I admit it. One of my guilty pleasures is the Marvel films. As a boy weened on comic books and super hero escapism, I find the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) to be a great place to reignite my childhood imagination.
Beginning with Iron Man in 2008 to Avengers: Endgame in 2019 (totaling 21 films in the series), Marvel has created a universe of larger-than-life, dimensioned characters and interweaving story arcs which feed a colorful and expansive mega-narrative. From Black Widow to Ant Man to Doctor Strange, there seems to be a super hero flavor for everyone.
Which got me thinking. What can we, as artists of faith, learn from the MCU? Are there any principles or ideas we can glean from a multi-billion movie studio that caters to comic geeks?
The answer, I think, is yes. Here are a few concepts we might be able to glean from Spider-Man and his super friends.
It’s All About the Story.
In spite of the multi-million dollar CGI and other amazing effects, everyone generally agrees that it is the storytelling of the MCU that make the movies engaging. Over the course of 21 films, we’ve learned to care deeply for Iron Man and Captain America and Thor, all characters which are frankly B-list comic book heroes. But in comparison to the current DC universe, highly regarded A-list characters like Batman and Superman seem to lack substance and heart. And many critics point to bad storytelling as the primary reason.
As artists of faith, we too must pay attention to the story that we tell. Whether you are a painter or a poet, a filmmaker or a musician, there’s an underlying story in everything we express. And this seems counter-intuitive, but our story must not be subjugated to the Gospel. In other words, our art should never be a vehicle for a message, for it cheapens the art and weakens the message. Instead, we must strive to tell a great, compelling, life-giving story, and tell that story with excellence and passion. And if we as Christ followers do that, God will show himself in our work. As Madeleine L’Engle warns, “If it’s bad art, it’s bad religion, no matter how pious the subject.”
As artists of faith, are we telling a good story? Are we telling a unique story, one that rings true? Are we telling it in compelling ways, that draws people in and reminds them of their own story?
We Live in the Meta-Narrative.
One of the overarching concepts that drive the MCU is that every character and every world exists in the same relatable universe. Moreover, there’s an overarching story arc that superimposes upon every story. Thus, every film, every storyline, every plot development, not only moves that character along, but moves the overarching story that anchors the MCU. Endgame is the conclusion of this fully blossomed story arc, which brings together several corners of the MCU universe, from the Incredible Hulk to Guardians of the Galaxy to Black Panther to Doctor Strange to, of course, the Avengers. Interestingly, by the time we get to this point, each of these characters has gone through a journey of personal growth and discovery, and is fully formed and well-defined. And half the fun is in simply watching them all interact.
We have a an overarching Story as well: the Christian meta-narrative. And as we’ve discussed this at length in previous blog posts, I won’t bore you with a long treatise (more on the accompanying video). But basically, we understand that God is writing His Story into the universe in three acts: Creation, Fall, and Redemption. He is in the process of making His creation, which is marred by sin, new again, and each of us is a part of that redemptive act. Just as each film in the MCU is a story held together by the story arc, so are each of our lives an interweaved part of God’s meta-narrative.
As artists of faith, is our art reflecting God’s Big Story, His meta-narrative? Are we faithfully telling the story of our singular brokenness and God’s saving grace? Are we being true in our art to the Story that God is writing in us?
People Still Want the Good Guy To Win.
Hollywood has come a long way from the simplistic “good guys wear white hats and bad guys wear black hats” tropes. Today’s movies reflect a more ambiguous relativism, full of anti-heroes and moral shades of gray. And our comic book heroes also end up reflecting a grittier world, one that is less governed by a moral compass than a moral pendulum. One of the current trends is movies reflecting a nihilistic worldview. Nihilism, the idea that nothing ultimately matters and that life is meaningless, has shown itself in many movies, from the Coen Brothers to Woody Allen to Quentin Tarantino. In these movies, nobody ever wins. No Country For Old Men. The Grey. Collateral. The Dark Knight. There are no real endings, no final scenes, no purpose or meaning. And above all, there’s no redemptive story arc—the very opposite of the Christian meta-narrative.
But ultimately, in the deepest parts of our being, we all crave a good redemption story. From Hans Christian Anderson’s The Ugly Duckling and Homer’s Odyssey to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, we are moved by stories of redemption. Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Stephen Strange—We still want to cheer for the good guy/gal, and we still want them to triumph in the end. In spite of our snarky millenial dispositions, we still want to root for genuinely heroic and morally grounded people, no matter their flaws. We want to see people become the best of themselves.
Consider the narrative arc of Thor of Asgard. Originally an egotistical, one-dimensional, jock-like stereotype, he eventually transforms through several films into a complex, altruistic, imperfect but morally-driven demi-god. We cheer his victories and feel his trauma and grief and root for his redemption. For we all deeply want to live and believe in a world where justice and goodness will prevail. This longing is imbedded deeply into our humanity.
Are we, as artists of faith, creating a body of work that is based on absolute truth or is our art lost in a sense of relativism? Is our art grounded in a prevailing goodness and truth and love?
At the heart of the Gospel is the idea that we are called to share God’s redemptive action in the universe. For the Gospel is not only an invitation to enter His Kingdom, it is also an invitation to live in it.
Thus, we all have the capacity for making a difference in the world. To do good. To live out our faith in concrete ways. To make an eternal difference. To share the message of Jesus, and live out that message through our lives. And so, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and the calling of the Son, we have super powers—to live and serve and forgive and love and give grace in situations and conditions where human ability alone could not.
As followers of Jesus, we do more than just follow. We are catalysts for God-powered action in the world. And as Uncle Ben counseled Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility.” So we have a responsibility to be Jesus to the world.
Are we, as artists of faith, helping to call people to become their greater selves, to be a force for good in the universe? Are we inspiring people with our art? And are we actually living out our faith with our lives as well?
The Stories We Tell Form Us.
As a child, I remember practicing my drawing by tracing images of Spider-Man on the sliding glass door. And later as a father, I taught my young sons to draw Spider-Man as well. As an uncoordinated short kid with glasses, I was irrepressibly drawn to the idea of an insecure, introverted nerd who was secretly saving the world.
In many ways, we are the stories that we tell about ourselves. My story doesn’t include being bitten by a radio-active spider or being exposed to gamma rays, but it does include God’s grace through the person of Jesus and the continuing work of the Spirit. As such, each of our stories is the ultimate redemption story, and our ability to express that story forms who we are and how we see ourselves, and ultimately flows through our art.
We each have a unique story, and each story is worth telling. As an artist of faith, what is your story? How has it formed you? And how are you saving the world with it—through your words, through your art, and through your life?
[Note: This blog post was originally posted June 9, 2018, and has been updated for with the release of “Avengers: Endgame.”]