Warning: this article contains spoilers about the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In the spring of 1954, comic books were in serious trouble. That April, the German-American psychologist Frederick Wertham published his 425-page exposé of the comic book industry, Seduction of the Innocent. The book launched a man-hunt for Earth’s mightiest heroes. Drawing from dozens of interviews with adolescents, Wertham argued that comic books turned children into belligerent maniacs. Batman incited boys to violence. Wonder Woman ruined girls’ femininity.1 Superman preached Nietzsche to the masses, crime stories glorified villains, and horror fiction sensationalized cruelty. Comics made all-too-human depravity all but irresistible.
Riding Wertham’s momentum, the Senate Sub-Committee on Juvenile Delinquency put comic books on trial for corrupting the youth. The result was the Comics Code Authority, a de facto censorship agency that policed stories from Detective Comics, Marvel, and other companies. Comics that passed moral muster were stamped “Approved by the Comics Code Authority”; comics that didn’t prompted suspicion from the parental parties in control of the cash.
The code was strict. Stories were forbidden from creating “sympathy for the criminal.” “Inclusion of stories dealing with evil” were approved “only where the intent is to illustrate a moral issue.” In no case would “evil be presented alluringly, nor so as to injure the sensibilities of the reader.” The CCA’s ethos is summed up in a one-sentence creed: “In every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal punished for his misdeeds.”2 Heroes would be angels, and their stories would bring Heaven down to Earth.
Today, anti-heroes have avenged the CCA on the silver screen. Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker has become the highest-grossing R-rated film of all time by creating sympathy for a criminal.3 X-Men and Suicide Squad and have launched pop-culture crazes with alluring evil-doers like Magneto and Harley Quinn. Batman v Superman shows the titan good guys of the DC Comics Universe competing to smash each other with rubble and stab each other with kryptonite spears. And lest we leave the revolution to the popcorn-crunching masses, Heath Ledger won an Academy Award for injuring the audience’s sensibilities with his brilliant, disturbing performance in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight. We’re living in the age of Alan Moore’s blood-spattered Watchmen and Ryan Reynolds’ foul-mouthed Deadpool. Gone are the days of CCA-stamped boy scouts in tights.
The glaring exception to the gritty realism trend, though, is the comic book franchise that rules the world. The Marvel Cinematic Universe—the decade-long, 23-film blockbuster maxi-series running from the 2008’s Iron Man to 2019’s Avengers: Endgame—has rewritten Hollywood history. It’s the highest-grossing film franchise of all time, racking in $22.6 billion by October of this year. (Star Wars, the next highest-grossest series, checks out at $9.3 billion.)4 The MCU marches across television shows, videogames, books, theme parks, museums, plush toys. It even marches across academia.5 Marvel Studios has pulled off the media miracle by producing over 48 hours of villain-smashing, heart-warming cinema, all of which tell, more or less, the same story: good triumphing over evil. Captain America beats Nazis in the 1940s and terrorists in the 2010s. Spider-Man beats the villain and gets the girl in all four reboots of the last fifteen years. And despite impossible odds and time-twisting paradoxes in the MCU finale, the Avengers still manage to save the universe.
For all their capes and carpet-bombs, these superhero stories share an irresistible parallel with the Gospel of Christ. The Story unfolding from Genesis to Revelation, after all, is centered around a good-triumphs-over-evil narrative: God creates, Satan corrupts, Christ redeems. In his 1947 essay, “On Fairy Stories,” J.R.R. Tolkien writes that this Gospel is just like any other redemption myth, with the crucial exception that it really happened.6 Fantasy stories from The Lord of the Rings to Captain America: The First Avenger echo the true Story of Christ because their hopeful endings gesture toward the eucatastrophe—the recovery and restoration of a happy ending—that God promises at the end of time. Good triumphing over evil isn’t McCarthy-era propaganda. It’s Biblical truth.
But a happy ending is just that—an ending. Christ doesn’t deliver complete consolation in the beginning or the middle of the drama. And at the moment, we’re living in the unhappy chapters of the cosmic Christian story. Tolkien, as a veteran of one of the bloodiest battles in World War I, would be the last to deny this. We’re citizens of a world-state where hate, prejudice, and violence are heart-breaking realities. The truth, once again, comes out in pop-culture. In his 2004 single, born-again rapper Kanye West diagnoses the problem with punch that could bust a meteor: “We at war with terrorism, racism. But most of all, we at war with ourselves.”7
The problem of pain poses difficulties for Marvel. Our daily news feed would hardly pass muster with the CCA, so why should our pop-culture narratives? Shouldn’t art hold the mirror up to nature? But the battle between idealism and realism has always had higher stakes than what gets printed in graphic novels and projected on silver screens. Comic books’ tug-of-war history—superhero vs anti-hero, utopia vs reality, eucatastrophe vs catastrophe—illustrates a struggle we face every day, except this time, the universe really does hang in the balance. What happens when unstoppable Love from God meets immovable evil in humankind? In 2,019 years, God’s perfect Gospel has failed to perfect a fallen world. Christ has come, but Christians are still broken. The good guys have won, but somehow, we all still need saving.
This question has a long and illustrious history in the Christian Church, but few modern thinkers have thought about it harder than Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr was a 20th-century Protestant, public intellectual, and key influence on figures as far afield as Martin Luther King Jr. and Billy Graham, to John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama.8 Like many ministers in the 1920s, Niebuhr began his career a committed socialist and pacifist. But after the horrors of the second World War, his thinking evolved into neo-orthodox realism set out in works like his 1943 tour de force, Nature and Destiny of Man.
Niebuhr embraced the idea of original sin. Humankind’s innate depravity was, for him, an empirical reality that exploded the possibility of utopianism. But Niebuhr was far from despairing, even in the face of unspeakable tragedies like Hiroshima and the Holocaust, when good seemed to fail so miserably in triumphing over evil. For Niebuhr, Christians could believe in a perfect savior without believing in the perfectibility of humans. On this side of Heaven, sin would always stalk behind us, but it need not rule over us. We can limit, if not eradicate, evil by first seeking God, and then by checking and balancing the evil in each other. Sanctification, therefore, is a two-way process; we need both rescue from a perfect savior and restraint from imperfect friends. Niebuhr’s position, known as Christian realism, is best summed up in a maxim that echoes Madison’s Federalist #51: “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible. Man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”9
No story, it turns out, better illustrates Niebuhr’s Christian realism than the idealistic Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Like the narrative from Genesis to Revelation, the narrative from Iron Man to Avengers: Endgame guarantees the redemptive triumph of good over evil. We all know that Earth’s mightiest heroes will assemble, break up, and reassemble to save the world. But like the sixty-five years between Seduction of the Innocent and Joker—and like the pre-eucatastrophe chapters we live in every day—the MCU is also about a struggle between idealism and realism. The fight, in this case, is illustrated in the clash between Steve Rogers and Tony Stark. Like Superman and Batman, Captain America and Iron Man are the moral poles of the Marvel Universe. They represent two equal and opposite philosophies of what it means to be a hero—one ideal, the other all-too-human.
Leading the idealist charge is Captain America, the all-American boy scout sporting wholesome values and a strong jawline to match his red, white, and blue. Steve Rogers is the underdog-turned-superhuman from Brooklyn, patriotically engineered to sock Hitler across the jaw. He loves only one woman, never shies away from the sacrifice play, and, naturally, has a six-pack. At the end of Captain America: The First Avenger, Rogers saves the world by crashing an enemy plane into a glacier. Seventy years later, he’s resurrected from the ice. He is, tangentially at least, a comic-book Christ.
Opposite this perfect heroic specimen is Iron Man, the haunted billionaire who fights evil aliens as a way of fighting his own demons. Tony Stark is the MIT-educated, tech-genius billionaire who is abducted by terrorists and decides to turn himself into a weapon to make up for his past life as a weapons-dealer. He wears expensive suits, gambles, drinks, curses, and loves a different woman every night. In 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, he plays at god like Dr. Frankenstein and engineers an artificially intelligent robot designed to take over all the universe-saving so the Avengers can retire. But instead, the robot kills thousands of people and nearly destroys the world. Stark may fight for the good, but he is not, at his core, a good guy.
The ideal vs real friction between these two co-captains of the MCU is best summed up in an exchange from the 2012’s The Avengers:
ROGERS: “Big man in a suit of armor. Take that off, what are you?”
STARK: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”
ROGERS: “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you. Yeah, I’ve seen the footage. The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.”
STARK: “I think I would just cut the wire.”10
Steve Rogers seems like the perfect savior, the infallible hero who proves that humans really can be incorruptible. But midway through the saga, the MCU lets the hypothesis of human perfectibility run its course. Rogers breaks up the Avengers in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War because he refuses to let the United Nations limit his own autonomy. Though the Avengers, left unchecked, destroyed millions of innocent lives fighting Stark’s sentient robot the previous summer, Captain America refuses to check his own power under democratic control. The team scatters. Dispersed over the next several films and divided by egos in Avengers: Infinity War, Earth’s mightiest heroes fail to stop Thanos, the galaxy’s most powerful Malthusian, from wiping out half the world’s population.
But in its 182-minute finale, the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a Niebuhrian turn. Avengers: End Game shows Christian realism at its best—not only as a system of checks-and-balances that wrestles egocentric power under the common good, but as a way of loving, forgiving, and redeeming one another, even through our sin. At the film’s climax, Tony Stark makes the ultimate sacrifice play. He knowingly kills himself while dealing the final blow to Thanos. His last line—“I am Iron Man”—was an ego-boosting mic-drop at end of Iron Man; now, twenty-two films later, it’s the final word of a willing sacrifice, the MCU’s “It is finished,” said before the protagonist lays down his life for his friends.11 The genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist dies a married man and a loving father.
Captain America, for his part, travels back in time to tie up the loose ends of the space-time tricks the Avengers played to defeat Thanos. But instead of returning to the present, he stops over in the mid-twentieth century, grows old with the woman he loves, and passes on his shield to the next Captain America. The never-quit, “I-can-do-this-all-day” Steve Rogers retires, and he lets someone else be the hero. In the Iron Man style, Captain America ends the MCU by cutting the wire.
In the 48th cinematic hour, then, Stark and Rogers switch moral poles. Iron Man is the sacrificial savior; Captain America is the “selfish” hero who does exactly what Stark tried to do in Avengers: Age of Ultron—leave the world in another hero’s hands. Rogers and Stark have done more than save the universe; they’ve saved each other. Through forgiveness, and stubborn love for the world they fought to save, each helps the other achieve a kind of self-redemption. The story would not be complete—neither hero would be at peace—unless the patriot helped the playboy check his ego, and the playboy helped the patriot let go of his power.
How do we take Niebuhr from the ideal superhero screen into the real stories we live every day? An old summer-camp hymn gives us one answer: “Sister, let me be your servant, let me be as Christ to you. Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant, too.” In an imperfect world awaiting the return of our perfect savior, we are called to love patriots and playboys with the boldness of an idealist, forgive and restrain their sin with the resilience of a realist, and allow ourselves to be loved, restrained, and served with the grace of one saved by the infinite grace of God. We cannot be Christ, but we can do our best to be Christ to one another. We can wash one another’s feet, and in turn, we can let our own feet be washed.
The golden age of comic book cinema will come to a crashing end sooner than we think. Martin Scorsese and other high-browed critics are already charging Marvel movies with corrupting cinema, just as sixty-five years ago, Frederick Wertham charged comics for corrupting the youth. These Culture-Industry productions, they argue, are far too formulaic—and far too idealistic—to capture the morally compromised complexities of real life. The fairy-stories are bound to run out of steam.
But I have faith in the eucatastrophe. Good will, after all, triumph over evil in the end. Superheroes will respawn, as they always do, to save the world once again. And if there’s anything to learn from comic book history, it’s that the world, at least on this side of Heaven, always need saving. We’re not perfect saviors, and we’re certainly not supermen, but through love and grace more real than even gritty anti-heroes, we can bring each other a step closer to sanctification every day.
Lauren Spohn ’20 is an English concentrator in Currier House.
|↑1||Wertham, Fredric. Seduction of the Innocent. Rinehart, 1954, 191, 261-4.|
|↑2||Comics Magazine Association of America. Comics Code. University Press of Mississippi, 1954, 1-2.|
|↑3||Shaw, Marmor, and Terrence Horan. “It’s Official: ‘Joker’ Is the First $1 Billion R-Rated Movie.” MarketWatch, 19 Nov. 2019, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/the-first-1-billion-r-rated-movie-heres-all-the-ways-joker-is-breaking-records-2019-11-06.|
|↑4||“Highest Grossing Film Franchises and Series Worldwide 2019.” Statista, https://www.statista.com/statistics/317408/highest-grossing-film-franchises-series/.|
|↑5||In 2014, a Yale adjunct faculty member taught a class on “Media Genres: Media Marvels” at the University of Baltimore. https://www.ubalt.edu/news/news-releases.cfm?id=2086.|
|↑6||Tolkien, J. R. R., et al. Tolkien on Fairy-Stories. Expanded ed., with commentary and notes ed., HarperCollins, 2008.|
|↑7||“Kanye West – Jesus Walks.” Genius, 10 Feb. 2004, https://genius.com/Kanye-west-jesus-walks-lyrics.|
|↑8||Nouwen, Henri, et al. “Reinhold Niebuhr Is Unseen Force in 2008 Elections.” Religion News Service, 28 Sept. 2007, https://religionnews.com/2007/09/28/reinhold-niebuhr-is-unseen-force-in-2008-elections/.|
|↑9||Sabella, Jeremy L. An American Conscience: the Reinhold Niebuhr Story. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017.|
|↑10||“Tony Stark vs. Steve Rogers – Argument Scene,” YouTube, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6lOxW0AB958.|
|↑11||“Avengers: Endgame (2019), YouTube, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XgN5XY2LkAI.|