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Think these movies are too gory? The Greek myths they’re based on are worse

Movies like "Heriditary." "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" and "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri," revive elements of Greek tragedy, often to the shock of modern audiences.

Toni Collette in 'Hereditary'
Toni Collette in 'Hereditary'

In Avengers: Infinity Wars, the evil Thanos sets out to rid the universe of half its population.

His goals are extreme, but his process is apparently painless, and — call me cynical — almost certain not to be permanent.

And, it could be worse.

Imagine if, say, Loki were chained to a rock, and an eagle came to eat out his liver, and it grew back every night, and every day the eagle would return to rip out his liver anew, and on and on.

Every. Day.

I don't mean to pick on Loki, but he is the trickster in the Marvel canon, and therefore analogous to Prometheus, in Greek and Roman myth. He was the mischievous titan who defied Zeus, brought fire to us humans, and therefore was punished with the nonstop liver-eating.

No sequel bailout for Prometheus.

No post-credits clue about a happier life somewhere in an Ant-Man movie. Just excruciating, horrible, liver eating over and over for eternity.

True, there are some versions of the story wherein Hercules saves Prometheus, but so much for karma — in the end, Hercules was set ablaze to relieve the agony of a poisoned shirt he got from a jealous wife (we'll get back to Hercules later).

When it comes to popular myth, they don't make 'em like they used to.

This is the point raised by Mark Bowden recently in the New York Times, in an essay lamenting the comparative deficiencies of the modern superhero movies, which draw shamelessly from "the canon of ancient stories and beliefs" but lack their gravitas.

"The characters of myth have very human appetites, weaknesses, and strengths. In comic book movies, villains just want to conquer and kill. They are not looking to slake their lust, amass great riches, build monuments to themselves, create utopian societies, or engage in sadistic torments."

It's true there is little lust-slaking in Marvel movies. The sex and violence are reigned in by the imperatives of delivering movies with PG-13 rating.

As for the sadistic torments, if our movies were to go full Greco-Roman, would people want to watch them? It's a relevant question in movies today, where there has been a recent uptick in dramas that make over references to Greek myths. And these movies have left audiences stunned, unnerved, and offended.

One of the milder examples is Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which earned an Oscar earlier this year for Frances McDormand, playing an enraged mother, Mildred, seeking vengeance for her daughter's murder.

>> READ MORE: 'Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri': One of the year's angriest, and best 

Audiences literally gasped at her ruthlessness (if you've seen it, you know the Woody Harrelson scene I'm talking about). McDormand described her character's unrelenting fury as being on "the level of Greek Tragedy" and intentionally did not allow Mildred to weaken, or to cry, because "that's not Greek tragedy, it's a therapy session."

Those sentiments were also expressed by screenwriting guru Robert McKee, who sees Mildred's arc as a new twist on Medea, known in legend as the woman who killed out of fury and spite — an action Mildred contemplates at the end of the movie.

References to Greek myth are more explicit in Yorgos Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer. The title refers to the Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis (the play is referenced, internally, in the movie), itself drawn from a Greek myth wherein the goddess Artemis demands that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter (he killed one of her sacred deer, and she demands compensation). Artemis has grounded Agamemnon's naval war party on its way to Troy, and a mutinous crew is ready to kill his family, leaving the king agonizing over an impossible choice: killing his child, or seeing his family killed.

>> READ MORE: 'The Killing of a Sacred Deer' is out of ammo

Lanthimos updates the story — a young man (Barry Keoghan) blames his father's death on a malpracticing physician (Colin Farrell), and demands the surgeon kill one of his children as a sacrifice. In the true, inexorable tradition of Greek tragedy, there is no getting out of it. It ends with blindfolds, a shotgun, and a murderous game of pin the tail.

Sacred Deer, which had its share of good reviews (not including mine), failed to find an audience ($2 million at the box office) though its glacial pacing may have been more to blame than its sadistic torments.

The latter, though, are notoriously in play in the horror movie Hereditary, the story of a woman (Toni Collette) whose family has inherited an evil curse. The movie is known for having one of the greatest disparities between critical approval (near 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I gave it three stars) and audience revulsion (a D+ on Cinemascore, an audience feedback service), though it's done reasonably well at the box office ($41 million).

>> READ MORE: 'Hereditary': Toni Collette is the main attraction of this old school horror movie layered thick with original ideas

In the movie, students in a high school literature class are seen discussing Greek mythology, and the various legends of Hercules, who, it's worth noting, once killed his own children after being driven mad. This is (inexact) foreshadowing, though it doesn't make what happens in Hereditary any less shocking to viewers. Ditto the ending, which in some ways echoes the fate of Hercules in Sophocles' "Women of Trachis."

In the play, the poor guy succumbs to prophecy — fated to be killed by somebody already dead. Poisoned, then burned alive to end his agony.

For ancient Greeks, this was a fun night out at the theater. For us, it's a little disturbing, even in a horror movie. I certainly wouldn't expect to find it in an Avengers installment.

Our super-heroes don't go out like that.

Worst-case scenario, they go on hiatus.