Another summer, another season of superhero movies. Big budgets, big muscles, big explosions: Each release only strengthens the genre’s domination of Hollywood – and the sense that comic-book franchises make up a contemporary mythology and superheroes are its gods.
Among this year’s offerings is X-Men: Apocalypse, which opened the last week of May. Apocalypse is the name of the villain, who makes his own claim to divinity in no uncertain terms. One of the film’s trailers features this grandiose statement: “I have been called many things over many lifetimes: Ra, Krishna, Yahweh.” And as reported in Time magazine, the line caught the attention of Rajan Zed, a Hindu priest based in Reno, Nevada. “Lord Krishna was meant to be worshiped in temples or home shrines,” he protested, “not for pushing movies for the mercantile greed of filmmakers,” and pressed the director to have all Krishna references deleted from the film.
Zed is the president of an organisation called the Universal Society of Hinduism, but – notwithstanding his own rather grandiose styling – it is unclear how many Hindus he actually speaks for. (Along with Time, some South Asian YouTube channels picked up the story, and comments can be found there echoing Zed’s sense of offence; mishearing “Ra” as Ram has added to the grievances of some.) There has been one notable occasion, however, on which Zed attained national visibility as the face of American Hinduism. In 2007 he opened a session of the United States Senate, the first Hindu guest chaplain in its history. Zed’s prayer was interrupted several times from the gallery; news of his invitation, by Harry Reid of Nevada, had been met with an e-mail protest circulated by Christian groups. One senses that American misunderstandings of Hinduism, and prejudice against it, are sources of familiar and enduring concern for Zed.
That being noted, the association of the X-Men’s blue-faced villain with Krishna would seem to owe little to any actual antecedent in Hindu tradition. Or to any Hindu antecedent, that is, that doesn’t already come filtered through layers of American popular culture, including another comic-book franchise. The Apocalypse character dates back to the X-Men stories published by Marvel Comics in the mid-1980s, and his origin story involves motifs borrowed not from Hindu, but Egyptian mythology (whence the Ra reference). But in the same period, perhaps not entirely by coincidence, another blue-complected character emerged at Marvel’s rival, DC – a figure that does show a clear debt to Krishna. The most powerful character in DC’s celebrated “alternative” comics series, Watchmen, is Dr. Manhattan, a philosophically inclined giant whose name and imagery were inspired by the Manhattan Project – and specifically by J. Robert Oppenheimer’s epiphany on viewing the first atomic detonation, as voiced in the words of the Bhagavad Gita: “I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.” Dr. Manhattan’s cinematic debut in 2009’s Watchmen was a memorable one. For comic-book fans and other serial viewers of superhero movies, his is surely the definitive combination, to date, of blue skin, portentous rhetoric, and apocalyptic power – the avatar (so to speak) to beat.
Part of Zed’s point has to do with appropriation. Perhaps the right of non-Hindu filmmakers to use imagery that derives its power and appeal from Hindu sources should be challenged. But his contention that Krishna is “meant” to be worshiped in temples, instead of viewed on the movie screen, relies on a too-simple dichotomy. Indian filmmakers have been working with Hindu imagery (and profiting handsomely off it) for over a century. Indeed, in its first decade Indian film production was entirely dominated by the so-called mythological genre. Famously, D.G. Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema,” cast his own daughter in the early classics Shri Krishna Janma (1918) and Kaliya Mardan (1919) in the starring role – none other than that of Lord Krishna.
Over a hundred years of cinema history, the mythological genre has gone through its vicissitudes. One high point was 1961’s Sampoorna Ramayana, “The Complete Ramayana,” a three-hour Hindi-language spectacular featuring songs, stunts, special effects, and the popular wrestler-actor Dara Singh as the epic’s own action hero, the monkey god Hanuman. These days, in northern India, mythological films have largely ceded their place to mythological television, the catalyst having been the phenomenally successful broadcast of a Ramayana series in 1987–88 (Dara Singh—still going strong—again played Hanuman). But the mythological continues to enjoy prominence in the regional cinemas of South India, which have even fostered distinct subgenres centred on mother goddesses and snake deities. And from time and again the gods do still incarnate themselves in A-list Hindi movies. The 2012 Bollywood hit OMG cast the superstar Akshay Kumar as a suave and well-toned modern Krishna at large in Mumbai; when he races his motorcycle through CGI-enhanced nighttime streets, the scene could be mistaken for Gotham City or Metropolis.
And a final point: What goes for movies goes these days for comic books as well. For a long time starting in the 1960s, the Indian comics market had been dominated by the Amar Chitra Katha line of stories adapted from Sanskrit — a children’s series that served up the classics in an easy-to-digest format. But in recent years, glossier comics about the gods and epic heroes — flashier graphics, fleshier physiques — have come muscling into the picture. In the States, the affinity between Hindu gods and American-style superheroes received wide exposure last year with Pixar’s release of a charming short film by an Indian-American animator, Sanjay’s Super Team. But I’ll give the last word on this connection to the interlocutor who first brought it home to me, many years before that. He was seven at the time, and we were speaking in Hindi. “I know all the mans,” he said to me proudly. “Spiderman . . . Superman . . . Hanuman!”
William Elison is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara. He is an author, with Christian Novetzke and Andy Rotman, of “Amar Akbar Anthony”: Bollywood, Brotherhood, and the Nation. Special thanks to Amanda Lucia for a last-minute assist with this article.