When Religion becomes Fandom, or Why the MCU and Its Fans Reminds People of Religion

One approach to comic books currently in vogue is to view comic books, comic book culture, and fandoms through the lens of religion. As Aaron Ricker suggests, though, “By choosing what to study as religion, scholars help define religion, and the ways in which we do this can often look lazy and (confessionally and/or professionally) self serving” [1]. This approach follows Aaron W. Hughes and Russel T. McCutcheon’s recent emphasis that “we may be less interested in studying religion than in shifting the ground and, instead, studying the act of calling something religion,” namely, the discourse around religion [2]. Thus, we must ask not whether the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through a lens of religion but rather why the MCU and its fans are sometimes interpreted through the lens of religion. One answer to this question is by exploring the notion of world-building as it relates to both religion and comic book culture. This world-building, I argue, forms a bridge that results in scholars often viewing comic book culture as a sort of religion.

In what follows, I first identify what constitutes world-building and why it is important. Then, I examine the MCU and religion as separate categories through these lens of world-building. Third, I bring the MCU and religion together through the lens of world-building in order to identify one aspect of why religion scholars sometimes us a religious studies lens to approach the MCU. Finally, I show how the flip side of this observation might give have potential, namely, exploring religion through the lens of world-building and fandoms.

World-Building

World-building is an idea in the field of media studies that Mark J. P. Wolf recently synthesized and developed in Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation [3]. Simply put, world-building is the subcreation of a secondary world, not simply a fictional world but a world in which the represented reality is “different enough (and usually detached or separated in some way) from the Primary World [i.e., our world and reality] to give them ‘secondary’ status” [4]. Importantly, world-building is distinct from narrative. Whereas a narrative is a means by which the world is experienced, world-building is a separate act which does not always include narrative. As Wolf highlights regarding Oz, L. Frank Baum’s best world-building occurred outside of his well-known work The Wizard of Oz, other works often counted as his weakest stories regarding narrative [5].

World-Building in the MCU

A recent example of world-building as opposed to story in the MCU is Disney’s She-Hulk. Although I’m only on the fourth episode, my wife and I agree on one thing: the story is mundane, unadventurous, and no particularly engaging. Such a narrative contrasts starkly with, for instance, Disney’s Shang-Chi and the Legends of the Ten Rings, which included all the elements of a good story paired with world-building. Because She-Hulk‘s narrative is so mundane (and frankly somewhat boring), the show’s reception has been relatively poor. Where She-Hulk excels, though, is in world-building. In the first four episodes, She-Hulk has worked to map out the MCU world, itself a subcreation, by showing the audience how things work and raising key questions that enable viewers to engage with the world: What happens when superheroes and villains just want to be normal? How do casual viewers perceive the folks with superpowers after the events of the first three phases of the MCU, more commonly known as The Infinity Saga? Can previous-known villains be rehabilitated and become good (e.g., Loki)? These questions are what She-Hulks explores, and the show makes secondary the importance of the narrative.

Importantly, most MCU fans or casual viewers expect that the world-building will pay off in someway down the road with more consistent and inventive films [7]. (At least I hope so.) Put another way, world-building is engaging and interesting for certain MCU fans because it pushes, (re)articulates, and clarifies the boundaries of the secondary world, the subcreation, that Disney developed since the first Iron Man movie. And this world-building keeps viewers interested. (Naturally, we need some quality stories soon.)

World-Building in Religion

World-building is also a feature in some religious traditions. In particular, though, I am interested in religious traditions that look toward history to illuminate, for instance, the “world of the Bible.” For many scholars in the twentieth century, fields like Assyriology and classics were not an end in and of themselves but served to expand the world of the Bible, sometimes the Hebrew Bible and sometimes the New Testament. Notably, though, world-building in relation to religiously authoritative scriptures, otherwise known as “the biblical world,” is not typically viewed as fiction. Instead, the world-building of a secondary world isn’t secondary in terms of reality and plausibility but only along the lines of history. And as L. P. Hartley wrote, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” [8]. Thus, although world-building in relation to the Bible in religious studies is not necessarily about constructing a new, all-together separate secondary world, the world-building that occurs around the Bible nonetheless is a sort of world-building activity that is separated from the Primary World due to time and history, even if folks practicing religion view such things as reality to a degree.

Why the MCU as Religion via World-Building?

As noted, both the MCU and religion tend to partake in world-building. The difference, though, is that religion’s world-building does not decouple the subcreation from the Primary World, from reality, whereas the MCU clearly expects the audience to decouple the subcreation from reality. (Note that I know of specific children who believe that that MCU was part of the Primary World.) Such overlap in world-building, I propose, is why some religious studies scholars like to see the MCU and its fandom as religion. Although they may not say as much, fandom practices and comic book culture more broadly participate in the world-building activities of the MCU in the same way that some religious communities participate in the world-building activities of the Bible. Such a parallel creates an impression that the MCU and its fandom should be understood as a sort of religion.

The Coin’s Flip Side

The observation that religion scholars view comic book culture through the lens of religion opens up other fruitful methods for approaching religion. What if rather than approach religion through the lens of religion we instead utilized tools from fandom and media studies to explore religion and religious studies discourses as a form of world-building? This approach would essentially follow Hughes and McCutcheon’s approach of exploring why we call some things religions as well as generate new, more fruitful theories of how religion works in the twenty-first century.

[1] Aaron Ricker, “The Third Side of the Coin: Constructing Superhero Comics Culture as Religious Myth,” Arc 43 (2015): 104.

[2] Aaron W. Hughes and Russell T. McCutcheon, Religion in 50 Words: A Critical Vocabulary (New York: Routledge, 2022), 250. This emphasis reflects a broader, more recent trend in religious studies. See the referenced page for further references.

[3] Mark J. P. Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds: The Theory of History and Subcreation (New York: Routledge, 2012).

[4] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 25.

[5] Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 29.

[6] I am intentionally ambiguous regarding what I mean by “Bible” because I don’t have sufficient time to sift through Jewish and Christian times when this sort of thing happened and happens.

[7] Regarding world-building, “audience members and critical approaches that center on narrative, then, may find such excess material to be extraneous, tangential, and unnecessary, while those that consider the story’s world will find their experience enhanced.” Wolf, Building Imaginary Worlds, 3.

[8] Wolf mentions this quote in Building Imaginary Worlds, but I was unable to find it in the book.

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