Part of the journey is the end.Iron Man, Avengers: End Game
When I learned that Chadwick Boseman had died of cancer this past August, I was both shocked and deeply saddened: shocked because I never even knew that he was sick and deeply saddened because I admired him so much as an actor – not just as the Black Panther, but also as real-life heroes Jackie Robinson in 42 and Thurgood Marshall in Marshall. I’ve come to appreciate him even more since that time in what I’ve learned of his life behind the scenes. And like many people, I felt robbed of the inspirational cinematic impact he could have continued to have in the future. But on another level, his death, for me, was a reminder that life is short – sometimes tragically so. Our days are numbered and we never know just how long we have. When Black Panther 2 was originally scheduled for 2022, it was certainly planned with Boseman as the lead actor.
In contrast with the tenuous hold that we have on our mortal lives, some people have criticized the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and superhero movies in general for being too predictable. Acclaimed director Martin Scorcese, for example, rather infamously commented that Marvel movies don’t even qualify as “cinema.” For Scorcese, “cinema was about revelation — aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation. It was about characters — the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.” The superhero paradigm was too simplistic to merit artistic appraisal, its narrative arc too well-worn and thin.
On the one hand, you have to admit that there’s some truth in his criticism of the genre. Why? Well, superheroes are generally invincible for starters. And before you counter that some of them are quite mortal (i.e. Iron Man without his suit), I’d like to point out that they don’t have to embody the physical characteristics of the Man of Steel to be virtually indestructible. We all know the story arc of the typical superhero movie: Superhero is Born–Superhero Encounters Conflict–Superhero is in Trouble–But Not Really Because They Are the Superhero–Superhero Saves the Day. You could understand why Scorcese would complain that you can’t have a real emotional or spiritual revelation when the narrative was all but guaranteed before the movie even began. For example, when pretty much all the superheroes died except for the original cast of The Avengers in Infinity War, you knew they were coming back. You had just watched them disintegrate into dust, but some way, somehow, they would return. They had to! Yet the end credits of the film taunted us with the line “Thanos will return” rather than the usual “The Avengers will return,” sowing a seed of doubt that maybe our heroes had truly met their match. Maybe this was the end of the line for them. But past experience and our resilient hope that a superhero story just couldn’t be that dark pushed us onward into the End Game.
Then the End Game was revealed, arguably breaking the mold of narrative expectations by forcing some bold, decisive sacrifices on the part of our heroes. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room by the end of the movie. And on the off-chance that you are one of those fringe critics who are either lukewarm or rather bitter towards the MCU, on the off-chance that you haven’t persevered to the end of the franchise yet, I won’t spell out exactly why. But some of our heroes don’t make it out the other side of this conflict. I have never witnessed such emotional engagement in a theater, ranging from triumphant exclamations and roaring cheers to an expression of serious grief. And since some of my high school students were sitting in the row in front of me for that first showing on opening night, I had to fully own my tears. No shame.
For as much as we want our heroes to triumph in the end, it is imperative that they might not: not just in appearance, but in truth. Because this present peril which sometimes ends in loss is an essential part of our own experience of life, both emotionally and spiritually. G.K. Chesterton brilliantly illuminates this aspect of our existence in his book Orthodoxy:
“To the Buddhist or the eastern fatalist, existence is a science or a plan, which must end up in a certain way. But to a Christian, existence is a story, which may end up in any way. In a thrilling novel… the hero is not eaten by cannibals; but it is essential to the existence of the thrill that he might be eaten by cannibals. The hero must (so to speak) be an eatable hero. So Christian morals have always said to the man not that he would lose his soul, but that he must take care that he didn’t. In Christian morals, in short, it is wicked to call a man ‘damned’: but it is strictly religious and philosophic to call him damnable.”
The Christian story is one of urgency, one of action! It is a tale of dramatic transformation, of rescue from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light (Colossians 1:12-14). We are born into a spiritual battle; every choice we make is one of eternal significance! This moment we are in – right now – is an opportunity to fulfill the Greatest Commandment in some way (Matthew 22:36-40). We are confronted, daily, with the choice to follow our Creator’s vision for our lives or to abandon that plan in favor of one of our own making. As Chesterton observes, the latter puts our souls in immortal peril. Eatable heroes, we all are. And we must take care that the one who roams the earth looking for those he may devour does not find us having wandered astray (1 Peter 5:8).
Some have taken objection with this doctrine of Christianity. They don’t see our spiritual journey as an adventure, but rather as the sadistic machinations of a God they cannot believe to be good. How could anyone be truly ‘damnable?’ How could a loving God condemn a person to hell for eternity? Famed Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis lamented this as his greatest complaint against Christianity in his book, The Problem of Pain:
“Some will not be redeemed. There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this… But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully, ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘Without their will or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies, ‘How if they will not give in?’…
The doors of hell are locked on the inside… They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved, just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.”
If you were watching closely, you noticed that at the heart of Lewis’ defense of the doctrine of hell was the claim that the pursuit of happiness requires the surrender of the self. Why must this be true? We live in a culture which routinely recommends the opposite of surrender, offering instead the possibilities of self-discovery, self-expression, and self-actualization as the highest goals to which an individual could aspire. The self is not seen as something one ought to submit to a higher power, but rather something which ought to direct the passions, the choices and the trajectory of one’s own life. But the pursuit of freedom – what Lewis calls “horrible freedom” – is one of the greatest traps into which a soul can fall. For although these paths may appear to bring greater and greater fulfillment, they will lead to our self-destruction if they are not surrendered to our Creator. As Pastor Tim Keller says, “Everyone has to live for something, and if that something is not God, then we are driven by that thing we live for – by overwork to achieve it, by inordinate fear if it is threatened, deep anger if it is being blocked, and inconsolable despair if it is lost.”
Jesus famously asks his disciples the provocative question: “What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet lose their soul?” And he cautions them, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-36). But Jesus not only commands our self-surrender to him, he inspires us with his own example. The apostle Paul encourages us to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant… becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5-8). Thus, in the act of self-surrender, we are both following in Christ’s example and opening our hearts to the abundant life that Christ has promised us in him, which could never be realized by living for something less than him (John 10:10). So when we see a character in a story surrender themselves for something that is greater than themselves, especially when they make the ultimate sacrifice, it evokes this beautiful spiritual truth that echoes through eternity.
G.K. Chesterton says it is imperative to hope that all souls would be saved. It will lead us to act in such a way that we never give up on the destiny of anyone. But knowing the hard truth that there is an end to the journey, that one’s salvation cannot be assumed, “society ought rather to insist on the danger of everybody, on the fact that every man is hanging by a thread or clinging to a precipice.” We are right to recognize that the traditional superhero story is deficient insofar as the narrative demands that the hero can never be killed. Only Jesus can ensure that the thread does not break, that we will not fall to our doom. Only our self-surrender makes it possible for us to receive that gift of grace. That cosmic truth at the center of our existence is also where we experience the power and beauty of the End Game of the MCU. There is real danger. There is real self-surrender and sacrifice. And that story inspires us to rise up and take our place in the narrative of eatable heroes. Let’s make this life count. Whatever it takes.