Most Hollywood blockbusters share a few elements in common: grand special effects, large quantities of mass destruction, frenetic pacing…and MacGuffins. Popularized by Alfred Hitchcock (a director who knew a thing or two about keeping audiences on the edges of their seats), the term “MacGuffin” usually refers to an object (or possibly an event) that catalyzes the primary conflict in any action-oriented genre. In some cases, the MacGuffin may have little value in itself, serving primarily as a means of moving the plot forward and motivating the characters. But as blockbusters have evolved, the stakes have become amplified, and so increasingly the MacGuffins of these films have come to carry symbolic, talismanic, even cosmic power.
So for all the supernatural trappings of the MCU, in practical terms it is a naturalistic environment.One source of this amplification has come through the classic Indiana Jones film franchise. Its initial installment, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), was early on structured around (and named for) just such a high-stakes MacGuffin, but one that also carried distinct religious connotations as well. In the end, all four films would revolve around the retrieval of such objects, but only two—Raiders and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)—focused on Judeo-Christian artifacts: the titular ark and the Holy Grail, respectively. Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—these are generally regarded as the two best films in the series as well.
But this is Hollywood, and so naturally things must get bigger still. And no movies come bigger than those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which over the course of its first three phases established what is currently the most expansive MacGuffin yet to reach the big screen—the Infinity Gauntlet. The famous Gauntlet was designed by Thanos the Mad Titan as a receptacle for six Infinity Stones, controlling (respectively) Space, Reality, Power, Soul, Mind, and Time. As in the Indiana Jones storylines, the stones in the Infinity Saga’s gauntlet are physical objects with cosmic supernatural power that transcends the apparent limitations of their physicality. This distinguishes them somewhat from many other MacGuffins, which may be more realistic powerful technologies, like a nuclear warhead, a bioengineered virus, or even just the cryptically coy “Rabbit’s Foot” of J. J. Abrams’s Mission: Impossible III.
In this way, the objects of Indiana Jones and MCU films may be said to function as relics, at least in a peripheral (or “secondary”) sense. Yet the relics of Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Last Crusade function differently from those of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and in those differences we can observe a more fundamental difference between sacred and secular approaches to the material world and the arc of its history and eschatology.
In his book Restless Bones, James Bentley notes the development of relic culture across early Christian history. While Jewish predecessors had maintained a skepticism of contact with dead bodies, enshrined in Mosaic law, Christians cultivated quite soon in their emergence a great reverence (though not worship) for the material remains of their saints. This sprung naturally from their status as a persecuted minority and their longstanding veneration of those believers who experienced the “second baptism” of martyrdom. It also dovetailed with their theology: while Judaism set itself against its pagan polytheistic counterparts by emphasizing God’s unity and immaterial transcendence, Christians balanced this transcendent monotheism with a Trinitarian doctrine that stressed the Son’s incarnation. As “the Word become flesh,” Jesus ennobled the physical world as the God who entered into it. Though New Testament writers and patristic apologists frequently invoked Plato or Platonic concepts in their writings, they deliberately shied away from the outright rejection of the material world that such philosophers enjoined. The end goal for the Christian was a perfect union of body and spirit, not the “liberation” of one from the other.
The best Indiana Jones installments, then, present viewers with truly sacred relics.These are the theological bases for the veneration of relics that took hold in the church’s first few centuries, an important reminder for many Protestants who are quick to decry such practices. Of course, Protestant opposition to relics emerged from a context of their institutionalized abuse in the Early Modern period, so such skepticism may have been healthy, especially with the massive proliferation and expansion of peculiar and often obviously fraudulent acquisitions. Bentley points out that because Christianity had begun as an insignificant minority, and because Roman practices for the disposal of corpses were universally strict at the time, the first believers moved on to “secondary” relics: objects that had connection to or contact with the saints and had thus been infused with power through the holiness of the bearer. Again, if this sounds distressingly like magic or superstition to our contemporary disenchanted ears, it wasn’t without biblical sanction. From Moses’s serpent to the mantle of Elijah to Jesus’s own cloak, stories abound in Scripture about objects invested with power.
Marvel’s Infinity Stones may not be precisely relics, even in the secondary sense, as they are never explicitly connected to any holy person. Their power, however, derives from their cosmic origins, each one left over from—that is, a “relic” of—the Big Bang. The entire Infinity Saga hinges not only on the pursuit of these objects (the standard role of the MacGuffin) but on the fact that they actually get used. Thanos collects the stones and wipes out half of the universe’s life; the Avengers and company retrieve the stones and reverse the process. That is, they are more than just an excuse to gather together our heroes (though they do perform that function); they occupy a central part of the entire storyline.
Most notably, the power itself is intrinsic to the objects: they are material—or secular—relics. Thanos is able to obtain absurdly god-like power, a power that Tony Stark also briefly wields, because there is no connection between the efficacy of the Stones and the character either of the source or the user. In this sense, though they are more magical than explicitly scientific, they work as amplifications of contemporary technologies. As the Cold War emerged because both America and Russia could deploy nuclear explosives, the Infinity Stones will control space, time, and even the immaterial world for whoever is able to manipulate them.
So for all the supernatural trappings of the MCU, in practical terms it is a naturalistic environment. Call it “science” or “magic” or whatever else you wish, deific power is the result of nothing more than the right tools coupled with the stamina and the intelligence to use them.1 With the right equipment, you too could have your fifteen minutes of godhood.
Contrast this with Raiders of the Lost Ark and Last Crusade. As The Big Bang Theory observed some time ago, the character of Indiana Jones is largely irrelevant to the resolution of the first film—without him, the Nazis still would have located the Ark of the Covenant, brought it to the island, and been annihilated. The same is true, at least in part, of the third film. It is quite plausible that the Nazis of The Last Crusade would have located the Holy Grail with or without Indy, and even if Donovan had avoided his grisly fate, he and his compatriots would probably have died in the collapse of the temple. Certainly the temple’s collapse would have kept the Grail from being acquired by the villains.
To Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory, this fact ruins the movie (and perhaps the franchise). Yet it actually represents one of the most distinctive and instructive aspects of the two films. For the Ark of the Covenant and the Holy Grail are true relics, at least in the secondary sense. Their power comes from their connection to the divine. The Nazis can never harness the power of the Ark because the power exists only through the glory of God that resides within it. The destruction of the temple in The Last Crusade likewise represents a clear indication that the divine source of the Grail’s healing power will guard it from misuse—after all, it was only accessible following tests of the Breath of God, the Word of God, and the Path of God.
The best Indiana Jones installments, then, present viewers with truly sacred relics. When the American operative Eaton is told of the Ark’s power (apparently he skipped Sunday school), he gasps, “Good God,” to which Marcus Brody replies, “Yes, that’s just what the Hebrews thought.” Similarly, when a frustrated Indy curses at his father, Henry Jones, Sr., slaps him and declaims, “That is a blasphemy.” There is some irony in these exchanges: Indiana Jones himself (even after his close encounters with God) is hardly a moral exemplar, nor indeed is his father. Underlying these exchanges, however, is a respect not only for the power of the objects being sought but for the solemnity of the source of that power.
This is not meant as some apologia for the Indiana Jones franchise and a concomitant rejection of the Marvel Cinematic Universes. Each is expansive, fascinating, and full of moral and metaphysical complexity. As I have noted elsewhere, Thanos’s usage of the Infinity Gauntlet is instructive precisely because it is impossible. On a case-by-case basis, moreover, many MCU movies have their own individual themes that are quite consonant with tenets of a robust Christian theology. Nor should one consult the Indiana Jones films as a primary source for sound doctrine.
Even so, in this regard the differences between the MacGuffins of the two series are not coincidental. In the modern period, science and its offspring, applied technology, have unleashed power that is apparently indifferent to moral or providential considerations. Our fictional artifacts reflect the anxieties that lurk behind that power. And those anxieties are not without merit; since human action in history has significance, we bear responsibility for how we use the power that is unlocked through investigation into the God-ordained laws of the natural world.
But the relics of the Indiana Jones film can help remind us that there is a greater power yet that underlies and holds together all material powers and natural laws. However significant human action may be on the linear temporal level, we hold to an eschatology beyond the immanent frame, one borne out faithfully by a God who will make all things new. That ending is a consummation that we are all (thankfully) powerless to forestall. Whatever MacGuffins may come our way, we are irrelevant to the outcome. The only question that remains is whether we will arrive there ourselves—and that, fortunately, is a question in which the God who has ordained the ending is just as interested as we are.
1. One might justifiably note that, taken as a relic, Thor’s Hammer serves as a counterpoint to this instrumental approach: it can only be wielded by one of worthy character. Notwithstanding it significance, however, the hammer’s power is nowhere near the cosmic level of the Infinity Stones, which have no evident divine origin or character-oriented restrictions in their utility.