The MCU as morality play
It’s another superhero summer filled with costumed crusaders. At the heart of the fabulous CGI, breathtaking stunts, witty dialogue, amazing physiques, and ever-new uniforms, however, is a timeless mythological core. And it’s a story Christians know well.
No matter how powerful the hero, it seems, suffering and even death come his or her way. Wonder Woman’s partner, Col. Steve Trevor, can save the day only by suicidally guiding a bomb away from his friends. Batman has to sacrifice his good name in order to do what Gotham City needs done. Superman himself isn’t immortal.
Meanwhile, over in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU—yes, that’s a thing), Captain America follows the lead of Steve Trevor. Super-spies Nick Tracy and Phil Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. take one for the team. Even Tony Stark rides a nuke out of this world.
—Ah, Tony Stark. As one of my sons argues (they are all ‘way too knowledgeable about the MCU), Tony Stark’s “arc” is the over-arching theme of the huge Avengers franchise. The self-absorbed playboy whose wealth is built on, and whose genius is focused on, building weapons becomes the self-sacrificing hero who gives it all up for the greater good.
(And, as if to underline this trajectory, the Tony Stark of Asgard, none other than the God of Thunder himself, the mighty Thor, undergoes a similar transformation.)
These blockbuster spectacles are ethical tableaux. I once asked my friend, the nice former-Presbyterian-elder Ralph Winter, why he devoted a considerable part of his career to making nine-digit comicbook movies. (Ralph produced the early “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four” movies, among many others.) And, while we agreed that “having fun” is, indeed, a human value Christians can endorse—so if we’re going to indulge in entertainment, let it be of good quality—his main interest was in the movies as morality plays.
Only in these movies, it seems, can we deal with good and evil without irony. And in the themes of teamwork-versus-egotism, perseverance-in-the-face-of-disappointment, and vicarious suffering, which together constitute the very soul of these movies, we confront cultural and moral bedrock.
Oh, there are lots of other stories available today that champion very different mores: stories of people setting up empires, making and spending billions, keeping up with the Kardashians, constantly breaking bad and playing an endless game of thrones.
More insidiously, the MCU provides us with impressively plausible ethical alternatives, whether the Social Justice Warrior par excellence Erik Killmonger of “Black Panther,” who wants only to strike back at white oppressors on behalf of black people everywhere, or the smooth-talking lucifers Ultron and Thanos of the “Avengers” series, who calmly and deliberately want to “optimize” the earth, and its human governors—no matter how many have to die in the process.
The best stories, however, follow a great code, as Northrop Frye recognized a generation ago—a code given to us in a single great Book. And the greatest Story of all in that Book is that of the Hero suffering and dying on behalf of the world.
It is the great paradox, as C. S. Lewis loved to explore in his own stories as well as in his several ethical reflections: One has to go down to go up. This principle is part of the odd nature of the cosmos—what in Narnia is called the “deep magic.”
Remember, though, that magic is not arbitrary. Another age would call it the “deep physics.” It is the way of things, and God understands and complies with it—hence God’s willingness to undergo the pain and death of Calvary so that we, God’s beloved, might avoid it. God goes down, even to death, so that we might rise above it.
This is truly the Greatest Story Ever Told. What is unimaginably better is that it is the Truest Story, actual good news of what is actually the case.
And when one encounters that Story, one can respond appropriately in only one way.