She-Hulk’s K.E.V.I.N.: The Good and the Bad

A few weeks ago, I suggested that She-Hulk excels in world-building. I also expressed the hope that such world-building would pay off. Indeed, She-Hulk the final episodes of She-Hulk, especially the season finale, offered an inventive, enjoyable, creative conclusion to season 1. As part of this conclusion, Jennifer Walters (aka She-Hulk) rewrites the end of her episode with one universe’s Kevin Feige (i.e., Knowledge Enhanced Visual Interconnectivity Nexus). Aside from being an interesting way to build out the MCU world, the story telling raises some interesting conundrums and challenges: the relationship between an audience and the show’s creators and the nature of a text regarding truth.

The Audience and the Creators

Some shows include dialogue that often responds implicitly to audiences. In particular, I think of Stranger Things. At one point, Steve asks Dustin about the flashlights: “Where’d everyone get those?” Dustin replies, ““Do you need to be told everything? You’re not a child.” This line may well be a critique that the creators are raising against the audience. Indeed, events and choices should make sense in a story and a world, but good story telling does not involve revealing every single detail, explain why every single individual choice was made. Instead, Stranger Things says, “Hey, if you are a smart audience, you can fill the gaps of the narrative on your own!”

She-Hulk likewise makes implicit comments on the nature of the show itself. Indeed, Jennifer Walters is speaking to K.E.V.I.N., seemingly critiquing the AI; however, the critique seems more oriented toward the audience than to K.E.V.I.N. Consider this comment from Rotten Tomatoes: “If they make another season, I hope it’s better and sticks to more about She-Hulk and her life as a superhero instead of a lawyer” [1]. This perspective on the show is precisely what the creators are critiquing about the audience: Must we also have a larger-than-life superhero fighting cosmic forces? Why can’t a show focus on the mundane of life? And Jennifer Walters suggests as much, arguing toward K.E.V.I.N. that the stakes of the show are her experiences, her life, her struggles. The show does not need to be about She-Hulk as a superhero but can rather complicate the relationship between one’s superhero and non-superhero personas.

And the show generally executes this division well. Aside from the explicit dialogue with Bruce Banner and Matt Murdock, as I write I find myself unsure whether to call the lead character She-Hulk or Jennifer Walters. Quite frankly, this division is an important challenge to folks in culture and society who either wrap their entire identities up into one thing they do (I see you academia) or expect others to have a simple, two-dimensional identity. In reality, humans are complex creatures, and we bring a range of experiences, activate different aspects of ourselves at different times, and sometimes struggle with differentiating between those aspects when social contexts overlap. For this reason, I appreciate She-Hulk and how it critiques the audience, the audience’s expectations, and what people in society expect of others more generally.

The Text and Truth

Although I appreciate She-Hulk in many respects, the show’s representation of K.E.V.I.N. left a bad taste in my mouth with regard to the lived experienced of creators. In the final scene, for example, K.E.V.I.N. comments that the animators and special effects folks moved onto another project. Therefore, She-Hulk needs to become Jennifer Walters off camera. If we take the text as face value, that is, the text the world constructs, the animation is simply a matter of people starting something else. The implication, perhaps, is that poor CGI is the result of Marvel Studios producing many films and TV shows. I wonder, though, if this text of She-Hulk is meant to reorient the audience from a serious problem in Marvel Studios.

Through July and August, many websites published about the ongoing controversy between third-party CGI animators and Marvel Studios. The VFX vendors argue that Marvel Studios overworks and underpays the workers, resulting in lower-quality shows [2]. Thus, the claim that the VFX artists have simply moved onto another project at some level redirects the conversation away from VFX artists’ lived experiences.

Admittedly, this observation is on shaky grounds. I can’t prove that She-Hulk intended to redirect the conversation. My claim is very much conjectural. Nonetheless, we need to consider such issues when we watch media. How do the claims in the show interact with lived experiences? When using a meta approach to story telling, how does that shape not only how we see the story but also how we see the creators themselves? And to what extent does the story telling reframe how we see a multi-billion dollar corporation? And what real-world damage might such reframing do?

[1] https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/she_hulk_attorney_at_law/s01/reviews?type=user

[2] https://www.cbr.com/marvel-create-own-vfx-house-worker-backlash-mcu/

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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.

Religion in The First Avenger: Magic, Canon, and Cosmos (Part One)

Since 2009, Disney has earned roughly $18.2 billion on the Marvel Cinematic University (MCU). All of the events in the MCU, introducing the heroes, villains, and objects, culminated with Avengers: Endgame. For various reasons, the MCU offers some interesting parallels for understanding various elements of religion. So, over the next 20 weeks, I will be watching the MCU films in chronological order, thinking about how they can shed light an religious studies topics.

This week, I watched Captain America: The First Avenger (TFA). Though TFA is chronologically prior to Iron Man, it was released in 2011, after Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), and Thor (2011). The film is about Steve Rodgers, who volunteers for a special physical enhancement test in the US Army. After a successful test and due to unseen circumstances, Captain America, who is Steve Rodgers, saves the world from a Nazi group which split off from Nazi Germany and nearly destroyed the entire East Coast with the Tesseract. Red Skull the villain, sees himself as harnessing the power of the gods through science. At the end of the film, Captain America stops Red Skull; however, Captain America crash lands in Greenland. The film ends by showing how Captain America was buried in ice for 70 years, discovered in time to become part of the Avengers team.

In what follows, I will lay out of few general observations about TFA and issues in religious studies. Many of these thoughts are undeveloped and will receive more thorough treatment as I re-watch all of the MCU Phase One films.

First, TFA represents a strained relationship between science and magic/religion. Red Skull is mocked by his peers during the beginning of the film for seeking to find the Tesseract in order to power his weapons. He comments at one point: “What others see as superstition, you and I see as science.” That is to say, there is recognition of the boundaries between science and magic/religion. In finding and utilizing the Tesseract, the film effectively illuminates how the boundaries between “religion” or “magic” and “science” are sometimes more porous than we realize. For example, turning towards Mesopotamia, is the Maqlû rituals, anti-witchcraft rituals, magic, religious, or scientific? The practitioner uses various objects as material technology to push against the witch’s  possession of victim. Though most would not categorize this as scientific, the ritual was perceived, in some respects, as harnessing the power of the deity. Thus, though they are not the same, Red Skull’s use of the Tesseract and a practitioner’s use of the anti-witchcraft rituals are an interesting parallel in terms of the relationship between magic, religion, and science.

hugo_weaving_as_red_skull

Second, issues of canonization arise in the MCU. After all, the films were not made in chronological order. This emerges most clearly with Howard Stark’s character, who is the father of Tony Stark/Iron Man. TFA introduces Howard Stark as a wealthy arms dealer for the US Army. If we watch the movies in chronological order with no background knowledge from the comics, his character is not significant; however, if we watch the movies based on release-date order, Howard Stark becomes more significant. Such an issue is equally important in the Hebrew Bible: which book was composed first and which book is imagined to be chronologically first? Moreover, should one read the Hebrew Bible in the Jewish canonical order, or should they read it based on composition date? For, if you don’t read the texts based on composition date, certain elements which occur chronologically earlier, though later in terms of composition, may be unclear. Such issues are relevant for both Biblical Studies and the MCU because they point to an even more central practice: what are the reading/watching practices for audiences? Though I have no answer, it is worth comparing more in the future.

Third, Red Skull finds the Tesseract in sculptured mural of Yggdrasil:

“Yggdrasill, the world tree, is an energy field that supports and connects the Nine Worlds. It is represented as a tree the roots and branches of the tree each connect a different realm… and the earthly realm of Midgard through which all the connections pass.” – (Source)

In other words, the location of the Tesseract implies that it has a connection with the cosmic Yggdrasill, a mythical tree from Norse cosmology and mythology. Put another way, an object of power (Teseract) was found amidst a religious symbol of a cosmic power (Yggdrasill). The significance of Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract would have been notably less were it not associated with a cosmic power. That is to say, the way in which one interacts with their material environment can be understood different based on the associations and links. For example, when a Mesopotamian king captured an enemy temple, the temple was not simply a building for gods; rather, it was a microcosm of the macrocosm, of the universe. So, the significance of capturing temples was heightened through associating temples with a greater cosmic significance. Thus, while Red Skull’s finding the Tesseract is distinct from a Mesopotamian king capturing a temple, there is a similar pattern in both: the material object is associated with a cosmic power in order to make more significant the material item.