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Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Mondays: Theology of the MCU; IronMan Part 1

Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) Mondays: Theology of the MCU; IronMan Part 1

            In my almost three years spent as a youth minister I have struggled to find areas of common experience with my students. By that I mean that they have very little in common. Some are public school students, some are private, and others are homeschooled. Some rock out to Katy Perry and others sing along with Indelible Grace. I’ve got Pixar aficionados and horror freaks (meant in the nicest way possible). They’re a mixed group, so every time I’ve tried to find a common interest around which to center a study on how their faith ought to inform and transform their interests, the response has always been as mixed as the group.

            Until now.

            Sunday we launched a new series called, “The Theology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.” I launched on a whim, deciding Sunday morning at 10:00AM that we would have our first session seven hours later at 5:00PM. We had a really good discussion based on the opening scenes of Iron Man and what it portrayed in regards to character, friendship, and even self-loathing. So, from now until further notice “Monday Musing” has been co-opted by “MCU Mondays: Theology of the MCU.”


Theology of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU):

Iron Man: Acceptable Vice and Necessary Evils

            In 2008 the world was a simpler place. Movies, unless specified to be sequels or prequels to existing films, existed in their own little universes. Then a little movie called Iron Man exploded onto the scene and changed everything. Four-and-a-half years later it exists in a “shared cinematic universe” with nine other movies with another thirty-seven slated to be released in the next two years. Give or take.

            Those ten movies have been helmed by nine different directors (with only Iron Man’s Jon Favreau the only current repeat-performer, although Joss Whedon is toiling away on his second Marvel film) so to expect of the MCU a completely cohesive worldview is probably a little much, but that won’t stop us from trying. In this first installment we make through the first eleven minutes of Iron Man in which many important things happen. *SPOILERS* Tony Stark is given an award by an undeserved best friend, is supported by two people who have better things to do that clean-up his messes, he comes face-to-face with the world’s perception of him and decides to sleep with her, and he gets kidnapped. All in the first eleven minutes.

            This is the opening segment of Iron Man, in which we are offered a pretty clear view of who Tony is:


            Not only is Tony pretty clearly shown to be an irreverent and unapologetic hedonist, but that persona is shown to be an enviable trait (in fact, this theme runs through all three Iron Man movies as he is constantly beset by enemies who wish they were like Tony). The two men with him in the Humvee are both in awe of Tony and/or his exploits and the woman driver, though not intimidated by Mr. Stark, seems to enjoy him and his attention. At this point the audience is given no real reason to think that Tony has any need to change who he is.

            In the following scenes we’re shown three perspectives of Tony Stark: That of his friend, Colonel James Rhodes, that of the world as modeled by reporter Christine Everhart, and also his view of himself. We this last view in two parts. First, his conversation with Christine, and second in a post-fling-with-the-reporter exchange between Tony and Pepper. While I couldn’t find a clip of Rhodes’ presentation speech, in it he calls Tony a patriot, a friend, and a great mentor, but these are three titles that Tony clearly has not earned. His so-called patriotism is only ever at his own enrichment, not his own expense, and his “friendship” with Rhodes, at this point, consists only of business arrangements and having fun. Rhodes is Tony’s friend, but the inverse is certainly untrue.[1]

            That brought us up to this exchange:


            Here Christine pretty much embodies how society views Tony Stark, as a necessary evil. This also sums up the MCU view of who Tony is at this point; completely necessary, but also very repulsive.[2] His lack of oversight in regards to his business practices as well as his cavalier attitude towards the weapons industry are frowned on.

What’s really interesting though, and this was where we finish, is how Tony views himself. In the exchange with Christine, Tony dismisses the comparison to Da Vinci, but embraces the title of “Merchant of Death.” He feigns a willingness to embrace more peaceful endeavors, but then admits that weapons are what he does and he does them well. He attempts to justify his war-profiteering by mentioning the good he’s accomplished with those profits, but concludes his self-defense by taking the reporter to bed. But it’s the scene following, when Pepper Potts, having seen Christine to the door, finds Tony tinkering in his workshop that we get the clearest look into Tony’s psyche. As Pepper walks in, “Institutionalized” by Suicidal Tendencies is blaring out the opening lyrics of:


Sometimes I try to do things and it just doesn't work out the way I wanted to.
I get real frustrated and I try hard to do it and I take my time and it doesn't work out the way I wanted to.
It's like I concentrate real hard and it doesn't work out.
Everything I do and everything I try never turns out.
It's like I need time to figure these things out.


            This is where Tony Stark lives at this point in his life and this is what MCU presents as what needs to change. Tony is not good, by any measure, at this point, and he knows it. Here, despite his bravado and irreverence, we see that he realizes his own struggles. The night before saw him brush-off an award presented by his only friend, the father-figure in his life had to step-in and cover, and then, when he was faced with moral duality of his life and business, Tony’s only response was to turn it into revelry, leaving the only positive female presence in his life to clean it up. It’s very telling that upon waking up the next morning Tony goes to workshop and tinkers, the one thing he seems to do well, and does while blaring a song that deals with a Romans 7 kind-of struggle. One in which our intentions and our results never seem to match-up.


            So while MCU may not have a problem with irreverent hedonism, it does recognize the internal struggle that we all face as "the good that (we) want, (we) do not do, but (we) practice the very evil that (we) do not want." (Rom. 7:20). Paul offers a solid answer in the Gospel, but what does the MCU offer?


[1] Rhodes’ use of the title “mentor” is very confusing since no mentoring is ever shown or hinted at. My personal opinion is that this is a throwaway line meant to refer to his future relationship, as War Machine, to Tony’s Iron Man.

[2] Although he is not, as we mentioned, chastised for his irreverent and hedonistic view of life, only for how he carries that over from his personal life to his business practices.

Trend-esday: 10-22-14

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Inherent Dignity

Inherent Dignity