ColumnIn the FrameMovies & TV

This Summer, Pop Culture Had a Crisis of Faith

Between Succession, Barbie, Oppenheimer, Guardians 3, and more, this summer's biggest hits asked what happens in the absence of divine authority.

With the summer blockbuster season over, it is a good time to take a step back. At a distance, a viewer may discern themes otherwise obscured in the heat of a given film or television show. Occasionally, an observer might catch a glimpse of an anxiety that is not especially notable in any individual case, but which recurs with enough frequency to merit deeper consideration. This summer, for example, American pop culture seemed to have a crisis of faith.

This is most obvious looking at the movies of the summer. Collectively, they are preoccupied by the dread of an absent God and the fear of what might arise to fill that void. Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 offers a fairly direct example with its villain, the High Evolutionary (Chukwudi Iwuji). Early on, the audience is told that “corners of the universe consider him God.” Creating and destroying worlds, he rages at the film’s climax, “There is no God, that’s why I stepped in!”

The High Evolutionary’s spiritual anxiety is not unique. A few weeks later, audiences were confronted by the monstrous Dante Reyes (Jason Momoa) in Fast X. Dante is retroactively inserted into the climax of Fast Five. It is revealed that, during the movie’s final car chase, Dante was thrown off a bridge into the water below. “Did you know that I was legally dead for two minutes?” he explains, by way of his motivation. “Two minutes. And you know what I saw? Nothing. Not a goddamn thing.”

Dante is ostensibly motivated by the death of his father, Hernan (Joaquim de Almeida). However, his behavior suggests a more spiritual vendetta. He introduces himself to Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) by trying to blow up the Vatican. While the heroic characters of Fast X talk about “family”, they also talk about “faith.” Throughout the movie, Dom’s trademark crucifix – which features prominently on the poster – is used as an expression of fidelity among Dom’s disciples.

Dante doesn’t want to kill Dom, he wants him to suffer. Referring to his opponent as “Saint Dominic”, Dante taunts, “You know, Dominic, to become a real saint, you have to perform miracles. Or die a martyr.” Of course, the Fast & Furious movies have always had a somewhat Catholic outlook, but Fast X really foregrounds the theme. Named for the famous Renaissance poet who wrote The Divine Comedy, Dante’s nihilism exists in stark opposition to Dom’s belief.

There is a similar theme at work in Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning, Part One. Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) finds himself fighting against a sinister artificial intelligence known as “the Entity.” Although technical in nature, the program is nothing short of demonic. It has a “dark messiah” and a “chosen messenger” name Gabriel (Esai Morales). Hunt finds himself teaming up with a young thief named Grace (Hayley Atwell). Together, they hope to recover a “cruciform” key, formed from two interlocking crucifixes.

There is a religious conversion metaphor within Dead Reckoning, with an emphasis on the Impossible Mission Force as an organization that acts with an unwavering moral authority and which redeems its adherents. As Grace faces her death on a train at the climax, Ethan swoops out of the sky to save her. Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) describes the Entity as an “infernal machine”, while a JSOC representative (Rob Delaney) dismisses it as “godless.” Ethan describes it as Gabriel’s “God.”

This a common motif. Stories about artificial intelligence are often about mankind’s relationship to the divine. Alex Garland’s devs is a recent example. It was also a recurring theme in Mrs. Davis, which streamed on Peacock this summer. Although the movie has yet to be released, given both the title and the fact that the movie’s first trailer opened with a character asking “what’s heaven?”, it seems likely that Gareth Edwards’ The Creator will also grapple with these ideas.

The theme even stretches to Barbie and Oppenheimer, both of which are creation myths. Oppenheimer generated some controversy for a scene in which Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy) quotes the Bhagavad Gita while having sex with Jean Tatlock (Florence Pugh). Although not literally about the absence of divine authority, it is a movie about the shift from a rational and ordered understanding of the universe towards something more chaotic and unpredictable.

Director Christopher Nolan is fascinated by the idea of faith as a binding construct, and it makes sense that Oppenheimer is packed with religious imagery. Characters talk of “miracles”, “martyrs” and “sin.” The test is named “Trinity.” A poisoned apple becomes a recurring visual motif. Niels Bohr (Kenneth Branagh) warns Oppenheimer that “one can’t lift the stone without being ready for the snake that’s revealed.” Einstein (Tom Conti) is left out of the Manhattan Project because of his belief that “God does not play dice.” It’s hardly subtle.

Barbie is similarly biblical in its imagery and iconography. Director Greta Gerwig has talked about her experience attending Catholic school, and how that affects the way she structures her stories so they “have some religious story threaded underneath.” She has talked about how the relationship between Barbie (Margot Robbie) and Ken (Ryan Gosling) is “the opposite of the creation myth in Genesis.” In the film, Barbieland is presented as the Garden of Eden, with patriarchy as the snake.

Over the course of Barbie, the title character discovers that life is more complicated than it seems to be. There is more to the world than the isolated paradise that she has always known. She even confronts her creator, Ruth Handler (Rhea Perlman). Ultimately, Barbie chooses to leave Barbieland, embracing the real world in all its chaos and uncertainty. There is a sense of innocence lost in all of this, even if there is also a feeling of liberation.

This theme bubbles though other recent films and shows. Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny is the first film in the franchise not to have an explicitly religious macguffin. The movie opens with Indy (Harrison Ford) chasing the Lance of Longinus, a classic Christian artifact, only to quickly determine that it is fake. M. Night Shyamalan’s Knock at the Cabin is even more explicitly religious in its plotting than most of the director’s filmography, imagining an angry and monstrous deity.

At a more abstract level, even the fourth season of Succession has a spiritual component. The final season focuses on the children of media baron Logan Roy (Brian Cox), following his death. Logan had always been an emotionally unavailable patriarch, now he is physically absent. The show is fixated on the limitations of mortal flesh and the question of what happens in a world where nobody believes anything. That season premiere finds Logan denying the existence of an afterlife. The penultimate episode is titled “Church and State”, with characters arguing for their worldview from the pulpit.

There has also been a recent resurgence in mainstream faith-based horrors. The Pope’s Exorcist was successful enough to spawn a sequel, although it seems like it just an appetizer for David Gordon Green’s upcoming Exorcist trilogy. Following in the footsteps of Green’s massively commercially successful Halloween trilogy, these three films are a big bet for Blumhouse and Universal. Ellen Burstyn is returning to her Oscar-nominated role and the films are reportedly very expensive.

Of course, this is nothing new. There has been plenty of pop culture grappling with these questions over the years. Faith is a rich literary theme. Still, it feels notable that this anxiety over godlessness percolates through so much of this year’s film and television. Many of these stories confront the notion of the absence or destruction of the divine. Monsters like the High Evolutionary trying to fill that void. Villains like Dante Reyes embrace gleeful nihilism in the face of it.

It is not too hard to understand why these ideas might be working themselves out through mass media. America itself is experiencing something of a spiritual crisis. Polls suggest that less than half of Americans belong to a specific church. Surveys show consistent increase in the number of respondents who show no religious affiliation. Pew Research suggests that Christians could make less than half of the population of the United States in a few decades.

Timothy Keller wrote about travelling from Virginia to New York during the 1980s, seeing churches repurposed as “condominiums, gyms, art galleries, coffee shops, pubs, and clubs.” That trend has accelerated. In Beyond Doubt: The Secularization of Society, Isabella Kasselstrand, Phil Zuckerman and Ryan Cragun wrote that “somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 churches close down every year, either to be repurposed as apartments, laundries, laser-tag arenas, or skate parks, or to simply be demolished.”

This summer’s trend seems to have been accelerated by the pandemic, with nearly half of Gen Z have no religious affiliations. There has also been a steep rise in “nonverts”, with just over one-third of Americans between the ages of 30 and 39 who were brought up in Christian households no longer identifying with that faith. In opposition, there has been an aggressive surge in “Christian nationalism.” Shadi Hamid suggests that this may be driving an increased political polarization: “This is what religion without religion looks like.”

The history of the United States has always been defined by religion. It was founded by pilgrims and claims to be “one nation under God.” The official translation of the Latin phrase “Annuit cœptis”, which appears on the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States is “He (God) has favored our undertakings.” The transition away from that was always going to be turbulent. That turbulence seems to be playing itself out across the summer’s film and television.

The summer’s pop culture, from Succession to Mrs. Davis, from Fast X to Oppenheimer, asked what happens in the absence of divine authority. In some cases, such as Fast X or Dead Reckoning, the characters have to follow their own faith. Some films reward that faith, with Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 3 advising Rocket (Bradley Cooper, Sean Gunn) that “there are the hands that made us, and then there are the hands that guide their hands.”

Other examples this summer are less reassuring. In Succession, Kendall Roy (Jeremy Strong) will never escape the shadow of his absent father. In Oppenheimer, the title character never manages to fully grapple with the monstrous uncertainty that he unleashed. In Barbie, only through embracing the contradictions of the real world can the eponymous character ever truly be free. Paradoxically, in a world where these long-accepted truths are no longer assured, all one has is faith.

About the author

Darren Mooney
Darren Mooney is a pop culture critic at large for The Escapist. He writes the twice-weekly In the Frame column, writes and voices the In the Frame videos, provides film reviews and writes the weekly Out of Focus column. Plus, occasionally he has opinions about other things as well. Darren lives and works in Dublin, Ireland. He also writes for The Irish Independent, the country’s second largest broadsheet, and provides weekly film coverage for radio station Q102. He co-hosts the weekly 250 podcast and he has also written three published books of criticism on The X-Files, Christopher Nolan and Doctor Who. He somehow finds time to watch movies and television on top of that. Ironically, his superpowers are at their strongest when his glasses are on.