President Franklin Roosevelt famously said that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” But that is obvious nonsense of the highest order. There are plenty of things to fear in our world. What matters is what we allow that fear to drive us to do.
In 2011 Marvel published Fear Itself, whose title was obviously inspired by Roosevelt’s first inaugural address. The story didn’t get great reviews. Some of the criticisms were deserved, but mostly I think that Fear Itself didn’t do well because it launched at a time when event fatigue was reaching its height.
But Fear Itself isn’t a bad story. In fact, it contains one of my favorite moments from any comic of any time (Steve Rogers wielding Mjolnir). Moreover, even though the book was inspired by the politics of 2011 (specifically the controversy over the building of a mosque near Ground Zero), it has suddenly become even more relevant in 2016.
Now before I back up that statement, let me just say at the outset that I’m not attacking or defending any presidential candidate here. As many folks have already observed, this election confronted voters with an extraordinarily difficult choice, and I don’t blame anyone for voting Republican, Democrat, or third-party (or for abstaining).
That said, when I look at it now, Fear Itself reminds me a lot more of 2016 than of 2011.
The story is fairly simple: the Serpent, the tyrannical older brother to Odin, has been imprisoned at the bottom of the Marianas trench for millennia. He tries to return to power and usurp Odin as the All-Father, using his servants (called the Worthy) to terrorize the people of Earth and drawing upon their fear for strength.
Fear is both the driving force of the series and its major theme, and not just because fear is the source of the Serpent’s power. The opening scene sets up this theme by drawing directly from the politics of 2011. Steve Rogers and Sharon Carter are in New York overseeing security during a protest. Two groups have gathered—one to protest the building of the NYC mosque and the other to support it. Fear hangs oppressively over the scene: Sharon’s fear that the demonstration will turn violent, the fear of the protesters themselves, the fear of the police who are trying to keep the peace. Sharon warns Steve that things are about to turn bad:
Throughout the rest of the book, fear hangs like a pall over everything that happens: fear of economic and financial collapse; fear of job loss; fear of outsiders; fear of power; fear of losing power; fear of death; fear of the Serpent.
Tony Stark, in a move meant to create unity, brings the Avengers together with his company and with the Asgardians for a project that he hopes will alleviate the fear that infects the world and inspire people to work together for the common good, but the plan ends before it can even begin when Odin suddenly orders all of the Asgardians (including Thor) to leave Earth immediately. He has just learned about the return of his older brother and intends to deny the Serpent the source of his power by destroying Earth.
Though we don’t initially know why Odin plans to resort to such extreme measures, fear for his son is what drives Odin. An ancient prophecy says that when the Serpent returns to power, Thor will be the one to stop him, but at the expense of his own life. So Odin, rather than risk losing his son, decides to destroy Midgard in order to stop his brother from gaining the power he needs to conquer Asgard.
Nearly everyone in the book—heroes, villains, gods, humans, military personnel, and civilians—responds to fear with power, and they all learn that fear and power feed on each other, each increasing the other until there’s no room for anything else. Only Thor manages to end the conflict between Odin and the Serpent, and he does so by willingly giving up power. Yes, he fights with the Serpent and kills him, but he fights with the knowledge that he is certain to die in the process.
All of us—whether we are happy or unhappy with the direction in which our society seems to be headed—could learn something from Fear Itself. Roosevelt got it wrong. There is plenty to be afraid of, and fear can often be a good thing. It’s necessary for survival. But a politics driven only by fear and power will always lead us to bad places. We just witnessed two political campaigns that relied primarily on fear to persuade people, two campaigns that told us that the only way to conquer our fears is power. Give me power, and you won’t have to be afraid anymore. (Yes, both of them said this—often implicitly, but they both said it.) But we should remember that even though there are plenty of powers in the world that we should be afraid of, the answer to that threat is usually not more power.
Of course, in a world so full of fear, it is unlikely that people will ever stop believing that power is the answer to power, and it is laughable to think that politicians would willingly give up power.
But that’s why it is so urgent that we continue to tell stories like Fear Itself.