Love and thunder, signifying nothing? Religion and nihilism in recent Marvel movies

Recent installments in the Marvel Cinematic Universe exacerbate the tension between the franchise’s humanistic ethos and its nihilistic cosmos. Is there still room for God in this universe?

Note: This essay contains spoilers for Thor: Love and Thunder, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and Eternals. SDG Original source: Catholic World Report

“I shouldn’t be alive … unless it was for a reason.”

“You’re not getting what the universe is trying to tell you.”

The first line above, from the dawn of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, was uttered by Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008) after a nearly fatal encounter with one of his own company’s weapons. The second, from the latest MCU movie, Thor: Love and Thunder, is addressed to Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster as she struggles with a diagnosis of stage 4 cancer.

Expressions like these imply an idea, a way of thinking about reality, that is so implicitly second nature to human beings that it would be pedantic to make too much of it. Whether due to magical thinking, a divinely imbued instinct for God, a psychological tendency to impose meaning on indeterminate stimuli, or some combination of all three, at striking moments in our lives — for example, encounters with mortality — we feel we can perceive the workings of something that, depending on our worldview, we might call fate, destiny, a higher power, the universe, the Tao, Providence. In such moments we feel there is a moral structure to reality, a grand design in which we have a place, setting a path we must follow.

Such ideas about meaning and morality are one thing in a diegetic world that, like that of Iron Man, resembles our own in most respects, the main narrative conceit being experimental arc-reactor technology capable of powering a corporate headquarters or a flying suit of armor. Over the last 14 years, though, as narrative conceits have piled up in an increasingly crowded shared universe, this way of thinking has come to seem increasingly strained. For example, in the popular TV series Loki it was revealed that the border between the possible and the actual has been delineated and maintained by an unfathomably powerful, quasi-religious bureaucracy of brainwashed functionaries who believe they are following the will of transcendent “Time-Keepers” in preserving the integrity of what they call the “Sacred Timeline,” when in reality their whole cultlike worldview was dreamed up by a psychopathic mortal who happened to win a war between branching timelines.

In particular, three of the most recent MCU movies — Eternals, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and now Thor: Love and Thunder — mark a turning point by dealing overtly with religious themes in ways avoided by earlier MCU releases.

If the “reason” Tony is alive is simply that this happened to be the version of reality preferred by a psychopath — well, it might not strictly disprove the idea of a moral structure to reality, but it certainly seems to debunk that striking sense of meaning that Tony finds in his survival and his feeling that it follows that there is something he must do. As for the universe sending Jane a message, for some time now each new MCU release has offered another variation on the same nihilistic theme: The powers that be are revealed to be untrustworthy at best, deceitful or self-serving at worst, and ideas about destiny, the grand design, and good and evil are debunked.

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