Flannery O'Connor Versus the Marvel Universe

In his 2007 Commencement Speech delivered at Stanford University, Dana Gioia proposes an experiment “to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.” He would follow this question with another: “How many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name?” While many of us can name celebrities in the former category, our culture has deprived of us of the ability to name prominent artists or thinkers. Gioia argues that the loss is twofold—we neither honor those whose work is long lasting and transcendent nor do we uphold models for “a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money and fame. Adult life begins in the child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.” 

In concert with Gioia, I wonder if the curators of our imagination are not training us away from virtuous living towards autonomous evaluations of value. Last year, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese lit into the Marvel industry:

Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes . . . That’s the nature of modern film franchisesmarket-researchedaudience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

In other words, the industry that shapes the American imagination the most caters to the lowest common denominator, our bank account, selling us what we want versus challenging us towards higher questions, deeper thinking, or richer emotional responses. We are being catered to like domesticated animals by a film industry that wants to exploit our basest instincts and capitalize on them financially. James Matthew Wilson, in speaking about licentious poetry that cares nothing for form or content but is published in mass quantities, refers to the problem as “shopping in bulk.” There may be one taste of an indulgence that was pleasurable on its own—not that it validates the taste necessarily— but when the example is proliferated over and over again, the series of similar mundanities anesthetizes us to any taste for something more. Scorsese foresees his critics: “If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree . . . If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” It is a frightful thing to imagine we are being cultivated without our discernment.

What is it about the Marvel Universe that enraptures us? (No one wants to talk about the Justice League, except for Wonder Woman, which was a great film.) Since 2008 approximately 20-odd Marvel films have been released, which, by 2015 had grossed over $7 billion worldwide, and all opened #1 at their respective opening weekends. In 2012 The Avengers made more than any of the previous films, earning a daunting $1.5 billion. I love these films. Although going to see a movie requires a lot of preplanning with small children, if I see anything in theaters, I choose Black Panther or Thor: Ragnarok over any other new releases. These movies dominate not only our entertainment choices, but they also affect our way of thinking. When, in Wonder Woman, that theme music starts and you know that she is about to obliterate her foes, you too get hyped up, as though you are kicking butts and taking names. The films empower you to love and hate certain things, to think and feel according to their rubric.

What do these narratives suggest about how to live and how much does this accord with Christian ideals? When I start discussions such as these in my college classes, my students roll their eyes at me and ask whether I have any friends. Surely, no one would want to go to a movie with a professor who asks philosophical questions about the meaning of the story. But we must be discerning. I do not want to be manipulated by my culture unaware; I do not want to be carried away by stories that may counteract the work of the Spirit in transforming me into Christ’s image. If we are attracted to certain stories, those are the ones we must analyze closely. The narratives that hold no appeal will do little damage. Remember your adversary—a former angel of light. Satan will not tempt you with stories about illicit affairs or infanticide because he realizes the impotency of such exertions; rather, he will seduce us with false loves, with those stories that look so similar to our ideals.

The superhero films show values, such as courage, loyalty, a vague sense that there is right and wrong in the world. Christians unversed in tradition, theology, or biblical study have had difficulty finding anything at odds with Scripture. A blogger on one Christian website writes the following about Captain Marvel:

Danvers/Captain Marvel is courageous. She’s generous. She has integrity. She fights evil and stands for what’s right. She never gives up. She longs for peace. Sure, she’s void of emotion—something that critics noted after the trailer was released—but that’s due to what she was taught. Her mentor told her: “There’s nothing more dangerous to a warrior than emotion. Humor is a distraction. Anger only serves the enemy.” Yet even this has a biblical foundation: self-control is a fruit of the Spirit. (Although God wants us to laugh and be filled with joy—John 15:11.) 

This reviewer is missing how the pieces play together. Where do these values come from, do they fit in a consistent narrative, and who created the rubric for evil and “what’s right”?

Across the country, philosophy professors are leaping up to discuss these superheroes as the American 21st century myths. Mark White argues that Captain America is “An Aristotle that Punches Bad Guys.” Publishing a monograph timed with the release of Captain America’s first feature film, White declares, “Cap’s ‘old-fashioned’ moral code is exactly what we need to restore civility and respect in the 21st century in both our personal lives and political debates. He is what ancient philosophers . . . called a moral exemplar.”

White extols Captain America’s courage, humility, righteous indignation, sacrifice and perseverance, claiming such values are drawn from classical sources, such as Aristotle. You would be hard pressed to find these values in Aristotle or in any ancient models. Achilles was not known for his humility. There was no such thing as “righteous indignation” because each hero exhibited anger based on his sense of personal justice. Consider again Achilles who did not receive his correct share of the Trojan plunder from King Agamemnon. And, sacrifice? Perhaps if you label Aeneas’s determination to fulfill his duty or destiny to found Rome as a sacrifice.

Yet, neither the Greeks nor Romans would have thought in such terms. John Gray, the lead book reviewer at New Statesman, derides White’s efforts to make a classical hero out of Captain America as “absurd.” After all, “Aristotle assumed his account of the human good could be realized only by middle-aged, property-owning males” and absent in classical thought are “any of the modern liberal ideals that Captain America embodies . . . such as personal autonomy.” So, Captain America (or Marvel or Superman) are not classical heroes, but modern ones, American ones. Are they worth emulating?

The author of Superhero Ethics, Travis Smith, argues that these comic book heroes “represent our highest ideals and . . . should serve as models for admiration and emulation.” Smith continues: “We are meant to find these fantastic figures relatable in some way, even if their bodies are too perfect, their costumes garish, and their adventures inherently unrealistic.” While Smith goes too far in asserting these characters ability to showcase our “highest ideals,” he really means that these superheroes give us examples of human values. When the Supreme Intelligence means to insult Danvers by calling her human, we see a montage of images in which she falls, fails, but then rises again and again and again. “I’m only human,” Danvers responds, and this realization empowers her to become Captain Marvel. Her humanity is her greatest asset, and the film implies that to be human is to get back up when you fall. It is a moving image that I enjoy—keep getting up; rise to the challenge; face your enemy. But, I have to ask is it enough? Is that enough of a definition of what it means to be human? And, is the desire to be human again enough or is there something greater still?

Values Versus Virtues

How do we know what to value? The word itself is fraught with ambiguity. Gertrude Himmelfarb made me aware of the difference between a value and a virtue. “Values” carry economic connotations—a society may value a specific principle such as “humility” and an individual may evaluate whether such a value should determine her actions dependent upon the cost in a given situation. Values change by society and person to person. In contrast to values, virtues are innate in the order of the world. They are drawn from the shared, universal, and timeless natural law, what C.S. Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, calls the Tao.

In the classical world, such a way of viewing the world was assumed, in opposition to our current acceptance of relative worldviews. Lewis writes,

For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. [In our time] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of [people]: the solution is a technique [usually by magic or applied science].

We see this subversion in the comic book world—superheroes reveal how we wish we could improve the human being with the intervention of magic or science, and they save our world, not by demanding different behavior or beliefs from human beings but by using their superpowers. The problems are rooted out rather than overcome by any change in human beings.

Thus, many superhero narratives do not correlate with the world in which we live; they do not imitate reality but subvert it. Instead of portraying human beings encountering moral choices and cultivating virtue, these stories show super-humans battling monsters with powerful weapons. Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet questions, “Is this Roman coliseum bloodshed as corporate entertainment?” To encourage us to feel good about our entertainment choice, these films offer the pretense of values, but their ideas of freedom and justice are vague and abstract. Meanwhile, stories like the Trojan War in The Illiad shows two teams and wrestles with various character’s virtues. Catherine Nichols explains it thus:

The teams don’t represent the clash of two sets of values in the same way that modern good guys and bad guys do. Neither Achilles nor Hector stands for values that the other side cannot abide nor are they fighting to protect the world from the other team. They don’t symbolize anything but themselves, and, though they talk about war often, they never cite their values as the reason to fight the good fight.

In contrast to ancient stories of classical heroes, modern superheroes do not rely on any higher authority for morality than themselves; their fight is for the lives of those they love. Their battles are between seemingly equal forces of might and strength. These stories insinuate that “might makes right.”

The lack of something higher from which to draw or towards which to aim is the reason that a mom can walk away from Captain Marvel and recommend it using Bible verses while at the same time “Film School Rejects” can run a diametrically opposed interpretation of the film that says: “Don’t let anyone tell you anything. You know you. A person who would deny you deserves the punch coming at the end of your fist. Don’t listen to the outside. Listen within.”

Autonomy is the primary value at the end of the day. Despite the pretense of community, each Avenger fights for his or herself, according to what she or he believes is right. They can be united against a common enemy, but only to gather strength, not for any demands of virtue. While the values of these characters are occasionally admirable—like courage and justice—missing is the full story—the necessity of wisdom, temperance, faith, hope, and finally, the highest of these, agape.

Read Flannery O’Connor

C.S. Lewis advises that you read three old books for every new book you read; in our current culture, I advise you read three O’Connor stories for every superhero film you watch. We will be held accountable for how we cultivate our imaginations, for this process does train us in what to love and how to love. On average, Americans only read four books a year, about one of those being literary. Yet, we know that books influence our imagination more powerfully than film. While reading forms a person in a much deeper way than watching content, a handful of books cannot compete with the influence of a hundred hours of media. We must turn off the screens and open up the books. Reading Flannery O’Connor stories will alter your palate.

The greatest stumbling block for O’Connor readers is her violence. Let me give you an example of how uncomfortable her stories made readers. Because O’Connor was popular during her lifetime, producers often adapted her stories for screen or television. However, more often than not, they felt compelled to sanitize her work for the audience.  For instance, when one of her violent stories “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” was aired on television, the shifty villain is replaced by tap-dancing sensation Gene Kelley. And his abuse and abandonment of a mentally disabled girl is converted into a “backwoods love story.” This is how frightful readers found her violence.

Yet, her violence is not of the same kind as the superhero variety. She does describe the violence of the world, but she juxtaposes it with the grace of God. Like Joseph tells his brothers, what you meant for harm, God meant for good. Or, think of Jesus on the cross—the violence that we commit, God can work through for his redemptive purposes. Of course, we have to separate this reading of violence that then concludes violence is a good. It is not, but in a fallen world, violence is inevitable. What is not inevitable but miraculous is God’s grace, which does not let the violence be the end of the story. In O’Connor’s stories, grace always has the final word. Let me walk through a couple of O’Connor stories to show you how they contrast with our superhero narratives.

Flannery’s work is full of the revelation and mystery that Scorsese finds lacking in Marvel films. We cannot reduce her work to Aesop’s fables with easily spelled out morals, and I am always hesitant to talk about her stories with people who have not read them. In our culture, we talk about stories as though the plot matters the most, whereas it should be the experience of the story—the aesthetic experience, the moral self-emptying that occurs before a work of fiction, and the vicarious experience of living through a character. The message of fiction cannot be neatly abstracted from its experience. Yet, for the sake of our discussion, I will try as best I can to explicate two particular stories, “Greenleaf” and “Revelation,” without exhausting their limitless goods.

Mrs. May and Mrs. Turpin from the two stories, respectively, suffer from the same heresy. They believe they can WORK to be good. In the language of the superhero world, the evil is out there, and they are the heroes of the story. O’Connor recognized their heresy as a common problem in her region. She writes in a letter,

The religion of the South is a do-it-yourself religion, something which I as a Catholic find painful and touching and grimly comic. It’s full of unconscious pride that lands them in all sorts of ridiculous religious predicaments. They have nothing to correct their practical heresies and so they work themselves out dramatically.

We all suffer from this pride; we all buy self-help books and try to make ourselves better. We tie our identity to our to-do lists. We want to work to become the “best me now.”

In “Greenleaf” Mrs. May reflects that she “had been working continuously for fifteen years” on her farm. She looks down on anyone whom she perceives as not working, and as she recalls her “life-time of work,” she says, “Before any kind of judgment seat, she would be able to say: I’ve worked, I have not wallowed.” We hear in Mrs. May’s reflections the American dream and the American religion, one of Gnostic belief that work dispels evil.

Although “idle hands are the devil’s workshop,” as it says in Proverbs, we cannot single out the verse alone away from all the preceding wisdom: “We can make our plans, but the final outcome is in God’s hands . . . Commit your work to the Lord . . . Pride disgusts the Lord.” And so on. Work is not the problem; the problem is making work into an idol. As the narrator describes her, “She is a good Christian woman with a large respect for religion, though she did not, of course, believe any of it was true.” That Mrs. May believes she can go before God’s “judgement seat” (and notice that she does not say, “God;” there is no personal relationship with the judge) and make her case: “I worked.”

Similarly, Mrs. Ruby Turpin professes gratitude publicly, but inwardly believes her value lies in what she has earned. “Revelation” opens in a doctor’s waiting room—the setting of the sick, those who need a cure but are not yet before the healer. So much to unpack in O’Connor. The room was very small, and then enters “Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.” This imposing woman sizes up everyone as she enters, mostly judging those around her based on the shoes they wear. Flannery lets us in on Ruby’s ungenerous thoughts towards those around her: she classifies everyone creating a ladder in society from bottom to herself on top.

Here is a woman who prides herself that she has achieved her status in society—her and her husband own a home, run a farm, have fieldhands. She looks disdainfully at those in the waiting room—white trash, colored, acned teenager, and so forth. Yet, she strikes up conversation with the woman she deems the most dignified of the group and after about 10-15 minutes of tense conversation—where people seem visibly uncomfortable by her racist and classist offhanded remarks—she has the audacity to exclaim:

If it’s one thing I am . . . it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting, ‘Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is! . . . Oh, thank you, Jesus, thank you!

Although Ruby says she is “grateful,” she dismisses everyone else in the room for not having what she possesses. If all that you have received is a gift, then how can you possibly judge others by what they have not received? Ruby is smacked between the eyes at this exact moment by that acned teenager who throws a book at her face and then pounces on her and tries to strangler her. A doctor runs in and sticks the attacker with a needle like a vet calming a wild horse. As the girl’s eyes roll, right before she blacks out, she locks gaze with Mrs. Turpin and whispers, “Go back to hell where you came from, you old warthog.” Mrs. Turpin has received a gift here—a vision of her broken condition—by none other than a girl named (drumroll!) Mary Grace. What we see in O’Connor’s stories repeatedly is a grace that hurts.

The grace in this story comes from outside of Ruby and reveals her to herself, not as a grateful and blessed woman, but, in the word of Mary Grace: a warthog from hell. In Ruby’s final vision in the story, she sees a parade of sinners “rumbling toward heaven,” with:

Those who, like herself . . . had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right . . . behind the others. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were [singing] on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.

Her American values of dignity, order, sense, respect are being “burned away” like dross from gold. The Lord is above; his ways are higher; his holiness is higher than our values or virtues. Whatever good we hold to of our own accord, whatever good we earn by our own hands, will be burned up by his grace.

It is a convicting vision, but less painful than that of “Greenleaf.” In “Revelation” the proud woman steps down from her high perch and walks down towards her home. The reader hopes that the revelation has altered her and granted her a better understanding of her role in God’s story. Yet, poor Mrs. May does not receive the chance to return home with renewed vision. A bull gores her, piercing her heart, and turning her upside down. The narrator observes, “she had the look of a person whose sight had suddenly been restored but who finds the light unbearable.” O’Connor refrains from judgment here, but the case for Mrs. May does not look hopeful. We have one brief glimpse of hope as she seems to be “whispering some last discovery into” the bull’s ear—perhaps a confession?

Whether or not Mrs. May is punished for her pride or receives grace, we should look to the title as a hint for where to perceive the meaning of the story—“Greenleaf.” In the story, the Greenleafs are a family that work for Mrs. May, to her considerable regret and dismay. Mrs. Greenleaf is my favorite character in all of O’Connor’s stories; she displays the opposite virtues to the do-it-yourself religion of Mrs. May or Mrs. Turpin:

Mrs. Greenleaf was large and loose [and] her preoccupation was what she called “prayer healing.” Every day she cut all the morbid stories out of the newspaper—the accounts of women who had been raped and criminals who had escaped and children who had been burned and of train wrecks and plane crashes and the divorces of movie stars. She took these to the woods and dug a hole and buried them and then she fell on the ground over them and mumbled and groaned for an hour or so, moving her huge arms back and forth under her and out again and finally just lying down flat and, Mrs. May suspected, going to sleep in the dirt.

From Mrs. May’s perspective, the woman makes a spectacle of herself. The woman’s gratuitous act affronts all of her values. Witnessing this prayer healing, Mrs. May responds, “Jesus . . . would be ashamed of you. He would tell you to get up from there this instant and go wash your children’s clothes!” So many of us may side with Mrs. May on this one. Holy fools have an ability to make us uncomfortable, to make our faith seem weak, our virtues seem impotent.

What is Mrs. Greenleaf accomplishing? She lays on the dirt, “her legs and arms spread out as if she were trying to wrap them around the earth” and shrieks, “Jesus, stab me in the heart! Oh Jesus, stab me in the heart!” Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy . . . Here is a saint—like a twentieth-century Julian of Norwich asking mystically to know the wounds of her savior, like a white trash Teresa of Avila begging to receive the arrow of the angel. She stands apart from the cultural norm; she is not of this world, though she is very much in it. Literally, she is covered in it, dirt mixing with her tears as she begs for Jesus’s merciful intercession. In humility, she lays down. In humility, she knows that she cannot fix the world’s suffering. As her husband later tells Mrs. May, “I thank GAWD for everthang.” The Greenleafs are truly grateful. They recognize the gift of their lives, the gift of creation, and that only God’s gifting can heal the suffering and problems in this world.

O’Connor once advised a friend in a letter, “You will have found Christ when you are concerned with other people’s sufferings and not your own.” Mrs. Greenleaf’s faith flies in the face of our narratives of autonomy. She subverts our self-reliance and our dependence on work ethic. Her desire for Jesus’s intercession refutes any empirical materialism. For fifteen years, every day, Mrs. Greenleaf prays in this way, not looking for a product to come of it, not assuming any results, not receiving anything but humiliation for her prayer. No one will make a movie starring Mrs. Greenleaf, yet I would argue that, while her behavior is intentionally extreme, her life exhibits character worth imitating.

Featured Image: Massimo Stanzione, Judith and Holofernes, c. 1630; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Jessica Hooten Wilson

Jessica Hooten Wilson is transitioning to a one-year Scholar in Residence appointment at the University of Dallas where she will teach in the Humanities and Classical Education program. She is most recently the author of Reading Walker Percy’s Novels and can be reached through her website for book, article, lecture, interview, and podcast requests.

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