myths

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

Hey preachers: Can you spot the God-shaped hole at heart of the 'Avengers' universe?

As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.

It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.

That assumption would be wrong.

"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "

It's rare to hear the theological term "theodicy" in movies, but people who frequent multiplexes often hear characters suffer tragic losses and then ask, "Why did God let this happen?" The American Heritage Dictionary defines "theodicy" as a "vindication of God's goodness and justice in the face of the existence of evil."

This God-shaped hole at a pivotal moment in the "Avengers" series offers a window into the soul of the Marvel Comics universe and the minds of executives who shaped most of the 22 movies in this giant pop-culture mythology, said Greydanus.

"We are talking about a major fail, and not just from an artistic point of view," he said. "This shows a stunted view of how most people on Earth live their lives. Even people who are not religious tend to cry out and ask the big spiritual questions when faced with tragedy and loss. That's part of what it means to be human."

Not that many consumers are complaining. In it's first 11 days, "Avengers: Endgame" pulled in $2.19 billion at the global box office -- the fastest a film has reached $2 billion. Many insiders now assume it will eventually break the $3 billion barrier, passing the current No. 1 movie, the environmental-fantasy epic "Avatar," at $2.78 billion.

Truth is, global-market realities now affect how many blockbusters handle explicitly religious and even vaguely spiritual questions.

Comic book visionaries

LOS ANGELES -- The story has everything that a comic book needs, like rippling muscles, heaving bosoms, torture, seduction, superhuman feats of strength and moments of crippling guilt.

The story builds through pages of dramatic close-ups, epic slaughters and cosmic revelations until, finally, the hero faces his ultimate decision. Will he take a leap of faith and risk everything?

"Oh Lord God! Hear me please. Give me strength this one last time," he prays. "I am prepared! You strengthen me, oh Lord! ... Now let me die here with the Philistines!"

Anyone who knows comics knows what happens next in "Samson: Judge of Israel," by Mario Ruiz and Jerry Novick. What happens next is painted in giant, ragged, screaming letters that say "GRRUUNN," "CRAACCKK," "AAAIIIEEE" and one final "WHUMP!"

The great Bible stories -- such as Samson in the book of Judges -- are packed with the epic visions and good-versus-evil absolutes that fill the pages of classic comics and their modern, supercharged siblings known as "graphic novels" or works of "sequential art." But what is less obvious is that some of today's most popular and influential comic-book artists are drawing their inspiration from deep wells of faith and classic religious stories, according to Leo Partible, an independent movie producer, graphic artist and writer.

"Anyone who knows where to look can find plenty of examples of faith in the comics and the culture that surrounds them," he said. "There is darkness there, but lots of light, too."

Thus, in the influential "Superman For All Seasons," a young Clark Kent turns to his pastor for help as he struggles to discern what to do with his life and unique abilities. Hollywood writer Kevin Smith's "Daredevil" hero wrestles with guilt while leaning on his Catholic faith. The mutant X-Man Nightcrawler quotes scripture and talks openly about sin, penance and righteousness.

The mystery of the Shroud of Turin is woven into Doug TenNapel's sprawling "Creature Tech," which probes questions about faith and science. Artist Scott McDaniel's website (www.scottmcdaniel.net) mixes discussions of faith and art with its pages of Nightwing, Batman and Spider-Man illustrations. The graphic novel "Kingdom Come," which helped redefine the modern comics, keeps quoting the Revelation of St. John as it paints an Armageddon vision for the superheroes of the past.

The 36-year-old Partible can quote chapter and verse on dozens of other examples as he races through stacks of well-worn comics, tracing the spiritual journeys of heroes old and new. It's crucial to understand, he said, that comic books are not just for children. They are a powerful force in movies, television, animation, popular music and video games. Hollywood studies the comics.

"Comics offer a powerful combination of visual art, the written word and the imagination," he said. "For millions of people around the world, comic books are a bridge between literature and the silver screen. ... This is where some of our most powerful myths and iconic images come from, whether you're talking about stories that were shaped by the comics -- such as the work of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg -- or actual comic-book stories like the X-Men and Spider-Man.

"People have to be blind not to see this trend. It's everywhere."

Meanwhile, traditional religious believers who work in the comic-book industry face the same questions as believers who work in other mainstream media, said Partible. Should they be involved in artistic projects that dabble in the occult, if that is what it takes to land a job? How much sex and violence is too much? Should they flee the mainstream and start a "Contemporary Christian Comics" subculture that produces predictable products for Bible bookstores?

It's crucial, said Partible, that traditional believers stay right where they are in mainstream comics, helping shape some of the myths and epic stories that inspire millions. They also can help young artists break into an industry that needs both new ideas and old values.

"People are looking for heroes," he said. "People are looking for answers to the big questions, like, 'What in the hell am I doing here?' I asked that question when I was a kid and some of the comic books I read did a better job of answering it that many of the sermons I heard from preachers back then."