Love and thunder, signifying nothing? Religion and nihilism in recent Marvel movies

Recent installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exacerbate the tension between the franchise’s humanistic ethos and its nihilistic cosmos. Is there still room for God in this universe?

Note: This essay contains spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Eternals. SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

“I shouldn’t be alive … unless it was for a reason.”

“You’re not getting what the universe is trying to tell you.”

The first line above, from the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was uttered by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008) after a nearly fatal encounter with one of his own company’s weapons. The second, from the latest MCU movie, Thor: Love and Thunder, is addressed to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

Expressions like these imply an idea, a way of thinking about reality, that is so implicitly second nature to human beings that it would be pedantic to make too much of it. Whether due to magical thinking, a divinely imbued instinct for God, a psychological tendency to impose meaning on indeterminate stimuli, or some combination of all three, at striking moments in our lives — for example, encounters with mortality — we feel we can perceive the workings of something that, depending on our worldview, we might call fate, destiny, a higher power, the universe, the Tao, Providence. In such moments we feel there is a moral structure to reality, a grand design in which we have a place, setting a path we must follow.

Such ideas about meaning and morality are one thing in a diegetic world that, like that of Iron Man, resembles our own in most respects, the main narrative conceit being experimental arc-reactor technology capable of powering a corporate headquarters or a flying suit of armor. Over the last 14 years, though, as narrative conceits have piled up in an increasingly crowded shared universe, this way of thinking has come to seem increasingly strained. For example, in the popular TV series Loki it was revealed that the border between the possible and the actual has been delineated and maintained by an unfathomably powerful, quasi-religious bureaucracy of brainwashed functionaries who believe they are following the will of transcendent “Time-Keepers” in preserving the integrity of what they call the “Sacred Timeline,” when in reality their whole cultlike worldview was dreamed up by a psychopathic mortal who happened to win a war between branching timelines.

In particular, three of the most recent MCU movies — Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and now Thor: Love and Thunder — mark a turning point by dealing overtly with religious themes in ways avoided by earlier MCU releases.

If the “reason” Tony is alive is simply that this happened to be the version of reality preferred by a psychopath — well, it might not strictly disprove the idea of a moral structure to reality, but it certainly seems to debunk that striking sense of meaning that Tony finds in his survival and his feeling that it follows that there is something he must do. As for the universe sending Jane a message, for some time now each new MCU release has offered another variation on the same nihilistic theme: The powers that be are revealed to be untrustworthy at best, deceitful or self-serving at worst, and ideas about destiny, the grand design, and good and evil are debunked.

Many gods, many afterlifes — at least for some

In particular, three of the most recent MCU movies — Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and now Thor: Love and Thunder — mark a turning point by dealing overtly with religious themes in ways avoided by earlier MCU releases. In Love and Thunder we see, for the first time, godlike beings who not only identify as divine, but accept and desire the religious devotion and service of adherents to their cultuses. (We’re a long way from Odin explicitly rejecting the term “gods” for the Asgardians in Thor: The Dark World.) We see, too, how unworthy the gods are of such devotion: how callous and indifferent to the suffering and pleas of their followers and others, even fellow gods. To call this “anti-religious” might be simplistic: Negative depictions of small-g gods are arguably convergent both with themes in polytheistic mythology and with monotheistic critiques of pagan religion. Yet as Love and Thunder opens with a frivolous, ostentatiously adorned deity named Rapu brutally laughing in the face of his last wretched worshiper — ridiculing his belief in the promise of eternal reward, claiming that nothing awaits him after death and that his only purpose is to suffer for his gods — the religious questions raised aren’t limited to belief in small-g gods.

Further complicating the issue, there are rewards after death, at least for some. In a post-credits sequence, Jane Foster — who takes up the hammer and the mantle of the Mighty Thor, but eventually succumbs to her cancer — is welcomed at the gates of Valhalla. (She is greeted by Idris Elba’s Heimdall, who was slain in Avengers: Infinity War.) Black Panther depicts a realm called the Ancestral Plane where it is possible (at least for Wakandans of royal blood, with the help of a special herb connected to Black Panther’s powers) to encounter departed souls. But is Valhalla open to anyone without Asgardian powers, or the Ancestral Plane to anyone but Wakandans? Another twist, according to Doctor Strange and the Multiverse of Madness, is that eternal punishment also apparently exists. (No indication for whom or for what.) A key plot point turns on the Darkhold or “Book of the Damned,” a tome of evil magic said to be derived from the “first demon, Chthon.” The Darkhold gives the user power to command “the souls of the damned”: malicious spirits functionally equivalent to demons (much as the souls of the redeemed are said to become “angels” in stories like It’s a Wonderful Life). Fighting off these damned souls, a character snaps, “Go back to hell!”

I haven’t seen the small-screen series Moon Knight, but I understand that it references Black Panther’s Ancestral Plane in connection with its own depiction of the afterlife in Egyptian belief. An Egyptian goddess named Taweret goes so far as to state that life after death is real, but perceived differently by people of different cultures. Yet why Rapu ridicules his poor last worshipper’s hopes of eternal reward, while Asgardian, Egyptian, and Wakandan concepts of the afterlife are given credence, is far from clear.

The gods are worse than crazy

A farcical sequence in the middle of Love and Thunder deflatingly suggests that, as gods go, Rapu is the rule, not the exception. Rapu’s spurned worshiper — a bereaved father named Gorr (Christian Bale) — acquires a powerful, dark weapon called the Necrosword, and, under its corrupting influence, sets out to exterminate all gods before the evil of the sword takes his own life. Faced with the threat of this “God Butcher,” Thor and his allies look to rally the combined might of the pantheons of all worlds, represented at the ecumenical Council of Godheads in a massive, fantastical redoubt called Omnipotence City. Among the Council’s vast throng of deities are the likes of Quetzalcóatl and the Egyptian/Wakandan cat/panther goddess Bast/Bastet, along with, presumably, countless deities of alien worlds.

The Council’s presiding leader and most eminent member, though, is none other than Zeus, played by Russell Crowe. Zeus’ prestige among the gods is so great that even Thor is awed by him. Naturally he turns out to be a showboating buffoon interested mainly in orgies. (“Never meet your heroes” is Thor’s bitter comment afterwards.) As Rapu ignored Gorr’s prayers, Zeus spurns Thor’s pleas for help, declaring that Asgardian problems are their own. Worse, Zeus attempts to detain Thor to prevent him from engaging Gorr and perhaps betraying the secret location of Omnipotence City — all with no evident dissent from members of the Council. Perhaps because of the decadence of Zeus and his retinue, though, Thor and his companions easily escape.

Gorr’s ultimate gambit is more ambitious and absolute than assassinating gods one by one. Journeying to the center of the universe, he makes contact with a transcendent being called Eternity, who will (for reasons unknown, per lore unexplained) grant any wish to the first being that reaches him: a unique form of “prayer” guaranteed to be granted. Though his intention is to wish for the death of all gods, in the end Gorr is moved by Thor’s appeal to his better angels and the touching final moments between Thor and dying Jane, and uses his dying wish to restore life to his daughter.

Nihilistic cosmos, humanistic ethos

This finale is typical of the MCU sensibility, which proposes an essentially nihilistic cosmos, but rejects nihilism as an ethos. Gorr joins MCU villains such as Thanos, Killmonger, and Hela, whose villainy lies in their ruthless, by-any-means-necessary approach, but whose cause or complaint is at least understandable, or even just. The MCU exalts love and sacrifice, but the sacrifice must be personal: The one thing you cannot do, it seems, is sacrifice others for the greater good. For example, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness opens with a corrupted version of Doctor Strange from another dimension of reality attempting to save the multiverse by sacrificing an innocent person, interdimensional traveler America Chavez. Multiverse of Madness rejects the pragmatic calculus of that corrupted Strange, who dies in the opening scene.

Yet “our” Strange’s solution is arguably even more disturbing. I’ve argued that Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in the original Doctor Strange secretly engages in what amounts to satanism for the greater good by channeling mystic energy from the realm of a malevolent, world-consuming entity called Dormammu. Now Strange himself utilizes the Book of the Damned (a taboo artifact that, like the Necrosword, has a corrupting influence on the user) to possess the corpse of the slain Strange and command the souls of the damned. If there’s a cost, it’s only to his own soul — though it’s abundantly clear that a corrupted Doctor Strange can be as great a threat to reality as Thanos or Dormammu. Strange himself admits that he’s no more uncorruptible than other versions of him we’ve seen or heard about. Whether or not Strange’s consequentialist actions are ultimately seen as a problem may depend on sequels yet to come.

Perhaps the most overt expression to date of the conflict between the MCU’s humanistic ethos and its cosmic nihilism is last year’s Eternals. Eternals starts with a subversive creation myth pointedly contrasting with the opening chapters of Genesis, even opening with the words “In the beginning” and crediting “Arishem, the Prime Celestial,” with bringing “light into the universe.” Arishem also created human beings and the godlike Eternals — but not in his image. The Eternals watch over humanity, but their trust in Arishem and his “grand design” is shattered when they learn the truth: The Earth is just an incubator for an embryonic Celestial gestating in the planet’s core, and humans are merely part of a life cycle that will culminate in the violent destruction of the planet. As for the Eternals themselves, they aren’t even living creatures. They are merely “fancy robots” designed by Arishem to protect human beings from demon-like monsters called Deviants (which it turns out were also created by Arishem, but evolved beyond their originally intended purpose). When the Eternals discover the lie at the heart of their worldview, some of them rebel against Arishem. Thwarting the emergence of the nascent Celestial, the Eternals carry out a cosmic abortion to save mother Earth — a choice with essentially humanistic motives directly contrary both to their own raison d'être and that of humanity.

Is there room for God in the MCU?

Although religion has historically had a low profile in the MCU, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do exist. Captain America’s famous affirmation of monotheism in The Avengers (“There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”) may be heavily qualified by the innumerable gods seen since then, but monotheistic religion is still around. There are scenes set in churches in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Doctor Strange, and Ultron alluded to Genesis and quoted from the Gospel of Matthew. On the small screen, Moon Knight is Jewish and Ms. Marvel and her family are Muslim. The conspicuously Catholic hero of Netflix’s Daredevil is retroactively MCU canon, and a new Disney+ series is in the works.

The appearance of Zeus and other Greek gods alongside the Olympians (and the existence of the afterlifes of Norse and Egyptian mythology) raise an intriguing question: Are all the deities of all the myths and religions in the MCU real? Are the Celestials and all the many pantheons of the Council of Godheads ultimately creatures of one true God?

Eternals suggests a negative answer. To start with, Zeus may exist, but it seems Athena doesn’t — nor do a number of other mythological gods and heroes, including Circe, Gilgamesh, and Icarus. All of these are supposed to be based on similarly named Eternals: Thena, Sersi, Ikaris, etc. Likewise, there are hints that the Abrahamic idea of the One who brought light into the universe in the beginning is supposed to be based on Arishem. (Hashem is a Hebrew circumlocution for God meaning “the Name.”) A painting of St. Michael the Archangel during the end credits, alongside other religious and mythological figures, implies that he too is merely another of Arishem’s synthetic gods. One caveat: It seems Arishem may not consider himself the ultimate source of meaning and purpose even for his own creatures. Although the Eternals’ rebellion brings him to Earth in judgment, there’s a hopeful hint of a higher morality: Arishem declares that he will spare the Earth if he finds that human beings are “worthy to live.” While humans as rational beings have no intrinsic value in Arishem’s eyes, apparently he deems it possible that they could somehow have attained a value not foreseen in his utilitarian grand design. Like the Deviants and the Eternals themselves, humans may have evolved beyond their creator’s intent — a development that could have moral implications even for their creator.

If so, what is the basis of this moral reality? What, too, is the basis for reward and punishment in the MCU’s various afterlifes (or whatever ultimate reality stands behind various cultural perceptions of the afterlife)? We’re told there are conditions for attaining Valhalla or the Egyptian Field of Reeds; what is the basis for these conditions? By what standards were the damned souls in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness damned? These questions, at least, have not been mooted (not yet) by the MCU’s expanding cosmic nihilism. If there’s still room in the MCU for the God that characters like Captain America, Daredevil, Moon Knight, and Ms. Marvel believe in — if he could be the ultimate reality behind the sense that some things happen for a reason and that the universe sends us messages — perhaps the mysteries behind unanswered questions like these are where he hides.

Make Mine Marvel, Religious Themes, Superheroes & Comic Book Movies