Starting with Christopher Reeves’s classic 1978 Superman, superhero movies have significantly shaped American culture. Few genres are as popular, impressionable, or marketable as the superheroic, and given current box office records, they will continue to gain audiences, at least in the near future. But, interestingly, today’s superhero film departs from the stand-alone film formula, with maybe one or two sequels following in its wake.
In the contemporary world of the superhero flick, the real power lies in the studio’s development of a meta-narrative. We know the pattern: one movie begins a storyline that continues in a sequel and also in a catalogue of contemporaneous, interconnected narratives. After a few films, a narrative web emerges, all threads of which existing within the same fictional world—or, in the language of the superhero genre, universe.
To detect those patterns is to realize that the superhero film of today can only mimic, never replace, the transcendent story of the Bible, in which we all find our place.To date, the supreme example of this composite storytelling is Marvel’s ever-expanding narrative universe (though DC is fast on Marvel’s heels). Marvel’s consistent ability to create a sound story in each film, its transcendence of the mere art of the sequel, and its unparalleled vision reveal nothing less than contemporary cinema’s grandest composition of narrative. What Marvel gives us is a vastly imagined and epically executed composite narrative—one story composed with both previous and following interconnected narratives in mind—that presents meaning in constellation rather than individual film.
Limiting consideration to the narrative thread begun in 2008’s Iron Man, the average superhero fan has followed with great anticipation the unfolding stories of individual heroes most fully revealed in 2012’s The Avengers. That four year narrative process was the completion of merely the first phase of Marvel’s larger plan. Two additional phases are planned. What Marvel has tapped into is the power of extended narrative meaning, of situating a life story within a universe governed by order. Each story carefully moves in relation to the previous while anticipating those films to follow. And filled with the promise of purpose, each film offers a teleology, the hope for a desired end.
This storied pattern should sound familiar to Christian filmgoers: it is essentially the model of the Judeo-Christian tradition. In philosophy, form, and focus, the composite narrative model of story—such as the current Marvel franchise—imitates a distinctly scriptural approach to building story. Historically, the ancient Jewish literature of the Old Testament introduced the storied form of successive and parallel world building.
The composite narrative provides the purposive sequence and meaningful unity that define Christian understanding of scriptural truth. Biblical stories begin by recalling former narratives. Scripturally, a person’s origins recall a historical lineage, a world begets a world, a narrative exists in engrafted relationship to another, and we are left with a grand constellation of narrative in a divinely tuned universe whose center is Christ. When one turns to Matthew’s genealogy to read about Christ, for example, one sinks into generations of composite narrative layered upon one another in narrative preparation for the Lamb’s tale. Moving through the New Testament, one sees that Jesus follows the preamble of stories gone by, and His story becomes the preamble for the church’s novellas, those interrelated stories of Paul and Peter and James.
This composite Judeo-Christian pattern stands chapter and verse above any other sequential ancient form of storytelling. Many other, if not all in one form or another, religions and narrative traditions of the world live through their storied mythology, though none span the expanse of time encompassed by the Judeo-Christian tradition. Nor do they display the unprecedented degree of interdependent story layering that the Judeo-Christian tradition unveils. The closest contemporary example of composite narrative is. . . you guessed it, today’s superhero films.
Take, for example, just a slice of Marvel’s upcoming composite narrative, the recently published schedule for the studio’s “Phase III”:
- May 6, 2016 – Captain America: Civil War
- November 6, 2016 – Doctor Strange
- May 5, 2017 – Guardians of the Galaxy 2
- July 28, 2017 – Thor: Ragnarok
- November 3, 2017 – Black Panther
- May 4, 2018 – The Avengers: Infinity War Part I
- July 6, 2018 – Captain Marvel
- November 2, 2018 – Inhumans
- May 3, 2019 – The Avengers: Infinity War Part II
Each film, in its turn, will build up the grand narrative while simultaneously developing from prior narratives.
We’ve seen this kind of storytelling before, superhero movie watchers. Note the progression from Joshua 1:2
Moses my servant is dead. Therefore, the time has come for you to lead these people, the Israelites, across the Jordan River into the land I am giving them.
And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things; but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.” Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions . . .
These biblical passages make little sense without their larger narrative context, their biblical universe to borrow the superhero genre’s term. Each text here builds on previous biblical passages and builds up the overall biblical narrative.
Both Marvel and the Bible summon their audiences to detect the patterns in which narrative truth moves. The value of being scripturally informed and culturally aware lies in the capacity to detect particles of Christian thought in the constellations through which they are presented. Story, culture’s greatest vehicle for truth, requires the work of detecting its rhythms. Composite story, the predominant form given us in scripture and the overwhelmingly influential Marvel franchise, requires the work of detecting its rhythms across a universe of narratives. The detection of truth requires the same attentiveness, no matter the text at hand. In fact, to train the reader’s eyes to see truth in one is to build an interpretive lens through which the viewer sees truth in the other. And to detect those patterns is to realize that the superhero film of today can only mimic, never replace, the transcendent story of the Bible, in which we all find our place.
The Christian is called not only to find truth in a novel, a poem, song, or film. No, the Christian’s call is to a higher capacity of interpretation. It is the believer’s task to see when truth takes on biblical form, pattern, and shape. Shape unto substance, substance from shape is a formula believers should wrestle with when confronted with narrative forms. It isn’t only the single superhero movie that contains moral principles that align with those of the Bible. It is the composite narrative. The fullest significance of that moral truth, of that superhero’s redemptive quest, and of that villain’s defeat lies in the expanse of composite narrative. To learn the relationship between the form of interrelated narratives, from the greater biblical to the lesser superheroically cinematic, and their interrelated truths is to take up the Believer’s call to be a student of story.