I just saw “The Avengers” this afternoon. It was a hoot! I enjoyed it thoroughly. It had all the stock tropes of a superhero movie though at least one of them carried an unexpected theological resonance (unintended no doubt). I want to share an immediate (which means not fully digested) reflection on it.
In part the previews before the movie set up this reflection. With the exception of one, these previews were all about battling alien forces or depending on superheroes to save us. Along with “The Avengers” this got me thinking that as a culture we have a sense of dealing with problems and issues that are too big for us, whose presence daunts us and dwarfs our best wisdom to cope with them. This seems to me to account at least in part for the movies portraying humanity as under attack from aliens, mutants, and monsters. We sense a bad or evil transcendence impacting us in ways our own pride in our ability and technology has prevented us from seeing and experiencing heretofore. And we need a good transcendent power to save us. Fury reflects this in the last line of the film where he justifies his assertion that in any future time of crisis the Avengers will return - "because we need them to."
I wonder if this kind of imagery in our time offers a chance to open up the biblical teaching on the “principalities and powers.” These beings/forces created to establish and uphold the conditions of human existence have rebelled and sought to establish their own sovereignty corrupting human life and even the creation. The sense of a bad or evil transcendence might be connected to this trend in this and many other films.
This, in itself, is not surprising. What did catch my attention was the close of the movie where public response to the Avengers “salvation” of Manhattan is divided between whether their “help” was to be applauded or whether they should be held accountable for the death and destruction they participated in. Even the “good” powers of transcendence are suspect. This strikes me as having particular existential traction for us today even though it is and has been a standard trope of the genre for decades.
This moved off in two diametrically opposed directions for me. I first moved to connect this trope with what I have called the “open season on God” we seem to be in at present. God’s character and ways have been under critique from expected quarters (the so-called “New Atheism” associated with Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and others) and unexpected (many believers of various stripes have raised questions and criticisms of God around issues of divine violence in the Old Testament and the perennial problem of evil). This seemed to connect with the questions raised about the character and nature of the Avengers’ actions in the movie.
Subsequently, it occurred to me that when God acts to liberate or save in the world not everyone sees that as “good.” God’s liberation may seem to many more like an unwarranted intrusion that upsets the world and its arrangements than a liberation or salvation. God acts are always judgment/salvation, a two-sided coin that appears differently depending on which side of the coin one sees.
All this merits our continuing theological reflection, I think. It is a virtue of art to be able to evoke such ideas and thoughts, even beyond the intention of the artist. Thanks be to God for this.