Avengers and the problem of evil (part one)

It’s not difficult to make a case for reading the Marvel Universe theologically. Not only do gods like Thor, Odin and Loki, and celestials like Ego, feature amongst its cast of characters, but many of the Avengers and their opponents have quasi-divine powers, albeit the supernatural is often re-naturalised by way of back-stories involving genetic or other technologies. The differences between divine and human Avengers are differences of degree. As ‘War Machine’ tells Captain Marvel at the headquarters of the surviving Avengers in Avengers Endgame, ‘everyone here has that superhero vibe.’ Noticing the way these films are populated by characters with such divine qualities allows us to ask what is done through these representations of the divine, which is to ask about these films as works of theology, in a fairly generic way. (1)

One effect is implicit in what we’ve already observed: these films blur the distinction between divinity and other (humanoid) species by way of technological enhancements of various kinds. The humans among these augmented characters are treated as still fully human in the films. They exhibit human needs and desires for relationships, for example. They have human flaws and vulnerabilities. And they are taken as representative of humanity by others, whether by opponents like Ultron or Thanos, or by allies, like Vision. Their augmentations and powers do not seem to place their humanity in question. (Perhaps the only characters who begin to really raise the question of the post-human in earnest are the AI characters, Jarvis and Ultron). Other characters tend to show the same features, they are anthropomorphically imagined, including deities. Altogether, then, the divine and quasi-divine inhabitants of the Marvel Universe seem to be a projection of an imagined humanity (a so far predominantly heterosexual humanity, though the films celebrate less conventional images of the family) on to a larger scale.

That enlargement of scale serves a number of purposes in the films. It allows them to invest ordinary human dramas of love, friendship, family and loss with extraordinary heroic, even cosmic significance. It is part of the Afrofuturism by which Black Panther celebrates and affirms a pan-African identity. It also allows them to treat standard themes of redemptive violence (even while briefly questioning them as Age of Ultron does) and noble sacrifice on a scale at once cosmic and individual. In this way, perhaps, like other stories of super-heroes, the films allow us to imagine a sense of individual agency in a vast, complex world menaced by myriad large-scale threats. In this way also, like other stories of super-heroes, it brings the Avengers – but not only the Avengers – up against the question of evil, its nature, origins and undoing.

What’s interesting to me about the later Avengers films in this respect is the way they seem to focus in on the issue of divine responsibility for undoing, redressing or preventing evil at large, or what is commonly called ‘the problem of evil’, and is both a standard question in traditional modern, western philosophy of religion, and a common reason for the rejection and loss of belief in theistic religions.

In this regard, we can trace a process of increasing scope and scale of the interventions made by divine and quasi-divine beings to redress, undo or prevent evil acts or situations. We might distinguish the interventions by individual heroes to save specific places, interventions by teams of heroes to thwart larger conspiracies and organisations (e.g. Hydra), interventions to save the planet or large parts of its population, and interventions by still a larger alliance, in Infinity War and Endgame, to undo the elimination of half the population of the universe. In a sense, the Marvel films are peopled largely by interventionist gods and their friends and we are invited to suspend our disbelief in them.

There is a thread of ambiguity attached to these heroes and their interventions and the institutions that support them. That ambiguity attaches in part to the US military, to the organisation S.H.I.E.L.D., to Tony Stark as a hero and former arms manufacturer, a semi-rogue member, even embodiment, of the industrial-military complex, and to the Avengers as a group. In each case suspicion is raised about how far the heroes differ from the villains, their links with the military-industrial complex, and the lack of oversight or checks on their actions: who guards the Guardians? This is the basis on which we are invited briefly (and not very successfully) to entertain empathy with the critical perspective on the Avengers of the self-conscious, rogue AI entity, Ultron, in Age of Ultron.

Ultron was dreamt up by Tony Stark as the presiding AI genius of a global defence system against alien incursion, which Stark, with the assistance of Dr Bruce Banner, creates in secret and without anyone’s authorisation. It is an intervention that creates a quasi-human quasi-divine entity (who in turn inadvertently creates a second, the Vision) as a means of preventing evil on a planetary scale. Ultron’ assessment of risk is the converse of this: the danger comes from the Avengers, indeed from humanity. Eventually Ultron concludes that a planetary level solution is required, the mass extinction of humanity (and presumably other creatures, but Marvel is, despite itself, a firmly anthropocentric universe). As Wanda points out in that film, Ultron’s plan betrays the lineage of Stark’s scheme. The continuity between them is the augmentation and expansion or upscaling of power as a rationalistic response to the threat of evil.

Ultron’s scheme rests in part on appropriating the Space Stone, one of the Infinity Stones through which fundamental dimensions of reality can be manipulated (Space, Mind, Reality, Power, Time, Soul). As Thanos’ appearance and speech at the end of the film suggests, we are to enderstand Ultron’s taking of the stone as part of a larger plan by Thanos to obtain all six stones, in order to wield their combined power through a gauntlet constructed to hold them and allow their power to be used. But there is continuity also between Ultron’s scheme and Thanos’ grand plan. For Thanos’ plan is also a coldly rationalistic response to evils in the cosmos, one which he previously been carrying out in piecemeal interventions: to eliminate half the population of the cosmos in order to eliminate the competition for resources to which Thanos ascribes social (and perhaps ecological) evils. What distinguishes Thanos’ plan, successfully accomplished by his snap of the fingers of the gauntlet at the end of Infinity War, is its scale and scope, and the degree of divine power required to achieve it. It is a work of a kind of omniscient omnipotence, the ultimate divine intervention, paralleled only by the act that undoes it.

Or nearly. Near the end of the convulsed plot of Endgame an earlier Thanos, having learnt of the Avengers’ plan to reconvene the infinity stones in order to bring back those annihilated by his finger snap, is transported forward through time to the Avengers HQ just after the success of that plan. Faced by the revived and reassembled Avengers he announces the lesson he has learnt: that the survivors of his semi-annihilation have not been able to adjust to what his later self has done. He will have to scale up his intervention to a total wipe-out, and a fresh start. By way of the connections between the planning of Stark, Ultron and Thanos, this intended act is the culmination of an escalating logic of intervention by gods and demi-gods with ever closer approximations to a sort of omniscient omnipotent total intervention.

There is a horrible logic to this escalation. Limited interventions can at best halt, limit or prevent certain acts or events causing horrific suffering. But the causes of such suffering are complex, systemic and pervasive and the vulnerability of living beings to it seems inherent, extensive and may at best only be mitigated. Thanos’ choice to annihilate everyone and start again perhaps recognises this intractable difficulty in intervening to stop and prevent all suffering, but does so without any real compassion for actual living beings, or any real appreciation of the goods of their fragile, ambiguous existence. It is, in the end, a pitiless rationalisation of pure multi-genocidal will to power: ‘I am inevitable.’

This line of analysis raises a question, I would suggest, for formulations of the problem of evil which involve some sort of omniscient omnipotence as one of their key premises. For popular (and academic) constructions like the ‘inconsistent triad’ – God cannot be both omnisciently omnipotent and good and yet permit the existence of horrendous suffering – seem to imagine omnipotence in interventionist terms, making specific differences to the world or to the conditions of creaturely existence. Such accounts may need to show how they can avoid implying or requiring the kind of escalation of intervention we find in the Avengers films. On the whole, as I’ll argue in a second post, the emphasis in much of the Christian tradition has been on imagining divine intervention in a rather different way.

(1) I’ve seen many of these films, but not all, and I’ve not read the comics.

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