In the beginning of the pandemic, my husband and I decided to rewatch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies in order of release. We enveloped ourselves in the stories while looking for a needed distraction from the news and all of our cancelled plans.
The MCU is a series of superhero movies, but it’s also a collection of stories about kids who know what it’s like to be lonely and different. These are tales of adults who’ve lived with debilitating obstacles, imperfect families, and traumatic pasts. These are narratives of unlikely relationships and real rifts. While there are many spectacular on-screen moments of saving the day, there are just as many moments of defeat, conflict, and devastating grief. For me, this is what’s always separated the MCU from other superhero movies: the excellent characterization, depth of storytelling, perfect one-liners, and the powerful message that no matter what we face or lose, we are not alone.
Scripture tells a similar message. Some of the biblical writers do this directly, encouraging believers with truth, like Paul in his letter to the Roman church: “. . . neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Jesus often expressed truth through stories (parables). I need the truth spoken to my head, but the stories, alongside lived experience, are what allow that truth to sink further and plant into my heart.
While all of the MCU films (in the first three phases) work together and should not be missed, I’m going to focus on how Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame ministered to me during the pandemic.
The Scourge of Thanos
Avengers: Infinity War is the 19th film on our list; we watch this cumulative saga while our own world is facing loss everywhere we look. The numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths keep rising, and I feel small the way all of the Avengers look when they and their best efforts fail against Thanos (Josh Brolin). The film takes us on a winding journey and ends after a dynamic fight in Wakanda, where the Avengers and their friends have come together, in a brilliant vision of color and diversity, to combat Thanos and his dark army. The story ends poignantly, with a surprisingly slow pace after so much action and awe. One beloved character after another disintegrates into what looks like pieces of dust and ash, then silently floats away in the wind. All the effort and hope wielded, brought together, and pressed forth on Wakandan land couldn’t save half of the earth’s population. Thanos “fixed” the problems of the universe, by way of a genocide he initiated.
“Thanos” recalls the Greek name Thanatos, a Greek mythological figure who carries humans off to the underworld when their lives are done. Thanos—with his rigid chin lines, which resemble a permanent frown of displeasure, and his unforgiving scars and eyes, which seemed to trap sadness—is death personified. He himself claims he’s “inevitable.” Isn’t his name the question we all face in our darkest hours of doubt, division, death, and disillusionment?
I need the truth spoken to my head, but stories are what allow truth to sink further and plant into my heart.
We watch Avengers: Endgame while things are starting to reopen. Vaccines are underway and infection cases are dropping. The film opens in the darkness of space. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) are isolated from everything and everyone, stranded on the damaged spaceship Benatar. I feel the clock ticking and their hope waning as they play another round of paper football in the dim light and share what remains of their sustenance. Tony makes a goodbye video for Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) as the oxygen dwindles and he prepares to die. When he falls asleep, Nebula moves him to a seat facing the green glow of space, tenderly offering him all the dignity she can. I think of those who said their final goodbyes via FaceTime, with nurses and doctors accompanying them in their last moments, as those closest to them couldn’t be by their side.
Although Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) arrives in time to save Tony and Nebula, their relief is short-lived. Nebula tells them where they can find Thanos, in hopes of reclaiming the Infinity Stones and reversing his murderous course of action. But upon confronting him, they discover he has destroyed the Infinity Stones. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) kills Thanos in a burst of rage, but that changes nothing. The film seems like it’s going to end two and half hours early.
But then we jump five years ahead. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starts a therapy group to help people move on and move forward, while he cannot move on himself. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) eats a PB&J sandwich alone at her untidy desk, watching and waiting for more news. I see myself in her tired eyes and grown-out roots and think of all the nights I stay awake, unable to sleep, unable to muster motivation for more than the basics while I wait for something, any good news. Thor loses himself in video games and emotional eating and drinking. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) becomes a new man, like those who launch, create, and hustle ahead despite the world drowning. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) shows up in the dark. He’s lost everything; all he has left is rage. A tiny ember of my own rage—the burning of an accumulated sadness—flickers while I watch him standing in the pouring Tokyo rain, the water running over him like drops of shame, unable to face Natasha. Like the father of the prodigal son, she’s mercy personified—standing under an umbrella, offering him a way home before he’s even turned around.
I quietly cry through the reintroduction of each of these characters five years after losing so much. I already know what’s going to happen, but it’s the first time I’m watching it all with the pandemic as a backdrop. They aren’t just superheroes in a story arc anymore, they are human reflections of us. They are the story of our last 18 months. They are the real-life tensions, the transitions, the full-on break-ups, the extra pounds, and the anxiety. They are our rage and ragamuffins. They are also our reminders that grace knows how to swim through grief. Their sadness, their escapism, their attempts to hang on, their inability to snap back to it, or snap out of it, give me permission to feel, to be, and to hope.
Mirrors of the MCU
If there’s anything I’ve needed throughout these many months, it’s been room to grieve, to lament, to see how deep my need is, how ugly my selfishness can be, how wide my fear stretches, and to know Jesus still reaches his hand out for me in the rain.
I didn’t need someone to tell me Jesus is the way or to preach me out of my anxiety. I needed stories. Stories are mirrors. Maybe this is why Jesus told so many of them. The mirrors of the MCU, whether they were made for this or not, minister to me. In their reflections, I not only see myself and those I love and struggle to love, I see Jesus.