Buddha-killing The Avengers: Puny God

Behold, Part 2 of the epic saga ‘Buddha-killing The Avengers’! Today’s dispatch comes to us from KtB contributing editor Eric Scott, who has written lots of great stories about life in contemporary paganism–including two wonderful exegeses on the Marvel careers of Thor and Loki, characters who reside in the Norse-mythological realm of Asgard. His Buddha-killing weapon of choice may be Mjolnir, hammer of Thor! –KtBniks

I spent the entirety of last Thursday in a movie theater in the outer suburbs of St. Louis. That was, of course, the opening night for The Avengers, and the theater was running a marathon of all the preceding films in the series leading up to the midnight show. Counting The Avengers itself, that added up to approximately 15 hours of superheroes. My ass still hurts.

I loved watching the movies in this setting. The theater had an atmosphere of mutual glee, as though we were all children the night before Halloween. For those like the woman sitting next to me, who had never seen the movies, The Avengers was the reward of a long day inhabiting an alternate reality. For those like me, who learned to read from Captain America and Fantastic Four, it was the culmination of decades of love for a marginalized genre.

It’s impossible for me to evaluate the movie in any kind of objective way—too much of my life has been wrapped up in superheroes. For me, it was a synthesis of all I liked about the genre: the bombastic personalities, the iconic designs, the shared world. As a geek, I couldn’t be any happier.

But as a pagan?

There is a scene near the end of the first act where the heroes have captured Loki, God of Mischief and the film’s central antagonist, and are flying him back to base in an airplane. Suddenly, in the film’s most transparently contrived sequence, Thor, carrying Mjolnir and an impressive red cape, arrives and steals Loki away. Captain America, the film’s point-of-view character, prepares to jump after them. As he grabs his parachute, he’s told by the Black Widow, one of the Avengers without her own movie, that Loki and Thor are “basically gods.”

“There’s only one God, Ma’am,” says Cap, “and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.”

The line got a big laugh in our theater—including from me. Cap is from 1940’s Brooklyn, after all. The modern revival of Norse paganism was decades away. The first Norse church, Iceland’s Ásatrúarfélagið, didn’t register until 1973. The character would naturally dismiss the thought of genuine pagan deities.

What is more telling is that the film never really challenges that line. Though there are a few more mentions of the G-word—Iron Man refers to Thor as a “demigod,” for example—the idea of these manifested entities as subjects of worship is never brought up, much less endorsed. They are the most powerful of the superhuman characters, sure, but if they are gods, they are gods without religion. This seems unlikely to me. I expect that if somebody who looked like Thor, acted like Thor, and saved New Mexico from rampaging suits of armor like Thor appeared on the news, Asatru’s stock would rise. But the film never addresses this issue. The one character for whom the religious implications seemed to matter—the Scandinavian scientist, Erik Selvig, who was on the verge of a religious epiphany in the Thor film—has little screen time in The Avengers where he’s not acting as a plot device.

Oddly enough, the Asgardians [characters of Norse mythology] have become both the central force of the Marvel films—the last three movies have all featured Asgardian items as the basis for their plots—but they are also the most aberrant element of the universe. The worldview of these films is grounded in the materialist philosophy embodied in the first one in the series, Iron Man, a world where everything is ultimately attributable to super-science. Even Thor, overtly based in myth, attempts to hand-wave the magic away by invoking Clarke’s Law (namely, that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to an outsider’s eyes). Finding a way to meld that science-fiction mindset with the fantastic world of myth has caused enough friction for the series; reconciling it with real-life religion may simply have been too much to ask.

In the film’s climactic scene, Loki confronts the Hulk, a hero composed entirely of muscle and id. Loki begins a villainous speech—“I am a god, dull creature!”—but the Hulk grabs him by the legs and begins thrashing him around like a rag doll. At the end, he tosses the broken Loki away and mutters a satisfied one-liner: “Puny god.” I suspect that the Hulk speaks for Marvel’s take on divinity, as well.

Eric Scott was raised by the Saint Louis coven Pleiades, a Wiccan family based in the Alexandrian tradition. His fiction and memoir explore the joys and doubts of being a second-generation pagan in the modern world. He recently completed his MFA at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Ashé! Journal, Killing the Buddha, Kerouac's Dog, and Witches & Pagans. In his spare time, he draws elaborate metaphysical diagrams on his bedroom wall and sings for a Taoist glam rock band.