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Faith, fandom and a Marvel-lous opportunity: Why superheroes are a bit religious

With the Oscars making the headlines this week, Joseph Hartropp takes a look at how grasping something of the Marvel universe can give a boost to your connection with your children and young people. 

As the world looks to find its feet again, one of life’s old certainties has already made its return: superheroes. The shuttering of cinemas last year meant a long delay to any big-screen heroics, but services like Disney+ have since ensured their absence was only temporary. In recent months shows like WandaVision and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier have kept audiences engaged with weekly appointment viewing. Fan favourite God of Mischief Loki gets his own show in June, then Black Widow will finally arrive to cinemas (and Disney+) in July. A Hawkeye show will launch later in 2021, alongside three major cinematic releases: Shang Chi, The Eternals and Spider-Man: No Way Home. And that’s just the Marvel Cinematic Universe this year, to say nothing of other superheroes. Love them or hate them, superheroes are back and going nowhere.  

What can a Christian youth worker make of all this? While not every young person may be enamoured with them, it’s fair to say that these now ubiquitous pop culture icons have found a sizeable audience that certainly includes many young people. And though for some the appeal of these stories is merely like that of any sugary snack, I think the lure of superheroes touches on something deeper within us – young and old. I believe superheroes provide new religious texts for our secular, entertainment age. And I know that might sound a bit silly. But rather than mere, mindless escapism, I think these stories of spectacle offer meaningful adventure in a world that’s still desperate for narrative, for connection, for transcendence. And since I think there’s no better example of that than the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) right now, let’s talk about that. How have Iron Man, Captain America and the Avengers got anything to do with religious faith, and how might that open up a potential connection with young people right now? 

Let’s get together 

Religions help people find meaning in life, articulating a vision for what life should be and giving us a way to live that vision out. If there’s one article of faith in the Marvel universe it’s that the good life is found in community. It’s the essential project of 2012’s crossover Avengers Assemble: disparate individuals find they can’t save the world unless they do it together. Go it alone and you won’t go far; the solo movies are fun but these characters ultimately belong together, they flourish in community. Films like 2016’s Captain America: Civil War then explore the nature of conflict and disunity – what happens when a family disagrees? Friendship is a key theme of Falcon and the Winter Soldier, while WandaVision gets deep into the power of family and the grief we experience losing those we love. Black Widow describes her experience in Avengers: Endgame: “I used to have nothing…then I got this…this family.”  

This communal emphasis is a bold rejection of the expressive individualism in which we live and breathe. It isn’t ‘you do you’ or the popular Disney mantra ‘be true to yourself’. Both Marvel and Christianity agree that self-realisation has its place – but alone it is limited, part of the journey but not our destination. The endgame for both is community – just as every Marvel solo movie builds up to the next crossover, Jesus calls us by name but also calls us to a collective, to the complicated family we call the Church. Of course, the MCU is not secretly about the Church and there’s no sense that its creators are pushing a Christian message, but it is a fascinating point of congruence that in a culture both obsessed with and disappointed by its cult of individuality, we find a Disney-owned, billion-dollar franchise emphasising something far more communal. For young people who grow up with the ever-increasing pressure to discover and express themselves, here’s a story that (at least in part) invites them to discover the joy of a collective. 

How to be good 

As well as a social vision, religions tend to project an ethical code, an idea of what right and wrong might be – how to live a good life. Some have judged superhero stories to be insufficient and dangerous in this regard: unethical fantasies. After all, they project simplistic good vs evil narratives, indulge fantasies of power and destruction, and their high-flying escapades don’t prepare people for the murky moral challenges of the everyday.  
 
But for all its flights of fancy, there’s a core message of moral responsibility in the Marvel universe. This goes back to the late, defining Marvel creator Stan Lee, who said that though he wasn’t trying to promote a religious vision, he certainly had a moral code in mind, which consciously echoed the Bible’s Golden Rule. In Lee’s words: “‘Do unto others as you’d have them do to you.’ I feel if everyone followed that precept, we’d have a heaven here on earth.” It led Lee to coin the iconic Spider-Man mantra: “With great power comes great responsibility.” These stories explore the fantasies of superhuman power, but also emphasise human fallibility – hence the need for responsibility. Consider Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, whom we meet as a deeply narcissistic weapons developer. It’s only after an explosive encounter with the destruction he has wrought that he recognises his own culpability – and his potential to do better. The films track his progress from a selfish egoist to a family man willing to lay it all down for the greater good. 

Likewise, we meet Thor as an irresponsible, entitled prince who needs to be stripped of his power. His magical hammer can only be wielded by those deemed ‘worthy’; only in becoming willing to give up his life for others can he discover the responsibility that belongs with power. Then there’s moral exemplars, like Steve Rodgers (Captain America), whose real superpower is his moral goodness. He embodies self-sacrifice from the beginning, his journey is one of wrestling with virtue in an ever-changing world where big institutions let us down, while not giving up on people and their potential to change. His legacy is explored in the recent The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, a show which also breaks new ground in its bold reflections on racial injustice and representation.  
 
The Marvel villains are rarely ‘pure evil’ either. In Black Panther, T’Challa laments that antagonist Killmonger, wounded by generations prior, is “a monster of our own making”. Or as Tony Stark, who inspires several MCU villains, puts it: “we create our demons”. The heroes bear responsibility even for their enemies, while those enemies exhibit both virtue and vice, reminding us that everyone is fallible and life can’t be simply divided into goodies and baddies. That’s a fundamentally Christian concept of course: human nature is broken and selfish, we long for power that if granted, usually exacerbates our worst impulses and brings destruction upon others. That truth lives in tension with the promise that we’re capable of much good, that we can repent and change, that because of the gospel we can grow, bearing light instead of darkness. We don’t get to fly or wield magical hammers (perhaps in the new creation?) but the moral challenge is the same: can we let go of our selfish desires and discover the joy of loving others more than ourselves? 

Super-spiritual? 

Alongside an ethical and social vision, the Marvel movies exhibit a spiritual vision for life – at least a little bit. Initially the stories are secular and humanistic: powers come from scientific accidents and human ingenuity. No one ever really talks about God or religion, and even the magic world of Thor and Co is, from a human perspective, just “science we don’t understand yet”. But over time these stories have opened up more and more to the supernatural and inexplicable. Submitting to the transcendent and mysterious is the call upon Stephen Strange, an arrogant doctor who gets drawn into the mystical and unseen in Doctor Strange. He is unconvinced at first: “There is no such thing as spirit! We are made of matter and nothing more. We’re just another tiny, momentary speck in an indifferent universe.” His mentor the Ancient One responds, with irony for the prideful Strange, that “you think too little of yourself”. She later drives home the message: “Arrogance and fear still keep you from learning the simplest and most significant lesson of all…it’s not about you.” Strange learns that neither materialism not individualism provide adequate accounts of reality. The universe is not cold and indifferent – purpose, meaning and transcendence exist. But that discovery also invites humility, the universe is not about us and we find our place in recognising that with gratitude. “It’s not about you” is likewise not a message exclusive to Christianity, but it’s certainly central to it. Again, in our largely individualist world, it’s worth stopping to notice when a popular story stops to say something both different and resonant with the message of Jesus. 

The MCU expands its spiritual explorations with its continuous wrestling with death and resurrection. On one hand, these films emphasise finitude. A depressed Thor, who has watched almost all his loved ones die by the time of Avengers: Infinity War, says: “The only thing that is permanent in life is impermanence.” The Ancient One muses: “Death is what gives life meaning. To know your days are numbered, and your time is short.” WandaVision makes profound reflections on love, loss and the process of grief. Its lead Wanda declares: “We can’t reverse death, no matter how sad it makes us. Some things are for ever.” 
 
And yet, true to comic book tradition, the MCU loves resurrection. People frequently die or appear to die before soon returning, so the films can milk the emotional impact of both death and revival. Loki has died and returned numerous times, and his new Disney+ show represents another comeback. Spoilers here but there’s a lot of death at the end of Infinity War, though it’s mostly reversed in Endgame. Of course, it’s partly comic book capitalism at work: when you own a beloved character like Spider-Man or Superman (another ‘resurrection’, this time in the DC universe), you can flirt with death but there’s too much money at stake to let it be final. That’s a cynical view. Another way of looking at it is that Marvel is expressing an essential tension of life: it’s a process of both dying and living, and while we recognise our finitude, part of us holds on to the hope of resurrection and return. Again, such a paradox is key to Christianity: we find our lives in a dying and resurrected saviour, we live between the death that is ‘now’ and the resurrection that is ‘not yet’. 

New worlds, new horizons 

“I see that in every way you are religious” says Paul to the Athenians in Acts 17. He starts with their story and steps into what it means. He affirms the truth he sees in it, and then starts to tell his story. Perhaps the MCU is a world you’d like to explore with the young people you work with: do they love it? Why or why not? Do they see any connection between God and superheroes? We’re all looking for some kind of story to give meaning to our lives – what’s the appeal of this one?  
 
Of course, there’s many ways in which something as commercial as the MCU is not like a religion – it doesn’t claim to be one, and at least most fans don’t believe these heroes are real or that the films are holy, authoritative texts. But the MCU certainly has a widespread impact. It shapes imaginations, it creates communities, it brings joy, excitement and direction to people’s lives. Through its ever-expanding canon of media, it wrestles with the meaning of life and death, helping us explore those tensions in our own lives. It is ‘entertainment’, but it’s also a powerful story, and it also might be the closest thing some people have to a religion. It could be a great starting place for a really rich conversation.