By Joseph Holmes, Religion Unplugged
(ANALYSIS) The Marvel Cinematic Universe has a new big bad. And it’s God Himself.
In the past 14 years of pop culture dominance, Marvel movies have typically gone out of their way to be secular, keeping their social commentary to the sociopolitical. But no more. Over the past year, most of the Marvel movies or shows released have had some version of God as the main villain.
Since Marvel movies are arguably the most dominant pop culture franchise in the world today, exploring what they have to say about God tells us something about what our culture thinks about God and gives us the opportunity to explore and to challenge it.
So what do Marvel movies say about God?
God is evil
The first thing about how Marvel consistently portrays God characters in their movies and shows, as I alluded to earlier, is that they are all beings that present themselves as good but are secretly awful — and usually evil.
In “Loki,” the villain is He Who Remains, a supposedly all-powerful, all-knowing being whose primary goal is to keep order in time and space by making sure that all events go according to his cosmic plan and erasing anyone from existence who deviates from that plan. Then it’s exposed that he’s really a time traveler named Kang who kidnapped people and brainwashed them into joining his time cop force to enforce his preferred timeline.
In “The Eternals,” The Celestials are immortal gods who created every living thing in the universe and say they created the angelic Eternals to protect the humans of Earth from demonic Deviants. In reality, they created the Eternals to help humans evolve so the humans could help the planet give birth to a new Celestial — destroying the Earth in the process.
In “Moon Knight,” the prophet of the god Ammit is the main villain. Ammit wishes to return to Earth to kill everyone who will one day become evil before they have a chance to commit that evil. She’s opposed by Konshu, a god who abuses and manipulates Marc Spector/Steven Grant — two sides of a man with a split personality) into being his avatar in order to stop her. In the process, Konshu becomes nearly as brutal as Ammit until Marc and Steve stand up to him.
In “Thor: Love and Thunder,” the villain is Gorr the God Butcher. He is a pious believer in his god before all his people are wiped out and his daughter dies of starvation while his god does nothing. When Gorr meets that god, the god laughs and tells him his life is meaningless. So Gorr kills him and goes on a quest to kill all the gods. When Thor tries to stop him, he tries to enlist the aid of other gods, who turn out to be self-absorbed hedonists who don’t care about stopping Gorr as long as they are safe.
All of this should sound very familiar to anyone who grew up in a religious household who either walked away from the faith or knew people (or watched celebrities) walk away from the faith. There is a reason that young people are increasingly leaving religion: They were taught that God is good, loving, powerful, frowns on homosexuality, frowns on premairital sex and created them in six literal days. Then they suffered deeply, had sex, met gay people, were abused by the church, learned about evolution, learned their church’s oppressive and violent history and watched their fellow Christians behave likewise. They became convinced that the God they were taught about isn’t real or is more evil than good.
This is a microcosm of how the West fell away from belief in God more generally. Generations of corruption in the church and the government gave way to the Protestant Reformation and religious wars, then increasingly disillusioned Enlightenment and existentialist thinkers tried to rebuild society on more secular grounds.
In this way, the rage against god in our culture — including Marvel movies — is really a centuries-long rage against institutions that have let people down. Most Americans today are rapidly losing trust in our institutions.
Plenty of Marvel movies reflect that, too, as many other villains are big businesses, the military, U.S. intelligence agencies and more societal structures.
In many ways, the gods of the MCU are simply larger-than-life versions of those institutions we are all regularly disappointed and oppressed by. Kang, Zeus, Khonshu and the like are all priests, politicians, bureaucrats and father figures who rule over and lie to the people they serve about who they are in order to maintain their power.
But the rage against God in these movies and our culture also goes deeper than simple rage against institutions. It becomes rage against existence itself. The Celestials of “The Eternals” don’t so much resemble institutions as they do the natural order of the world: the cycle of creation and destruction that will eventually wipe out the memory of everything that ever lived. Gorr’s rage against the gods is first a rage against his child’s suffering and eventual death.
Rage against the unfairness of existence has long been a part of the human experience, but it has increased dramatically in its intensity.
Carl Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” notes that in ancient times, people generally saw reality as good and justice as conforming one’s desires to reality; in the modern day, our desires are seen as good, and justice is to conform reality to our desires. The transgender debate is a good example. In previous ages, if your mind and body disagreed, your mind was wrong. Today, if your mind and body disagree, your body is wrong.
This has dramatic implications for how Marvel — and our culture — conceives of morality. Traditionally, we see heroes who rebel against an evil authority as actually doing so in order to submit to a higher authority. Martin Luther King Jr. justified disobeying state laws by saying they were superseded by higher natural laws. For Marvel heroes, they might be disobeying their governments, but they do so in order to obey a higher principle, like the famous adage “with great power comes great responsibility.”
But when all the highest authorities in the Marvel Universe are evil or amoral, where do you get your morality? Marvel answers through the law of subjective human caring and intuition. The Eternals defy the gods because they care about the humans they’ve built relationships with. Moon Knight tells the god Ammit that he won’t join him because it’s just obvious that killing babies is wrong. Thor helps Gorr realize that he doesn’t need to kill the gods because what he really wants is to love and be loved. These heroes have an internal morality that is based on their subjective values and yet that subjective and internal morality is portrayed as superior to the edicts given by the gods. What makes them heroes is when they follow that internal guide to defy their external authorities.
Why God won’t go away
Even though Marvel has a bad opinion of God, its movies are still sophisticated enough to realize that getting rid of God just makes the problem worse.
The first problem with killing God is that he’s simply more powerful than us. In “The Eternals,” the eponymous heroes kill the baby god growing inside the planet, saving the Earth from destruction. But an adult Celestial immediately comes and subdues the Eternals he finds. In the sense that the Celestials represent the natural order, this story reminds us of the limits of defying the natural order, whether through our technology or social norms.
“Loki” also shows other unintended consequences of trying to kill God. Kang warns Loki and Lady Loki that if they kill him, they will simply unleash a limitless number of worse versions of him from throughout the multiverse. Lady Loki kills him anyway, and the result is exactly what Kang warns.
Nietzsche warned of the same thing when Europe began rejecting theism for secularism — that killing God wouldn’t leave people godless, but God would instead become a thousand new ideologies, many of which would be worse. He was right, as the next century replaced God with a plethora of competing ideologies like racism, nazaism, fascism, communism, nationalism, colonialism and others, many of which were far more oppressive and killed far more people than the Christian religion. Given this history, it’s fitting that Kang has a Hitler-esque statue of himself in his honor.
“Thor: Love and Thunder” shows that in order for Gorr to get his revenge on the gods, he has to kill lots of innocent gods as well. As Nietzche predicted, in order to kill God, Gorr has to become a god himself — and one far worse than the gods he killed. Moreover, the movie shows that the world needed the gods Gorr killed, since these gods protected worlds that became defenseless against evil threats in their absence.
“Moon Knight” has the most sophisticated solution to the problem of God. The heroes don’t try to kill their gods or even reject their gods, because they know they need them in order to fight evil. Their solution, then, is to make a deal with their gods so that the humans and the gods will help each other as equals instead of humans being the gods’ slaves.
This is almost precisely how modern people renegotiated their relationship to God and the church in the modern world. As French philosopher Gillis Lipovetski wrote in “Hypermodern Times,” a primary goal of Enlightenment reformers was to reshape institutions to give them less power over ordinary people.
Instead of monarchs, we got democracies; instead of state-run economies, we got capitalism; instead of state-run churches, we got freedom of religion. This changed the power balance so that the state, the church and economy had to negotiate with people for their allegiance: If they didn’t like the terms, they could walk away and find someone with terms they liked better.
The problem that both society and “Moon Knight” have with this solution is that people can’t get the benefits of God if they treat Him as an equal — only if they treat Him as Lord. Moon Knight, to be free from Konchu’s influence, has to give up his powers. Likewise, the only people who reap the benefits of a relationship with God — such as drastically increased mental health, dramatically decreased likelihood of divorce and moral reform and improvement — are the people who obey God and his commands like he is their master rather than a useful friend. These are the people who go to church when they don’t want to, who pray when they don’t want to, who become shaped into happier and more ethical people.
A brief example: Moon Knight says that he won’t kill kids for Ammit because it’s obviously wrong. And yet, as Tom Holland — the historian, not the actor — writes in “Dominion,” killing babies wasn’t considered wrong in the ancient world and was in fact very common. It was Christians who obeyed Jesus as their Lord that changed the cultural norms to consider killing babies “obviously wrong.” So even Moon Knight’s intuitive morality needed a culture to submit to God as Lord in order to make it “obvious” to an ordinary man like him.
Marvel knows this negotiated peace between humans and gods is tenuous at best. The end credits scene of the “Moon Knight” show reveals that Moon Knight’s secret third identity is working for Khonshu as the happy servant that the others rejected being. Likewise, around the world, religion is rising even as it dies in the West, which means that God’s servants will continue to grow in power and influence even as God’s negotiators continue to dwindle.
It’s clear that Marvel is setting up a conflict between humans and the gods to be at the forefront of its next big story line. Multiple Kangs running loose, Celestials angry that Earth was spared, Zeus wanting revenge on Thor, and Khonshu and his Moon Knight secretly continuing their work in lethal fashion are all open story lines with promise for future movies and shows in the universe.
I don’t know how Marvel plans to resolve the conflict between God and man, but I don’t think they’ll have many good answers — because Marvel movies reflect our culture, and our culture hasn’t found any good answers it can agree on. Hopefully that will one day change. And when it does, hopefully they’ll make a Marvel movie about it.
Editor’s note: This article was republished from Religion Unplugged under a Creative Commons license.
Joseph Holmes is an award-nominated filmmaker and culture critic living in New York City. He is co-host of the podcast “The Overthinkers” and its companion website theoverthinkersjournal.com, where he discusses art, culture and faith with his fellow overthinkers.