Destroying the World

This last week I went to see “Skyfall,” which I thoroughly enjoyed, especially the bits where Bond pulls one of his old-school moves (like the Aston with the machine guns). I also liked that they gave us a villain who, unlike every other villain of Bond movies and superhero movies, is not out to destroy or dominate the world. (Although it’s strongly implied that he could if he wanted to.)

The 12th Harry Dresden book, “Cold Days,” also came out this week. Some friends and I were discussing how two characters in Jim Butcher’s Harryverse might actually be the same being. When one person questioned how that could be, I brought up Steven Brust’s definition of a god is someone who is immortal and can exist in more than one place (and time) at once.

The other part of Brust’s definition is that a god can do things that would be immoral if a human did them. And that got me thinking about the destructive aspect of the divine. Every religion has to deal with this issue. There’s even a term for the conundrum of “if God is good, why do bad things happen?” It’s called theodicy, and every religious scholar and most believers have to wrestle with this at some point. The monotheisms pretty much resort to blaming the victims; if a bad thing happens to you, you deserved it somehow. And anyway, who are you to question God? But other religions take a more detached view and say “that’s just the way it is, accept it.”

I also came across a program on the Science channel titled “Serial Killer Earth” that’s all about natural disasters. Even if you don’t believe that there’s some kind of divine being sending troubles upon us, there’s no denying that the planet itself kills people and destroys stuff quite often. Sandy and Katrina, the recent big earthquakes, the tsunami a few years back . . . we’re all living on a knife edge all the time. Not to mention the fact that our own bodies can and do fail, sometimes abruptly, more often slowly but inevitably.

No one gets out alive. If you’re religious, then you have some comfort in thinking there’s an afterlife. If you’re not, you may be comforted by thinking “but I won’t know or care.” But either way, we all have to accept that this life will end.

Which brings me back to our fascination with villains who develop weapons that can destroy entire cities, or plagues that wipe everyone out in a matter of days or turn us all into zombies, or meteors that are going to wipe out all life on earth, or a sudden and catastrophic change in the weather that will make half the planet uninhabitable. I love these movies. I actually laughed at “2012” in which the magnetic poles reverse all of a sudden, causing the Yellowstone Supervolcano to erupt, earthquakes that make California fall into the sea, and tsunamis so high they lap at the face of Mount Everest. Great fun.

But why are we so fascinated? Is it because we live – consciously or not – with the knowledge that the world, our personal world, our own lives and the lives of those we love, could end at any moment? Most of us have in fact lived through that moment where we realized that life had suddenly and irrevocably changed forever. Are disaster movies and supervillains our way of embracing that fear, putting it into a form we can see, and pretending for a while that a brilliant scientist or a superhero or James Bond is going to step in at the last minute and save us? Only at the movies can we pretend that there’s a way out after all and stop holding our breath and relax, if only for a few minutes.

It feels really good.

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