Culture At Large

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl’s Redemptive Imagination

JR. Forasteros

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is probably the only one who can save the Marvel Cinematic Universe from its biggest villain problem. Too bad she didn't make the cut for Avengers: Infinity War

There's no denying the MCU is a cash cow unlike anything we've ever seen, with 18 films (and counting!) having brought in almost $6 billion in the United States alone—and all that's before Infinity War drops later this week. These films tend to follow a predictable formula, one that generally includes a forgettable villain who is killed at the end of the movie. The MCU teaches us that the world is divided into heroes and villains; if a person is against us, that's license to kill them. That's frankly not very moral, to say nothing of heroic. If only the MCU heroes would take a page from Doreen Green, aka the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

In the hands of the dream team of Ryan North (writer) and Erica Henderson (artist), Doreen Green has become one of the most beloved characters in comics. Originally created in 1991, the character had never gotten her fair shake in the Marvel universe; at one point she was the nanny for Luke Cage and Jessica Jones' baby. But under North and Henderson, Doreen finally has her time to shine, and she's taking full advantage of it. One crucial distinction is that Doreen never kills her villains; she’s found a better way to win than just punching her problems in the face.  

It's not that Doreen can't punch. She has "all the powers of a squirrel and a girl!" This includes super-strength, the ability to leap great distances, a tail, and the ability to talk to squirrels (she’s also a computer-science major). Doreen believes that every person is deserving of love and respect and that most problems are due to misunderstanding more than anything else. So while she's not afraid to "kick butts and eat nuts," she's much more likely to try to talk to someone first. 

North and Henderson have delighted in pitting Squirrel Girl against seemingly overwhelming foes, daring us to believe she is truly as unbeatable as the title of her comic claims. North’s razor-sharp but always earnest writing is brought to life by Henderson’s warm, friendly art to create a tone that is affirming and fun, even at its darkest.

Squirrel Girl’s first foe in this recent North-Henderson run was Brain Drain, a nihilistic former Nazi scientist who had ended up as a brain in a robot body. After a confrontation with Squirrel Girl, Brain Drain is now happily enrolled at Empire State along with Doreen and her friends (well, as happily as a nihilist can be). Squirrel Girl has also bested Doctor Doom, the Mole Man, and even Ultron—always using science, creativity, and friendship as much or more than her super powers

A recent cosmic adventure found her teaming up with Loki and the Silver Surfer to halt a galactic war. When her human friend, Nancy Whitehead, became super-powered long enough to try to punch the problem to death, Squirrel Girl stopped her, warning, “If you use your position of strength—physical, mental, whatever—to hurt people, then you're the same as they are: a bully who relies on force to get what she wants. Does that really sound like Nancy Whitehead to you?”

Squirrel Girl's not afraid to "kick butts and eat nuts," but she's more likely to try to talk to someone first.

Friendship is what makes Squirrel Girl so unbeatable. Nowhere was this more obvious than in the most recent issue, the first to be released since Henderson announced she’ll soon leave the title. The whole issue is essentially an ode to friendship. There’s no real villain, as the focus is wholly on the relationship between Doreen and Nancy (which I can’t help but read as a touching farewell from North to Henderson).

Perhaps the most super of Squirrel Girl's powers is this: refusing to see people as they are, but as they could be (as when she reforms the Rhino by insisting he’s really a unicorn). More often than not, Squirrel Girl wins by inviting her enemies to become friends and inviting her friends to live up to their life-giving potential.

This emphasis on our potential reminds me of the redemptive activity theologian Walter Wink encourages in his writings on Jesus’ “third way.” For Wink, the two ways we’ve approached violence in the world are essentially through fight (violent resistance) or flight (passive non-resistance), both of which dehumanize one side or the other. Wink insists that Jesus’ way of engaging enemies—a non-violent resistance—affirms the humanity of both the victim and the victimizer.

Citing the Sermon on the Mount, Wink explores how all of Jesus’ examples of response to violence are far more than passive acquiescence. To offer one’s left cheek was to insist on being struck with the victimizer’s right hand, the hand of honor. To offer one’s coat in addition to one’s undergarment was to insist the victimizer face how they were leaving their victim: naked and destitute. And to offer to carry a soldier’s pack an extra mile was to put the soldier in danger of discipline for being overly harsh. It would ironically place the soldier in a position of begging for the victim to return his pack to him. Without resorting to the same sort of violence as their oppressors, Jesus shows us how victims can insist on their humanity in a way that affirms the humanity of everyone involved in the conflict.

In an increasingly pluralistic world, Christians have ever more opportunities to enter into meaningful relationships with those who are decidedly not like us. We can choose to engage these “others” as enemies of our way, who must be destroyed. This is certainly how a steady diet of Marvel films encourages us to see the world. Instead, we should consider following the lead of Squirrel Girl, who sees the best in everyone she meets and calls them to be that person. This redemptive imagination is more than super—it’s unbeatable.

Topics: Culture At Large