|The Gospel and the Avengers, Part 2|
Gospel truth in action movies
In the previous article, we looked at the impact of Christianity in transforming the concept of the hero. In the ancient world, heroes were warriors characterized by pride, arrogance, and skill at war; Christianity brought in a new ethic of humility, service to others, and using force only to protect the weak.
This transformation can be clearly seen in the movie Thor (2011), especially when the ethos of the movie is compared to the Norse myths that inspired the characters. In this article, we will look at the related themes of just and unjust war and the threat of unchecked power.
Augustine’s “Just War” theory in Asgaard
This doesn’t mean Odin is a pacifist. He led the war against the Frost Giants a thousand years ago, and he engages in a war of extermination against the Dark Elves in Thor: The Dark World (2013). In the first case, it was to defend Earth from conquest; in the second, it was to protect the universe itself against destruction.
These ideas fit within the framework of Christian just war theory as laid out by St. Augustine of Hippo. For a war to be just, it must be waged by a legitimate authority (in this case, Odin as king of Asgard, not Thor), for a just reason (self-defense or defense of an ally), and by just means (against military targets only, not non-combatants).
Warring against unchecked power
How do we reconcile his rejection of military manufacturing with his production of the ultimate high-tech weapon for personal use? Stark evidently saw the need for superior weaponry, but also recognized its danger in the hands of those who might use it to oppress others. We see this in his refusal to hand over his technology to the U.S. government in Iron Man 2 (2010) and in his distrust of S.H.I.E.L.D. in The Avengers (2012). (His friend James Rhodes confiscates the Mark II suit in Iron Man 2 for the military and ends up as War Machine; the problems that ensue demonstrate why Stark wanted to maintain control of his technology.) Stark trusted himself with the suit, but distrusted governments and agencies like S.H.I.E.L.D.—for good reason, as we learn in other movies in the series.
Similar themes concerning when violence is justified and distrust of potentially corrupt institutions appear in the story arc surrounding Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America. The character of Captain America was created during World War II, and his origin story, Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), takes place during that period. The movie explains how Steve Rogers, a scrawny kid from Brooklyn, became a superhero. It also introduces us to Hydra, the Nazi group whose supervillain leader Captain America defeats. In order to save American cities from weapons of mass destruction on a Hydra plane that Captain America captured in flight, he crashes it into the Arctic. Seventy years later, his frozen body is recovered; he is revived and recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D.
America embodied by a superhero
We see these traits exhibited in both The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014). In The Avengers, Captain America and Tony Stark have an implicit rivalry over who is going to lead the Avengers: like a good soldier, Cap is loyal to S.H.I.E.L.D. while Stark mistrusts it. Cap is shocked to discover that Stark has hacked into S.H.I.E.L.D.’s computers; Stark replies that S.H.I.E.L.D. hasn’t been up front about what they are doing. Cap then investigates and discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has weapons built with the kind of alien technology used by Hydra, which from bitter experience he knows to be very dangerous.
This discovery begins to shake Cap’s loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. and to connect him more closely to the Avengers. He eventually emerges as their tactical leader, and they save the world against an alien invasion (destroying a good chunk of Manhattan in the process). The movie ends with the Avengers going their separate ways, much to the chagrin of the World Security Council, S.H.I.E.L.D.’s supervisors.
In Winter Soldier, we find Captain America continuing to work for S.H.I.E.L.D. but unhappy with Nick Fury’s leadership: he comments that he is getting tired of cleaning up Fury’s messes. He then finds out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been building huge Helicarriers that will provide an unprecedented airborne surveillance and weapons capabilities intended to eliminate any threats on the ground, anywhere in the world, before they happen. Cap is furious: “I thought the punishment usually came after the crime.” Fury responds that S.H.I.E.L.D. takes the world as it is, not as we would like it to be. Cap retorts, “This isn’t freedom. This is fear.”
Cap’s worries are well founded. Fury is attacked and apparently killed by a super assassin known as the Winter Soldier. S.H.I.E.L.D. tries to recruit Captain America to help institute a new world order, but Cap objects that the plan would kill innocent people. As a result, S.H.I.E.L.D. turns on him and begins hunting him.
Cap discovers that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated and taken over by Hydra, which intends to use the new Helicarriers combined with a massive system of computer surveillance to identify and kill anyone who might be a threat to Hydra’s control of the world. With the help of Sam Wilson/Falcon and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow, Cap brings down this incarnation of Hydra (and S.H.I.E.L.D. with it) and once again saves the world from mass murder and totalitarianism.
Gospel virtues embodied, if only imperfectly
So what does any of this have to do with the Gospel?
As noted, except in Captain America’s origin story, we aren’t dealing with actual wars here, but the superheroes are motivated to fight by the desire to protect life and freedom, which are legitimate reasons for war in just war theory. Further, the superheroes do their best to protect non-combatants, an essential element in just conduct of war.
The causes for which the superheroes fight—life and liberty—became part of the Western political tradition because of the influence of Christianity. John Locke famously identified life, liberty, and property as unalienable rights, but few realize he got this idea from medieval theologians, who identified these from their reflections on the nature of humanity as revealed in Genesis.
Lastly, distrust of government and other powerful institutions is deeply rooted in Augustinian theology. Because of the Fall, no one can be trusted with absolute power, and those with power will always crave more and will inevitably abuse it. As Lord Acton famously put it, “Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Government must therefore be strictly limited to protect our unalienable rights. This again is a gift of Christianity to government, since apart from Christian influence unlimited, arbitrary government is the norm throughout the world. Our current concern about government surveillance and expanding government power is thus not simply a pragmatic response to current events, but is a reflection of theological concerns about the impact of sin on individuals and institutions. This is the root of Tony Stark’s mistrust of the U.S. military and his and eventually Captain America’s well-founded concern about S.H.I.E.L.D.
So once again, we find in the Marvel universe a reflection of the ways that Christian ideas have helped shape our culture. It is far from a perfect reflection, but the essential values and ethos of the characters (which Marvel assumes the audience will share) were largely shaped by the Gospel.
Why not attend or rent one of the recent movies in the Avengers genre: Thor, one of the Iron Man trilogy, the current Captain America movie, and others. Go with a friend; afterwards have a discussion about what values are portrayed in the heroes. How do they compare with what Glenn says above regarding ancient hero virtues?
Further Reading: If mythology grabs your inner geek, why not purchase The Dictionary of Classic Mythology by Pierre Grimal, from the Colson Center Online Bookstore. And if film criticism—especially knowing how to view films from a Christian worldview—is of interest, read “Film and the Christian” in the Colson Center Library.