What if we lived inside the Marvel Cinematic Universe? A few things would change immediately. Constant super-powered battles in the downtown area would regularly lengthen your daily commute. The local community college would offer courses in conversational Groot and Arc Reactor repair. You’d get way more accustomed to seeing Stan Lee lookalikes popping up everywhere.
But more specifically, how would the events of the past decade of Marvel-dom impact the way human beings saw and understood the world around them, on an emotional and spiritual level? Would the realization that we regularly face cosmic threats make the everyday search for meaning in our lives even more urgent? It’s one thing to know, in the abstract, that you could die at any time, and another thing to be in Washington DC when massive, flaming helicarriers begin tumbling from the skies above.
Would the routine presence of gods, mutants (sorry, ‘miracles’), sorcerers and super-geniuses walking amongst us cause people to turn away from their old beliefs and look for a different kind of answer? Or would people throw up their hands up and stop seeking spiritual truths entirely, because Doctor Strange has probably got this in the bag?
“After the Holocaust, a lot of people had an opportunity to stop believing all sorts of things. And we certainly still have religion. That’s a good question and not one that we pondered that much.” — Avengers: Endgame co-writer Stephen McFeely
It seems undeniable that the events of films like The Avengers, Age of Ultron, The Winter Soldier and Infinity War would rock the very foundation of human belief, and have some kind of lasting impact — positive or negative — on the faithful.
It’s an aspect of the MCU’s world that exists only on the margins of the films, if it’s considered at all. Typically, the Avengers are more concerned with saving lives and stopping global catastrophes, rather than comforting bystanders suffering from existential angst. Crises of faith aren’t necessarily as cinematic as ensemble showdowns at German airports (unless you are Martin Scorsese). But it’s a fascinating question nonetheless.
PART 1: THE MCU’S UNSETTLING SURPRISES FOR MODERN HUMANS
Many, if not MOST, of the key events in Marvel Cinematic Universe movies would have some kind of impact on the way eyewitnesses considered the world around them. Could you ever feel totally confident driving down the street again if you’d once seen an enormous Pez Dispenser appearing out of thin air and colliding with the speeding vehicles around you? Could anyone ever shut their eyes and go to sleep again once they’d caught a glimpse of Dormammu?
But for the purposes of this discussion, it seems essential to narrow down our considerations to a few KEY events, witnessed or experienced in some way by hundreds, thousands or even millions of people around the world, that would challenge conventional notions of who we are, and how we figure in to the grand design of the universe.
A number of Avengers have their powers or abilities rooted in some form of super-technology. This would include Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit, the serum that turned puny Steve Rogers into hunky Captain America, the gamma ray experiment that resulted in Bruce Banner’s transformation into the Hulk, the Pym Particles that shrink Ant-Man down to microbial size, and more. Whether or not we include Captain Marvel and Scarlet Witch’s powers, gleaned from exposure to technology that’s itself powered by magical Infinity Stones, is a debate for another article.
On the surface, this kind of advanced technology presents neither a challenge nor a boon to most organized religions and belief systems in 2019. Modern-day Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and so forth comfortably co-exist alongside cutting-edge gadgets, after all.
However, as with some of the more controversial technological advancements in our real world today — such as stem cell therapies, cloning and artificial intelligence — super-tech in the MCU could pose very real moral dilemmas for adherents.
Is the practice of turning humans like Steve Rogers into superhumans like Captain America a violation of god or nature’s design? Do two ‘souls’ co-exist simultaneously within Bruce Banner’s body? Is Vision a person, even though he was designed by Ultron and Tony Stark, and brought to life by Thor, rather than through more conventional means?
At this point, anyone who’s paying attention to the news in the Marvel Cinematic Universe would know, for a fact, that intelligent life exists beyond the stars. Well, there would probably be Battle of New York truthers, if we’re being honest. Also, are there Round Asgard conspiracy theorists? OK, I’m getting distracted.
In the first Avengers film, an army of Chitauri race through a deep space portal that Loki has opened up in the sky above Manhattan, and attack everyday New Yorkers. In Thor, a seemingly invincible space robot decimates the small New Mexico town of Puente Antiguo, and then in The Dark World, Dark Elves from Svartalfheim attack the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. In Infinity War, the grey-skinned Children of Thanos arrive on Earth en masse searching for Infinity Stones. Thousands of Wakandans also fight an army of alien Outriders at the climax of that film.
These would be hard things to miss, and footage of our new interstellar friends would likely play around the clock on CNN. Surely, the demonstrable existence of thinking, feeling aliens — some with even greater intelligence and more advanced technology than our own — would raise MAJOR questions for any Earthlings, religious or otherwise.
But for the faithful in particular, the stakes are potentially even higher. Did a god (or THE God) also fashion these creatures? Were they created at the same time as humans? Long before? After? If so, why aren’t they mentioned in any of our scriptures or holy books? Or are they, and we’ve just been misinterpreting those passages as being about angels or devils or other supernatural creatures? Are we created in God’s image, or are the Chitauri, or have we been understanding the meaning of all of that sort of language incorrectly?
Perhaps the most obvious and immediate challenge to conventional religion in the MCU films comes in the personage of Thor Odinson. Thor was worshipped as a deity by long-ago humans in Scandinavia, but in 2019, he’s typically regarded as a myth, rejected in the West in favor of monotheistic faiths, agnosticism or atheism. His sudden presence, on Earth, would certainly raise some eyebrows. As would the appearance of family members like Loki and Odin.
In Marvel Comics, as well as the MCU film series, the line between ‘god’ and ‘alien with god-like powers’ has been blurred to work around these concerns. Thor’s home planet of Asgard rules over the Nine Realms, but in the films, these are depicted as a cluster of planets that are connected by a cosmic ‘nimbus’, known as Yggdrasil. This still has its roots — ugh, sorry — in Norse mythology, which saw the nine realms of creation as connected by a massive World Tree, also known as Yggdrasil. Significantly, Marvel’s cosmology removes the theological aspect entirely, to keep Thor purely in the domain of fantasy and science-fiction.
So it’s certainly possible to dismiss the notion of Thor as a ‘god’. He’s just a very powerful alien, who can live for a very long time and possesses god-like strength and other supernatural abilities, like the ability to call forth thunder and lightning. It’s not a hard leap to assume that early humans simply misidentified him as a ‘god’.
But this then poses a potentially even more significant problem for modern-day adherents. If we accept that Thor may have just been an alien who was misidentified as a god by our ancestors, then who is to say the same isn’t true of Jesus, or any of the other central religious figure that so impressed our predecessors? Are we certain Buddha was a mortal man who attained enlightenment, or might he have also been an alien transmitting cosmic wisdom? Have all human societies been making the same mistake as the Vikings, meeting alien visitors and futuristic technology with “magic” or worshipping people with randomly assigned genetic abilities as false gods?
Put simply, Doctor Strange can do things that violate the established laws of physics and space-time. He can use portals to exist in two different places at once. He can generate matter from nothingness. When wearing the Eye of Agamotto around his neck, he can move himself backwards and forwards through time.
This presents a more immediate confrontation with organized religion than any of the other issues we’ve discussed so far. Mortal humans should not be able to create something from nothing, or go back and manipulate the past in order to change the future. They should obey the laws of thermodynamics, dammit.
These are god-like powers that raise extraordinarily difficult questions: Are gods just humans with god-powers, or is there some other innate difference between the two? Does a being armed with the Time Stone or Reality Stone qualify as a god? Loki would suggest otherwise, but he’s a trickster — we don’t have to listen to him.
Which brings us to Thanos’s brilliant solution to a problem no one really had: the Snap. Obviously, survivors would be saddled with the trauma of having seen half of their fellow humans, not to mention animals, disappear without explanation in a split-second. I mean, just look at how bummed the Avengers look, and they’re still the Avengers. Even post-Snap, it’s cool to have your own jet.
Bear in mind, as well, that the general population wouldn’t know as much as we, the movie-going audience, know about what specifically happened on that fateful day. Sure, word would probably spread slowly over time, as Wakandans and Avengers and people who saw that showdown in New York or Scotland got to talking, but a lot of these details would probably fade into rumor and urban legend. No one would be 100% sure about what to believe.
And just as we, the audience, were haunted for a year with questions about where the individuals who vanished went, this would prove worrisome to the fictional survivors of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Are your loved ones dead and gone forever, or still waiting for you somewhere, out there? Are they in pain? Do they miss you? If you’re reunited, will they remember you? Did being snapped hurt? It just goes on and on.
“Steve doesn’t say “Oh, god’ at the end of [Infinity War]by accident. He has witnessed something with the power of a god for the first time. What does that do to your head? I don’t entirely know. Thanos has obtained godhood someway or another.” — Avengers: Endgame co-writer Christopher Markus
PART 2: WHAT DO THE CHARACTERS IN MARVEL COMICS THINK?
Though there’s a natural tension between high fantasy storytelling and the complex belief systems that govern modern organized religions, comic book writers — with some exceptions — have traditionally worked around them rather than steering into them. Many Marvel Comics operate with the understanding that anything being chalked up to pure fantasy, faith or magic ultimately does have some kind of rational, even scientific, underpinning. In many cases, it’s just beyond the capacity of the mortal characters to truly understand what they are experiencing.
So Doctor Strange may not ACTUALLY be using magic at all, but some particularly advanced and mysterious form of technology. Ghost Rider may not actually be a stunt motorcyclist who made a deal with the demon Mephisto and now has a flaming skeleton head and shoots fire blasts from his body, but he’s just… um… uh… OK, this one’s hard…
But still, this explanation is often good enough for the characters in comics, who are able to experience some very shocking, other-worldly and psychedelic goings-on while still returning at the end of the story to their previous, stable worldview. And that’s what this storytelling, on some level, is all about: Characters have adventures, but ultimately return to home base, where life makes sense and they are confident in the physical reality of the world around them and of their experiences.
A number of Marvel superheroes are themselves openly religious. Just learning about the larger world of aliens, gods, meta-humans and super-villains has done nothing to shake, say, Matt Murdock’s dedication to Catholicism. In The Avengers, when faced with both Thor and Loki, Captain America tells Black Widow that “there’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” The current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is a practicing Muslim, even after discovering that she is part-Inhuman, undergoing Terrigenesis and developing the ability to contort her body into any form. Even Thor, considered by early humans as a ‘god’, has religious beliefs of his own, tracing his origins back to Yggdrasil, the Tree of Life.
Marvel Comics editor Tom Breevort discussed the Thor issue, specifically, in a 2005 interview with the Jewish Orthodox Union. Breevort explained that, in his mind, characters in the Marvel universe have a separate mental category for superheroes, independent from regular mortals or gods.
“For the average person in the Marvel universe,” Breevort explained, “they look at Thor and they say he is a superhero. He is no different than a Mr. Fantastic or Spider-Man or Cyclops; his get-up, his shtick, his whatever, is based on the mythological god of thunder. But I do not believe that most people in the Marvel universe actually believe he is the bona fide article.”
The Jewish and Christian God himself, sometimes referenced as ‘Yahweh‘, does appear occasionally in the Marvel Comics universe, backing up Breevort’s assertion of a metaphysical hierarchy, which includes both gods and superheroes. (Yahweh has appeared in Thor comics, as well as issues of Howard the Duck.)
There are a few Marvel Comics that indicate ongoing fantastical phenomenon have, in fact, changed the way many characters approach religious belief. In a ‘90s series set in an alternate year 2099, a group known as the Knights of the Banner worshipped the Hulk, and hoped to use their own gamma technology to create more copies of him. A Doctor Strange arc from the 1970s finds the Sorcerer Supreme tracking a magician from the future, Sise-Neg, who ultimately eradicates the entire universe and re-creates it, starting with the Big Bang. (His name is “Genesis” backwards! See what they did there?)
Even the MCU contains a small reference to the long-term, spiritual impact of its supernatural goings-on. Alert viewers will note, in the background of Spider-Man: Homecoming, right next to Peter Parker and Aunt May’s favorite Thai restaurant, there’s a small Korean Church of Asgard.
PART 3: SPEAKING TO THE REAL-WORLD FAITHFUL
So that’s how characters in Marvel Comics and movies feel, but what about actual religious people in the real world? How would THEY react if, say, Thanos came down to Earth and Snapped away half of everyone? We spoke to some religious experts to find out. Obviously, there’s no ONE ANSWER for every faith. These cultures aren’t a monolith. Every individual member of every religious tradition would react in his, her or their own way. But still, we may be able to glean some clue about how some of the faithful might respond to the sudden appearance of Ronan the Accuser on Earth in what our interviewees have to say.
Jews, of course, have been a part of the comic book and superhero traditions since their very inceptions. Many Jewish writers and creatives worked in the comic book industry in the so-called ‘Golden Age‘ (the 1930s through the 1950s), as they were prevented from getting jobs in what were then the more prestigious sectors of the publishing business.
Superman’s creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel were Jews, as were Marvel masterminds Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Their collective Jewish upbringings were potentially significant in generating their ideas about what superheroes would be, and the causes for which they would fight. (Their shared immigrant background was also instrumental.)
Jewish author and researcher Bella Orion, who did her graduate work on the intersection between Judaism and comic book heroes, draws a direct line between Jewish folklore and Bible stories, and the development of early comics. “Superman came from stories that Shuster and Seigel heard at home, on Passover,” she says. “Stories about Elijah and Moses.”
Rabbi Simcha Weinstein, author of the book Up, Up, and Oy Vey! How Jewish History, Culture, and Values Shaped the Comic Book Superhero, has postulated that Stan Lee’s Jewish upbringing was a massive influence on his creations at Marvel Comics, and that he gave his characters “a Jewish worldview”. He goes so far as to refer to Spider-Man as “Seinfeld with webbing.” University of Maryland English professor Arnold Blumberg notes that Lee’s preference for troubled, neurotic, oppressed characters who nonetheless overcome their shortcomings to help people represent his “distinctly Jewish traits and values.”
It’s relatively easy to imagine Jews around the world embracing super-technology and even intelligent life from other planets. In fact, some Jewish scholars have actually suggested that the Jewish scripture already contains references to aliens. The book of Genesis, the first volume in the Jewish Torah, includes this segment: “And it came to pass when man began to increase upon the earth and daughters were born to them. The B’ney Elohim saw that the daughters of man were good and they took themselves wives from whomever they chose…The Nefilim were on the earth in those days—and also afterward when the B’ney Elohim would consort with the daughters of man, who would bear to them children. They were the mighty who, from old, were men of renown.”
B’ney Elohim translates as “the children of the gods,” while Nefilim means something akin to “fallen ones.” Could these be references to aliens on Earth? The Talmud also tells us “G-d roams over 18,000 worlds,” a seemingly direct reference to extraterrestrials. Obviously, both of these passages are the subject of heated debate among Jews and non-Jews alike.
But it’s possible that Jews might be receptive even to superheroes whose powers weren’t easily explained through science or technology. Orion suggests that, because of the Jewish belief in the coming of a Messiah to Earth, Jews might assume that Captain America or the Hulk fit into this tradition.
“If they brought changes in line with the Jewish tradition, which is mainly living in peace and ending war… Sharing your land, treating a stranger like you treat yourself. If they brought these kinds of things, they may be considered the Messiah,” Orion tells me.
Every expert I spoke with — Christian or otherwise — felt that American evangelical Christianity would face the toughest challenges from the events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
As discussed previously, some of the ‘super-technology’ prevalent in the MCU superficially seems to pose a challenge to a Christian worldview, particularly traditions that emphasize the sanctity and immutability of God’s perfect design.
Some Christians would clearly embrace a new interpretation of the Book of Genesis, allowing for the possibility of extraterrestrial beings. Former seminarian and comic book authority Matthew Key suggests that, in a post-MCU world, “there’s going to be a lot of reinterpretation of scripture from a very new hermeneutic. A shift in thinking of what’s possible. Maybe Ancient Aliens was right this entire time… Maybe back in that time, magic did exist.”
Other Christians would likely wonder why aliens were never mentioned by Jesus or discussed in the New Testament. Or whether Jesus died for the sins of extraterrestrials as well as humans, and if so, why he came down to Earth specifically and not some other planet.
These questions don’t necessarily pose an impossible-to-answer challenge to Christianity, and several religious scholars over the years have dealt with precisely the question of whether intelligent alien life and Christian faith can co-exist. Philosophy professor Christian Weidemann of Germany’s Ruhr-University Bochum told Space.com that a variety of scenarios remain possible. Perhaps Jesus only saved human sinners, neglecting the rest of the intelligent life in the galaxy, and placing humanity in a position of even more central importance in the universe’s grand scheme. Or perhaps there’s a different variation of ‘God’ for each populated world, and it’s a single being with multiple incarnations.
It might seem, at first blush, that the presence of super-powered pagan gods like Thor and Loki would also be difficult for Christians to rationalize. But Key didn’t necessarily see it that way, insisting that the presence of new gods may actually bolster Christian faith in their own.
“All of that would be a challenge,” Key said, “but I think that there would be a lot of Christianity that would say, ‘See? But ours is the true god. If they’re this powerful, imagine how powerful our god is.’”
Magic and the existence of Doctor Strange (not to mention The Ancient One) may be the most significant major hurdle for faithful Christians to process and accept.
Some contemporary Christians consider the ability to violate the laws of physics and nature to be, by definition, evil or Satanic. Some elements in the film Doctor Strange would actually seem to back up this interpretation. The Ancient One draws some of her power from the Dark Dimension. Is this really just another way of saying that she’s communing with the powers of Hell? Is the Sorcerer Supreme simply tapping into ‘the mystic arts’ and using them for his own benefit, or is he becoming ‘possessed’ by an otherworldly spirit that should by all rights be exorcised?
Key felt that this observation, that Doctor Strange and fellow sorcerers seem capable of tapping into the magical energies of the universe — without the assistance or involvement of God — could create a genuine schism in the Christian world.
“At the end, after a few years of combative diatribes and discourse, probably more rebellion and civil war and religious uprising would start to fracture cities,” he offered.
Obviously, the most relevant image that comes to mind when thinking about the impact of the Snap is the evangelical Christian notion of a ‘Rapture’. That is, an event kicking off the End Times, in which living Christian believers will all suddenly ascend to Heaven, leaving the rest of humanity behind on Earth. If the Snap really did happen, many Christians would likely assume it was the Rapture instead, and they had been left behind.
But even for those whose beliefs don’t include a sudden event like the Rapture, the post-Snap reality would raise a number of beguiling issues. How did Thanos, or the Soul Stone, or whatever power was controlling the Snap, decide who would continue to live and who would vanish into dust? When speaking with Doctor Strange on Titan, Thanos insists that randomness would make his plan “fair,” but of course, no one on Earth is around to hear this, and Strange himself vanishes in the Snap. Also, we have no way of knowing if Thanos is being honest here, or if he’s even ultimately in control of what happens when he snaps his fingers.
Ultimately, we come back to the observation that opened this whole section. Each Christian would make these decisions for themselves. As Key observed, “Some Christians will accept it and some Christians will fight it…”
There’s a certain facial expression that serious religious thinkers get when you ask them about Thanos. It’s hard to describe in words: a combination of puzzlement, disappointment and curiosity. I feel very thankful that Rangaswamy of Ashtalakshmi Temple in North Hollywood worked through it and agreed to speak with me.
None of the scenarios I asked Rangaswamy to consider threw him at all. He was very casually able to integrate all of the fantastical events of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in with his traditional Hindu understanding of the world.
He explained that, in his interpretation, Vishnu, the one and only god, can manifest in various forms. This would explain the appearance of entities such as the ‘pagan’ god Thor on Earth. Any god who appears to humans is just one form of Vishnu, who can take any form he pleases and act through any means necessary. We can only see one manifestation at a time — such as a Chris Hemsworth-esque Thor appearing on Earth — because our mortal eyes and bodies can’t perceive all the facets of what’s really there. We just see the current manifestation. For Rangaswamy, this is the same as Christians worshipping Jesus or Muslims worshipping Allah or Hindus worshipping various different deities. What they’re experiencing is real — it’s genuinely a deity who is physically present — but it’s still only one facet of Vishnu.
Per Rangaswamy, ‘Brahman’ is the ultimate level of reality; it’s Vishnu’s will made material. Brahman refers to not just our limited perception of reality, which is only one sliver of the overall picture, but the entirety of everything that is “real.” In the same way that germs and microbes are real, even though you can’t see them. Other variations on our reality are also real, but we can’t perceive them. The ENTIRETY of all of it is, for our purposes, thought of as Brahman.
So the appearance of aliens, or any kind of ‘magic’, can be explained in this way. If it’s really happening, it’s caused by Vishnu, and guided by his will. So Doctor Strange is just a man who is tapping into the greater reality of Brahman, but to us regular humans, it looks like magic. It’s Vishnu’s will that Thor’s glass of beer gets refilled; Doctor Strange is merely acting as a conduit. From our perception, he’s CAUSING the beer to be refilled, but he’s just the mechanism through which Vishnu refills the mug.
As the swami told me, “The engine is the heart of man.” All things are possible, because all things are part of Brahman, which is willed into existence by Vishnu. When we pray, we open our hearts to Vishnu, and then instructions/ideas appear in our mind, which cause us in turn to act.
Rangaswamy made me venture to his temple in North Hollywood three times to hear this message. The first two times, he sent me away, and told me to come back later. Finally, he explained that this – like all things – was Vishnu’s will. The first two times I showed up, he felt that it was not the right time to discuss Doctor Strange, and that he must send me away. The third time, he was praying, and heard the message in his head that he should speak with me. About Doctor Strange.
Dr. Naif al-Matawa serves as an Assistant Professor of Clinical Psychology at Kuwait University Faculty of Medicine, but he’s also a comic book author. His series, The 99, from Kuwait’s Teshkeel Comics, is about an international team of superheroes whose powers are based on the 99 Attributes of Allah.
Dr. Al-Matawa, like most of the other experts I talked to, spoke at length about the diversity of thought in the Muslim world. “There are 2 billion Muslims, so there are 2 billion interpretations” of everything about the religion, particularly if you dig deep enough into the cosmology. Fair enough.
In general, Dr. Al-Matawa feels that the Islamic notion of a ‘superhero’ aligns better with the Marvel paradigm than DC; he points to the Prophet Muhammad as an example.
“In Christianity, for example, Jesus is the son of God. He walks on water and does miracles. Muhammad is somebody who was flawed and made mistakes… Islam emphasizes people who are human and people make mistakes, which separates the prophet from god,” he says.
So a Muslim comic book reader is more likely, in Al-Matawa’s view, to understand and sympathize with Spider-Man, a guy trying to navigate being a normal teenager AND a superhero, rather than a god-like Superman or Wonder Woman figure.
But still, he allowed for the possibility of Doctor Strange.
“There is an in-built belief in magic in Islam,” says Al-Matawa. “Magic is mentioned in the Quran. It’s mentioned as the way that Moses was able to challenge Pharaoh. The idea of the Evil Eye… that’s all kind of humanistic, because it’s there in all cultures, but it’s also in Islam.”
In fact, the Dark Dimension visited by Doctor Strange in his solo film lines up fairly neatly with stories from the Quran.
“Some people believe there is another universe, if you will,” according to Al-Matawa. “Not necessarily a vast, other planet kind of universe, but another dimension of creatures. Within that rubric, one could hypothetically, theoretically – we’re talking the world of ideas here – in that sense, that would fit in. If you were able to abstract.”
These supernatural creatures are known as Jinn, which we in the West typically translate as ‘genies’. But not really so much like Aladdin’s friend; we’re talking ‘spirits’ or ‘demons’ or inexplicable ‘entities’. Perhaps like the Chitauri flying over New York? There’s ALSO the notion of everyone having a twin from this alternate, dark dimension. In Islam, these are known as the Qareen. So this could provide an explanation within Islam for all sorts of supernatural goings-on, from demonic possessions to Skrulls.
So… there you have it. We’ve finally settled the topic of religion, once and for all.
In truth, there’s no way to predict how supernatural goings-on would affect the day-to-day mindset of human beings on Earth. Everyone would have their own reaction, and because these things would be happening in real-time, coming to terms with them would be a chaotic process. Perhaps we’d all be less rational about it if it were happening in front of us, than we are when sipping tea on a relaxing afternoon, chatting about it on the phone.
But it was surprising, at least to me, how easily many of these religious thinkers and authors and leaders were able to easily adjust their thinking to include intelligent aliens attacking New York, time travel and sorcery. World religions — particularly the truly ancient ones — are often thought of as rigid and doctrinaire. But any faith that can make room for Rocket Raccoon obviously has some flexibility built-in.