Spoilers ahead for Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones, so read at your own risk!
I recently went to see Avengers: Endgame, the much anticipated conclusion to Marvel’s Avengers series of superhero blockbuster hits. Endgame is loosely based on the Infinity Gauntlet comics; and the movie begins with scenes of heroes experiencing and then dealing with profound loss. The villain, Thanos, has just used his gauntlet, powered by infinity gems, to commit genocide universally: half of all life in the universe fades away disappearing into ash. His motivation? To “save” the universe, every world, from the ecological devastation wrought by burdensome populace or ‘excessive’ life. At the beginning of the movie (and at the end of the prequel, Infinity War), Thanos has won. But there is exactly one chance, according to Dr. Strange, who was bearer of the time stone (an infinity gem), to make things right again.
However common, the ecological theme in these films is interesting from the standpoint of power analysis. I have been thinking a lot about paradigms of power lately; particularly our inclination to take certain ideas about power for granted, substituting “kinds” of power for “power itself.” Which is to say: many of us see (and are trained to see) one kind of power as the only thing that is actually power. We think all power is dominance, or control. Or maybe we think power is independence, or autonomy, etc. In Endgame ecological devastation, a kind of human wrought destruction, is set against the destruction of humanity itself. Thanos is deeply invested in the idea of power as destruction, and of destruction as rebirth. But what about the Avengers? What kind of power gives them their one and only chance?
Emphasizing relationships, mother to son, son to father, father to daughter, and friend to friend throughout the storyline, I think that Endgame makes an attempt to recast power. Heroes are not individuals, they work as a team and show love for one another. And in the final scenes, writers give a nod to female power as well. When Spider Man (who is really a boy) says he doesn’t know how Captain Marvel will get the Infinity Gauntlet through the ordeal ahead, every sheroe from the franchise appears together, an impressive group, and Okoye declares, “Don’t worry. She’s got help.” Women are backing women, despite the peripheral role women play in the film overall. This was a power-full moment. But it was also this moment that forced me to be aware of my own slip-slide.
For those of us who work to de-center or challenge the normalizing of dominating and oppressive paradigms of power, it is important to consider the way we may slip slide between the “kinds of power” we normalize in particular contexts. For example, I consciously work to unlearn dominance and practice a feminist ethic based on the idea of relational power in my classrooms. But when reading a book or watching a show, I may find myself reveling in vengeful power, or power expressed through violence and control.
I want to assert here: I don’t think this “slip-slide” is “bad” or “wrong.” I agree, as many feminists warn, that we cannot demonize “women’s pleasure,” because that too, is patriarchal and kyriarchal power. However, if I want to “counter-power,” as Catherine Keller’s work suggests, it is also important that I seriously engage this “slip-slide” in light of what I want to and will create.
Beautiful and powerful women stood together facing incredible odds. They were sheroes, superheras, certainly, but were they creating anything different? In the final battle scenes, Ironman uses the infinity gems to ash Thanos and his followers out of existence, sacrificing himself: it was their one chance, after all. But I can’t help but thinking, if you were wielding the most powerful, universe harnessing, unstoppable device ever conceived of, was destruction—the same ash—the only course of action? Is what is most powerful really “either/or?” Which brings me to Sailor Moon.
I grew up watching the classic anime Sailor Moon. A “magical girl” series, Sailor Moon has its own kinds of problems, which I will not detail here. But watching Endgame, taking me way out of the drama of the movie, I couldn’t help but think, “and if this were Sailor Moon, this is where Thanos would be transformed by the power of love.” A pink circle of light would descend, and Thanos would have to know himself, tainted by hatred, chaos and pride as he was. But we don’t like to be in relationship to chaos, do we? If hero/shero stories are metaphors for self and change, as they can be read, then what does it mean that we always destroy the “villain,” inside us?
Catherine Keller reminds us: while apocalypse can be useful, it is nihilistically dualistic and anti-relational. I deny the Thanos in myself. So, what happens to me? Game of Thrones, in its second to last episode, seems ready to cast traumatized Daenerys away, making her into just another woman whose goes mad because she has too much power. I was disgusted by this “Mother’s Day” episode (an irony my brother pointed out to me), which depicted “the Mother of Dragons” and “Breaker of Chains,” cruelly and unnecessarily burning an entire city alive. But Game of Thrones isn’t a feminist text. Endgame walks the line of popular feminism: it hints that we should ask for more but tries to use the same dominating power to get it. But Sailor Moon shows something more. Sailor Galaxia is overcome by the chaos she takes into herself to save the Universe. She is Thanos’ equivalent, and every Sailor Scout that tries to defeat her using her same destructive power fades away. But Sailor Moon reaches out to her with love, and something inside Galaxia reaches back.
In her relational theology, Carter Heyward explains that we frequently we fail to embrace mutuality as power because we can’t or don’t feel that mutuality is powerful. It is so difficult to let go of the only power we know, even when it is killing us. I struggle and slip-slide. And to stop it, I try to destroy myself. But Audre Lorde reminds us that there is something more: we already know, we can feel and know the power of the erotic inside of us. If only we would reach back.
Considering my own slip-sliding in power, this analysis is part of my effort to “reach back.” Thank you.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.