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What’s With All the God Stuff in Upcoming Comic Book Movies?

What’s With All the God Stuff in Upcoming Comic Book Movies?

The story goes that in the mid 1960s, Stan Lee was riding high on the success of Marvel Comics’ earliest creations like Fantastic Four, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man. During a promotional interview, someone told him that his characters felt like new spins on ancient Greek and Roman myths about gods who looked and talked like us, but had abilities and powers that we don’t. The question got Lee’s wheels turning and he saw an opportunity — why not just go back to those mythologies and mine them for content. Soon, he had Thor and other members of the Norse pantheon zipping around the pages of his comics alongside Captain America, Iron Man and the rest.

Ever since then, superhero comics have had an interesting relationship with real life religion. And while the success of the movies has tended to shy away from spirituality, since big studios are notoriously cautious about getting caught up in any religious debate, that relationship is bleeding into the cinematic universes with increasing frequency.

While older movies like Ghost Rider hinted at a spiritual world and Daredevil was a devout Catholic on Netflix’s series, those now look to be the tip of the spear. This summer, Disney Plus’ Ms. Marvel featured the franchise’s deepest dive into religion yet, with a thoughtful and nuanced exploration of Kamala Kahn’s Muslim heritage.

And last week’s Comic Con in San Diego announced a huge roll out of upcoming comic book movies, a decidedly disproportionate number of which have religion on the brain. There’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods, in which our hero (Zach Levi) and his found family must battle with ancient deities out for blood. There’s Black Adam, which draws on the Egyptian pantheon for its antihero antics. And then Daredevil: Born Again, whose name alone suggests that our hero’s inner wrestle with God isn’t done just because he’s made the jump from Netflix to Disney Plus.

And superheroes aren’t the only ones getting in on it. We’ve also got Netflix’s Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s classic comic book character Dream, the cosmic ruler of the dream world who escapes from a century of captivity and must put his kingdom back in order — an adventure that, in the source material, has him brush up against a number of supernatural beings, including God, the devil and — less supernatural but nevertheless notable — G.K. Chesterton.

Sometimes, these movies’ dealings with the gods have been goofy, as in Taika Waititi’s Thor: Love and Thunder. Sometimes, it’s been more serious, as in Zach Snyder’s somber Man of Steel, which was steeped in Christological symbolism. But in either case, the inclusion of real life spirituality in the comic book world opens the in-universe logic up to all sorts of questions. For example, how would religious communities feel about actual supernatural beings popping in and out of earth?

The first Avengers movie actually grazed this debate, when Captain America is informed that Thor and Loki are gods he responds with a shrug. “There’s only one god, ma’am,” he tells Black Widow. “And I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”

That doesn’t exactly imply that Cap went through much theological turmoil given the introduction of actual (lower case “g”) gods into his world, but maybe that’s for the best. Faith is about believing without evidence, sometimes even in the face of apparent contradiction. It is not at all hard to believe that the faithful in these little multiverses would be able to fold Thor, Shazam and Co. into their epistemologies.

And for us out here in the real world, it’s not hard to see why these stories might reach for divinity. Any story about larger than life figures who fight to protect the innocent and bring justice to those who can’t do it for themselves is going to echo religion a little. That’s not a guarantee that these projects will necessarily get religion “right” per se, but the interest is very understandable.

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