On the Marvel Cinematic Universe
By Jeremy Hausotter
July 8, 2020
Every aesthetic work presupposes some view on reality, the world, and its meaning. Some declare it nonsensical, meaningless such as Camus’ The Stranger. The stories of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky masterfully portray the existential conflict between God and atheism. What is it Disney and Marvel wish to say about the world? What is the philosophy and theology expressed in the MCU films? My task here is to briefly develop some of the main themes found within the MCU films after watching every MCU film from Iron Man to Spider Man: Far From Home.
Metaphysics and Physics
We are familiar with physics which studies the laws of nature with equations such as F=ma. Metaphysics however is a properly philosophical topic that investigates the nature and structure of reality as such. What is time, space, and existence are philosophical and metaphysical questions.
Doctor Strange is the origins story of Doctor Strange, a brain surgeon turned spellcasting mystic. During his training in the mystical arts we learn that magic is the harnessing of energy from other universes. There are infinitely many universes, some teeming with life, others having a hatred for life. From these universes the mystical monk warriors harness energy to fight aliens from other dimensions and universes.
We also learn that there are many dimensions including the astral dimension, mirror dimension, and the dark dimension. The astral dimension is interesting for it is in this plane that man can be separated from his body and yet interact and do things with the “real” world, the dimension with our physical bodies. Man is understood to be composed of matter and soul, and it is the soul which can enter the astral dimension.
The soul can enter the astral dimension because the body is left behind and the person enters this dimension in a state of energy. The soul in other words is interpreted in physicalist terms of energy. What is spiritual is in fact simply interactions of energy. The spiritual utilization of magic and spells is in reality the harnessing and use of energy.
Such a description of the spiritual and the soul is a materialistic metaphysics. This interpretation of spiritual things and the human spirit as energy states is nothing new. We find it across the science fiction genre (such as Star Trek and Stargate for example). For our purposes we will simply note that MCU assumes a materialistic view on reality.
This materialistic view shows up in other places. Infinity War and Endgame for example describe man as ashes that can be reconstituted. The Catholic Church on the other hand has declared that the human soul is immaterial and nonphysical, the form animating the body. The Church’s teaching cannot be reconciled with this energy interpretation.
It is interesting that God has been a subtheme in the MCU. Marvel has explicitly dealt with the God question in three films, two MCU and one from the X-Men franchise (Guardians of the Galaxy, vol II, Captain Marvel, and X-Men Apocalypse).
Each film treats God with great hostility. In Guardians of the Galaxy vol II God is Starlord’s dad. In the film God wants to destroy all of creation, to annihilate all life. God here is depicted as a genocidal maniac bent on universal destruction. Since God is the destroyer of life, man must heroically stand and oppose this destruction. Starlord is thus the hero standing up against a tyrannical deity (which sounds very similar to Star Trek: The Final Frontier).
There is another strata in this depiction of God. God is Starlord’s father. As a father he is a failure. He abandoned his lover and left her to raise Starlord. Starlord never knew his dad until god wanted Starlord to join his plan of destruction. As an authority figure God is arbitrary and tyrannical. It is fitting that MCU called this figure Ego. Ego had traveled across the universe impregnating thousands in order to have offspring with his DNA. Those progeny that did not inherit Ego’s DNA he killed.
In Captain Marvel God is represented by The Supreme Intelligence, the AI leader of the Kree people. It is weird that a computer program is given divine attributes such as the ability to appear to all Kree even through dreams (though through an implanted computer chip). The Supreme Intelligence is beyond what we can understand and comprehend and so appears to the Kree in familiar terms. The Supreme Intelligence however is a liar and deceiver, for it deceived Captain Marvel of who she actually is.
The Supreme Intelligence as God again wages an unjust war though this time against the Skrull. The Skrull are hunted like animals across the universe. Captain Marvel at the end of the movie learns the truth of the genocidal campaign to extinguish the Skrulls. Here again a Godlike deity is aligned with genocide and murder. When Captain Marvel engages with The Supreme Intelligence after learning the truth we see the AI god become arrogant and dismissive of humanity.
These themes are also taken up in X-Men Apocalypse (not MCU I know but still relevant). Apocalypse is the first mutant who awakens in the modern era and begins a mutant conquest of the world. His goal is the annihilation of all nonmutants. It is a global eugenics program to eradicate those with undesirable traits, namely being nonmutant. Apocalypse wanted to purify the mutant race. Apocalypse is a X-Men version of Hitler. Marvel however gives a radical twist to this, for Apocalypse is explicitly identified as God.
There is a particular line in the movie that for me was jaw-dropping, and that was when Apocalypse identified himself as several gods such as Zeus, Ra, but most importantly as Elohim, one of the Jewish words for God. It is this identification with the Judeo-Christian God that was so striking. Christians and Jews should be offended that God is depicted as a sci fi Hitler.
The three films share several themes of God as a tyrannical, arrogant, genocidal megalomaniac that man must stand up against and fight. Man must take up the cause of life and justice and fight the oppression of these deities. Man in fact has a duty to rebel and resist these deities. What in part makes these superheroes heroic is their disobedience to their respective gods. These are very problematic themes for a Christian and a society at large. How hard it will be to show a God as a loving Father if one has been exposed to only these false images of God.
One final point is that all three films depict God as a contingent being, as existing within the universe, within space and time. The Christian God is outside space and time, the architect of the universe but not within the universe. God is immutable.
Captain America: Civil War is premised around the question should the avengers have government oversight. Iron Man said yes. Captain America no. The question broke up the avengers to where they fought each other in the usual smashing MCU battle.
But why did Iron Man say yes and Captain America no? What was their reasoning behind their answers? We find out in the film that Iron Man and Pepper, his girlfriend, were on a break. Iron Man wanted to reconcile himself to Pepper for he is an immature individual and she wanted him to accept some responsibility. To show he was taking responsibility Iron Man wanted to have government oversight of the avengers. In other words Iron Man’s answer to the question was meant to be a reconciliation present to his girlfriend.
Captain America discovers in the film that his friend Bucky is still alive and had actually not died in WWII. Bucky was the victim of a secret experiment and now hunted by the government. If Captain America said yes to the question of government oversight, he would have to help incarcerate Bucky. Captain America sided with his friend Bucky and this was why he answered no.
The leaders of the two factions, Captain America and Iron Man, answer the moral question in the film based on previous relationships. It is relationships and emotions that determined where one stood. The question is not approached from the perspective of what is good and leads man to his perfection, but judged strictly in terms of emotionalism.
This is a dangerous way for one reason morally. Moral questions should be answered based on the truth that such an action is good. One’s emotions need not align with the truth of the good. This is the problem of Civil War: the moral question is never posed in a way such that it is clear which leads man to the true good. The question remains strictly within the domain of emotion and relationship.
The film does bring out the inner contradiction of such reasoning when Iron Man said to Captain America, paraphrased “I thought we were friends”. Both individuals answered the moral question based on previous relationship, older relationships had primacy instead of the many friendships within the avengers that were severed because of the choice of Captain America and Iron Man.
There is also the problem in Endgame where the directors themselves appear in the film to legitimize same sex relationships. Homosexual relationships are an evil which should not be promoted. The normalization of LGBT is a detriment to society and confuse generations concerning the truths about human sexuality.
The Black Panther is the MCU’s take on racism. It is good that MCU has heroes of all ethnicities and that there is a black superhero. I do however have criticism as to how racism is presented in the MCU here. The story revolves around T’Challa and Killmonger who are cousins and competing for the throne.
Killmonger is a tragic character. His father was killed by T’Chaka, T’Challa’s father, and so Killmonger grew up in Oakland and suffered under the effects of racism. Killmonger’s upbringing is the product of American racism. T’Challa on the other hand lived in a world where racism was not only absent but blacks were powerful enough to colonize the world.
Killmonger sought to take over the throne of Wakanda in order to ship advanced weapons to blacks around the world and start a revolution for black domination. Whites are to be killed or enslaved. Eventually at the end of the film there is the showdown between the two in which Killmonger is mortally wounded.
The name Killmonger etymologically means one who is a dealer in death, a promoter of killing. Each scar on Killmonger’s body is a kill of his. Killmonger represents victims of racism, the product of which is a killing machine. Killmonger’s solution to the race problem is to retrace the steps of 17th and 18th slavery. Instead of white colonists with advanced weaponry it is now blacks. For him this is the only solution.
When Killmonger refuses to come to a peaceful resolution with T’Challa at the end of the film, he kills himself. True he is already mortally wounded but he chose to kill himself nonetheless. What does this action say, that suicide is preferable over being able to peacably live with white people? That victims of racism cannot reconcile themselves with another race? That there cannot be a peaceful coexistence of blacks and whites together?
The real tragedy is seeing the representative of victims of racism believing that only war and death is the solution, that suicide is preferable if these means are not available. This is not how to end racism but to perpetuate it.
In some respects Black Panther is stuck in the past. White people are called colonizers, yet it has been generations since there has been any colonizing by a country. Killmonger’s solution is to relive the past with the tables reversed. One could try and defend this usage of the term colonizer since white Europeans colonized Africa. The problem however is that the only white character is an American and what part of Africa did the United States colonize after all? The usage of “colonizers” is derogatory and racist.
T’Challa represents another force which does see peaceful coexistence with others. The last part of the movie we see T’Challa empowering victims of racism by educating them, and giving a meaning to their lives. It is tragic however that this positive movement represented by T’Challa is irreconcilable with that represented by Killmonger. T’Challa wants peace and reunion within the family, but such is nonegotiable for Killmonger. This is why Black Panther fails to describe the problems surrounding race.
It is interesting to note that the MCU films have a fascination with the occult. We see this in figures such as Scarlet Witch in Age of Ultron. Most explicit is Doctor Strange. I find the portrayal of magic in Doctor Strange quite disturbing. Not only is magic portrayed in a positive manner but it is utilized to save the world. Magic is stripped of any spiritual reality and treated as another type of science in which one controls energy from other universes. Doctor Strange presents us with spells, magic, occultic imagery and vocabulary. Doctor Strange is even mentioned to have read real works on sorcery such as the Key of Solomon.
To normalize the occult in such a manner is evil. Magic and spells are not trivial playthings. They are actions with real and serious consequences. When man performs such he opens himself to the demonic. Spells can really do things. Magic is real. The efficacy of magic however is not in the spells, wands, or whatever objects the spellcaster uses, but resides in demons. It is demonic power that is efficacious if God so wills. It is through demonic power that the Egyptian magicians transformed their staffs into snakes like Moses did his. The magicians said the words, but God allowed the demons to cause the transformation.
In performing such actions magicians and spellcasters can fall into demonic oppression and demonic possession, requiring the work of exorcists to heal. It is therefore a very dangerous thing to normalize magic or present it in a positive manner.
The problem of the occult shows up in Black Panther as well. We see T’Challa use drugs to communicate with his ancestors in the afterlife. This is terrible for three reasons: 1) it presents an immoral usage of drugs in a positive manner; 2) it presents the false view that one can have spiritual or mystical experiences under the influence of drugs; 3) it is precisely in this state that demons can influence man more so than others. When one does drugs they open themselves up to a vacuum in which demons can come freely and interact with the user. It is the case that if one has a vision here that it is usually demons playing tricks on the drug user or simply epiphenomenon of the brain.
Endgame is also very problematic on this. In order to undo the “snap” that killed off half of the universe the avengers travel back in time to retrieve the infinity stones. The soul stone requires a blood sacrifice, someone to kill themself, in order to retrieve it. We watch as Hawkeye and Black Widow fight each other to see who will commit suicide first. Once all of the stones are retrieved and placed in the glove, time is reversed and everyone saved.
The problem is this: the characters in the story must utilize stones containing unnatural powers in order to introduce an unnatural effect: reversing time and resurrecting the dead. This is accomplished through a requisite blood sacrifice. Furthermore these unnatural powers are freely intertwined with magical connotations and with pseudoscience and pseudophysics. Such a combination threatens to naturalize what is fundamentally supernatural, trivializing something that should not be taken lightly. Magic is a dangerous reality that artists need to be responsible with in artistic depictions. Trivialization blinds people and especially young people from seeing things as they are themselves.
I have highlighted some problematic themes in the MCU. Overall the films do not possess aesthetic value as they are kitsch entertainment. As stated in the introduction, every literary work and piece of cinema has a message about reality and the MCU is no different. The MCU films demonstrate some fundamental misconceptions about the reality of the spiritual world in regards to drugs, God, and the occult, problems which pose risks for viewers and create greater challenges for Christians. This is especially the case as God is depicted as a depersonalized genocidal maniac, an image that can only polarize and threaten genuine dialogue between the believer and non-believer.
With this all said and done not every movie in the MCU franchise is bad. In another article I will make an argument for the best MCU film.
 Cf. The Council of Vienna.
Rome: A View of the River Tiber Looking South by Rudolf Wiegmann