The Gospel and the Avengers
By Glenn Sunshine
Gospel truth in action movies
Even though movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe are intended to be action blockbusters, like all films they include worldview ideas and themes. This is the second article identifying some of the worldview ideas included in the films that point to the Gospel, whether this was consciously intended by the writers or not.
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
The difference between just and unjust war, and with it, the just and unjust use of violence, is evident in most of the movies and occasionally is an important element of the plots. As we have seen, the motivating factor in Thor is Odin’s refusal to engage in reprisals against the Frost Giants for their raid on Asgard, and Thor’s insistence that they be taught to fear him so much that they would never dare do such a thing again. Odin’s restraint, his willingness to go to war only when absolutely necessary, is not in keeping with his character in Norse mythology, and like the virtues that Thor needs to learn, derives far more from Christianity than from ancient warrior cultures.
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
In the other Marvel movies, we often don’t have just war per se since the superheroes are not generally acting on behalf of governmental authorities, but nonetheless other elements of just war are present in the fighting that is so central to superhero stories. In particular, the superheroes have an ambivalent attitude toward war. We see this in Tony Stark’s personal transformation in Iron Man (2008) after his experiences as a prisoner in Afghanistan: he moves Stark Industries away from weapons manufacturing and toward exclusively peaceful technology. But at the same time, he continues manufacturing and perfecting Iron Man suits. And he has no hesitation about using their weapons to save and protect people.
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…