The Mystic Dimension of Marvel Movies, Part I of III: A Reflection on Christian Cosmology and Cosmography

Feast of St Pelagia the Nun-martyr of Tarsus

Marvel_Square.jpegDOCTOR STRANGE is yet another excellent addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ("MCU"), and allows the MCU to finally incorporate the Mystic dimension of Marvel to its visual comic book world (which also includes the Terrestrial and Cosmic dimensions of Marvel). The MCU is to be applauded as a superlative adaptation of the Marvel Multiverse—in all of its integrated, overlapping, and simultaneous complexities—to the silver screen.       

As a lifelong comic book fan, seeing more obscure heroes—like Doctor Strange, the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Ant-Man—make their way into major movies that are themselves wildly successful and powerful additions to the MCU (and its televised branches, represented by the canonical Netflix shows Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, and the soon-coming Iron Fist and The Defenders, all of which have been hinted to come together with other heroes in Avengers: Infinity War) and its metanarrative is a treat in itself. But as a Christian, I cannot resist the abundant opportunities that Marvel movies afford to reflect on cosmology and cosmography, inarguably two of the most neglected fields of contemporary Christian theology, in any tradition.      

The Marvel universe is large enough to encompass a plurality of stories so variegated that it can be difficult for the viewer to reconcile that they are all going on in the same consistent cosmos. At the same time that Matthew Murdock, a blind lawyer who nevertheless “sees” and fights crime with enhanced senses of sound, touch, smell, and taste as the Daredevil, is defending Hell’s Kitchen from a collection of New York crime bosses and ancient zombie-ninjas seeking immortality, and bullet-proof, ex-con Luke Cage saves Harlem from the limitations of the system by dismantling the neighborhood gun ring and confronts his own demons, Spider-Man is coming to prominence further downtown, Ant-Man puts on his suit for the first time, Stephen Strange learns the mystic arts at the feet of the centuries-old Sorcerer Supreme in Kathmandu, T’Challa, the crown prince of Wakanda, dons the Black Panther suit and defends his kingdom, and the world is protected by an international defense force called S.H.I.E.L.D. Before all of this, Steve Rogers underwent an experiment that turned him into Captain America, Tony Stark invented the Iron Man suit, Bruce Banner became the Hulk, and they, together with an extraterrestrial, millennia old god named Thor, the Russian assassin Black Widow, and the expert bowman Hawkeye formed the Avengers and fought off an alien invasion through a wormhole opened up in the sky over the Big Apple (humorously, the Netflix shows are full of references to this “incident”). Elsewhere, Peter Quill—a human who was abducted from Earth in the late 80s—sails around the cosmos living the life of a space cowboy and styling himself “Star Lord,” a famous outlaw among the various interplanetary civilizations, and forms the Guardians of the Galaxy, a team that features the deadly space warriors Gamorra, Drax the Destroyer, Rocket Raccoon (who is, in fact, a sentient raccoon), and Groot, an eight-foot tall sentient tree creature. Gamorra is the adopted daughter of Thanos, a mad titan in outer space who seeks after the Infinity Stones, which will give him the power to destroy the universe in order to impress Death, a personified cosmic entity whom Thanos desires to court, and who to this end initiated the invasion of Earth and is the adversary finally facing the Avengers in the upcoming Infinity War and its sequel. But while Thanos is the conqueror of whole worlds and an immense threat, he himself is dwarfed by a number of cosmic beings much older, larger, wiser, and more powerful than himself, including the Elders of the Universe, Dormammu, and the Living Tribunal, the three-faced judge responsible for keeping order in the cosmos, himself the obedient creation of the One Above All, the God of the Marvel Multiverse.       

For those who may feel a little overwhelmed by this plurality of names and storylines—including everything from urban vigilantes to huge, cosmic threats to the Earth and everything in between—it may be discouraging to note that this is, in fact, just scratching the surface both of Marvel’s mythology (which also includes titles the rights to which are owned by other studios—e.g., the Fantastic Four, the X-Men, and Deadpool are all part of this universe, but don’t appear in the MCU, since the rights to their films are owned by Fox) and of the mythology adopted by the MCU (which includes references to all sorts of heroes who don’t have their own films, but may have someday: an ominously open cocoon in the Collector’s gallery, for example, suggests an active Adam Warlock somewhere out among the worlds). The 68+ heroes scheduled to make some kind of an appearance in Infinity War are, in fact, just a tiny portion of the number of the interlocking stories going on in Marvel.        

I contend that our culture’s fascination with these stories has to do not just with their creative, colorful, and plainly fun reiterations of the hero’s journey or their emphasis on the importance of the virtues of courage, responsibility, and self-sacrificial defense of the weak. Instead, these stories captivate us with their insistence on an extensive, multivalent reality directed by a metanarrative composed of innumerable smaller stories going on within them, and their insistence on the mutual importance of the mundane world of our regular experience and the cosmic and mystical worlds with which we have little if any daily interaction. Marvel is fundamentally an imaginative exercise in cosmology and cosmography, and provides us with inspiration to pursue similar exercises in the theological realm.         

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Which leads me back to cosmology and cosmography. Cosmology is the study of the origin, development, and fate of the cosmos, which scientifically involves studies of the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe and religiously involves the dogmas of creation (protology) and consummation (eschatology), how the universe began, what it consists of, and where it’s moving. Cosmography is the cartographical application of cosmology, a mapping of the cosmos, defining the heavens and the earth in their relation to one another, whether astronomically or theologically (and often, in the ancient literature, both at the same time). Both disciplines used to be key elements of theological discourse, and the scientific disciplines of both cosmology and cosmography were once permeated by theological insights.

While the theological cosmology of the Scriptures is clear—God created the universe of space, time, and matter and declared it good (Gen. 1), and the created order will be consummated in a cosmic transfiguration in the world to come, with the New Jerusalem as its cosmic center (Rev. 21-22)—there has never been a singular cosmography at work among the people of God. The Scriptures themselves do not retain a single cosmological model, moving from the model of a flat earth covered by a dome and surrounded by the cosmic ocean of Genesis 1 to a more Greco-Roman/Persian model of a plurality of heavens in the Second Temple period, reflected especially in the New Testament (a great book on this is J. Edward Wright, The Early History of Heaven). As Christianity moved into early Patristic and Medieval periods, it increasingly adopted this Ptolemaic model of the cosmos, where the Earth is the center around which the various heavenly spheres rotate, ruled by different angelic powers, the static heaven where God resides sitting above them. The Copernican Revolution brought about the death of this model, but its fundamental theological insight—the idea of a hierarchical cosmos ruled by God and his chosen ministerial powers—remains a key and inescapable element of Jewish and Christian cosmology.

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David Armstrong is an Orthodox Christian who enjoys a shameless love affair with Jews, Judaism, and other Christians. He graduated with a BA in Religious Studies (minor in Classical Greek) from Missouri State University in Springfield, MO, where he is now working on an MA in Biblical Studies. He has an avid interest in far too many things, and would do well to specialize.

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