One of the most common and commonly criticised motifs of superhero comics are that a character that was killed off will be revived and dusted off so writers may continue to use them. This article is not about that trope, which has has also transferred to film and television, sometimes accidentally or sometimes or not. Rather, it’s an observation of how the films of Marvel Studios have depicted the act of self-sacrifice to solidify their characters’ heroism on screen.
Rebirth was a theme from the start of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as the first film Iron Man (2008) depicted weapon maker Tony Stark/Iron Man going through a traumatic near-death experience to emerge (ostensibly) a man of peace. Tony decides to stop selling weapons, a noble sacrifice, though subsequent films show it didn’t have a huge impact on his enormous fortune.
Kenneth Branagh’s Thor (2011) was the culmination of the Christianization of Norse mythology, a process begun centuries ago by those seeking to convert the Germanic peoples to Christianity. It portrays a powerless Thor on Earth, unable to lift his hammer Mjölnir à la the Sword in the Stone. He offers up his life to protect his friends when his brother Loki sends the Destroyer, and his father Odin, on sensing his death, has the hammer returned to him, reviving Thor and restoring his power to smite his enemies.
Captain America: The First Avenger, released the same year, portrays Captain America/Steven Rogers sacrificing his life to crash a plane carrying a deadly payload into the Arctic during the end of World War II, and flashforwards 70 years later when he is recovered and revived, though it is more a surreal spin on the coma patient than a death and resurrection. The Avengers (2012) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) depicts Rogers as a man of God who does not consider himself to have been killed and resurrected, rather a survivor who returned home far too late. Curiously, Avengers director Joss Whedon, a noted atheist, is the only director to have acknowledge Rogers’ faith with this quip about Thor and Loki:
“There’s only one god, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure He doesn’t dress like that.”
In The Avengers, it’s Iron Man who performs the heroic sacrifice, flying a nuclear missile into the wormhole the alien Chitauri are invading from to destroy the threat. Stark, knowing full well he won’t survive, makes a last minute call to his girlfriend Pepper Potts, loses consciousness as he falls through the wormhole as it closes, and is only prevented from crashing to his death at the last minute by Bruce Banner/the Hulk.
The purpose of Iron Man’s arc in The Avengers was resolved his clash of personalities with Captain America, who dismisses him earlier because:
“The only thing you really fight for is yourself. You’re not the guy to make the sacrifice play, to lay down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over you.”
Stark proves his worth to the man his father knew and greatly admired. Iron Man 3 (2013) explores Tony grappling with his near-death experience, his scientific mind telling him by all reasonable logic he should be a dead man, triggered by the mere mention of the film’s events and becoming cloistered in his mansion before the film’s events flush him out to protect his loved ones.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) upped the ante with a truly spectacular act of self-sacrifice. The film revolves around the Power Stone, one of the six Infinity Stones, a weapon that can only be safely held by god-like beings. To stop the genocidal Ronan the Accuser from striking it against a planet and killing its populace, Peter Quill/Star-Lord distracts him and grabs it. The stone begins to devour him, and memories of his deceased mother flash before his eyes. His friends Gamora, Drax and Raccoon then join him in sharing the stone’s power, redirecting its energy to kill Ronan before placing it safely in a container.
(Of note, the alien tree Groot dies shielding his fellow Guardians from a crash landing beforehand: he begins regrowing himself from a single unburnt twig. Guardians series director James Gunn said Groot 2.0 does not possess his memories, making this not quite a resurrection.)
It is subsequently revealed Peter only survived holding the stone because while his mother was human, his father belonged to an ancient alien race. The sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017), reveals his father is Ego, a living planet who created bodies to conceive children who would aid him in his goal of supplanting the universe like an interplanetary cancer. To save his makeshift family, Quill sacrifices his godhood, an enlightenment more akin to Russell T Davies’ The Second Coming or José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ than the Bible. Gunn, who is irreligious for possibly deeply personal reasons, perhaps made the Marvel film most antipathic to traditional religious beliefs, something I observe here.
Ant-Man (2015) introduced burglar Scott Lang, the protégé of former SHIELD agent Hank Pym, who was unable to continue wearing the titular suit after the death of his wife Janet a.k.a. the Wasp. Scott is warned not to shrink to microscopic size, as that as is how Janet vanished after being forced to do that to disarm a missile. However, in the film’s climax, Scott is forced to do just that when the insane Yellowjacket threatens his daughter Cassie: he goes microscopic to enter his enemy’s suit, damaging it and causing Yellowjacket to implode.
Ant-Man continues shrinking into the Quantum Realm, suspended in time and space, but Scott jury-rigs a throwing disk that can make objects grow to escape, triumphantly reemerging to embrace Cassie. Ant-Man, by returning from the Quantum Realm, also indicates to Hank that is it possible for his wife to return from the dead.
It was the MCU’s first glimpse of other dimensions (places Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ghost Rider states one may consider Hell) and Doctor Strange (2016) continued lifting the lid on them. Christian director Scott Derrickson told a story of rational surgeon Stephen Strange becoming a conductor of energies drawn from faith. He becomes truly enlightened when using a time spell, he traps himself and the demonic Dormammu into a neverending conflict where the supervillain can maim and kill him repeatedly to the point he becomes so bored and infuriated that he must meet Strange’s demands to escape. Unlike his mentor the Ancient One, who used the energies of the Dark Dimension to never die and thus never gained from the experience, Strange demonstrates the honour that would will earn him the title of Sorcerer Supreme (though unlike the comics, he does not assume it after her death at the film’s end).
It’s also relevant to bring up resurrection on Marvel TV: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. explored resurrection in its first season, gradually revealing Agent Phil Coulson didn’t fake his death in The Avengers but was killed and revived in a traumatic bout of mad science. This is not resurrection as a transition to ascension but an act of Frankenstein made acceptable in the murky espionage world of AOS.
Similarly the explicitly Roman Catholic protagonist of Daredevil battles the evil ninjas of the Hand, whose method of resurrecting its soldiers is an unholy mockery of all he stands for: the Hand’s commanders are revived by draining the blood of their followers, instead of giving their blood to those worshippers so they may gain immortality.
Despite the varied religious beliefs of the MCU’s directors, it seems all of them have united to give the same moral: that there is no greater act of heroism than to lay down one’s life for others. And in this world that seems more divided than ever, perhaps that’s something Marvel’s heroes can get us all to agree on.