Expert Opinion: 'Wrath of the Titans' vs Classics PhD

on April 15, 2012 by Dr. H, Classics PhD

wrathoftitansexpert.pngAs told to Boxoffice:

Let's start with the title. The Titans are the previous generation of gods, deposed after Zeus and his generation were born. But in the movie, there's only one TitanKronosso it should really be called Wrath of the Titan. And Wrath is from the first line of The Iliad. In Greek, it is a translation of "menis," which refers to indignant anger. Technically, though, it's human anger, the kind that comes from not receiving the proper kind of respect.

Traditionally, Zeus has five siblings, Poseidon, Hades, Zeus, Hera, Hephaestus, and Demeter, who along with him, and some of his children, for example Athena and Ares, are known as the Olympians. Aphrodite was created when Kronos castrated his dad Ouranos and his blood spilled into the sea. Kronos eats his other children to make sure they never usurp him, but Zeus' mother feeds Kronos a stone dressed in swaddling clothes and hides Zeus on Crete. He becomes strong and with the help of his mother, frees his siblings from Kronus' stomach. Then along with the three cyclopsprobably the ones from the movieand some other helper, they all make war on the Titans and Kronos, finally imprisoning them Tartarus. Forever. There's no escape like we see in Wrath.

Zeus gets the skies, Poseidon gets the seas, Hades gets the underworld. Hades isn't banished to the underworld, he's assigned that lot. In Wrath, he's angry at his brother Zeus about it, but that isn't really the case in the myth. It's easy to attach resentment to him because he seems to get a raw deal, but he just had the normal competitiveness the Greeks always had. Today, we have a hard time reconciling love and affection with a competitive spirit, as if they're incompatible. But this wasn't quite the same problem for the Greeks. Among the greatest expression of Greek unity taking place in antiquity were at the Olympicsa occasion based completely on competition.

There were people who claimed that the gods were fictitious even in very early periods of Greek history. But I've never come across anything like what they say in Wrath: that when the Greeks stopped believing in the gods, they'd lose their power. Here, gods get strength from prayer. But prayer is Christian, not paganin pagan culture, what matters is an action, not words. The gods get something from the sacrifice of animals, and that they depend on humans for that.

Zeus had a lot more sons than Ares and Perseus, even though they're the only two we hear about in the movie. The motivations for Greek myths were often to explain the name of a place or the origins of some practice, which was usually a moment when Zeus or Poseidon came and impregnated a young girl. I've never heard of Agenor, the son of Poseidon in this movie, though. I think he's a king from the Levant.

What are the rules of being a half-god, half-man like Perseus? Well, you can die. Very few of them achieved immortality like Heracles did. And it makes for great story-telling because of the inner tension between human and divine. But even in mythology, Perseus is a generic hero. We know lots of stories about Heracles, Achilles has the Iliad, but Perseus seems to have inspired fewer writers. Is his lack of personality the reason why people didn't write about him, or do we think he has less of a personality because he doesn't have as many poems? Here, he just has less of a personality because of the acting.

There are no myths where the gods die. Why do they die here? Perhaps from the influence of the Christian theme? Wrath of the Titans is very Christian with the prayer, the idea that Hades is fire and brimstone when Hades was just thought of as gloomy and dark. The Greeks didn't even know yet that the center of the earth was hotter. They got that volcanoes spewed lava, but they didn't know it came from deep underground. And also the sacrifice of the gods for the human beings. Gods would never sacrifice themselves for the human world. They had their favorite heroes, but they don't really care about the human race.

When a movie like Clash of the Titans or 300 comes out, students get very interested in knowing how accurate it is. They think of it only in terms of what's correct and what isn't. But that really doesn't matter. Think of it like watching reruns of The Simpsons: we have all these stories, and you can watch them in any order because very few things happen that actually have lasting consequences from one episode to the next. You could have a version of The Simpsons in which Barney is a genius. In fact, I think there is one. But you could have a great episode that would invert all the expectations, and then at the end of the episode, you don't expect that continuity to carry on. And we don't think of all those stories as contradictory or wrong. We just accept The Simpsons for what it is.

Trying to pin down an established Greek mythology would be like trying to find clues in The Simpsons so you can place all of the episodes in chronological order to find some common back story. It would be an impossible task. That's not what's even important to the writers of the show or the writers of the myths. They just wanted to tell stories that were local in their time and space. Greek writers in the time of the Roman empire told stories about the Romans coming from Odysseus to take credit for it. Or how during speeches, politicians tell stories about Mary from Arkansas to make themselves an honorary Arkansan. We all have our reasons for telling a story, and the "facts" aren't always important.

I'm not interested in what's authentic. The problem of authenticity in myth is a modern one, not an ancient one. You change a detail in a costume for a superhero movie and everybody freaks out. But at the same time, we all intellectually understand that Batman can be rebooted from Michael Keaton to Christian Bale. But people do draw lines over Jack Nicholson as the Joker versus Heath Ledger. People take sides over who's the more appropriate Joker, but the idea that there is a right or wrong wouldn't have occupied the Greeks for very long. You could probably examine how Jack Nicholson's Joker relates to late-80s American culture and I'd guess that there would be something interesting to say. Of limited interest, but something.

In fact, here's a pretty good analogy: maybe in 2,000 years, people will mistakenly think Batman and Superman enjoyed a level of cultural prestige today that they don't in fact have. Maybe that's the way the Greeks felt about their gods, only we assume that they believed those stories were true. We always think ancient cultures have primitive superstitions. Maybe we'll be perceived as primitive because we gave so much attention to superhero stories. I mean, Superman and Spider-Man aren't that far off from the heroes of Greek myth. They have special powers, exist in a world that's fundamentally different from the ordinary world, and encounter problems that distinguish them from the rest of humanity.

The period of time over which these myths were told and retold was immense, and writers strove to improve and expand the stories to keep them interesting. So it's okay if Wrath of the Titans doesn't exactly fit the stories we know. In fact, I was disappointed the writers didn't take more libertieswhy not? They already put in the Kraken, which is actually from Norse mythology. Maybe Perseus went to Australiawho's to say that he didn't? Just because we don't possess that story doesn't mean that it's beyond the scope of the Greeks' imagination. Well maybe Australia is pushing it.

Still, the accents in the movie bothered me. I know they shouldn't bother me, but they do.

Want more Expert Opinions? Download our free iPad app


Tags: Wrath of the Titans, Expert Opinion

read all Articles »


What do you think?