For the last century mass entertainment has been marked by attempts to present children’s fare for adults. Comics have transitioned into graphic novels that are taught in college courses, gaming has gone from Pac-Man and Mario to riffs on high literature and explorations of philosophy, the space drama of Buck Rogers has become the pseudo-religion of Star Wars. So we have extended adolescence, packed out Comic-Cons, and the summer blockbuster.
Simultaneously, the Christian world has become increasingly adept at cultural awareness and engagement. There are, of course, incredibly strong and diverse feelings about this trend, but the motivation often seems in the right place: while maintaining orthodoxy, Christians want to create a positive, common space with a culture from which we feel more and more disconnected. And Christians also want to encourage each other to consume beneficial art.
But we have a tendency to overanalyze when it comes to summer blockbusters. Around this time every year Christian writers churn out article after article with titles like “Finding the Gospel in The Avengers” or “Jurassic World and Our Yearning for New Earth.” I don’t want to come down too hard on these types of pieces (I’ve written a few myself), but let’s be real: people don’t go to watch The Avengers: Age of Ultron because they want to think about their relationship with technology. Stand outside a theater after the show and listen to the conversations. Unless you’ve stumbled across a critic’s screening, these conversations will primarily concern spectacle (“Did you see when. . . ?” “That was hilarious when she said. . . !”).
The increased global market for blockbusters has also meant franchise films are pressured to be less specific and more “culturally neutral” (impossible, of course, but you get my meaning), leaving our attempts at finding depth increasingly fruitless and forced. I don’t think this makes specific analysis meaningless. But I do think there’s a more helpful, broader category that explains the appeal of the summer blockbuster: the longing for transcendence.
Cold, Dead World of the Adult
In his book A Secular Age, philosopher Charles Taylor argues that the modern person is less compelled by the cold, hard facts of exclusive humanism than she is by the narrative of exclusive humanism. Most people don’t run off and read a bunch of books on evolution and then decide there is no God. They are compelled by the testimony of the modern secular person over and against the testimony of the religious person. Taylor argues that testimony views the world as one in an “immanent frame,” one that, in the words of James K. A. Smith, constitutes “a constructed social space that frames our lives entirely within a natural . . . order.” In other words, what you see is what you get. There is no divine intervention or eternal being that grounds reality. Accepting this, as Taylor notes, is “seen as the stance of maturity.”
The result is you tend to get testimonials like these: “When I was a child, I believed in silly things like God, the afterlife, and transcendence. But now I’ve grown up and realize that only what’s in front of me is true. I must make my own meaning.” The world of the child was filled with potential miracles and wonder. The world of the adult is cold and dead.
For some, “I must make my own meaning” is a compelling message. It views man as the brave warrior looking into the cold space to carve out some semblance of significance. But for most of us—slightly overweight and looking at the long, endless corridors of our daily routines—this may be a crushing message. If we can’t look for transcendence elsewhere, we will be forced to find it right in front of us. We will have to make sex our liturgy and deeply hope our significant other will finally fix what’s wrong with us. We will have to create, as Smith says, “the new sacred spaces of modernity: the concert hall as temple; the museum as chapel; tourism as the new pilgrimage.”
Impulse to Escape
We moderns have been forced to give up our childish ways, but we secretly miss what it felt like to believe in something greater, to sit before true mystery. As Albert Camus’s narrator from The Fall so simply put it, “[even] now, the Sunday matches in an overflowing stadium, and the theater . . . are the only places in the world where I feel innocent.”
The most successful of the recent summer blockbusters—Jurassic World, Mad Max, The Avengers—are all forms of escapism. But we have to ask: what are we escaping? And why does that impulse run so deeply? Why is our current world not enough?
I’m not sure the love of blockbusters is truly that difficult to explain. There are big explosions and fun characters and air-conditioning. What else do you need? But I also think they have provided a place where we can pretend, again, that we believe in something greater than life. Marilynne Robinson’s narrator in the Pulitzer-winning Gilead sums up this longing: “In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.”
Summer blockbusters offer society an opportunity to believe in the “epic of the universe.” It offers them a chance to believe in what Christians have never quit believing.