Theology and the Marvel Universe

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Editor(s): 
Gregory Stevenson
  • Lanham, MD: 
    Lexington Books/Fortress Academic
    , November
     2019.
     278 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781978706156.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In our current cultural moment, decades after the rise of both the (controversial) “secularization thesis” and the modern comic book industry, there is no shortage of articles, commentaries, books, and blog posts musing on how superheroes are the real mythological figures of the 21st century. Theology and the Marvel Universe, edited by Gregory Stevenson, is not one such work. As the latest entry in the new “Theology and Pop Culture” series from Lexington Books, this volume is instead a creative exploration of how both graphic novels and their cinematic adaptations can illustrate and explicate professional theological research. To varying degrees from chapter to chapter, this is a work of theology-meets-critical-media-studies as each contributor unpacks one or more theological doctrines, concepts, figures, or schools of thought with help from some of the most popular characters and stories in contemporary pop culture. 

One of the most striking features of this edited collection is the variety of topics discussed by the fourteen essays that comprise the volume. Some chapters focus specifically on Marvel comic books, discussing notable storylines (like Civil War, Secret Invasion, or Jonathan Hickman’s much-lauded run on The Avengers) or characters (like William Stryker, the enemy of the X-Men, or the villain-turned-antihero Venom). Other chapters analyze blockbuster films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) like Thor: RagnarokDoctor Strange, and Avengers: Infinity War, as well as television shows associated with the same fictional world (like Daredevil and Luke Cage). Some entries—like the editor’s exploration of the spiritual power of weakness captured by the character of Spider-Man—do both. 

In a similar fashion, the theological and philosophical material brought by each contributor to the conversation produces, with few exceptions, little overlap from chapter to chapter. While each essay is grounded in only one of the Abrahamic religions, contributors nevertheless manage to discuss topics ranging from kenotic sacrifice to Franz Rosensweig’s theology of creation to Kierkegaardian authenticity to mythopoetic treatments of narratival theology as a disciplinary approach and more. One chapter focusing on Roman Catholic psychology is followed shortly by a different chapter on Pentecostal spirituality (with a chapter on Pseudo-Dionysian Neoplatonism in between). Indeed, it seems clear that the editor’s effort to welcome a broad range of theological perspectives (at least from within the Abrahamic faiths) into the volume was extremely successful. 

Theology and the Marvel Universe also succeeds at promoting perspectives and analytic approaches not often reflected within the dominant theological traditions represented by the collection. For example, Taylor Ott’s chapter on the Jessica Jones series from Netflix applies feminist and womanist theologies to explore the titular character’s identity as an (often extremely violent) hero. An essay from Kevin Nye considers Thor: Ragnarok as a postcolonial text to investigate how the Christian imagination has (and has not) grappled with centuries of racist global policy and history. And Amanda Furiasse’s contribution on the character of Ruth Bat-Seraph, better known as the Israeli superhero Sabra, brings attention to how Marvel Comics has implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) commented on political events in the Middle East; by applying a critical analysis informed by the tools of political theology to this case study, Furiasse paints a picture of how comic books (and, perhaps one day, the MCU) can discuss concepts like reconciliation and redemption. 

So, while the diversity of topics, approaches, and thinkers found in this volume is commendable as a demonstration of the multivariate interests within 21st-century Abrahamic theology, its variability also makes the volume as a whole difficult to grasp in its entirety. With such a broad scope covered inside its cover, Theology and the Marvel Universe will see its average reader (who I suspect will be a college-educated Marvel fan looking for intellectual stimulation, not spiritual guidance) enjoying only a subset of its content. While there might be some audience member equally riveted by Augustinian analyses of temporal metaphysics, post-Marxist approaches to material theology, and the mimetic theory of René Girard, I imagine that most readers will gravitate towards only a few of the book’s fourteen essays. 

But this is not to suggest that the book is somehow shallow simply because it is broad. Theology of any stripe is a complex affair with plenty of flavors and focuses; Theology and the Marvel Universe reflects this fact as well as one can expect from a single volume totaling less than 300 pages. Given my own interests, the chapters from Gregory Stevenson and Daniel Clark on the relatable weaknesses of both Spider-Man and Daredevil (as well as Andrew Tobolowsky’s analysis of mythic reinvention exemplified by the Thor films) were particularly intriguing; for readers with differing predilections, other chapters will undoubtedly be more appealing. The exciting thing is that, by including such a diverse portfolio of content in one collection, the book offers an easy opportunity for readers to explore ideas that are likely to be new to them, even as they also find familiar ideas in other chapters that they already know they appreciate. 

In short, within Theology and the Marvel Universe, just as within both the discipline of theology and the books, movies, and more that comprise the Marvel Universe, there is plenty of room for all kinds of readers; this work invites its audience into further conversations to broaden their horizons. Consequently, there might be no better description of its theme than the words of Stan “the Man” Lee himself: “Excelsior, true believer!” 

About the Reviewer(s): 

A.G. Holdier is a graduate student in philosophy and public policy at the University of Arkansas. 

Date of Review: 
June 25, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gregory Stevenson is professor of New Testament at Rochester University.

Keywords: 

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