Friggin’ Angels: The Angelic Figure in Film

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Don’t get me started on angels. Really. They’re my single favorite mythological entity, and I could talk about how cool they are for hours. Angels are nearly universal, appearing in cultures across the world in forms from the traditional wing-and-halo variety found in Christianity, to Hindu apsaras and devas, to the kachinas in certain North American native cultures. An angelic being in mythology is a creature suspended between the realms of the gods and that of the humans – lesser than the Creator, but far greater in power and substance than Man. The concept is so universal, so widespread, so familiar, that it’s really no surprise that with new artistic media in the 20th century came new representations of angels.

Angels have always been a common theme in Western art, and their appearance and function has varied wildly. The very earliest depictions of angels in ancient Mesopotamia vacillated between the beastly – creatures that were part man and part lion, eagle, or even bull – and the simply odd – humanoid creatures with massive, staring eyes. As Christianity’s grip on post-Middle Age Europe tightened, we began to see newer, lovelier depictions. Angels, generally painted or sculpted for church commissions, stopped being terrifying monsters and began to be portrayed as the preternaturally lovely, winged, and occasionally androgynous human-like angels we recognize most widely today. The androgynous factor began to taper off in Victorian academic art, mostly because there was nothing that Victorian academics liked to paint more than the female nude. An awful lot of that type of Romantic-period art features classical religious and often pagan mythological imagery which was simply a backdrop to justify the abundance of naked ladies.

As art changed, so did the subject matter, and the veritable boom of Venuses, fairies, and angels so prevalent in Victorian art almost disappeared as artists began to express themselves differently. Realism, or at least realistic subjects, became the vogue, along with the patently non-academic ways of portraying them. With film, however, religion and myth were once again intriguing, proving that our natural fascination with the mysterious and fantastic never really went away. Angels and angelic figures have been a staple of film for decades, but they haven’t always been portrayed in the same lights.

Here is a quick link for you. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_films_about_angels Go ahead, take a look. I’ll wait. Done? Notice anything interesting? Granted this is a somewhat incomplete list, but there are almost no films with an angelic subject between the 1940s and the 1980s. In fact, there are four on this list, and one of them (The Trouble with Angels in 1966, starring Hayley Williams in what was probably the naughtiest role of her childhood career) doesn’t involve actual angels at all. The 50s, 60s, and 70s were big B-movie eras that didn’t usher in big-time flicks until the mid-to-late 70s, but still – 3 movies in thirty years? It seems that for some reason, the relative abundance of movies featuring angels in the 40s (7 movies in only 10 years) abruptly ended with the Atomic Age. I can’t say why. I don’t even have any real theories, to be honest. Perhaps the schmaltzy kind of angels featured in those 40s films stopped appealing to audiences who were becoming accustomed to bigger, tougher films. After all, this is the period when science-fiction and gorefest horror and nuclear scare movies, usually F-grade productions on shoestring budgets, had its first heyday. Maybe the perceived sappiness of angels didn’t fit into the public mindset of that time – or at least in the mindset of the people who were going to see movies. This theory, for what its worth, might explain what happened next.

Look at that list again and you’ll see that all of a sudden, angels reappear in the 1980s, and with great aplomb. The 80s and 90s have their personal share of the kinds of angels you see in the older 1940s movies – the average joes with wings, guys (because they are almost always male) who want to do the right thing and have little trouble blending into human life, be it as a guardian angel or somebody’s right-hand man or a heavenly deus ex machina. Those tend to be the movies that explore the sweet, humanesque side of the Heavenly Host. Think Angels in the Outfield. But amidst those exceptions, the majority of angels in 80s-90s film are tougher, grittier, darker. We start to see a new side to these creatures, and it’s actually a side that’s more accurate to the Scriptures they tend to be based on. After all, biblical angels are soldiers. They’re fighters. Humans tremble before them, and it ain’t because it’s chilly outside. These suckers are supposed to be scary, and beginning in the 80s, we start to see more of that. In the 90s, that perception explodes. The Avenging Angel trope starts to reign supreme. The Angels that appear in The Crow and the Prophecy series, even when just, well-meaning beings, are things to be threatened by. We start to see more fallen and dark angels and the devil ceases to be a punchline. In the 2000s, the sweet, humble angel has all but disappeared. He (because they are still almost always male by this point) has become a warrior, and he is frequently not very nice even when saving the world. Perhaps he even has to save the world from his own kind. Constantine depicts the appropriately androgynous archangel Gabriel as a misguided servant of God who nearly releases the son of the Devil. Legion depicts archangel Michael as a battle-scarred soldier. The excessively saccharine Touched by an Angel is replaced on television by Supernatural, which in its fourth season unleashes a veritable army of angels capable of (and often guilty of) incredible destruction and who very rarely smile.

What does it say about us that we have begun to envision angels, so long considered to be our guardians and protectors, as these war-like humanoid monsters? Are they a reflection of a world obsessed with its own gritty realities? Are they a reflection of a people who feel humankind itself has become more dangerous and unpredictable? Are they simply a result of new biblical interpretation and interest? The difference between Clarence of It’s a Wonderful Life and Gabriel of the Prophecy series is staggering, so much so that one can hardly imagine they are one and the same beast. Whatever the reason for their evolution, they don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Personally I’m okay with that. Bring on the angelic wars. My popcorn and I are ready.

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