Note: This essay contains spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Eternals.
“I shouldn’t be alive…unless it was for a reason.”
“You’re not getting what the universe is trying to tell you.”
The first line above, from the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was uttered by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008) after a nearly fatal encounter with one of his own company’s weapons. The second, from the latest MCU movie, Thor: Love and Thunder, is addressed to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.
Expressions like these imply an idea, a way of thinking about reality, that is so implicitly second nature to human beings that it would be pedantic to make too much of it. Whether due to magical thinking, a divinely imbued instinct for God, a psychological tendency to impose meaning on indeterminate stimuli, or some combination of all three, at striking moments in our lives—for example, encounters with mortality—we feel we can perceive the workings of something that, depending on our worldview, we might call fate, destiny, a higher power, the universe, the Tao, Providence. In such moments we feel there is a moral structure to reality, a grand design in which we have a place, setting a path we must follow.
Such ideas about meaning and morality are one thing in a diegetic world that, like that of Iron Man, resembles our own in most respects, the main narrative conceit being experimental arc-reactor technology capable of powering a corporate headquarters or a flying suit of armor. Over the last 14 years, though, as narrative conceits have piled up in an increasingly crowded shared universe, this way of thinking has come to seem increasingly strained.
For example, in the popular TV series Loki it was revealed that the border between the possible and the actual has been delineated and maintained by an unfathomably powerful, quasi-religious bureaucracy of brainwashed functionaries who believe they are following the will of transcendent “Time-Keepers” in preserving the integrity of what they call the “Sacred Timeline,” when in reality their whole cultlike worldview was dreamed up by a psychopathic mortal who happened to win a war between branching timelines.
If the “reason” Tony is alive is simply that this happened to be the version of reality preferred by a psychopath—well, it might not strictly disprove the idea of a moral structure to reality, but it certainly seems to debunk that striking sense of meaning that Tony finds in his survival and his feeling that it follows that there is something he must do.
As for the universe sending Jane a message, for some time now each new MCU release has offered another variation on the same nihilistic theme: The powers that be are revealed to be untrustworthy at best, deceitful or self-serving at worst, and ideas about destiny, the grand design, and good and evil are debunked.
Many gods, many afterlifes—at least for some
In particular, three of the most recent MCU movies—Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and now Thor: Love and Thunder—mark a turning point by dealing overtly with religious themes in ways avoided by earlier MCU releases. In Love and Thunder we see, for the first time, godlike beings who not only identify as divine, but accept and desire the religious devotion and service of adherents to their cultuses. (We’re a long way from Odin explicitly rejecting the term “gods” for the Asgardians in Thor: The Dark World.)
We see, too, how unworthy the gods are of such devotion: how callous and indifferent to the suffering and pleas of their followers and others, even fellow gods. To call this “anti-religious” might be simplistic: Negative depictions of small-g gods are arguably convergent both with themes in polytheistic mythology and with monotheistic critiques of pagan religion. Yet as Love and Thunder opens with a frivolous, ostentatiously adorned deity named Rapu brutally laughing in the face of his last wretched worshiper—ridiculing his belief in the promise of eternal reward, claiming that nothing awaits him after death and that his only purpose is to suffer for his gods—the religious questions raised aren’t limited to belief in small-g gods.
Further complicating the issue, there are rewards after death, at least for some. In a post-credits sequence, Jane Foster—who takes up the hammer and the mantle of the Mighty Thor, but eventually succumbs to her cancer—is welcomed at the gates of Valhalla. (She is greeted by Idris Elba’s Heimdall, who was slain in Avengers: Infinity War.) Black Panther depicts a realm called the Ancestral Plane where it is possible (at least for Wakandans of royal blood, with the help of a special herb connected to Black Panther’s powers) to encounter departed souls. But is Valhalla open to anyone without Asgardian powers, or the Ancestral Plane to anyone but Wakandans?
Another twist, according to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, is that eternal punishment also apparently exists. (No indication for whom or for what.) A key plot point turns on the Darkhold or “Book of the Damned,” a tome of evil magic said to be derived from the “first demon, Chthon.” The Darkhold gives the user power to command “the souls of the damned”: malicious spirits functionally equivalent to demons (much as the souls of the redeemed are said to become “angels” in stories like It’s a Wonderful Life). Fighting off these damned souls, a character snaps, “Go back to hell!”
I haven’t seen the small-screen series Moon Knight, but I understand that it references Black Panther’s Ancestral Plane in connection with its own depiction of the afterlife in Egyptian belief. An Egyptian goddess named Taweret goes so far as to state that life after death is real, but perceived differently by people of different cultures. Yet why Rapu ridicules his poor last worshipper’s hopes of eternal reward, while Asgardian, Egyptian, and Wakandan concepts of the afterlife are given credence, is far from clear.
The gods are worse than crazy
A farcical sequence in the middle of Love and Thunder deflatingly suggests that, as gods go, Rapu is the rule, not the exception. Rapu’s spurned worshiper—a bereaved father named Gorr (Christian Bale)—acquires a powerful, dark weapon called the Necrosword, and, under its corrupting influence, sets out to exterminate all gods before the evil of the sword takes his own life. Faced with the threat of this “God Butcher,” Thor and his allies look to rally the combined might of the pantheons of all worlds, represented at the ecumenical Council of Godheads in a massive, fantastical redoubt called Omnipotence City.
Among the Council’s vast throng of deities are the likes of Quetzalcóatl and the Egyptian/Wakandan cat/panther goddess Bast/Bastet, along with, presumably, countless deities of alien worlds. The Council’s presiding leader and most eminent member, though, is none other than Zeus, played by Russell Crowe. Zeus’ prestige among the gods is so great that even Thor is awed by him. Naturally he turns out to be a showboating buffoon interested mainly in orgies. (“Never meet your heroes” is Thor’s bitter comment afterwards.)
As Rapu ignored Gorr’s prayers, Zeus spurns Thor’s pleas for help, declaring that Asgardian problems are their own. Worse, Zeus attempts to detain Thor to prevent him from engaging Gorr and perhaps betraying the secret location of Omnipotence City—all with no evident dissent from members of the Council. Perhaps because of the decadence of Zeus and his retinue, though, Thor and his companions easily escape.
Gorr’s ultimate gambit is more ambitious and absolute than assassinating gods one by one. Journeying to the center of the universe, he makes contact with a transcendent being called Eternity, who will (for reasons unknown, per lore unexplained) grant any wish to the first being that reaches him: a unique form of “prayer” guaranteed to be granted. Though his intention is to wish for the death of all gods, in the end Gorr is moved by Thor’s appeal to his better angels and the touching final moments between Thor and dying Jane, and uses his dying wish to restore life to his daughter.
Nihilistic cosmos, humanistic ethos
This finale is typical of the MCU sensibility, which proposes an essentially nihilistic cosmos, but rejects nihilism as an ethos. Gorr joins MCU villains such as Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela, whose villainy lies in their ruthless, by-any-means-necessary approach, but whose cause or complaint is at least understandable, or even just.
The MCU exalts love and sacrifice, but the sacrifice must be personal: The one thing you cannot do, it seems, is sacrifice others for the greater good. For example, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens with a corrupted version of Doctor Strange from another dimension of reality attempting to save the multiverse by sacrificing an innocent person, interdimensional traveler America Chavez. Multiverse of Madness rejects the pragmatic calculus of that corrupted Strange, who dies in the opening scene.
Yet “our” Strange’s solution is arguably even more disturbing. I’ve argued that Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in the original Doctor Strange secretly engages in what amounts to satanism for the greater good by channeling mystic energy from the realm of a malevolent, world-consuming entity called Dormammu. Now Strange himself utilizes the Book of the Damned (a taboo artifact that, like the Necrosword, has a corrupting influence on the user) to possess the corpse of the slain Strange and command the souls of the damned. If there’s a cost, it’s only to his own soul—though it’s abundantly clear that a corrupted Doctor Strange can be as great a threat to reality as Thanos or Dormammu. Strange himself admits that he’s no more uncorruptible than other versions of him we’ve seen or heard about. Whether or not Strange’s consequentialist actions are ultimately seen as a problem may depend on sequels yet to come.
Perhaps the most overt expression to date of the conflict between the MCU’s humanistic ethos and its cosmic nihilism is last year’s Eternals. Eternals starts with a subversive creation myth pointedly contrasting with the opening chapters of Genesis, even opening with the words “In the beginning” and crediting “Arishem, the Prime Celestial,” with bringing “light into the universe.” Arishem also created human beings and the godlike Eternals—but not in his image. The Eternals watch over humanity, but their trust in Arishem and his “grand design” is shattered when they learn the truth: The Earth is just an incubator for an embryonic Celestial gestating in the planet’s core, and humans are merely part of a life cycle that will culminate in the violent destruction of the planet. As for the Eternals themselves, they aren’t even living creatures. They are merely “fancy robots” designed by Arishem to protect human beings from demon-like monsters called Deviants (which it turns out were also created by Arishem, but evolved beyond their originally intended purpose).
When the Eternals discover the lie at the heart of their worldview, some of them rebel against Arishem. Thwarting the emergence of the nascent Celestial, the Eternals carry out a cosmic abortion to save mother Earth—a choice with essentially humanistic motives directly contrary both to their own raison d’être and that of humanity.
Is there room for God in the MCU?
Although religion has historically had a low profile in the MCU, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do exist. Captain America’s famous affirmation of monotheism in The Avengers (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”) may be heavily qualified by the innumerable gods seen since then, but monotheistic religion is still around. For example, Captain America: The Winter Soldier prominently featured a church funeral, and Ultron alluded to Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew in Avengers: Age of Ultron (in which, like the villains in Doctor Strange, he used an empty church for his sinister plans). On the small screen, Moon Knight is Jewish and Ms. Marvel and her family are Muslim. The conspicuously Catholic hero of Netflix’s Daredevil is retroactively MCU canon, and a new Disney+ series is in the works.
The appearance of Zeus and other Greek gods alongside the Olympians (and the existence of the afterlifes of Norse and Egyptian mythology) raise an intriguing question: Are all the deities of all the myths and religions in the MCU real? Are the Celestials and all the many pantheons of the Council of Godheads ultimately creatures of one true God?
Eternals suggests a negative answer. To start with, Zeus may exist, but it seems Athena doesn’t—nor do a number of other mythological gods and heroes, including Circe, Gilgamesh, and Icarus. All of these are supposed to be based on similarly named Eternals: Thena, Sersi, Ikaris, etc. Likewise, there are hints that the Abrahamic idea of the One who brought light into the universe in the beginning is supposed to be based on Arishem. (Hashem is a Hebrew circumlocution for God meaning “the Name.”) A painting of St. Michael the Archangel during the end credits, alongside other religious and mythological figures, implies that he too is merely another of Arishem’s synthetic gods.
There is one significant caveat: It seems Arishem may not consider himself the ultimate source of meaning and purpose even for his own creatures. Although the Eternals’ rebellion brings him to Earth in judgment, there’s a hopeful hint of a higher morality: Arishem declares that he will spare the Earth if he finds that human beings are “worthy to live.” While humans as rational beings have no intrinsic value in Arishem’s eyes, apparently he deems it possible that they could somehow have attained a value not foreseen in his utilitarian grand design. Like the Deviants and the Eternals themselves, humans may have evolved beyond their creator’s intent—a development that could have moral implications even for their creator.
If so, what is the basis of this moral reality? What, too, is the basis for reward and punishment in the MCU’s various afterlifes (or whatever ultimate reality stands behind various cultural perceptions of the afterlife)? We’re told there are conditions for attaining Valhalla or the Egyptian Field of Reeds; what is the basis for these conditions? By what standards were the damned souls in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness damned?
These questions, at least, have not been mooted (not yet) by the MCU’s expanding cosmic nihilism. If there’s still room in the MCU for the God that characters like Captain America, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel believe in—if he could be the ultimate reality behind the sense that some things happen for a reason and that the universe sends us messages—perhaps the mysteries behind unanswered questions like these are where he hides.
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Not being much of a movie fan, and definitely not of Marvel comics movies, I had a hard time following all the characters and relationships mentioned in this review.I guess it was a review although there was no particular recommendation at the end.
The only reason that I read it was that my diocesan paper this week carried a brief USCCB review of the movie. That review said that there were “elements of gender-bending and homosexuality blended in.” I did not see any of that mentioned here, although I must admit that I read it quickly, and did not feel it was worth my time to re-read it.
The USCCB review rated it as A III, adults, just as it did for the other Disney movie, “Lightyear”, which also had Lesbian characters in it. I would think that most of the adults that go to either of these two movies would be bringing children with them.
Disney has stated earlier this year that they would be inserting LGBT characters in all their productions, and they seem to be following up on that.
Also, I thought that we were boycotting Disney due to their extreme LGBT promotion, but I guess not.
In terms of the influence all this is having, I would say that the pot of water is heating up, and even many of the Catholic frogs seem not to be aware of it.
As a film critic I suppose it is Steven Greydanus”s job to write this, but for the life of me, I can’t understand why CWR posts it. I am a regular reader of CWR articles, and the readers comments. I don’t get the impression that CWR readers are into Marvel comic movies, but, maybe I am wrong.
It is not a review. I am examining a theme in a number of movies, not reviewing one film.
How anyone can consider these silly flicks anything more than a few hours of escapist entertainment (accompanied by the requisite bag of lukewarm popcorn and a small pepsi, perhaps a coke,) and then QUICKLY forgotten is entirely beyond me.
Culling the herd. To kill or not to kill. I won’t comment on Greydanus’ movie choice because [I honestly dislike his choice] I watched by accident, due to an impeding gale force storm past my day’s end, The Purge: Anarchy 2014 starring Frank Grillo [Leo] an anti hero who becomes the hero the pursued villain who accidentally killed his son a co hero. And female heroin [we can’t omit the gals] Carmen Ejogo. Govt permits 12 hours per annum for free random killing to vent our spleens and cull the populace.
I imagine Greydanus already tackled this one though it seems his repeated take on this ‘oldie’ is worth it – they’re multiple dynamics that touch our day. Mass killing sprees, immense hatred, the culling of the herd advocated by Treasury Secretary Janice Yellin, Pres ‘Joe’ [Stalin?] Biden.
Killing erupts spontaneously, suddenly, entirely unexpectedly within a warm welcoming Hispanic family where the main characters find refuge from the slaughter. As happens at times in reality with no real rationale. No feasible psychological offer. From this writer’s perspective the buildup of discontented rage within a culture sans a spiritual anchor in Christ, whose all consuming love provides emotive, intellectual ordering.
I really wish that more film critics, including Christian film critics, would spend less time writing lengthy analyses of formally unadventurous children’s movies. Instead, they could spend their time writing lengthy analyses of adult movies (I’m reclaiming that term), like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria or Terence Davies’ Benediction or David Cronenberg’s Crimes of the Future, all of which deserve more viewers. It’s paramount that religious viewers be made more aware of movies that don’t make a billion dollars.
So, Oswald, where’s your thoughtful comment on my review of Petit Maman?
Why not share your thoughts on my lengthy analysis of the films of Robert Eggers?
Feel free to comment on my essays on The Godfather and Cyrano.
Cyrano isn’t an adult film. After all, it was directed by Joe Wright.
I love Robert Eggers, but I don’t think that The Lighthouse or The Northman are quite on the same level as The Witch. Still love all three, though.
The Godfather is a perfect movie, but it’s fifty years old. I don’t really have anything novel to say about that one.
Petite Maman (“maman” is a feminine noun) was just about flawless. I’d go so far as to say that it features two of the medium’s best child performances.
My point, Oswald, is that my commentary on MCU movies generally gets feedback (so far in this particular case, hilariously, only from people complaining about the commentary’s existence, but better than nothing; FWIW, social-media response has been brisk and positive) — whereas when I write about a movie that we agree is “just about flawless,” like Petite Maman (thanks for the catch, I know how it’s spelled!), I get something close to crickets. Doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep writing about movies like Petite Maman for those who appreciate it, but it would be nice if more people like you who value movies like that would light a candle instead of cursing the darkness.
I agree with you that The Witch remains Eggers’ masterpiece. And while I confess that I’ve been intimidated for over 20 years by the thought of writing about a movie as much studied and written about as The Godfather, in the end I think I found something worth saying.
Look, I don’t envy the position you’re in. A lot of the people who whine about these sorts of reviews are pretty dumb and seem completely disinterested in film analysis. In their diseased minds, even engaging with a movie qualifies as a concession to the evil libs who control Hollywood. (Not saying that evil libs don’t control Hollywood, but when people use that as an excuse to completely dismiss any and all cinema, I tune out.) Of course, many of these people are too lazy to watch, say, Iranian movies because they feature subtitles and scary-looking Muslims.
I still loved The Northman, but I agree with you on The Witch. On the basis of ATJ’s brilliant performance in the latter, I kinda wish that Eggers had done more with her character in his latest movie. Alas, he seemed more interested in her (or perhaps a body double’s) backside this time around. But, like I said before, I still enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Looking forward to seeing what those two do with Nosferatu, even though Murnau and Herzog already nailed that story. Kinda wish more filmmakers would focus on remaking auteur-driven works that didn’t quite pan out the first go around, like Bergman’s Serpent’s Egg. (People said the same thing about Lynch’s Dune, but that movie owns and is better than the very good Villeneuve movie that came out last year.)
Nothing against people who review movies or watch them, but I haven’t seen a movie in years. When they aren’t trashy they are PC propaganda. Not an industry I want to support.
“Although religion has historically had a low profile in the MCU, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do exist. . . . and Ultron alluded to Genesis and the Gospel of Matthew in Avengers: Age of Ultron (in which, like the villains in Doctor Strange, he used an empty church for his sinister plans). On the small screen, Moon Knight is Jewish and Ms. Marvel and her family are Muslim.”
So we’ve gone from mere Christianity to mere theism.
Thousands of movies come out every year. Many of them have a great deal of artistic merit. Some of those worthy titles are from deeply conservative societies, like Iran. If you expanded your horizons and bothered to look up some of those films, instead of bemoaning the evils of Hollywood (all real) like a Laura Ingraham wannabe, you might find something of value. Personally, I can’t stand the thought of not watching at least one new movie a week. I can’t imagine going years without watching one.
Thousands of movies come out every year. Many of them have a great deal of artistic merit. Some of those worthy titles are from deeply conservative societies, like Iran. If you expanded your horizons and looked up some of those films, you might find something of value. Personally, I can’t stand the thought of not watching at least one new movie a week. I can’t imagine going years without watching one.
Oswald, your concern about Catholics being stuck in pop culture (not that I would accuse the Deacon of this) is exactly why I started Criteria: The Catholic Film Podcast. (In fact Dcn. Greydanus was our guest when we discussed Monsieur Vincent.)
My main disagreement is with your suggestion that Strange’s admittedly disturbing necromancy is even worse than killing an innocent person. I think you are affirming that the films’ absolute refusal to condone “sacrificing” third parties is a good thing, but the way you worded it wasn’t entirely clear. Your overall point that the _moral_ world of the films is far from nihilistic I entirely agree with and this is a very good example of it.
I’m not sure that the films at this point have a coherent cosmology. It remains to be seen. In Love and Thunder, it’s possible to understand Rapu (who is obviously a particularly contemptible god) as simply speaking of his own “religion.” He doesn’t give an eternal reward, but apparently other “religions” do. But it’s certainly a point of ambiguity that may or may not ever be given a coherent solution.
I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Edwin.
Regarding our possible disagreement: You’re on target in sensing that I approve of Multiverse of Madness’s repudiation of alt-Strange’s willingness to sacrifice America to save the multiverse. I do think, though, it’s at least possible to make an argument, based on the principle of double effect, for what he proposes to do, in a way that it’s not possible to make an argument for what I’ve called “satanism for the greater good.”
The argument would go like this: America’s power is too dangerous to allow it to fall into the hands of the Scarlet Witch. Obviously it would be wrong to directly kill America, even to save the multiverse. But it would not be wrong to do something else to save the multiverse, such as taking America’s power to prevent it from falling into the Scarlet Witch’s hands, even if it has the foreseen but unwilled side effect of killing America.
As an analogy: An innocent person has been unwillingly strapped into a suicide vest which is seconds from going off and killing many innocent people. You can’t deactivate the bomb or get it off the person, but if you throw the vest—with the person still inside—off a cliff, you will save everyone except, of course, the person wearing the vest, who can’t be saved anyway. Does Catholic moral theology permit you to throw the vest over the cliff, in spite of the person wearing it being killed as a consequence? Yes, it does. (The same logic applies to operating to save the mother in cases of ectopic pregnancy.)
Although that argument is not impossible, I’m glad that the movie doesn’t go that way. Still, if I had to choose between alt-Strange’s plan to take America’s power even though it would kill her and our Strange’s satanism-for-the-greater-good, I would choose alt-Strange’s plan.
I’m not sure that Raju is ia “particularly contemptible god.” I’m not sure he’s more contemptible than Zeus, and the sequence in the Council of Godheads suggests that Zeus is more the norm than not.
I discussed popular entertainment with a fellow regarding Christian
thematic (re)presentation in popular movie culture from a Catholic perspective. I replied that popular modern cinema in my age group (young adults) was mainly shallow (in that regard), easily digestible grab & go entertainment w/o much in the way of a spiritual agenda. I quoted Marvel movies as an example, keeping only the movies prior to “Endgame” in mind. He argued against my position, precisely using Marvel cinema as an example. While he covered “Eternals” and “Shang Shi” for the “God is not great” and “Eastern religion/philosophy is good” themes, he also brought up the Father-Son relationship of a hero Starlord in “Guardians of the Galaxy” as the rejection of the’son’ figure of his ‘omnipotent father’. This review is spot-on in its assessment of meaning in a world with so many gods it is Godless. Also gave me further insight into a discussion I had months ago. A good read: cheers.
I absolutely agree, there are strong atheistic vibes in several Marvel movies. And it’s getting worse the more the Marvel Universe expands. While watching „Ms.Marvel“ I had my difficulties believing that Kamala Khan and her community still dutifully whoreship at their mosque after Thanos killed half of the universe. Since Odin, Zeus, Egyptian gods etc all show up, Allah not showing up is almost an affirmation of his non-existence. And yes, while creating „The Eternals“ Jack Kirby seems to be influenced by Erich von Dänikens pseudo-scientific books about human civilization really being created by aliens, who we then worshipped as gods. An idea which can be traced back to H.P. Lovecraft, maybe the greatest American atheist in pop culture. The gods exist, but at best they are indifferent, at worst we are just an energy source for their offspring. But „Loki“ is for me Marvel at its most atheistic, not only because Kang is a human who has made himself a god controlling all of time, but because his death at the end unleashes the chaos of the multiverse. And isn’t the multiverse in itself an atheistic concept? If everything which is possible is real somewhere, then there can’t be any higher order, no plan, no judgment, since god is not choosing between alternatives. Leibniz‘ god thinks of all possible worlds, but then creates only the best of all possible worlds. If everything possible gets realized, no intelligent designer is needed. We will see, if „Ant-Man: Quantumania“ will develop this further, since the multiple world interpretation of quantum physics seems to be the foundation for all of this.
By creating these types of cosmological/mythical stories and connecting them in one Cinematic Universe, Marvel has -up to a point- to answer these metaphysical/theological question to keep everything coherent and believable. I have no idea if they can do that in the long run (as you alluded to, there already more questions than answers) but whatever they do, they must -not least for commercial reason- please the biggest possible audience, so they won’t do anything which could hurt the feelings of a worldwide fanbase which is still not in the majority atheist. But it will be fun to see what they do.
By the way, I read your review of the first Dr. Strange. I never understood the ending where Dr. Strange tricks Dormamu into a time loop, affirming time and finitude against immortality. For me this was an almost atheistic ending, proudly evoking the eternal return of the Stoics or even Nietzsche. Since I knew that Scott Derrickson is a Christian, my interpretation had to be wrong. Thanks to your review I now understand that Dormamu’s immortality is a bad, material immortality like the immortality the serpent promises in paradise. The real, Christian immortality ist not of this world and Dormamu is in no way a stand-in for the Abrahamic god. Nevertheless, since no otherworldly Christian immortality is offered in the movie, the message seems to be that one has to accept to wither away. „It‘s not about you“. This sounds noble until one realizes that this also means: „it‘s not about everyone else either“. Acceptance of the cosmic order, letting go of the self and its desires, this is not Atheism (I was wrong there) but it sounds much more Buddhist than Christian.
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Hugo.
I think the relationship between multiverse theory and atheism is in a sense a “one-way” relationship. That is to say, atheism offers an incentive toward multiverse theory (as a solution to fine-tuning arguments for God), but that doesn’t mean that multiverse theory implies atheism. (In the same way, atheism offers an incentive toward evolutionary theory, but evolutionary theory doesn’t imply atheism.) Put another way: Could God create a multiverse? Of course he could — and we aren’t in a position to say whether he has or he hasn’t. If he has, presumably the multiverse will ultimately be seen to reveal his glory in ways even greater than a single universe would do.
Whether multiverse theory actually implies that “everything that can happen does happen” is an open question (there are different versions of multiverse theory). Even if it does, what if God created an “everything that can happen does happen” multiverse rather than a “best of all possible worlds” universe precisely in order to demonstrate his infinite power not only in creation, but also in redemption? What if he wanted to demonstrate that even the worst of all possible worlds is not beyond his power to bring a greater eternal good out of temporal evil?
If I were Kamala Khan (or Matt Murdock, or Marc Spector, or Steve Rogers), and someone asked me about Odin, Zeus, etc. “showing up” in my reality and the eternal/infinite Creator not “showing up,” I would reply that the eternal/infinite Creator is not in the same class of being as Odin, Zeus, etc., i.e., he is not a character in the story of creation (although Matt Murdock might offer a caveat here regarding Jesus).
Regarding the first Doctor Strange: It’s Mordo who advocates “acceptance of the cosmic order” (or what he calls “natural law,” in a sense quite different from Catholic natural law theory) above all other considerations. Wong and Strange both accept the reasonableness of tampering with time and space in order to, e.g., avert the destruction of the Hong Kong sanctum. The Ancient One went even further, drawing power from the Dark Dimension to fight the “good” fight. Mordo condemned both the Ancient One’s consequentialism and Strange’s tampering with time and space. I take a middle view: Mordo was right about the Ancient One but wrong about Strange. (Derrickson disagrees, but that doesn’t mean I’m wrong! The movie is complex and open to different interpretations.)
Hm, you only get strict implication in formal logic/mathematics. If you change enough background assumptions, you can block any inference, then nothing implies anything. The multiverse (in the sense of all possible worlds) implies you don‘t need an intelligent being to explain improbable features of our universe, since every possible universe exists. God creating everything that is possible to prove the power of redemption is overkill, since most universes won‘t have any life in it, and even less will have intelligent, human life, nothing to redeem. But I accept that it‘s in no way clear if Marvel is using this „every possibility is real“-version of the multiverse. Let’s wait if “Ant-Man:Quantumania” will bring some answers.
I think I agree with your take on Dr. Strange, only that the Ancient One preferring Strange to Mordo because he is -just like her- willing to break rules (which can also be a great danger) won’t change the overall theme that it’s the job of the sorcerer supreme to protect reality, even if this reality is full of suffering. The only appropriate stance in the end is acceptance. This has always been the message in Strange movies. In the first one it’s acceptance that the universe is not about him and his career, in MoM it‘s acceptance that he won‘t get what he thinks is the love of his life and Wanda won’t have children. In the very dark and very good Dr. Strange-What if-episode it‘s the same, only that he doesn’t learn his lesson, destroys his universe and ends as a tragic figure. Even in „Endgame“ (which as a whole has the exact opposite message: that you don’t have to accept defeat, that you really can resurrect half of the universe) Dr. Strange’s part is precisely to give Tony Stark the signal that it’s time to die. Tony has to accept his sacrifice as the only way to beat Thanos and Dr. Strange is there to deliver the message.
Thanks again for this interesting discussion!
CWR, please reassess the usefullness of adolescent articles and content such as this.
Sean, you don’t think films are worth a discussion among Christians?
Thank you for your well researched and well reasoned article explaining the religious themes in these films. I found it very informative. Thanks to CWR for publishing.
As the MCU is a bit symbiotic with Marvel comics, it might help to explain some of the cosmology of the comics.
In the comics, there is a character called, “The One Above All” who certainly has some Aquinian characteristics, especially the earliest appearances. The One Above All is the creator of everything within and outside the Marvel multiverse.
Eternity is one of the most powerful entities in Marvel’s existence, and is well know to readers, but not to the MCU. It pales, of course, to the OAA.
It will be interesting to see if the MCU attains the heights of the OAA, or remains a bit trapped in the mere pantheon and its immediate superiors.
As a reader of Marvel Comics in my youth, the current MCU seems to be taking characters from the comics continuity, but changing certain aspects of it, which is creating a more disjointed and unconnected pantheon. In the comics, the creator of all existence is called “The One Above All”, and the Celestials are about two notches down from that level of power. The appearance of the One Above All takes on genre-breaking tropes, such as him appearing as Stan Lee or Jack Kirby.
Then again, the comics continuity is so vast and overlapping that the metaphysics have been rewritten, updated, and retconned over and over. One can find both morally sound and unsound authorial meanings in comic titles, sometimes even within the same month of releases.
There’s enough space for the MCU to go multiple directions. In the latest “phase” of MCU movies and shows, there has been a drive for more creative control for directors. This means that individual opinions and POVs will find their way into MCU movies. So at this point, it’s more about individual people’s voices, rather than what Marvel as a company wants to display as a company-driven set of beliefs.
Just wanted to say I appreciate that you actually looked through these films. I see people in the comments saying that they aren’t real movies, but it doesn’t change the fact that this is the biggest franchise in the world (atm) and this type of stuff does need to be pointed out.
So I’m a bit of a comic book nerd and when I watched Multiverse of Madness, it stood out to me. They designated the Cinematic Universe “Earth-616”. That’s the number the comic books are designated. This made me raise an eyebrow since God in the comics… is a raging alcoholic who thinks the Bible/Quran are poorly written and advocates for athiesm (Howard the Duck Vol. 3 #6). So are the comics retconned?
I will say this, it’s more likely the Cinematic Universe… WON’T go that route since they’ve been known for neutering controversial storylines. They’ve changed up Moon Knight’s backstory so much it isn’t even the same character anymore. He’s supposed to be like a Jewish Daredevil/Batman-type but they’ve changed him into this Indiana Jones character.
With that being said, there is an “ultimate god” in the Marvel Comics and I’m wondering if they’re going to pull a DC with this one and end up combining them with the Abrahamic God to please Muslim, Christian, and Jewish audiences everywhere. Their name is “One Above All” and they watch over the multiverse. Could also be a great compromise since the whole multiverse thing imply “truth is relevant”.
It’s possible Daredevil could end up meeting One Above All since the producer of the films loves putting his iterations in situations we’ve never seen them before. With every iteration of Daredevil, it’s the grounded Frank Miller run… but Daredevil has been to space before. He’s met Thor. He’s friends with Deadpool (who can break the fourth wall). There was even an issue where he touches Heimdall’s sword, allowing him to see all, yet he’s still a Catholic in the comics.
The title also makes me curious since it’s called “Daredevil: Born Again”. It could be a reference to the comic book storyline (which CAN’T since that was the final season of the last iteration), but it could also be a reference to him questioning his faith. Keep in mind that Eddie Brock from Venom is also Catholic and the symbiote is a multiversal hivemind. In the end of Venom 2 (which is canon thanks to No Way Home), Venom reveals that he can share him every secret and Eddie’s like “…Well do it”. I don’t the process was complete since he was teleported to the MCU, but this is something to take into consideration since I don’t think Eddie loses his faith in the comics (which again, could be its own little thing).
Haven’t seen Thor: Love and Thunder, but in No Way Home they’ve established that magic is just advanced science. In fact, Spider-Man took Doctor Strange out using math. The small g’s could be aliens like Thor who’re slightly more advanced? But I’m not… exactly sure since I haven’t watched the film. In Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (which is no-longer canon) did allude to the fact that a being like Ghost Rider may be something different entirely.
But yeah, I’d be keeping up with this. It’s best to keep in mind that as long as we get nothing about One Above All, we don’t know exactly where the MCU stands on this matter. Right now it seems like they’re showing the nihilistic side first before showing the Christian side.
Reed Richards is agnostic while Daredevil is Catholic. The two have debated before so this’ll be interesting.
I was reading this review on the basis that it fascinated me with its approach. A review, as per its nature, can criticize and ward off people from indulging in its selected media, and this review goes after the confusing ethos and metaphysics of the new Thor movie, in a way that leaves messed-up morals with poor, unthinking, conclusions to them that may cause harm to individual’s perceptions of reality. Reviewing the movie Thor: Love and Thunder, the reviewer here gives props to former Marvel movies for establishing a decent and universal theme of “Man is made for some reason in this universe”–generic, certainly, but not harmful–meanwhile, contrasting it against Love and Thunder’s strange disunity from its Cosmic Nihilism and Humanist Ethos. To the movie’s defense, our critic here mentions nothing good about the movie, which can lead to a view of bias, but, as I said before, the praise of prior marvel movies leads to believe that the critic is identifying missed potential. He then goes through a long list of how religion does make much sense in the MCU by showing that monotheistic religions are practiced, however, validity only is found in things like Wakandan Mysticism and Egyptian Paganism, meanwhile, concepts such as Norse Mythology are instead false venerations of an Alien race hailed as small-g gods, which is further complicated by the existence of beings like the ones in the Movie that do claim to be gods and demand the worship of people. He does a great job of explaining this, especially to someone like myself who has not seen a single MCU film since the Spider-Man ones that came out a while ago. He proves that philosophically, there are errors in how morality is portrayed under the paradoxical basis that many different afterlives exist in the MCU even though many so-called gods state that there isn’t one (nihilism) which creates a dissonance between the morality of characters and the ends of human nature. His point is clear to me after reading it, and I find it very important to address: If you set up a world where you make all religions true, you ultimately make a nihilistic world, thus you devalue the human person by having all their moral actions have no basis narratively besides mere emotivist expression. His criticism is quite valuable, as stories only have value if their theses and themes give dignity to human action and reverence to the truth. After all, as he points out, this nihilism is affecting us greatly today. Thus, we should be Inspired to support stories whose created worlds have either clear morals or ambiguities that speak more human self-introspection, rather than hodgepodges of religious overtones which do nothing but enforce anti-religious moral life. I am grateful that he understands the young audience that watches many of these films and is willing to demand we think harder about the subtexts of what we are showing kids and young teens.
This article comments on the increasing erasure of religious concepts in mainstream films. The fantasy worlds that Marvel movies create seem to stray towards a nihilistic view of the world, as seen in their most recent films, Thor: Love and Thunder, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Eternals.
Attitude awareness: Coming from a Catholic perspective, this review is able to highlight the clear changes that have been made in the world-building of Marvel movies over the years. While films seemed to reference the existence of some higher power, something that gave order or purpose to their lives, however, Greydanus states, “this way of thinking has come to seem increasingly strained.” The example of the world being controlled by a mortal who won a war across timelines instead of a being that is superior to humans in any substantial way exemplifies this idea well.
Dignity of the human person: Conversations in marvel films relating to the purpose behind characters’ existence is also compelling. The shift from including the line “I shouldn’t be alive… unless it was for a reason” in a film, to including “You’re not getting what the universe is trying to tell you” shows the natural need for humans to connect themselves to some kind of higher power, even if this form is changing in modern times and becoming more vague. In the book Infinite Bandwidth, Gan states, “Media should also help us understand the importance of giving ourselves in love to others.”
Motivated by and relevant to experience: I appreciate the inclusion of the very obvious parallel, or mocking of, Christianity included in the opening scene of Thor: Love and Thunder in which a god is depicted “brutally laughing in the face of his last wretched worshiper—ridiculing his belief in the promise of eternal reward, claiming that nothing awaits him after death.” The film includes other gods that wield power, but seem undeserving of it, which does not go against catholic teaching that only the true God is divine. However, the criticism of monotheism seems to place the film as negating any type of god.
Truth-filled: I was surprised by the reward that Jane Foster did actually receive after death. After so many subtle and not-so-subtle nudges away from religion, there is an afterlife that gives the viewer more closure after Foster’s death. It seems that even when one is actively trying to avoid including a true religious figure, the workings of such a figure (such as the existence of an afterlife) are necessary to give our human minds closure and comfort.
Skillfully developed: The characterization of god figures in Thor: Love and Thunder, while not all supportive of Catholic beliefs, were well-integrated and create the type of godless world they sought to create in this film. In order for Thor and his team to be convincingly powerful and needed by the world, there must not be a being that they cannot defeat. If world-building tools like these are directed at a more positive message, the result would be just as convincing because the filmmakers have thought of the implications behind every aspect of their characters’ actions.
Inspiring: The review’s section focusing on the MCU’s rejection of the idea of sacrificing oneself for the greater good seems like a missed opportunity to be inspiring by exposing viewers to put others over themselves in their own lives.
Balance: Marvel movies seem to have a complicated connection with the existence of higher powers, however they must confront these matters as they build new worlds. Overall, these issues are harmless because of their being surrounded by so many other fantasy elements, but it is important to be aware of the implicit meanings in the films and decide if they are something to be supported.