The MARVELous World of Torah
Charles Dickens begins his novel “A Tale of Two Cities” by stating, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” While Dickens may have intended to speak about the French Revolution, I believe he was talking about the quarantine periods of the COVID pandemic; we differ in our opinions.
When the pandemic began, all my peers studying in Israel for the year and I were abruptly sent home. Seminary, the year that was supposed to change our lives, had ended early and my whole cohort was forced to make the most of our situation. As we approach the end of the craziest year of our lives thus far, it is vital for us to reflect on the events of the last year.
When I returned from seminary, I spent every day in my house for seven months straight, attempting to keep my parents safe from the virus that was ravaging the globe. My days were spent in online seminary, my evenings were spent listening to shiurim found through the web and at night I had absolutely no plan. With so much time on our hands, my mother and I wanted to have the most productive quarantine possible, as we wanted to remember this period of our lives as one that was not just spent sitting at home doing nothing. We wanted to make this a period of growth, including attaining knowledge and becoming better people. So, rather than allowing the time to float by, we watched all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films in the movies’ internal chronological order.
I am not entirely sure why I began connecting Marvel to Torah. It might have been the fact that I was learning during the day and watching these movies at night. Or it might have been the fact that I was trying to make myself feel better about spending a whopping 3,015 minutes (that’s 50 hours and 25 minutes for anyone who is curious) doing something which felt like a waste of time. Either way, I came to an important conclusion: Stan Lee (the creator of the world that is Marvel), was an extremely frum yid: His superhero movies reflect many of Judaism’s values!
The structure of the Marvel Universe itself can be compared to the tapestry mashal (parable). Often, when things are playing out, we see the back of a tapestry, which is messy and confusing to the average eye. Only at the end, when we flip the tapestry do we see the picture that Hashem has laid out for us, one which we could not understand in the moment but only years later is made clear to us. Marvel teaches us that lesson, too, through the way it lays out its movies. From the first “Captain America: The First Avenger,” when one begins to see the Tesseract, nobody has any idea that it will lead to Thanos attempting to collect all of the Infinity Stones and bringing about “Avengers: Infinity War” and “Avengers: Endgame,” but that is exactly what happens. Only after watching 20 movies that came out over the course of 10 years do we truly come to learn the significance of this shiny blue box. So, too, in Judaism we know that we all have our “shiny blue boxes” whose significance we don’t exactly understand, but in the future will be revealed to us by Hashem.
On a general level, the whole idea of heroes having imperfections is a theme that is greatly stressed in Tanach. Going through the Marvel films, I expected the heroes to simply be flawless people like the gods in Greek culture. I was proven wrong. In all of Tanach, something which I find to be beautiful is that our avot and imahot were not perfect. Everybody had their internal struggles and made mistakes, yet they are still people who we look up to. From Rivka tricking Yitzchak to the brothers selling Yosef, so many things are debated on a moral level within the Torah, a lot of actions that were taken were not clearly good or bad. However, they are still people who we can look up to, as the entire point is that they were not angels.
One thing about Marvel which I find fascinating is that the story arcs for the characters are not so simple. Every single character makes mistakes and has internal struggles on a consistent basis. Every character has good intentions for the most part, yet, as played out in “Captain America: Civil War,” those good intentions can easily take a turn for worse. Thus Marvel illustrates an idea which we value in Judaism, our heroes are not immaculate gods and are flawed.
The Rambam often speaks about middot in his writings. Two traits in particular which he spends a lot of time discussing are anger and arrogance. When speaking about these two character traits, the Rambam introduces us to “The Golden Mean,” and says that “one who is arrogant should degrade himself greatly. He should sit in the least honorable seat and wear worn-out clothes which shame their wearer. He should do the above and the like until the arrogance is uprooted from him. Such people may then return to the middle path which is the proper one, and continue in it for the rest of their lives” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 2:2).
I am not saying that the people who wrote “The Incredible Hulk” looked up all of the Rambam’s writings and said “let’s do this one,” but it happens to be that the Hulk as a character is very similar to what the Rambam describes as the perfect balance. “The Incredible Hulk” starts with Bruce Banner becoming the Hulk, whose main line in every movie is “Hulk Smash!” In “Thor: Ragnarok” the Hulk’s main trait is this sense of arrogance, a sense that he can beat everyone, and it is onset by anger. As much as it took us until “Thor: Ragnarok” to learn that arrogance and anger were the main reasons that Bruce Banner turned into the Hulk, Bruce Banner knew it from the beginning. When he realized that those were the Hulk’s two main characteristics, he went to live in Brazil, searching for a cure to his condition. In order to alleviate those negative character traits, he began to live in a run-down apartment with nearly nothing after being a renowned scientist for years. Additionally, he tried other things such as research, yoga, etc., and at the core of this was his desperate attempt to control those pieces of himself. Even though he is forced out of his self-prescribed exile, at the end of the day, his entire goal was to get to the opposite extreme and achieve “The Golden Mean.”
Although there are an immense amount of other examples of Jewish themes in Marvel, such as “Black Panther” being based on the idea that Wakanda should be a light unto the nations, or Captain Marvel learning not to judge people based solely on rumors, I want to conclude with one last example. The conclusion that I came to was reinforced by the recent release of Marvel’s “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” on Disney+.
In this new television show, Bucky Barnes — the Winter Soldier — plays one of the two main characters. His entire character is one filled with sadness up until now. When he first appeared in “Captain America: The First Avenger,” he was a very wholesome, good-hearted and loyal person. However, his life took a turn for the worst. He was captured by Hydra, a branch of Nazi Germany, injected with a super-soldier serum, and controlled by an organization that was directly connected to the Nazis. Everything that he went through was sad and unfortunate. However, in Marvel’s latest release, we see him continuously trying to redeem himself, even going so far as to have a list of people whom he needs to apologize to and make amends with. Furthermore, when put into a situation in the final episode of “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier,” where he saw many people in a burning car and had the ability to keep fighting the Flag Smashers, an anti-nationalist group, or save the people, it was obvious to him and everyone else that he was going to choose the latter. Bucky was a character who was a murderer not by his own volition, and ended up being the savior of millions of people. He was a person who spent years in Wakanda solely trying to control all of the bad within him.
Although Bucky’s situation was a little bit to the extreme side, this sounds a lot like the idea of overcoming our yetzer haras. Bucky spends almost all of his time from “Captain America: Civil War” up until “The Falcon and The Winter Soldier” trying to reclaim himself, and enhance who he was. He apologizes to the people he wronged, he spends time refining his character traits, and he is placed in similar situations and makes different choices. We as people spend our entire lives doing things that do not align with our values or Torah values in general. Yet, we do them anyway because we do not feel strong enough to stop what we are inclined to do or we are simply not in the mood to change. Bucky’s strong attempt at overcoming what was very clearly his yetzer hara is something which I recognized as honorable; he had to go against every inclination that he had. He spent years in Wakanda trying to push away what was inside of him and grow from it, and he achieved what he wanted and ultimately redeemed himself. Now, I am not telling anyone to go pick up the remote and spend as much time as I did watching and studying the Marvel movies. I am saying, however, that if you do by some chance decide to, you should pay attention to the details and see the depth within the characters. Although they are not all aligned with Torah’s values (because Stan Lee didn’t really open up a Torah before writing any of these, although that would have been cool), we should try to see the good within each and every scene. Sometimes movies can surprise us, and I know that after 50 hours and 25 minutes, Marvel flabbergasted me.
Photo Caption: The Marvel Cinematic Universe
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons