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Marvel’s changing portrayal of the divine from rebellion to reverence

This story was originally published by Religion Unplugged.

(ANALYSIS) Marvel continues its trend of wrestling with the goodness of God — but more recently has started to tilt toward believing that the Almighty may be good after all.


I wrote last year about how Marvel has been talking a lot more about God in the past few years — and not in a positive way. Largely ignoring religion or faith for the most part of its history, post-”Avengers Endgame,” the Marvel movies have been explicitly featuring gods and characters who function as such to the various characters. That has prompted the characters to confront their beliefs in higher powers.

Without exception, these god-like figures would present themselves as benevolent beings but then turn out to be evil frauds. As a result, characters become heroes or villains, depending how they responded to this revelation that their religious faith turned out to be a lie.

Since I wrote that piece, there’s been a change in how Marvel movies treat God for the positive. Instead of treating God as a fraud and viewing rebellion against him as a sign of heroism, he is treated as good. Rebelling against him is seen as a sign of immaturity, with acceptance of him conversely being a sign of maturity.

Heroes in a broken world

Take “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever”. In this film, Shuri is struggling with the death of her brother T’Challa. While her mother and her people are religious and pray to the traditional Wakandan god, Shuri, a woman of science who resents the fact that her brother died despite her prayers, refuses to go through the religious rituals of her people. It’s this refusal to believe that her brother is really in Wakandan heaven that gives Shuri the bitterness that almost leads to her making bad decisions as queen.

Then there’s “Guardians of The Galaxy Vol. 3.” Both the hero Rocket and the villain High Evolutionary are wrestling with the fact that the world is broken and lacks the loving God who created it. The High Evolutionary hates how flawed and broken the world is and becomes obsessed with creating the perfect society — no matter how many innocent creatures he has to torture and dispose of in his experiments.

In his words, “There is no God! That’s why I’m here!” Rocket is one of his experiments, and he wrestles with the fact that he was made “for nothing — just stupid experiments to be thrown away.”

To which his friend Lylla replies, “There are the hands that made us, and then there are the hands that guide the hands.”

This gives Rocket a belief that he has a purpose in being born that he can embrace and be proud of.

“The Marvels” continues the trend of the show “Ms. Marvel” to demonstrate the Muslim faith of Kamala Khan (Ms. Marvel) in a positive light, with her devout family being a flawed but positive presence in her life. When the family is in danger of dying, they pray traditional Muslim prayers in Arabic, which Nick Fury encourages (“Don’t stop!”) and joins in on with shouts of “Amen.”

Finally, “Loki” Season 2 finds Loki embracing his own status as a god. With the end of Loki’s first season, the female Loki (Sylvie) killed He Who Remains (Kang) in order to give the multiverse freedom to flourish without He Who Remains and the Time Variance Authority, killing them all to preserve the one and only “sacred timeline.”

This only leads to the destruction of all timelines everywhere, including Loki’s friends in the TVA. The world needs someone to take the place of God in this world — whether we like it or not — and Sylvie explicitly bemoans this reality, saying “it feels like no matter what we do, we’re playing God.”

Loki retorts, “We are gods.”

In order to save the universe, Loki sacrifices everything to embrace his status of a true god of the multiverse.

So what happened? Why has Marvel’s portrayal of the divine shifted so much from negative to positive?

While there are a cadre of potential answers, there’s one that fits with other themes that we have seen in Marvel movies and its own evolving status itself. Marvel is now the establishment. As a result, it sees authority in a more positive light.

The negative portrayals of God in Marvel movies have always fit with its negative portrayals of authority. Marvel has always tended to portray institutions and individuals in positions of power as the bad guys, and it needs its heroes — whether it’s SHIELD, father figures, the military or whatever else — to save it. Expanding that to God — the ultimate authority of the universe – was natural.

From underdog to total domination

But Marvel now is no longer the scrappy underdog of the movie industry. It is now the behemoth that has taken over the industry. Itss notion of authority is starting to change.

Shuri is the righteous monarch of Wakanda. The Guardians are no longer rebellious mercenaries, but leaders of a planet of refugees and intergalactic protectors. Nick Fury’s new organization SABER, unlike SHIELD, is not secretly run by Nazis. Now that Loki and his friends are running the TVA (and Loki is now running the multiverse), suddenly an all-powerful authority running everything isn’t so bad.

The association in the United States between how one feels about God and how one feels about institutions of authority is borne out in some of the religious data we have. The shrinking of religious affiliation in America is correlated highly with the shrinking of trust in institutions in America more broadly.

Conversely, according to the new book “The Great Dechurching,” the more higher education a person has — meaning, the higher they are in the American institutional hierarchy — the more likely they are to attend church. This is, of course, not true in every part of the world. In places like China, where believing in Christianity puts you at odds with the ruling regime, I expect that the correlation is highly inverted by comparison.

This is worthy of concern. Any religion that is more than just an excuse for power is good for those both at the top and at the bottom. If those at the bottom are rejecting the religion, it gives one pause as to whether the version of the faith that the people at the top are giving them might simply be a religion serving their interests rather than one based on what’s true for everyone.

If you reject God when you’re not in charge, but then accept God because you are in charge, it’s reasonable to suspect that what you really believe in is your own godhood and desire to impose that on others.

We saw this trend in last year’s Oscar contenders, where the most positive portrayals of religion were ones where the filmmakers got a chance to make up the religion for themselves to suit the way they want reality to be like. In other words, they made God — and therefore reality — in their image rather than conforming themselves to God. We see this at the end of “Loki” Season 2, where Loki replaces the evil god He Who Remains with himself as the new god, conforming the multiverse into his image, which is, of course, the “right” one.

Most importantly, this is a reminder that we are biased in believing things, including about faith, that are convenient to us. We can’t assume that all of the reasons we either accept God or reject Him are purely rational and are not influenced by less trustworthy motives.

If God seems to stand in the way of what we want, we reject him. When he validates what we want, we are warm to him. We must make a purposeful effort to see truths — about everything, not just about faith — that we don’t want to hear or believe.

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