Summer, as it is traditionally celebrated (in the U.S., at least) is over, and so it is time for us high-achieving eldest daughters to take stock of our summer projects.
I had planned a few projects for this summer. I wanted to repaint the main floor and hallways, as it had been more than ten years and things were looking ragged. Ron wanted to paint the kids’ rooms, since they hadn’t been painted since we bought the house in 2004 and were, frankly, disgusting. We compromised by doing neither. Instead, Ron built a deck extension for a hot tub, which seemed like a great idea at the time, but will probably seem less cool during the six months of the year when the hot tub is shut down and we are stuck inside, staring at the paint on the walls.
On the plus side, I made tremendous progress on my second project, which was to finally catch up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a pop culture phenomenon that started during the second Bush administration and had somehow missed me entirely.
My ignorance was demonstrated most sharply when faced with a wall decal of the Avengers at the pediatrician’s office with my six-year old. I knew they were the Avengers because the decal had been helpfully labeled “The Avengers,” but from there I was pretty lost.
“Look C!,” I exclaimed, in that desperately upbeat tone we parents use when stuck somewhere boring with our children, “It’s um…the Incredible Hulk, and…uh..Iron Man, right? The red one? And that’s….well, that’s Scarlett Johansson…?”
My sister Lisa Gullickson, on the other hand, is a pop culture journalist and podcaster (Comic Book Couples’ Counseling) and she and her husband Brad, also a writer for Film School Rejects and her podcast co-host, have decided to raise Funko Pops instead of children. They spend their time interviewing filmmakers rather than staring at the walls of doctor’s offices. They would not only be able to identify Black Widow, they could tell you that she was originally created in 1964 by Stan Lee and artist Don Heck for Tales of Suspense, volume #52.
I love Lisa, and I love stories, and Lisa told me that I would really enjoy the MCU, so I decided to dive in, starting right around the 4th of July with Iron Man and working my way through in release order, including the Disney+ series.
As of Labor Day, I have gotten through 2021’s Spider-Man: No Way Home and am just two movies, three 6-part series, and a handful of She-Hulk eps short of catching up to current releases. This is both exciting and humbling. Exciting, because I have enjoyed around 90 hours of really eclectic and interesting storytelling. Humbling, because for most of those hours I was also folding laundry, and seeing exactly how much of your one rare and precious life is consumed folding beach towels in thirds is enough to provoke une petite crise existentielle.
Existential crisis aside, consuming such a huge chunk of narrative mythology in one gulp is a brain-spinning experience.
Back when I taught middle school speech and theater, I posted this motto on the classroom wall: “We shape the world with the stories we tell.” I wanted to convey to my students the power that narrative has to shape the way people think and what they value. Stories, real—real, imagined, and everything in between—are what make up our religions and philosophies, our histories and literature, our systems of government and economics. There is a reason we call these things “the humanities.” Telling stories is a purely human activity, and our humanity is shaped in the hearing and the telling.
So much of the conflict we see in our society today comes down to the different stories we tell ourselves, and each other, and pass down to our children. The Abrahamic fathers knew that their people would live in the stories they carried with them, of the exodus, the rise of Israel, and the coming of the Kingdom. The Bhagavad Gita, the Quran, the Gospels…all are stories that shaped civilizations, united peoples, and divided nations.
Our United States has its own mythology, one that so many of us fight fiercely to protect from competing stories—whether or not these stories carry truth. When people rail against “Critical Race Theory,” more often than not, they are attempting to silence the encroachment of alternate stories. We need to keep our heroes and villains clear, don’t we? If we don’t, how do we know where to point our weapons? How do we decide when the human cost is too high? How do we know when the good guys win?
So, Brooders, what does all this have to do with the Marvel Cinematic Universe? Everything.
Our histories and holy books are chock-full of superheroes. And, like the heroes in Marvel, these heroes are flawed. The hero in one story might be the villain in the next. They rise and fall and rise again. They get confused about who the bad guys are. They go out into the desert searching for transcendent truths.
Sometimes, they get eaten by monsters.
A lot of times, you think one of them is dead but then a few chapters later, sha-zam!—they are back and more powerful than ever. Many carry magical objects: a staff that can part the sea, talismans that shield them from harm, a mystical gem that dispels all fear. No matter how strong their powers, they want the things we all want: love, family, home, purpose. No matter how invincible they seem, they fear what we all fear: pain, death, loneliness, loss.
We hold on to these stories, because they are stories of hope.
Somehow, in all times and in all places, humanity believes in hope. We believe in trying, and failing, and trying again. We believe that sometimes saving the world and making a mess are the same thing, and that there will always be messes that need cleaning. We believe in avengers, but we also believe in healers. We believe our lives can have meaning. We believe in honoring the dead. We believe in love.
Maybe all those common beliefs point to a supernatural truth. Maybe they are a peculiar expression of an evolutionary imperative.
Maybe it doesn’t matter.
Maybe what matters is that we keep writing our humanity in stories, choosing the ones we pass on carefully, whether they be about gods or prophets, founding fathers or fallen saviors.
Then, if the stories we are handed exclude our humanity, or the humanity of others, we can look for new stories, because no matter how hard some may try to keep a story buried, there are some that can’t be silenced. They keep being told, in one way or another, illuminated in scrolls or CGI, shared in song or streaming video.
We keep finding heroes. We keep finding reasons to marvel—in stories, in remembrance, in ourselves. In longing, in listening, in the folding of towels.
Theresa Weiler is a writer, singer, speaker, seeker. She lives in the Detroit suburbs with her husband and four children. Follow her on Twitter @SometimesReese.