A Theologian Reflects on Superheroes

I talked to a friend of mine (he’s a Catholic theologian and a long time lover of comicbooks) about my thoughts about comic books after I posted about it on this blog. He told me that he’d been thinking a lot about comic book movies himself. Specifically he’d been thinking about the famous essay by Catholic fantasy writer and linguist J.R.R. Tolkein, “On Fairy Stories.” I asked him to write up his thoughts, and I’m very glad I did. Here they are.

The box office success of the MCU — defying the repeated warnings from critics about (their own) ‘superhero fatigue’ — hints that the draw and fondness for these films extends beyond their mix of superstar celebrities, endless special effects, and promises of a shared universe. As DC/Warner Bros. and Universal Studios (they had plans for a shared universe for their classic monsters) know, these elements do not guarantee enduring affection from audiences (e.g., Batman v. Superman, Justice League) or even sound financial return (e.g., Green Lantern, The Mummy). The MCU matters because of both what it has accomplished (see Allan’s post) and how and why it was accomplished. At its root, the success of the MCU tells us about our hunger for certain kinds of stories and their theological character.

Contemporary comicbook movies, and the comic books universes on which they are based, are arguably modern iterations of what J.R.R. Tolkien termed the “fairy story,” in his seminal essay “On Fairy-Stories”. The fairy story, for Tolkien, was a narrative form that encompassed a wide range of stories; from the ‘high’ myths of gods, the ‘middle’ heroic epics, to the ‘low’ fairy tale and fable. They could be part of complex histories or ‘stand alone’ tales set ‘Once upon a time’. They can be tragic or comedic. What fairy stories have in common despite the variety of forms they come in is that they offer “recovery,” “escape,” and “consolation” through fantasy.

Critics readily perceive the element of fantasy and escapism in comicbook movies. The presence of the unrealistic — men and women who can fly, use various energy types to blast enemies, lift enormous weights, and take on equally fantastic enemies — is perhaps the root of critical scorn. Because these movies look very little like the ‘real world,’ they think, they are not worthy of serious attention. But this association of fantasy with childlikeness relies on a naive understanding of what fantasy and art entails. Fantasy, according to Tolkien, was the free “rearranging” of the “Primary World” — the world of our experience — into new form, a “Secondary World” — the act and product of this rearranging is termed ‘sub-creation’ (122–124). As Tolkien argued, such rearranging was common to all art — indeed, it is art’s definition. What makes an art fantastic is the extent of the rearranging of the elements of the Primary World to the point of “arresting strangeness,” while still (in successful instances) commanding “secondary belief.” Art can speak metaphorically of a silver moon. Fantasy can speak of a god crafting the moon out of silver metal and setting it in its celestial course. Fantasy can take up the metaphors of art and make a secondary world in which the they are literally true or go further yet and create entirely new worlds in which suns are not golden and moons are not silver, but green or violet. Fantasy was therefore not a “lower form of Art,” but “the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent” (123)

The fantastic act by which we re-arrange things of the Primary World into the strange is perhaps the first hint of the escapist power of fair-stories. As Tolkien claimed, fantasy is an exercise of our freedom from the factual. This is not simply a matter of letting us imagine having new powers and abilities. On a deeper level, fair-stories and comicbook movies help us imagine alternatives to our world. As Black Panther in particular showed us, to engage in this activity can be highly relevant. But even more so, fairy-stories and comicbook movies offer us an ‘escape’ into the human predicament that we often overlook because of routine. From Iron Man to Endgame we have been able to escape into our fundamental questions over the relationship of freedom and security; truth, justice, and mercy; the risks of power; and the cost of self-sacrifice.

The escape provided is tied also to what Tolkien terms “recovery.” Recovery is, put simply, the restoration of vision or the gaining of a certain point of view. Through the encounter with the fantastic, we are actually given a glimpse of the fantastic quality of the things of the Primary World. As he puts it, “We should meet the centaur and the dragon, and then perhaps suddenly behold, like the ancient shepherds, sheep, and dogs, and horses — and wolves.” (129) Tolkien fills his world with the forging of swords and rings, and talking trees to reveal the potency of fire, iron, and trees. Like Tolkien, though with a technological/scientific veneer, the MCU casts us back to elemental beings and powers. We see Thor and are reawakened to the power of Lightning. We see the forging of Iron Man’s armor and recall the wonder of metal and craft. We hear “I am Groot” and perhaps marvel at the Elm.

The final component of the fairy-story — “consolation” — is perhaps the most essential and the one the MCU has excelled at over the last 11 years. The consolation the fairy-story provides is that of a Happy Ending, or more precisely, the Eucatastrophe — the “good” catastrophe. What Tolkien means is “the sudden joyous ‘turn’” (135) of events, in which victory is granted at the moment of defeat as if by miracle. This joyous turn in narrative is so foundational to the stories we tell as a culture that it can be easy for eucatastrophe to slip into cliche or a deus ex machina. Perhaps it is for this reason that critics are especially prone to discount the comicbook movie and for creators to fashion “darker” stories (Game of Thrones is such an extreme form of this that it is arguably an anti-fairy-story).

But our cynicism at poor attempts should not cause us to overlook our desire for eucatastrophe. While “darker,” “grittier,” or more “adult” stories can be excellent in their own right, we seem to have a collective aversion for stories that end in true and final dyscatastrophe. Nor should we imagine that eucatastrophe is simply the easy resolution to all conflicts in a story, with all suffering or cost undone. Even in victory there are costs that propel the story on to the next chapter or cause the grief of those who survive. According to Tolkien, we read or watch stories with eucatastrophe because they show us a glimpse of Joy “beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief,” of Joy that cannot be conquered or swallowed up by Defeat (135–136). When the Ring falls into the fire of Mt. Doom, when Thor regains his worthiness, or when we hear “On your left,” we delight to see that the Good, no matter how weak, is forever greater than Evil, no matter how strong. For Tolkien, this glimpse of Joy Unending is a glimpse into the Truth of things, it is a recovery into the deepest nature of existence. Whether it is Truth, however, depends in great measure on faith. For the Christian, the fiction of Tolkien and the MCU reflect the light of the Great Eucatastrophe: the victory of Christ the Crucified One over Sin and Death.

According to Catholic theology, human beings were made for Joy from the outset. It shouldn’t surprise us that all of us — believers and non-believers — are drawn to those tales- like those of the MCU — that remind us of our purpose.

Dr. Georgia is the D.R.E. at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Cleveland, OH.