Many intellectuals seem to think of the Marvel Cinematic Universe the way they think of Donald Trump: an unintelligent, profiteering, socially insensitive spectacle not worth taking seriously, except perhaps as a threat or a symptom of social malady—in the case of Marvel, the malady of obsession with cheap entertainment driven by CGI and testosterone. As a happy participant in Marvel’s universe, I’d like to think we can tell a better story about it. With Marvel’s Phase Four meant to have begun this month (with the release of Black Widow), I look back to ponder just what made the Infinity Saga so great.
In his review of Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough, Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked that “an entire mythology is stored within our language.” I want to make a similar suggestion: an entire mythology is stored in our cinema—in particular, in the twenty-two Marvel films from Iron Man through Avengers: Endgame, which came out on Wittgenstein’s 130th birthday (and my 25th).
Fans will recall how the late Stan Lee thought of his universe: “That kid walking by, hey—who knows? He may have the proportionate strength of a spider.” Lee is the comic-book echo of the world of Odysseus—a world, as Barbara Cassin puts it, “in which the one who arrives before you might always be a god.”
Marvel’s superheroes are not simply twenty-first-century Olympians, who, on the day of testing, perform above and beyond what is human. The mythology runs deeper than that. The Avengers offer us a twenty-two-film exploration of the three primary orientations of human finitude toward divine excellence. This exploration yields a social aspiration: we must try to unite (assemble!) these three transcendental impulses. Marvel’s films show us just how difficult this unity would be, and how dire the consequences of failure.
We might say (to borrow from a friend) that all human attempts at transcendence are driven by one of three philosophical maxims: truth is “up there,” truth is “down here,” or truth is “within me.” The first orientation grounds the metaphysics of Plato, the ethics of Abrahamic religion, and the revolutionary spirit of King, but also religious fanaticism and social elitism. The second orientation drives Aristotelian philosophy, scientific invention, Marxist critique, and territorial exploration, but also imperial slaughter, technological intoxication, and ecological destruction. The third orientation guides the faith of Augustine, the suspicion of Nietzsche, the balance of the Buddha and all mystics, but also neuroticism, selfishness, isolationism, and paranoia.
Marvel plays out this directional mythology in its three protagonists. Thor quite literally comes from “up there”; he is a god, Odin’s reprimand and Bruce Banner’s profanation of Loki notwithstanding. Thor represents high tradition and religion; he rains fire down on his enemies, rendering judgment on behalf of a world above our own. Nick Fury didn’t make the call to bring Loki to justice; he “just didn’t argue with the god that did.”
Tony Stark is as “out there” as anyone. His worldly success is unparalleled, his technological aptitude limitless; he is genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist, hammering out heart after upgraded heart in his quest to see “a suit of armor around the world” (despite his own fragile interior and his denial of anything above himself).
Steve Rogers, from the beginning, has been a man of inward conviction. At his best, he is the exemplar of virtue, duty, and patriotic character; at his worst, he falls to depression, self-doubt, and misplaced faithfulness to inward, abstract principles of duty. As paragon of the interior, he is also the heart of the mythos.
Each archetypal protagonist is a foil for the other two, and the journey to Endgame is the story of their assembly—or, more accurately, of their difficult search for a first principle around which to assemble. They only discover this by a painful process of elimination. As apophatic mystics teach, discovery of divinity is marked most by discovery of what divinity is not.
With the defeat of Loki, we learn how Thor’s “up there” orientation can fail. But when the threat is removed, the heroes drift apart again. Then comes Ultron (who quotes Christian Scripture), so the pantheon unites again—this time learning how Stark’s “down here” orientation, too, can fall into devilry. Again, progress is made, but the pantheon dissolves.
The resulting Vision, who self-identifies as “I am” (God’s name in the Hebrew Bible), is an icon of the archetypal unity of Stark and Thor—he is, after all, sanctified by both—but the third imprimatur, Rogers, is missing. Captain America has yet to test his own orientation by fire. The hope of Vision disappears as Rogers closes Infinity War—“Oh, God”—down on his knees beside Vision’s grey corpse. Thor and Stark must sacrifice holy axe and synthetic heart to a losing battle, just to show (like the Spartans at Thermopylae) that a would-be god can bleed. Why do they fail?
The would-be god in question, Thanos, is a living mockery of the Avengers. Not only does Thanos exceed the embodiments of their own archetypes, he unites all three in one person. Thanos overpowers Thor’s raw strength and otherworldliness. He surpasses Stark’s relentlessly calculating, earth-sweeping, goal-driven mind. Most important of all, he exceeds (and horribly perverts) Rogers’s uncompromising inward sense of duty.
Thanos teaches us that even if one could unite all three archetypes, the result, if achieved in one person, is precisely insanity. He is the mad titan, after all. In Jungian terms, Thanos is the amalgam of every demigod’s shadow: that which is most powerful and most dangerous in each. Thanos reveals what Stark finally discovers about the Avengers: they are, even in their very name, defined by what they fight against. The negative comes first, and the positive rises to the challenge. We learn what divinity is not, in order to discover what it is. This usually works, since if one archetype is challenged, we have the other two as backup. But what happens when the enemy surpasses the very best that lies in any of us? We have no archetypal edge to fall back on this time. In Endgame, the quest begins to make the whole stronger than the sum of the parts—the quest for a principle other than avenging.
This is why the criticism of time-travel as deus ex machina is completely wrong. That solution signals a return to what is most fundamental by the possessors of each archetype. Thor must face his mother, Stark his father, and Rogers his one true love. And the inward-facing Rogers, whose divinity has not yet been proven, must also face himself.
This return to the roots takes place across the pantheon. We witness the comrade love of Romanov for Barton, the fatherly love of Lang for Cassie, and the erotic love of Maximoff for Vision. It is the return to human love, in all its dimensions, that grounds the true, triumphant assembly of Marvel’s spatializing of transcendence. A crucial social principle is at play, as the late Roger Scruton has suggested: it makes all the difference whether we view our human institutions and the human beings who make them up as constructs made in the face of demands or as inheritances by which we face demands. In the endgame, the Avengers choose the latter. They choose to embrace, first and foremost, what is nearest and dearest to their souls—exactly what Thanos throws away on Vormir to obtain the soul stone. Only in this embrace can the Avengers prove what Loki prophesied with his dying breath: Even Thanos will never be a god.
Marvel’s films may not be “great films” like those of Hitchcock, Spielberg, or Nolan, or in the sense that Homer’s classics are “great books.” But, as Anthony Esolen would remind us, even if not all good books are great books, they are still good books! The Marvel films are good films. Besides, they are a part of the cultural capital that our society has chosen to trade in. We may criticize them for socio-political missteps, but that should be done against the backdrop of the greater mythological storytelling at work in Lee’s labor of love. It is, after all, love itself which unites our orientations toward transcendence.
If Marvel’s films show us this vision, they also reveal its limitations. The required assembly, even at its best, only happens for a brief, superhuman, miraculous moment. At the end of the day, each god must die in Nietzsche’s sense. Their power and personality must fade from the world. The gods pass away. Thor must ascend again, leaving his earthly throne behind; Stark, a man of the future, must depart, finally outpaced by his technology; and Rogers, a man of the past, must return there, having run too far. The incarnation of divine archetypes may be, to borrow from an ancient Jewish philosopher, “beautiful in its temporality.” Yet, if they are archetypes we can’t live without, they are also archetypes we can’t live with forever.
 Barbara Cassin, Nostalgia: When Are We Ever at Home? Translated by Pascale-Anne Brault. New York: Fordham University Press, 2016 , 10.
 Anthony Esolen, “Quality Education Is Not Rocket Science.” In The Classical Teacher (Memoria Press, Summer 2019), 32–33.
 Ecclesiastes 3:11