Greek mythology makes it clear that the great god Zeus loved to party.
So wild things were happening when the Norse demigod Thor and a pack of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) superheroes entered Omnipotence City in "Thor: Love and Thunder." The Greek gods are out in force, with Zeus serving as king, but so were many other deities from other cultures.
Valkyrie, the female king of New Asgard, noted, while calling roll, the off-screen presence of another deity -- the "God of Carpentry."
Inquiring minds want to know if, to quote WhatCulture.com, the film's director Taika Waititi had "confirmed the actual existence of Jesus in the MCU? ... Without showing Jesus, Waititi has plausible deniability: Valkyrie could've been talking about the Greek God of Carpenters Hephaestus, or even Lu-Ban, the God of Carpentry from Chinese mythology."
The cosmology of the Marvel superhero movies has become so complex that it's hard to know precisely what is being said, noted Thom Parham, a screenwriter who teaches at Florida's Palm Beach Atlantic University. Early on, the superheroes were simply aliens instead of gods or demigods.
"But now we've got sub-deities. They want to have their cake and eat it, too," said Parham, after returning from Comic-Con 2022 in San Diego. "We have gods, and we have demigods. We have Greek gods, and we have Egyptian gods. We have the Eternals, and we have the Celestials."
When Parham heard the "God of Carpentry" reference, he felt that "a dangerous line had been crossed. ... What are they saying? I don't think they know, yet."
With "Black Panther: Wakanda Forever" poised for a November release, the Marvel Cinematic Universe will reach 30 movies and a dozen or more sequels are planned. The franchise has grossed $27 billion at the global box office.
In terms of religious messages, the MCU has come a long way since Captain America, after hearing Loki described as a god, said: "There's only one God ... and I'm pretty sure He doesn't dress like that." The New Rockstars YouTube channel counted 50-plus gods in "Thor: Love and Thunder" alone.
It's almost impossible to ignore the role this franchise plays in popular culture worldwide, said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, who is an ordained Catholic deacon. Some religious leaders continue to dig for MCU themes that "connect in some way with the Bible, divine revelation and Christian thought." Others have decided this is a "giant, worthless wasteland" and that believers should enter megaplexes "with our knives drawn."
It's easier to make these kinds of decisions when dealing with artistic works -- such as "The Lord of the Rings" or "Harry Potter" -- built on a single author's worldview, he said.
But the Marvel movies and television series are created by dozens of artists hired by corporate executives targeting China, Russia, the Middle East and theaters everywhere. Thus, they have been "scrubbed" until "these characters tend not to believe anything or stand for anything," said Greydanus. But it's hard to avoid religion when creating mythologies that include creation, miracles, superpowers, healing, eternal life and clashes between good and evil.
In a Catholic World Report essay titled "Love and thunder, signifying nothing? Religion and nihilism in recent Marvel movies," Greydanus asked this moral question: "What ... is the basis for reward and punishment in the MCU's various afterlives (or whatever ultimate reality stands behind various cultural perceptions of the afterlife)? We're told there are conditions for attaining Valhalla or the Egyptian Field of Reeds; what is the basis for these conditions?"
In the new "Thor" movie, a character named Eternity -- a god above other gods -- grants one wish to the first being to reach him. This wish can be for good or evil.
"It's kind of a one-shot God. It's hard to build a religious worldview around that kind of idea," noted Greydanus. Meanwhile, the Marvel universe keeps getting bigger and more complicated and "every film has to use a larger canvas, on a larger scale, with even bigger mysteries to reveal.
"The more you try to tell us about all the mysteries of this universe, the less room there is for us to hunt for some sign of God or some source of ultimate truth. ... It's hard not to ask, 'Who created this cinematic Mount Olympus? Who is in charge?'"
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.