“Now when this corruptible is clothed with incorruptibility and this mortal is clothed with immortality, then the saying that is written will take place: “Death has been swallowed up in victory. O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor 15:54-55)
“The doctrine that war is always a greater evil seems to imply a materialist ethic, a belief that death and pain are the greatest evils. But I do not think they are. I think the suppression of a higher religion by a lower, or even a higher secular culture by a lower, a much greater evil.”C.S. Lewis, “Why I Am Not a Pacifist”
Recently, at the suggestion of a close friend, I started watching some of the Marvel Comic movies that have become so popular of late. Although I don’t really see the attraction of these films (action to the point of nausea, hackneyed dialogue, etc.) I have come to appreciate some of the messages they seem to promote. One message that appears to be ubiquitous, if not fundamental, to the films is that human life matters, and so much so that it is worth fighting for, even fighting apparently invincible cosmic creatures. Now, that is a good message! Not only for those of us who already accept its truth, because we already accept that human beings are made in the Image of God (Gen 1:27), but especially for a culture that has largely forgotten the God in Whose image we are made.
However, underneath this good message about the intrinsic dignity of human life is another message, one that emerges repeatedly, and that, I believe, leaves the sensitive viewer somewhat confused, if not disheartened, or even in despair. What message am I alluding to? It is simply this– that in spite of the amazing variety of beings, the panoply of powers, and almost endless modes of existence, the universe of the Marvel superheroes, their extra-terrestrial friends and foes, and their mundane human counterparts, is still one that lacks any sense of the transcendent. The Marvel universe, as ontologically rich as it is, is still an entirely immanent, and in that sense naturalistic world.
This deficient view of reality, a view that leaves no room for the transcendent, does so in failing to acknowledge the Creator of the universe itself and all the dignified life within that universe that warrants the continuous (maybe potentially infinite) cosmic battles fought to preserve it. In persistently denying or avoiding the notion of the transcendent, both ontological and teleological, the thrust of the Marvel narrative ultimately can be reduced to the defense of finite, human physical existence (the ontological) and the freedom of finite human persons to construct their own meaning for that existence (the teleological). While there is certainly a glorified immanentization here, as the Marvel universe is certainly far more bizarre and mysterious than our own, nevertheless it is a universe cut off from the transcendent, both in being, and purpose. It is where things and agents that exist as brute facts struggle to create meaning for themselves. But, as such, it is also a place where Thanos’ plot to eradicate half the population of the universe cannot rightly be adjudicated.
Thus, while there may be a hint at immaterial human existence in the films, as seen perhaps most noticeably in Dr. Strange, still these immaterial “souls” are also entirely immanent and hopelessly entangled in the fabric of an impersonal “multi-verse”; a multi-verse that has no ultimate meaning, nor ultimate end. In a funny aside, these souls are depicted more like material bodies, as seen in the somewhat ridiculous fight scene between Strange’s “soul” and the “soul” of the thug henchmen at the hospital. One has to wonder, “Do souls, like bodies, have to train in Ju-Jitsu too?” “Do C-fibers fire if your soul gets roundhouse kicked to the face?” Just saying.
Hence, there is in the Marvel world this more subtle, yet ubiquitous message, a message that essentially overemphasizes the value of human physical existence, since presumably that is all there is. At the end of the day, the Avengers and their malevolent, other-worldly counterparts are fighting non-stop over how long some part of some population of the earth is going to survive physically. Ultimately then, there is “infinity war” not for the infinite souls of men, but for the finite existence of randomly evolved bipedal life on earth. Thus, even if Captain America and Iron Man were to win every cosmic battle, death would still win the war— death at the hands of accident, death from disease, death from human evil, or just the passing of time. Moreover, this immanentist worldview also assumes that earthly pleasures are all that human beings are really meant for, that they are the ultimate goods available to us. This is, after all, the basic motivation behind Thanos’ consequentialist plan for the universe.
But this is just the Marvel universe, a fairy-tale fiction cooked up by Hollywood (well, by Stan Lee and Hollywood). A universe that cannot answer the deepest questions of human existence, because what is clearly true of all of the creatures in the Marvel world, despite their apparent invincibility, is that none of them is the Creator of that world. Thus, even with all is valuable parts, the Marvel world is still a vision drawn from a world view that takes some kind of naturalism for granted, and, in doing so, the Marvel heroes in that world cannot really ground the answers they attempt to give to the ethical questions their narrative poses– questions that revolve around whether some form of consequentialist or deontological ethics is true. Questions of whether there is meaning beyond sheer physical survival.
Apart from the narrative’s author stepping into the story (Lee actually does appear in typical Hitchcockian-style in each film) and revealing his purpose to this confused amalgam of superhuman and alien combatants, there really can be no answer to these moral dilemmas.
As Christians, however, we know better than this, just as St. Paul knew better. We know that the real universe, marvelous in its own right, is also the one designed (Col 1:16), upheld (Heb 1:3), and consummated by the Word of God, the divine Logos, who is Jesus Christ (Col 1:20). We know that the true cosmic battle is not over a prolonged existence aimed at worldly goods, physical pleasures, or even noble moral acts. Rather, the real infinity war is over the final destination of the immortal human person, the consummation of the body and soul that will exist forever, either in an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4:17) with a personal and loving Creator, or in an eternal lake of fire (Rev 20:10-15, 21:8), where war will, in fact, be really infinite.
This is the battlefield of the saints, this is the fight of the martyrs (1 Tim 6:11-16), and this is our fight as followers of Christ today. Thus, for the Christ follower, we lead with right ontology, and right teleology. That God exists, and that He has designed the universe, its natural laws and its moral agents, is what ultimately grounds and makes our ethical conclusions either right, or wrong. Captain America’s statement “we don’t trade lives” is right, but apart from the reality that human life is made in the image and likeness of its Creator, it is mere sentimentalism.