In the beginning (or at least in 2008), Kevin Feige created the Marvel cinematic heavens and earth. But it was not good for superhero man to be alone, so Feige created gods. And for a while, things were good.
For much of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the only gods were of the Asgard variety, like Odin, Loki and Thor. And their actual divinity is placed in doubt. They’re described more as super-powered beings from another realm with science so advanced it looks like magic to earthly humans. In fact, during Captain America’s first encounter with Asgardians, he dismisses their divine-nature. In 2012’s The Avengers, Natasha Romanoff, a.k.a Black Widow, warns him from getting involved in a fight between Thor and Loki. “These guys come from legend,” she says. “They’re basically gods.” To which Steve Rogers quips before jumping into the battle: “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”In The Avengers, Captain America says, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.” But deities in the MCU have grown more complicated since 2012. Click To Tweet
In more recent MCU entries, however, the divine is everywhere and things are a bit more complicated In Black Panther, the goddess Bast is said to have led the first Black Panther to the heart-shaped herb that grants the protector of Wakanda superhuman ability. The Egyptian gods make their appearance in the Disney+ series Moon Knight. Eternals raises numerous questions about the gods worshipped on Earth actually being inspired by the near-immortal team of robot alien clones (like I said it’s complicated).
Then there are numerous beings that seemingly exist behind the scenes that often have godlike power, including He Who Remains from Loki, The Watcher in What If?, the Celestials in Eternals, and a being named Eternity living at the center of the universe. The MCU pantheon is growing crowded and complex. And that’s before Thor: Love and Thunder where we meet an entire city of gods, featuring deities ranging from the all-powerful Zeus to a human-sized dumpling. With so many gods in the MCU, is it any wonder a villain appears with a mission to kill them all?
In Love and Thunder, Gorr the God Butcher, captivating played by Christian Bale, suffers a personal tragedy and finds no help from the god he has faithfully worshipped. Faced with self-absorbed deities deaf to the problems of mortals, Gorr declares “All gods will die.” With that comes a central question in both the film and the comic book run that inspired much of the film’s story: Is Gorr right?
The most compelling villains in the MCU have been those that have a point. Killmonger helps Black Panther recognize Wakanda’s flaws and failures. Adrian Toomes’ Vulture from Spider-Man: Homecoming loses a lucrative job to an overbearing government agency. Even Thanos, the overarching bad guy for most of the MCU’s history, was motivated to destroy half of the living beings in the universe because he saw the aftermath of having too few resources for too many people. You may not agree with the tactics of these villains, but you might understand their motivations.
Knowing all Gorr suffers and seeing the dismissive and even exploitive way the gods view those beneath them, you can’t help but feel sympathetic for him, if not his methods. Despite overwhelming loss, Gorr devoted his life to the god Rapu. Yet when the two meet, Rapu mocks Gorr and demands his emaciated, sun-parched disciple find him more worshippers. Rapu has no concern beyond his own personal pleasure. Most of us might not go as far as Gorr, but we can see why he wanted to confront the callousness of the gods. The depiction of divine beings opens them up to our criticism and condemnation. In this way, the MCU reflects a broader cultural shift that C.S. Lewis highlighted in 1948.
In his essay “God in the Dock,” Lewis discusses difficulties in communicating the Christian faith with unbelievers. He concludes by pointing to the absence of guilt in many hearers. Previous generations of Christians could point to their faith as good news to the guilty. Regardless of their specific religious beliefs, virtually everyone agreed a sin problem, and therefore guilt, existed. That universal agreement was vanishing in the late 1940s, according to Lewis.The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are reversed. — C.S. Lewis, "God in the Dock" Click To Tweet
Using the imagery of a trial, Lewis demonstrates the cultural transition. Previously, humans, acknowledging our own guilt, have seen ourselves as being the one’s on trial or “in the dock” to use Lewis’ British colloquialism. We may believe that we should be acquitted because our sins weren’t that bad or good behaviors outweigh our bad, but we recognize that we have done wrong, and God has the final say. We’re the criminal on trial and He’s the judge. Now, in both Lewis’ era and even more so today, we have changed places.
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge: if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”C.S. Lewis, “God in the Dock“
Thor: Love and Thunder depicts few gods who demonstrate themselves worthy while most others remain concerned only with themselves. Meanwhile, us regular, non-superpowered humans continue to have the greatest power of all—the power to judge the divine. Despite Spider-Man constantly reminding us that with great power comes great responsibility, no one in the MCU has yet asked the most pertinent question: Are we worthy of such a power?Most MCU deities are dismissive of those in need and fail to love others as they should, but how does that differ from us? Click To Tweet
Before we can ponder the question of Gorr’s virtue, we have to confront our own. Gorr may well be right. Most MCU deities are dismissive of those in need and fail to love others as they should, but how does that differ from us? It shouldn’t take long for us to look around and determine humanity does not belong on the throne or the judge’s seat. Watch the news or scroll through social media, we regularly disqualify ourselves from any position of moral authority.
Even the very idea of a moral baseline applicable across all cultures, yet alone all of time and space, on which to judge the divine could only originate from the divine. We’ve crawled up into the judges seat to rule on the behavior of the gods but we have no basis from which we can judge.
Even if we take out humanity and solely think of ourselves, if we’re honest, we have to admit to our own moral blemishes. We may not dismiss our worshipper in their time of need, but do we not sometimes ignore a loved one and scroll on our phone instead of listen to them share their struggles? We may not mock a broken follower, but we’ve all probably shared a sarcastic comment to someone looking for love and understanding.
All of humanity is unworthy to judge the gods for their sins, but so are we as individuals. We can’t live up the very standards to which we seek to hold God. The MCU has a God-shaped hole, not because it never depicts the divine, it has an over-abundance of gods. No, the hole remains because Marvel has elevated man into the ultimate seat of power, and we are too small.