By Gregory Stevenson
In 2019 I had the privilege of working with an exceptional group of scholars as editor for Theology and the Marvel Universe. With the paperback edition now available (and thus at a thankfully cheaper price), this provides a good opportunity to reflect on why I think projects like this are important. Comic book stories have long been de-valued as a source of serious and meaningful reflection. This stems from a long-standing debate over high culture versus low culture. Elitist critics hold that high culture enlightens us, educates us, and moves us to a deeper appreciation of life and that these results are only possible with works of great sophistication, such as the theater, classic literature, or award-winning dramatic films. What they deem low culture is low precisely because it is popular and mass-produced. Critic Dwight Macdonald compared popular culture to chewing gum. It provides a momentary pleasure but nothing of any lasting substance.
Comic books along with the films and television shows based on them have long had a seat at the low culture table. Comic books have frequently been ignored or disqualified from the cultural conversation, written off as mindless stories for children. One might think that would have changed with the recent successes, both financial and critical, of Marvel Studios, but the class warfare that has become so entrenched within both the entertainment and academic industries continues to perpetuate outdated notions of value—particularly the idea that if something is popular it therefore cannot be serious or substantive. We’ve seen it recently with the comments of Stephen Dorff who—without having seen the film—described Black Widow as “garbage” and said he was embarrassed for Scarlett Johansson for being in it. We’ve seen it in Martin Scorsese’s characterization of Marvel films as “theme parks” that do not qualify as “cinema.” In an opinion piece with The New York Times, Scorsese attempted to explain his comments and in doing so clearly exhibited the prejudices of high culture elitists. For Scorsese, Marvel films cannot be considered cinema because cinema is “art.” For him, what makes cinema art, as opposed to Marvel films, is that cinema presents us with complex characters and ultimately provides us with “aesthetic, emotional, and spiritual revelation.” For critics like Scorsese and others, the spectacle and popularity of Marvel films relegates them to the kiddie table, their artistic expression more akin to finger painting.
Comic book stories are essentially a subset of a broader genre—fantasy—and the dismissal, mischaracterization, and prejudice that comic books stories experience is shared in full by fantasy. Because fantasy stories create and inhabit alternate worlds populated by dragons, magic, prophecy, irredeemably evil villains, and impossibly noble heroes, it is believed they cannot possibly teach us anything about the real world. They are, at best, escapist entertainment that takes us away from reality. What such assessments miss, however, is that the external trappings of fantasy stories (whether it be the dragons and magic of traditional fantasy or the larger-than-life heroes and villains of comic books) are not there to distract us from the real world but to get us to engage the real world on a deeper level.
Brian Attebery in his book Stories About Stories, writes, “Fantasy is fundamentally playful—which does not mean that it is not serious” (p. 2). Rather, the way it plays with symbols pushes us to more complex engagements with meaning. He adds that fantasy regularly “employs the mechanisms of the sacred: prophecy, miracle, revelation, transformation” (p. 2). Or, another way of putting it is that fantasy stories are ultimately about longing. Comic book stories do not present us the world as it is, but the world as we long for it to be. They capture our longing for a world of justice, of power on behalf of the powerless, of nobility and goodness, and of a world where the spiritual is a truly potent force. What Marvel’s stories do is help us to see the flaws in our real world (and in ourselves) more clearly and to show us a better way. When Spider-Man sacrifices his date with Mary Jane to put himself in danger for a complete stranger, it both exposes the numerous times we see people in the real world (including ourselves) putting self-interest above the needs of others and inspires us to do better.
The essays in Theology and the Marvel Universe take fantasy seriously as a potent force for exploring meaning and spirituality in the real world. They demonstrate how Marvel stories help us think more deeply about topics such as sacrifice, violence, utopianism, memory, identity, guilt, colonialism, reconciliation, spirit, and time. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Gregory Stevenson is professor of New Testament at Rochester University.