|The Gospel and the Avengers, Part 3|
Summer action blockbusters aren’t exactly known for their profound ideas, but if we understand worldview, we can find interesting worldview ideas in the most unlikely places. This series has focused on one of the more popular recent franchises, the films involving the various Avengers in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. In the previous articles, we saw how Thor demonstrated the triumph of Christian ideas of virtue over the pagan world, and how other films in the universe showed the influence of Just War Theory and the danger of unchecked power. In this article, we will wrap up by looking at the theme of self-sacrifice and the hope of redemption in the films.
In some ways, the idea of sacrificing yourself to save your friends (or the world) is the easiest and most obvious parallel to the Gospel. The idea of a character dead or presumed dead who comes back to life is a staple of stories ranging from The Lord of the Rings to a surprising number of Disney movies, where it serves as an easy source of pathos for the audience. Not surprisingly, it is also a major plot element in three Marvel films: Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers.
As we saw in the first article in the series, Thor loses his power because of his arrogance and will only get it back when he proves himself worthy of it. After spending some time in exile on Earth and coming to grips with the consequences of his actions, he and his friends are attacked by the Destroyer, a giant robot that Thor’s step-brother Loki sent to hunt him down. When Thor realizes that there is nothing he or his friends can do to stop it, and that if it were allowed to run amok it would destroy the entire town where he was staying and kill all of his friends, he steps out and calls Loki to kill him and leave the others alone. The robot smashes Thor, leaving him apparently dead. At that point, however, Thor’s power is restored. His armor and clothing return to their original state, he summons his hammer, and he destroys the Destroyer.
We see a similar plot line toward the end of Captain America: The First Avenger. We know of Steve Rogers’s willingness to lay down his life to save others from an incident that occurs while he was in basic training in the army. Dr Erskine, the creator of the super-soldier serum, selected Rogers to be the test subject because of his character, courage, and drive; Colonel Chester Philips doesn’t think much of the choice. To try to make his point, Philips throws a dummy grenade into the squad; only Rogers reacts by jumping on it and trying to shield the members of his platoon from the expected blast.
In the climax of the movie, Red Skull, the head of Hydra, is on a jet with bombs on it that are programmed to destroy most of America’s major cities. When Red Skull is disintegrated by a powerful artifact known as the Tesseract, Captain America takes control of the plane. Since attempting to land might have detonated the bombs, Cap crashes the plane into the Arctic to protect innocent lives at the expense (presumably) of his own. Decades later, he is discovered frozen. He is revived and recruited into S.H.I.E.L.D.
In both of these origin stories, the worthiness of the hero was based on his willingness to lay down his life for his friends. Surprisingly enough, this same characteristic is eventually shared by playboy Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man.
In a key scene in The Avengers, Captain America and Tony Stark have an argument. Cap tells Stark, “I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play—to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.” Stark replies, “I think I would just cut the wire.” Cap shakes his head. “Always a way out. You know, you may not be a threat, but you better stop pretending to be a hero.” Stark retorts, “A hero? Like you? You’re a laboratory experiment, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle.”
This raises an important question: what makes a hero? Is it just super human abilities, whether as part of a “laboratory experiment” or through the use of technology, or is it more about the quality of one’s character? Stark certainly thinks it’s the former: Rogers jumping on a grenade doesn’t seem to impress Stark as particularly heroic if he even knows about it. For Rogers, it’s clearly an issue of character.
As it turns out, however, by the end of the movie Stark demonstrates that Rogers is wrong about him. To stop an alien invasion that is coming through a wormhole opened above the city, S.H.I.E.L.D. fires a nuclear missile at New York. Iron Man redirects the missile through the wormhole, where it destroys the mother ship and kills all the aliens who had come to Earth. In the process, though, Stark has to go through the wormhole himself, with no guarantee of surviving or being able to return. He very nearly dies but does fall through the wormhole before it collapses. The Hulk saves him from the fall, and he recovers (though he suffers from PTSD in the sequel, Iron Man 3).
In many cultures around the world, soldiers and warriors were expected to be willing to die for their lord or for the defense of their lands or people. This willingness to die, however, was not what made you a hero, or the mass of common soldiers who fought and died would be equally heroic as the great heroes of those societies. No, those societies saw heroes primarily in terms of their prowess and courage, not their willingness to sacrifice themselves for others. The idea that self-sacrifice is what makes a hero comes ultimately from the example and teaching of Jesus, who laid down his life to save his friends and the world. Once again, Christianity has re-shaped our moral imagination away from the ancient ideal of heroic prowess toward the idea of heroism as self-sacrifice.
Another concept that is in some cases related to the theme of self-sacrifice is the hope of redemption. We see this in Thor and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. After Thor regains his power, he returns to Asgard to find that Loki has usurped the throne and is in the process of destroying Jotunheim, the land of the Frost Giants. Thor tries to stop him, arguing that genocide is wrong (even though at the beginning of the movie, he would have been more than happy to participate in it). By this point, Loki had tried to kill him and had usurped his role as king in the absence of Odin, yet Thor refuses to fight him. He only does so when Loki attacks and he is left with no choice. Even here, however, he doesn’t kill Loki and does his best to save him from falling into the abyss.
This is a remarkable turn of events. In all ancient and medieval heroic literature, anyone who did what Loki did would have met with a decidedly unpleasant end. Treachery was seen as the worst of sins and merited a gruesome punishment, especially when it was committed against family or one’s lawful lord. Yet uncharacteristically, even after Loki has plotted to murder him and usurp the throne, Thor works to bring Loki to repentance and redemption.
Similarly, at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Cap is only willing to fight the Winter Soldier (his old friend Bucky Barnes, a victim of brainwashing and equipped with cybernetic enhancements) until Cap’s mission of reprogramming the helicarrier is completed. After that he refuses to fight even as the Winter Soldier attacks, intending to kill him. Cap is beaten unconscious and falls into the Potomac. Before he drowns, however, the Winter Soldier rescues him and drags him ashore. Evidently, something got through to him. We next see him in the museum looking at the display on Bucky Barnes.
We thus see in these two examples a hope for the redemption of even the enemies of the Avengers, at least those with whom the superheroes had earlier had a relationship. This idea is without parallel in heroic literature, and once again, its source is Christianity. As the Apostle Paul tells, us “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6-8 ESV)
At the same time, as St. Augustine reminds us, evil is parasitic on good: it always works to pervert what is good and to twist it to its own ends. We see this in Thor: The Dark World. Loki takes Thor’s hope for his redemption and the heroic virtue of self-sacrifice and twists them for his own purposes: he seemingly gives up his life to save Thor, so that Thor himself praises his actions to Odin. And while all that was happening, Loki disguises himself as Odin and replaces the real Odin as ruler of Asgard. While this move is a useful plot device for on-going films (and a way to keep Loki—one of the most interesting and colorful characters in the series—central to future plotlines), it also illustrates an understanding of evil drawn from the Augustinian Christian tradition.
To conclude this series, I would like to point out once again that action blockbusters aren’t typically the places one would look for philosophical or worldview reflections, yet as these articles show, if you look, worldview ideas are everywhere. These articles give you some ideas of what to look for and possible conversation starters with your friends. But they also raise the question, if you can find interesting worldview ideas in Marvel Comics, where else can you look for them? And once you find them, what are you going to do with them?
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.