Captain Marvel and a Theology of Abuse

By Corey Patterson

The upcoming Captain Marvel film from Marvel Studios has gotten the entire comic book world talking more than ever about the character. The film directors, Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, are charged with the task of introducing this important comic character to the Marvel Cinematic Universe while also tying her story into the Avengers 4 plot. So it’s definitely an exciting time to be a Captain Marvel, a.k.a. Carol Danvers, fan. 

However, the larger movie-going public may know little about this character and her extensive history in the comics. To address this, Marvel Comics recently put out a five part limited series titled The Life of Captain Marveldetailing key aspects of Carol’s characterization. It focuses on the lasting effects of growing up with an abusive father and how it impacted her relationships with the rest of the family. 

The series focuses on many other topics, but I would argue the themes of family and abuse are most prevalent. This was done intentionally, both to establish the troubled connection with her flesh and blood family while opening the door for her to become a part of the larger MCU family.  

Carol’s relationship to abuse within her family may be hard to understand at times. Fortunately, theology is a great tool for unpacking these themes, which we will get to shortly. 

WARNING: SOME SPOILERS BELOW 

Family Ties that Bind

The Life of Captain Marvel, written by Margaret Stohl, is a series seeking to connect the past to the future. It dives deep into Danvers’ past while opening up a new storyline fit for the character’s future, both in comics and film.

The story immediately places the focus on Carol’s homelife growing up by having her revisit memories of her father. She’s forced to relive the various forms of abuse imposed on her family. The mental anguish piling in on Carol is too much, so she packs up her things and heads home to confront her family on Father’s Day, ironically enough.

One distinct memory continues to haunt Carol throughout her time at home: the excursion the family took to the Maine coast when she was young. She remembers attempting to fly her kite as the brothers get into a rough-housing match and accidentally tear it apart. In response, her father proceeds to beat them even as Carol begs her mother to put an end to it. Sadly, their mother simply tells her to stand down, reinforcing Carol’s already embodied powerlessness.

A Theology of Abuse

 Carol and her brothers’ abuse from their violent father, both verbal and physical, has clearly taken its toll on the superhero. Witnessing her own family in distress while being told not to do anything about it is an incredibly painful experience that is difficult to articulate. But is theology a tool fit for the task?

Dr. Chelle Stearns, theologian and Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology, offers valuable insight into the theological implications of abuse within the family. She’s spent much of her research devoted to new ways of thinking about our own abusive experiences and how we can use theology to understand them. 

Stearns’ has highlighted the ways victims of abuse often allow their trauma define them. She counters this with an insight into a way theology can help reorient their experiences:

“We are being transformed, in a sense, so that we can see trauma for what it is — that it’s not the thing that defines us, it’s not the thing that actually destroys us, it’s the thing that tears us down, it’s the thing that short-circuits our ways of making sense of the world, our ways of articulating. We become disoriented, whereas the Holy Spirit is constantly in this place of trying to reorient us.”

 Opening our hearts and minds to our own disorientation is one way to understand our suffering. It’s in this the process Sterns believes God does God’s work. But Western theology has often failed at this task, as she notes:

“Theologians deal with words — there’s no end to words as a theologian. But in trauma, the body becomes centric. The memory of the body becomes the very place of meaning-making. Especially in western Christianity, we haven’t done a great job of allowing the language of the body to inform how it is that we do our work.”

Abuse and Body Centricity 

We can see how Carol embodies this body centricity through her interactions with supervillains in the issue. As the memories come back to her, an unquenchable anger fills her as she punches with more power than is usually warranted. It takes the rest of the Avengers team to hold her back. Fueling her anger through these physical actions is part of the lingering effect of her father’s abuse. He hurt the family physically, so she’s inclined to react physically against it.  

As the series unfolds, readers can see how Carol opens herself up to her mother and others in the family to reorient herself. In a sense, Carol is undergoing theological work by allowing God to move through her family and address the heart of her pain, both in mind and in body. 

Theology, done correctly, can offer individuals who have undergone abuse a way to understand their pain. The pain we’ve suffered can never be erased, but the God who suffered in the Incarnation is with us through it all. 

Corey Patterson is a writer and webmaster. He is passionate about the synthesis of theology and geek/pop culture stories. His interests lie primarily in superhero and fantasy genres. Check out his blog here and some of his reviews on Monkeys Fighting Robots.

Sources

Stohl, Margaret. The LIfe of Captain Marvel. No. 1, Marvel Comics, 2018.

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