All Is Not Good in the Marvel Universe of Superheros

An article penned recently from The Eternal City—“Superheroes Saving Us from Ourselves”—contends that the latest Avengers film, Infinity War, reaffirms a sound understanding of good and evil. The author gives the film a positive review for being “a good story” that has “good good guys and good bad guys,” concluding that bringing one’s children to see this and future Marvel films would represent time and money well spent. While one may readily concede that the best art represents the transcendental attributes of God as they really are—true as true, good as good, beautiful as beautiful—are thoughtful viewers really prepared to applaud Avengers: Infinity War for its place in the Christian tradition? Or is Infinity War yet another tale “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth 5.v.27-8)? What is Infinity War all about, and what does that mean for audiences all over the Christian world?

The question is good to ask, and even better to answer. Reviewing films—discerning, critiquing, and ultimately judging whether to see them and why—is exactly what the devout lay faithful should be doing with everything that streams our way. St. Augustine in his Confessions recalls crying over Dido’s death while remaining apathetic about the death of his own soul (I.xiii). An older, wiser Augustine—post-conversion Augustine, Augustine the would-be-saint—evaluated all things in light of the soul’s life in Christ. Alcuin of York similarly posed a direct challenge to the bishop of Lindisfarne following the Danish Invasion of Northumbria in which many monks had been mercilessly slain and drowned. In a context bearing some resemblance to our own cultural moment, Alcuin asks Bishop Higbald, in a letter dated 797, “What indeed does Ingeld have to do with Christ?” The “superhero” he has in mind, Ingeld, was the heroic warrior mentioned in the English literary tradition’s earliest great narrative poem, Beowulf (line 2064). Still today, a sound appraisal of the culture around us depends upon our ability to see all things against the unfailing touchstone of life in Christ.

Today, possible substitutions for Augustine’s “Dido” and Alcuin’s “Ingeld” abound. In place of these we might as well plug in Marvel’s Avengers—Captain America, The Hulk, Doctor Strange—or superheroes in general. What indeed do superheroes have to do with Christ? In the Christian tradition, secular heroes are presented as analogies for the one true Savior: Just as Beowulf dies saving his people from a fire-breathing dragon, so Christ’s death conquers death itself. Frodo bears the One Ring to the slopes of Mount Doom and, like Christ, destroys evil at its source. Batman “descends into hell” and “returns from the dead” and, like the hidden God or latens deitas among us, saves the people of Gotham without even the slightest recognition of his presence in their midst. Spiderman stops a runaway train using his feet as brakes in a highly symbolic, cruciform posture. Each of these characters and narratives bears some affinity to Christian culture, although to differing degrees. Yet at what point does a character or a narrative become incompatible with (or even hostile to) Christianity? What indeed do Thor and Doctor Strange have to do with Christ? Like any film, Avengers films in general and Infinity War in particular ought to give the Christian faithful cause for discernment. Should such a film be seen? If so, for what purpose? What to eternity?

Thor and Doctor Strange play important roles in Infinity War, each taking on “good guy” roles opposite the “bad guy” Thanos. Is it reasonable to suppose that the film’s production team holds to a fundamentally Christian worldview? The evidence speaks for itself. The fact that the Norse god Thor is part of the modern pantheon of “superheroes” definitely ought to raise eyebrows. The epic hero Beowulf can point to Christ in a way that Thor cannot. With no claim to deity, Beowulf cannot fairly be called a “false god.” Thor, on the other hand, remains a false god, historically speaking, even when rendered into modern cinema as a “superhero.”

 

The film Doctor Strange (2016) won accolades from an influential Catholic reviewer, yet such an appraisal likely stemmed from good-willed ignorance of the film’s widespread occult symbolism. Doctor Strange seeks forbidden knowledge that he attains through eastern mysticism. This theme continues in Infinity War when Doctor Strange briefly holds a levitating pose imitating common representations of Vishnu, Shiva, and Brahma. In Doctor Strange’s myth of origin, this “Sorcerer Supreme” gains magical powers by consulting the so-called “Book of Cagliostro” (Vol. 1, Issue 13, Jan. 1974). Alessandro di Cagliostro was the nom de plume of an actual historical figure, Giuseppe Balsamo (b. 1743, d. 1795), a Masonic occultist imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo by Pope Pius VI in 1789. Doctor Strange learns the “mystic arts” from this “master” Balsamo’s book, attaining the power of redefining reality by means of a kind of anti-sacramental “dark art” (a euphemism for “black magic”). Strange is a Cartesian, pluralistic, occult “superhero” who expresses power over natural matter by “violating natural law” (the words of the film itself).

Doctor Strange’s acquisition of forbidden knowledge is symbolized by an apple (00:50:22) and by a kind of indelible mark, which appears on the forehead of his mentor, The Ancient One (1:20:45). The sign of initiation is a geometrical abstraction of the head of a goat, an overtly occult symbol (compare Rev. 13 and the original Marvel illustration, which appeared in Dec. 1973). The Ancient One and Kaecilius (the latter being named for a species of snake), both of whom have been initiated into “the dark arts,” share the same mark in the same place—upon the forehead precisely where a Bishop seals the lay faithful with chrism in the Rite of Confirmation. Strange, Kaecilius, and the Ancient One thus form a sort of occult mock-trinity appropriating symbols from Hinduism, where “good” and “evil” (and something in between) participate in a kind of gnostic-cosmic tango of preservation and destruction. With his blend of eastern mysticism, Cartesianism, and overt Masonic occultism, Doctor Strange is just the sort of “hero” one would expect the film industry to present to society, bent as many film-makers are on forcibly inverting Christian narratives while completely uprooting Christian ethics from popular culture.

If the occult Doctor Strange is one of the “good guys,” then who are some of Infinity War’s other “good guys”? In the world of the film, two lesser “good guys” are Gamora and her sidekick Drax. Gamora’s counterpart, Drax, is a hulk of a man with the bulk of a body-builder. The film’s allusion to Gamora is self-evident (see Gen. 18-19), yet the dialogue itself teases out its meaning more explicitly in a series of rhetorical questions: “Where is Gamora? … Who is Gamora? … Why is Gamora?” The fact that Gamora and Drax form a complementary pair becomes clear when Drax refers to Thor as “a handsome, muscular man” even as Gamora strokes his muscles as he lay unconscious. Drax and Gamora fight on the side of “the good,” resisting Thanos’s Malthusian plan to destroy half of all living people (again, compare Gen. 18 and 19).

If these are the “good guys,” then who is the film’s “bad guy”? The import of Thanos’s character is elusive but discernible. While the name “Thanos” gives a nod to the Greek thanatos, meaning death, the name is pronounced clearly throughout the film as “thay-nos.” The cast’s ubiquitous suppression of the intervocalic ‘n’ causes Thanos’s name throughout the film to sound like the word theos, meaning god. Such are, in fact, the aspirations of the character Thanos, i.e., to possess each Infinity Stone, which altogether would grant him governance of time, space, mind, soul, reality, and power. In short, Thanos wants to be, and in the end becomes, supreme over all other “superheroes” or “gods.” This aspiration to supremacy makes him “evil.” Thanos thus becomes the one god above all the other gods after destroying Gamora whose outcry against Thanos is greatest of all (an inversion of Gen. 18:20-1). In this way Infinity War presents audiences with a strongly anti-Judeo-Christian allegory directly engaging the great philosophical, religious, and moral issues of our day. The film clearly sides with Gamora, Thor, and the allies of Strange while presenting Thanos as an identifiable stand-in for the Judeo-Christian God of the Old Testament.

From the storehouse of Modernism’s synthesis of all heresies, the makers of Infinity War have delivered to global audiences a thoroughly Modernist tale that inverts a proper understanding of “good” and “evil.” If the occult and Gamora are “good,” then the religion which claims authority and supremacy over them is “evil.” Accordingly, the film presents a pluralist philosophy, a gnostic cosmology, a pantheon of ‘gods,’ and an overtly casual yet forceful dismissal of Jesus Christ our Lord as the one who alone has the power to save us from ourselves. As if any additional evidence were needed, the film punctuates its overall meaning with the following supposedly light-hearted dialogue:

Doctor Strange: What master do you serve?

Peter Quill [with sarcasm]: What am I supposed to say? Jesus?

While films like Infinity War assail the devout lay faithful, are we to stand idly by? Or worse, applaud these films and suggest that others do the same?

Marcel Brown

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Marcel Brown currently serves as Dean and co-Founder of The Center for Catholic Culture under the auspices of The Roman Catholic Diocese of Tulsa & Eastern Oklahoma. Dr. Brown graduated from The University of Dallas with a degree in English prior to pursuing doctoral studies at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

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