works. This implies the writers think that the mere presence of a resource is what determines the progress of a culture, which of course is why the Arab world discovered oil refining and internal combustion centuries before anyone else). If there’s only one suit, that could also make the final battle more dramatic with T’Challa having to fight Killmonger when Killmonger has the suit and he doesn’t. That would not only stack the odds even further, but would also reassure us that, yes, this thing has some form of weakness.

Because that’s a problem I had that Maulr only alludes to: Black Panther is too darn powerful for the threat level he deals with. He’s going after arms dealers and mercenaries, and he has both superhuman powers and a suit that makes him completely invulnerable: it’s too much and it makes the action scenes kind of boring because the bad guys don’t stand a chance.

Now, when Iron Man drops into the Afghan village and starts punting terrorists around, he outclasses the bad guys too. But one, he’s still a single man dropping into a warzone, not going after petty criminals, two, we’ve already seen him at the mercy of these men, so there’s a catharsis factor, and three, we see in that scene that things like tanks and jets can at least damage him, even if not a whole lot. We don’t doubt he’s going to win, but we can see where he conceivably could lose. Black Panther has superpowers and an indestructible suit and ultra-advanced technology and a back-up force of super-tech armed amazons driving an indestructible car. The overall effect is like the Avengers going up against the Vulture: there is literally no conceivable scenario where he loses. I actually found myself rooting for the bad guys during the Seoul chase because they were so ridiculously outclassed it was annoying.

Also, the backstory of the villain makes absolutely no sense: why would the uncle try to kill a man when the king was standing right in front of him in his Black Panther suit? Why would the king kill him, when taking the gun from him would be child’s play for him? Why would they be afraid of telling Wakanda what happened; that the king found one of their agents had betrayed them and killed him when he tried to murder a third party? Why would they leave the kid behind? Why would they leave the body behind? As Maulr points out, the cover-up would raise more questions and spark more unrest even without being discovered than simply telling the truth would.

And again, the thing that kills me is that it would have been a stronger story if they had gone that route: Killmonger grows up in Wakanda, knows T’Challa, pretends to be going along with it all but secretly seethes with anger against the royal family, then when T’Challa ascends the throne Killmonger unexpectedly challenges and beats him, forcing T’Challa to try to figure out a way to take back the throne, maybe undergoing further training, etc. Meanwhile Killmonger is secretly manipulating events to convince the Wakandan people that they are under attack and need to go to war with the rest of the world (rather than just arbitrarily ordering them to start killing women and children – which he literally does in the film as it stands). That would have been a better and more streamlined story, would have made the premise more acceptable, and would have provided the means for more organic exposition and exploration of the world. Both Killmonger and T’Challa would have been stronger characters and had a stronger connection. As a bonus, you could have made Klaue more integral to the story by having him work with Killmonger to arrange the false flag attacks.

It is depressing to me that this entire scenario took me about ten minutes of consideration to come up with, yet the ultra-budgeted, Disney-backed tent-pole film came up with a jumbled mess that only works at all because it’s held up by the actors and the visuals.

So…yeah, my opinion of the film is sinking the more I think about it. I still think it’s okay; it’s enjoyable, the visuals are mostly great, and of course Michael B. Jordan is fantastic (his performance is really the entire reason his character comes across as complex and sympathetic, because, strictly for what he does, he really isn’t. On paper he’s just an angry psychopath looking to start a world-wide race war, but Jordan seems to give him actual depth. This film could not work to the extent it does without him), but the story is contrived and weak, most of the characters aren’t very interesting, and the set up is really stupid in ways it didn’t have to be.

Thoughts on Black Panther

Finally got out to see Black Panther while it was still in theaters. My reaction is definitely ‘good not great.’ It was…fine. There was a lot to like about it, though on the whole it wasn’t really that impressive to me as a film, or even compared to the rest of the Marvel universe.

First the good things; visually it’s great. After the oddly dull Ready Player One, this is more like it. The colors, the costumes, the sets, it’s all fantastic to look at. The CGI gets a little lame at times, but mostly it looks fabulous.

Character-wise, the villains are exceptional. Andy Serkis kind of steals the show at Ulysses Klaue, the eccentrically-evil arms dealer. I really wish he’d had a bigger role, though to be fair Michael B. Jordan as ‘Killmonger’ is amazing. I don’t think I’ve actually seen him before (haven’t seen Creed), though from what I had seen of clips and word of mouth I knew he’s an excellent actor, and yeah, he is riveting in this role as a guy so full of rage – and understandable rage – that it’s made him a monster. He doesn’t scream or rant, and is actually kind of understated, but you feel his all-consuming anger every frame he’s on screen.

I also really liked Martin Freeman as Everett Ross, a CIA operative introduced in Civil War (kind of odd in a film called Black Panther that the two white characters ended up among the most memorable). It’s kind of unusual to see him playing a badass, though he does get plenty of out-of-his-depth moments. I liked the sister character: she was cute and had personality, though…well, we’ll get to that in a bit.

As for our hero, honestly, I didn’t find him as interesting in his own film as he was in Civil War. In that film, he was every inch a king; an intensely dignified, dead-serious character who knew exactly what he was after and what he was due, but who nevertheless was moved by the spectacle before him to choose justice over revenge. Here…he’s kind of just the soulful protagonist. He wants to do the right thing, and sets about trying to figure out what that is. He still had formidable dignity and he was by no means a bad character, but I wasn’t impressed by him the way I was in the previous film.

I will say, though, that I really liked a scene where he has a vision of his father, which seems to be going for the tired ‘I’m not ready to be king’ route, but turns into something more personal and more interesting instead.

As for the plot, again, it wasn’t all that interesting, partly because it seemed to kind of veer about some: first it’s him claiming the throne, then him going after Klaue, then him fighting Killmonger. These things ultimately tie together, but it could have used a lot of streamlining to feel less choppy.

Speaking of streamlining, we have a few too many characters, especially since the majority are pretty dull. For instance, we have T’Challa’s sister, girlfriend, and his female general (sidekick? Bodyguard?). That is at least one too many badass female warriors (more on that subject later): for instance, why were the girlfriend and the general necessary to the film? Neither has a very distinct personality or role to play in the story: could they not have been combined? Or if that’s not possible, then could the sister have been made into the girlfriend instead (that would have given the latter a personality)? You see my point: we have several characters who kind of blend together and clutter up the story. Merging one or two together would have made for stronger characters and a more efficient film.

And there are some plot holes, including a major one involving the villain’s backstory. There’s also a bit at the end that is really stupid. Granted, it’s in the service of a nice moment, but if you want that moment then stage the final battle differently, because as is it’s ridiculous.

By the way, granting that Wakanda has spies all over the world, why is one of the most important agents running low-level crimes in the LA slums? How does that benefit them? Why would he even be in that environment? Wouldn’t he be stationed in the government, or in business, or somewhere that might be remotely relevant to Wakandan interests?

I could talk about the politics involved, but I don’t think it really matters that much; the film is obviously pandering to a certain audience, but it wasn’t too bad, and, really, I wasn’t invested enough for it to make much of an impact.

One thing I will say, and this goes back to the point about the characters, is this: Wakanda looks great, but it never felt quite convincing to me. The idea seems to be an extremely traditional society, with a hereditary monarch, trial by combat, ancestor worship and so on blended with sci-fi technology. That’s a cool idea, but it doesn’t really work out that way. Apart from their form of government, the characters basically act like modern Westerners. That kind of makes sense for the sister, because she’s established as being rebellious and we can buy that she’s imitating western culture, but what about all the rest? Part of the problem is they’re so bland, but they just talk and act like any other Marvel film characters.

In particular, the fact that all the women in this society are warriors and scientists feels false to me. Wouldn’t a society like this, with royalty and nobility and all the rest have firm gender roles? And, more to the point, wouldn’t that be more interesting than what we got? To have strong, marked female characters in a notably different cultural milieu? It’s not even that I think it’s a bad choice: it’s just boring (I really wish Hollywood would realize that we’ve long since reached the point where it’s less imaginative to have an action girl than would be not to). We have seen badass female warriors and scientists before, they don’t do anything fresh with the idea, and it feels out of place with the world they are presenting.

I thought the first Thor movie did this sort of thing a lot better. Granted, Asgard had amazon warriors too (or at least one), but the important point is that Asgardians, as a rule, acted like people from a different culture, while the Wakandans by and large don’t, except in very specific ways. Consider the famous scene where Thor smashes the coffee cup, then politely acquiesces when told that’s not how we do things around here. That, to me, feels like how that kind of character would act. Then here we have a scene where the king of Wakanda and his girlfriend just walk about in the marketplace and nobody seems to care. Also, the back-and-forth about who would be king worked better in that film because Loki was directly involved from the beginning and we could see how he was manipulating things to his advantage. In this one…well, when you think about it, Killmonger could have enacted his plan at basically any time, which begs the question of why much of the first half of the film was even necessary.

It’s even worse because there’s an opening scene with T’Challa’s father that does capture a starkly different cultural feel, where he meets one of his agents and the man immediately kneels and snaps at his friend to do the same before begging permission to allow the friend to stay in the room. That was a really good scene, and set a tone for how different this culture is that is kind of forgotten for most of the rest of the film, with only sporadic exceptions.

Speaking of the beginning, the opening exposition giving the origin of Wakanda and the Black Panther is one the worst I’ve seen, at least for this kind of movie. It’s framed as young T’Challa asking his father to tell him a story, but there is not the slightest effort to write in a way suitable for the device. It sounds like he’s just reading off of the Wikipedia page. Visually it’s great, but from a writing perspective it’s terrible.

That’s kind of the film as a whole to an extent: it looks fantastic, but apart from the visuals it lacks imagination. It’s not a bad film by any means, and the good elements are really good (again, Michael B. Jordan is a fantastic actor and makes for a great villain), but as a whole, it’s just kind of serviceable.

 

Thoughts on ‘Ready Player One’

Today I went and saw ‘Ready Player One.’ It was more or less what I expected: shallow pop-culture porn, only not as good. I won’t say I didn’t enjoy parts of it, but the enjoyment was mostly of a very simple nature: ‘oh, hey, this is cool, oh, I recognize this.’ I think there is a great film in there, but the story and character are too generic to make it work.

One of the problems is that neither the game world nor the real world are presented as being desirable: the game world turns people into fantasy-addicted zombies, but the real world is so dreary and hopeless you can’t really blame them. I wasn’t especially invested in the story because I didn’t really buy the world they were presenting and also, again, it’s just so generic: evil corporation wants to take over the world to be evil. They have suits and evil-looking red and black drones and a private military, run virtual prisons (where is the government in all this?), and the CEO is the bad guy from Rogue One. They’re evil because they’re evil and the heroes are good because they’re trying to stop them. Also, the heroes are poor and the corporation has done them wrong.

The visuals aren’t especially creative or interesting either; just standard, usually ill-lit CG environments with a bunch of cameos walking about. Ego’s planet from Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was more creatively fantastic than this game, which is supposed to be specifically designed to be creatively fantastic.

The film lives and dies on its pop culture credits, but it misses the point of why people connect to these things in the first place. Or if it not it plays out too generically for it to make an impact. The Greatest Showman captured the importance of fantasy in two lines better than this whole film does (“Does it bother you that everything you’re selling is fake?” “Do those smiles look fake?”). Here it’s pretty much just ‘hey, do you remember Gundam? What if a Gundam robot fought Mechagodzilla: wouldn’t that be cool to see’? (by the way, it seems Toho wasn’t one of the backers of this film, since the ‘Mechagodzilla’ on display doesn’t resemble any of the canonical designs and I don’t think they even used the roar). No insight as to what made these stories or characters interesting or why anyone would remember them; just Captain America-style ‘I understood that reference.’

Pretty much as soon as you hear the premise, you can guess the entire story. There’s the loser kid who turns out to be a hero because he’s sensitive and understands the secretive game developer. There’s the super-elite tough-girl gamer chick whom he’ll fall in love with while in no way outshining or having the advantage over. There’s the Black best friend, whose personality is ‘Black best friend.’ There’s a high-stakes competition for control of the world between the scrappy misfit kids and the evil corporation. The corporation will go after the kid in the real world, they’ll have to go back and forth between the two worlds some, and eventually the kid will triumph after passing a secret final test and getting some wisdom from the wise game developer, end on a moral. There is admittedly one twist I didn’t see coming, though it kind of felt like a cop-out more than anything: a way to get them out of a corner they really didn’t need to be in to begin with.

There is some talk about how characters in the game aren’t really like their players in real life, but it doesn’t amount to much: the Black best friend is really a Black woman best friend. The two Japanese players (who are introduced so casually it’s kind of a shock that we’re supposed to remember them when they show up in the real world) are really…well, Japanese players, but one of them is eleven years old. And they all live within a few miles of each other which…come on, really? Not only is that astronomically improbable, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting and more creative if one of them was stuck on the other side of the country and still was trying to help?

Also, the pretty redhead in the game turns out to be…a pretty redhead in real life, only she has a mild birthmark over one eye. Uh, what a shock? Really, I’m fine with that, only don’t try to pretend it’s a twist.

There were some good points there. I really liked the character of the game developer; this awkward, semi-autistic loner who lost himself in fantasy because he was afraid of facing the real world. He’s played by Mark Rylance, who I think is genetically incapable of giving a bad performance.

Honestly, the film would have been much more interesting if someone like that had been the main character: if it had been the story of a pathologically lonely person learning to let go of fantasy and face the real world. That would have had some meat to it, and would have fit in well with the pop-culture references (since the purpose of fantasy is to make us better equipped to face reality). Drop the stupid corporation plot and make it the story of a young man trying to find a way to reconnect with reality by using this imagination-based virtual reality as a springboard.

Apart from that, there are one or two good scenes: I like the bit where the hero figures out, just from his tone, that the villain isn’t really a fanboy despite him knowing all the right details. I also like the bit where, after being forcibly ejected from the game, he comments on how different the real world is, having spent so much time in virtual reality he has almost stopped noticing. I also liked the bit where the redhead meets the Japanese kid, goes to hug him, and he indignantly responds “ninjas don’t give hugs!” It’s a perfect ‘kid’ moment and rare instance of honest humanity in what is otherwise a shallow experience.

I also really liked how the ‘hired gun’ character acts basically like a standard gamer and sounds like he’s about eighteen in real life. That was one instance of the film making a clever use of its premise, though again it doesn’t amount to much since he doesn’t have much screen time or much of a payoff, and they could have done so much more with that idea (just off the top of my head: he has the heroes captured and is about to finish them off, then his Mom calls him away from the game to take out the trash giving them a chance to escape).

On the other hand, it’s really stupid that all these crowds are out in the streets playing virtual reality on the sidewalks: who in their right mind would do something like that? This isn’t staring down at your phone, which we know is bad enough, this is putting on visual and audio blocking gear and running around a city street. Not one of them gets hit by a car or face-plants into a telephone pole?

Basically, this is very much a film that puts style over substance and it doesn’t even understand it’s own style very well. I wouldn’t say it’s terrible, just not very good.

Giants were Upon the Earth in Those Days

theseus

There is a strange passage in Chapter Six of the Book of Genesis. In the Duay version it runs thus:

And after that men began to be multiplied upon the earth, and daughters were born to them, The sons of God seeing the daughters of men, that they were fair, took to themselves wives of all which they chose…Now giants were upon the earth in those days. For after the sons of God went in to the daughters of men, and they brought forth children, these are the mighty men of old, men of renown. (Gen. 6: 1-2, 4)

As it happens, this fits with a train of thought I’ve been considering lately. It is this: I rather suspect there is more truth in myths than we generally admit.

For instance: Plutarch quite frankly considers Romulus and Theseus to have been historical figures. He disputes some of the more fantastic elements – e.g. the Minotaur – but otherwise presents their stories as simple historical accounts, including the supposition that they may have been sired by gods.

Now, leaving aside the question of parentage, I for one can see no real reason for doubting that Theseus, Herakles, and other famous heroes of legend were real people. I think we moderns are far, far too apt to consider “made up out of whole cloth” as a reasonable explanation. Me, I don’t think something that important to so many people could have been successfully made up out of nothing. At the very least, I have to figure that these are historical figures whose stories were expanded over time, and that the core events of their lives happened more or less as described. That is, I honestly think there really was a set of illegitimate twins named Romulus and Remus, they grew up to become very powerful in the region and either founded or took over what became Rome, and that the one killed the other in a quarrel.

So far, I suspect you’re with me. Now I’m going to start sounding crazy. I’m going to suggest that, perhaps, some of these very important, yet obscure figures at the dawn of history really were the children of ‘gods.’ That is, I don’t think it’s outside the realm of possibility that supernatural beings can and have had relations with human beings and produced children, who subsequently founded dynasties that became the world-shaping powers we know from history.

Before you reject the idea, ask yourself why it is impossible. The Bible seems to take the possibility as a matter of course. If we accept the idea of supernatural beings, then we must confess that our knowledge of their powers and limitations is hardly enough to put hard and fast limits on what they can do. We don’t have anything like enough real evidence of the lives of Theseus, Romulus, or so on to prove parentage. And it doesn’t seem antecedently improbable that Rome, Athens, and other great cultures who have exercised such influence on the world have their origin in beings more than human.

You may reply that, assuming these people lived, it’s much more likely that the stories of their divine parentage were just later embellishments. Perhaps that’s true. Only remember: one, to establish probability in such a case we would have to have knowledge about how and why supernatural beings might be expected to intervene in human history, or might have been expected to do so at that time, which is knowledge we simply do not have (you can’t really expect the gods to submit to laboratory testing). Two, it very well might have happened the way you describe, but, and here’s the big but, there is no way to say for certain that it did. That something may have happened a certain way is not proof that it did happen that way (side note: this is something people who talk about evolutionary psychology really need to keep in mind).

I’m not going to insist that Theseus was really a demigod. I am only going to insist that we don’t know that he wasn’t. Our present state of knowledge does not exclude that possibility: only the present climate of opinion. It is the fashion, even among Christians, to dismiss the supernatural except when forbidden by dogma to do so…and sometimes even then. This, I think, is a mistake and gives us an overly narrow view of the world and of history. Moreover, there’s no reason to do so: science, by definition, cannot prove or disprove the supernatural. We know from the deposit of faith that there are supernatural beings at large in the world, and the general account of mankind concurs while offering an endless line of testimony of how they have interacted with humanity. It seems to me only reasonable that some of those stories are more or less true, and it seems equally probable that such supernatural beings had a hand in the creation of the great influential powers and states of the world.

In any case, it is a possibility to keep in mind. When we hear historians speculating on what caused the prophecies of Delphi, we shouldn’t neglect the most obvious explanation of all: that they came from Apollo.

Another Thought

There is a popular idea, particularly in feminist circles, that men generally want women with pretty faces, empty heads, and closed mouths.

Jane Austen thought this idea was stupid back in 1815.

Emma: “I am very much mistaken if your sex in general would not think such beauty, and such temper, the highest claims a woman could possess…I know that such a girl as Harriet is exactly what every man delights in—what at once bewitches his senses and satisfies his judgment. Oh! Harriet may pick and chuse. Were you, yourself, ever to marry, she is the very woman for you.”

Mr. Knightley: “Miss Harriet Smith may not find offers of marriage flow in so fast, though she is a very pretty girl. Men of sense, whatever you may chuse to say, do not want silly wives.”  (emph. added)