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A still from Meet Joe Black (1999)
A still from Meet Joe Black (1999)

Why 90s films were obsessed with the Angel of Death

To mark the 20th anniversary of Meet Joe Black, we unpick Hollywood’s fascination with the ethereal and the afterlife

If one were asked to conjure up an image of an angel, it would probably look something like the winged, rosy-cheeked cherubs that adorn the magnificent ceilings of the Sistine Chapel, or are stamped across Fiorucci t-shirts. An Angel of Death, however, evokes a recognisably different vision – of a figure cloaked in mystery, often faceless and wielding its infamous scythe.

But what if death was given a face? In the 90s, several films and TV shows revealed a cultural fascination with angels on screen, reflecting a renewed spiritual interest with life after death. These last years of the century were filled with filmic depictions of the Angel of Death in an attempt to humanise these enigmatic celestial beings – could an angel feel emotions, enjoy the sensory realm, or possibly even fall in love?

From the commercial successes of Brad Silberling’s City of Angels (1998) and Martin Brest’s Meet Joe Black (1999), it is clear that stories of ethereal love between humans and Angels of Death were extremely popular in the cultural imagination of the 90s. These narratives about forbidden and unnatural (yet heterosexual!) relationships descend from a cinematic history of films ranging from La Belle et La Bête (1946) and Dracula (1979), down to contemporary examples such as Twilight (2008) and The Shape of Water (2017).

But what sets apart the angel-focused narratives of City of Angels and Meet Joe Black, are their explorations of death as a tangible place, and their questions of the afterlife – is there a destination beyond our existence? If death is a liminal veil, then could it be drawn back to reveal a place for lovers to meet? Both protagonists of City of Angels and Meet Joe Black assume human male identities (one with a famously defined jawline), walk the earth, and fall in love with mortal women. But following the tropes of heart-wrenching romances, their love affairs are cut short, and they learn the painful lessons of human love.

“These narratives about Angels of Death explore a cultural tension between the fascination and fear of death and beyond, and the anxieties of an impending new millennium”

The appearance of angels in mainstream entertainment in the 90s correlated with a booming interest in the new age movement; a sensation that critic Roger Ebert touched upon in his review of City of Angels (which would explain why angel figurines seemed to suddenly appear in every living room). But aside from spiritualism, it is interesting to look the other way and consider the collective public fear of the new millennium — linked to the mass hysteria of the Y2K bug and its technological repercussions. It was this fear of the unknown that trickled through a crazed survivalist movement, gearing towards the apocalypse of 2000. These cultural attitudes have permeated history in cycles, reflected in the far-flung hedonism and pessimism of the 1890s fin de siècle across Europe (think Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film Moulin Rouge set in 1899), and the widely anticipated 2012 Mayan ‘Doomsday’. Throughout generations, people have always anticipated the onslaught of the changes that time will eventually bring; to wake up in a new world, with new possibilities, and promises of the unknown.

It is not a coincidence, then, that several filmmakers in the 90s were concerned with depicting these societal shifts in their work – a popular example being the Wachowskis’ 1999 cult film The Matrix, which captured a dystopic vision of an age of technology, inspiring countless outfits of black leather dusters and those sunglasses. In the case of City of Angels and Meet Joe Black, these narratives about Angels of Death explore a cultural tension between the fascination and fear of death and beyond, and the anxieties of an impending new millennium.

In Meet Joe Black, Death visits billionaire tycoon Bill Parrish (Anthony Hopkins) on the brink of his 65th birthday. In exchange for more time to spend with his loved ones, Bill must act as an earthly tour guide for Death — who has claimed the body of not just any regular Joe (pun intended), but a dreamy stranger with whom Bill’s daughter Susan (Claire Forlani) had shared a ‘lightning’ connection earlier. Played by a youthful Brad Pitt, with steely blue eyes and blonde, floppy highlights, Death navigates the world, eventually learning the merits of human values, and falls in love with the daughter of his next conquest. It is an utterly romantic film, aided by the Hollywood attractiveness of its leads, though it isn’t spared of its comedic moments, like when Pitt’s original character is hit by two cars in a jarring, comedic sequence. It is a pertinent reminder that Death can be sudden and unexpected, and so life should be lived to its fullest.

Soundtracked by the Goo Goo Dolls’ well-known ballad “Iris”, City of Angels follows the path of Seth (Nicolas Cage), a messenger of Death who revokes his angelic status to be with a mortal woman, Maggie (Meg Ryan). Frustrated at his inability to experience the human touch, see colours, or even bleed (“Iris” lyrics make a reference to this), Seth learns that it is possible to exert free will and ‘fall’ in order to become mortal.

Though it is based on Wim Wenders’ iconic Wings of Desire (1987), City of Angels is fittingly set in Los Angeles, where angels of death are clad in black duster coats and congregate on the shore to hear the ethereal music in each sunrise and sunset. On this note, duster coats are ubiquitous in films about angels, including the original Wings of Desire, and the 1996 film Michael, starring John Travolta. Black duster coats seem to be the endorsed uniform of choice for angels in the 90s. This makes for dramatic effect when in the name of love and the desire to join the human race, Seth takes a leap off a building edge – his black coat billowing behind him in the wind, resembling angel wings. The scene of Seth’s dizzying fall from a skyscraper is arresting in its intensity. The audience witnesses an angel falling in every sense of the word; down to earth, in love, and from his heavenly status.

“To believe in Angels of Death, that someone will be there for you, acts a comforting balm”

That both these films incidentally place human, female doctors as the love interests of our angel protagonists can be viewed as a meeting point between modern medicine and spirituality. Just as Seth reaches to touch Maggie’s hand through the glass of a hospital window, and Joe and Susan dance hand-in-hand at Bill’s birthday party, these films challenge our perceptions of how we view our relationship with death in modern society.

To believe in Angels of Death, that someone will be there for you, acts a comforting balm to the limits of modern medicine, where pain and loss are gently alleviated by a loving touch. And for the late 90s – a time brimming with technological advances, on the cusp of a great unknown – Meet Joe Black and City of Angels act as spiritual products of their time. 20 years on, these themes and anxieties are prevalent as ever as the world we live in continues to advance into uncertain territories. The ‘fallen angel in love’ narrative has evolved from its depictions in ancient and Renaissance times to a position that is still relevant today, that compounds our fears of death and the unknown, of science and technology, and more importantly, what it means to love and be human.