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.
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.