Last Sunday, the season finale of Marvel: Agents of SHIELD screened on NZ television. If you haven’t heard of it, Agents of Shield is the TV spin-off of The Avengers and its related films (known as the ‘Marvel Cinematic Universe’ – MCU). The show avoided starring any of the superheroes like Thor, Iron Man or Captain America, and instead focuses on a team of seemingly-normal secret agents in the wake of the events that take place after each film.
From here on in: watch out for AoS Season 1 spoilers!
Jemma Simmons & Leo Fitz: nerdy-but-lovable
When watching the season finale, I was struck by the strong themes of sacrifice that ran through the episode – and in fact, the entire season. You could almost sum up the season’s overarching theme with this sentence: Sacrifice yourself for others, work as team, and you will achieve great things. The final confrontation between the heroes and the villain tops this theme off, but I think the most powerful portrayal of it is about two-thirds of the way through the episode. Two nerdy-but-lovable characters – ‘Fitz’ and ‘Simmons’ – are trapped in a sealed box underwater, but figure out a way to escape. The catch is, there’s only enough oxygen for one of them to make it to the surface:
Something I think particularly powerful in the scene above is the relative calm of Fitz as he sacrifices himself for the one he loves. It’s as though, in the moment of sacrifice and seeing death before him, he realises that this moment is where he is truly himself, truly able to express and give who he really is. Because that’s what sacrifice does: it makes us the most ‘us’ that we can be. It’s this wonderful paradox, that only by giving ourselves can we find ourselves. Why?
Because, as a favourite philosopher of mine says, “Calvary is the rule, not the exception.”
Before His death, Jesus said, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.” (John 6:38, NRSV) Doing the will of the Father is the entire reason for Jesus becoming man. What Christ did on the cross by His sacrifice and self-emptying was where He fulfilled His purpose and most perfectly revealed who He is.
In the same way, by sacrificing ourselves and emptying ourselves of our own will, we become entirely receptive to God’s will – and we are created to do God’s will. Therefore, sacrifice is the path to fulfilling my purpose, to being the most ‘me’ me that I can be!
After watching the episode, I jumped online to look at discussion and articles on the series. I was surprised to find an article at talkbacker.com (Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D and the Paradox of Whedonism) that also speaks about the sacrifice in this season finale. The writer even suggests that this theme is a common one of Joss Whedon (see picture to right), the creator of the show and director the Avengers film. But what shocked me is the pessimistic view of sacrifice that this article had. Here are some lines from the article which sum up this point (emphasis added):
When a writer fills a page, he does so with the utmost intentionality. There are any number of ways to resolve a conflict, redeem a character, and/or demonstrate heroism. That Whedon’s execution of these events almost always climaxes in death, despair, and sacrifice highlights a core of negativity that is at odds with the layers of positivity it is wrapped in. [...]
That Whedon crafted these moments in the manner in which we witnessed shows that it doesn’t matter to him how much a person grows and becomes good, to be truly good he must abdicate the self. [...]
Yes, people are generally good and should be loved and protected, but why portray them as such complex creatures if you’re ultimately going to define them by something so simple?
This shows, I think, the perspective of much of today’s world. Self-sacrifice is seen as not only negative but as an overly-simplistic way of life, like a child who draws a person then colours them one solid colour. Cute, perhaps, but foolish. It is no wonder that we struggle to evangelise these people! Our Good News is one of “death, despair, and sacrifice” which asks us to be simple and even child-like – they can’t understand it, they don’t want it!
Our challenge in today’s age of pleasure, stimulation and self-seeking is to find how to communicate the sacrifice of the Christian life as appealing. We must always preach Christ crucified; but our evangelisation also needs to always be highlighted by the joy and freedom that comes from this child-like way of life. Maybe you could be the next (Christian) Joss Whedon, and you’ll fill your media with recognition of the redemption and fulfillment that comes from self-sacrifice.
And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the Good News not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervor, who have first received the joy of Christ.
- Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi