Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel: Biological God(dess)
This past summer, religious studies scholar Jeffrey Kripal offered the annual symposium in the Mythological Studies program at Pacifica Graduate Institute where I teach. The symposium is an all day seminar that features current topics and research of the invited presenters. One of the themes that Kripal dove into was his idea of "Biological Gods" - an emergent "post human" mythology, or discourse around the "future human," an evolutionary mysticism reminiscent of Michael Murphy's Future of the Body or Sri Aurobindo's integral psycho-spirituality. Kripal offered wide-ranging examples, from the personal biographies of novelist and contactee Whitley Strieber, sci-fi mystic Philip K. Dick, and scientist Barbara Ehrenreich - all "zapped" in one way or another by cosmic, or seemingly non-human "powers" that fundamentally shifted, altered, or demolished their preceding world-views with occasionally devastating, but ultimately transcendent or world-expanding results.
Only a few weeks after Kripal's presentation, I sat down to watch Marvel Studio's massively successful film Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers' ("Captain Marvel") character typifies and exemplifies in what has become typical blockbuster fashion (grossing billions) how Kripal's concept of "biological gods" have strongly and perhaps permanently emerged as a contemporary "modern mythology." The way that Danvers is portrayed as Captain Marvel is well beyond the capacities of any prior "zapped" super-powered super-human. She is no mere mutant - or mortal. She, indeed, has become "like god" (Gen. 3:5).
Following Kripal here - who, incidentally wrote a book on comic book superheroes as "mystics" - and his concept of the "traumatic secret," ie, his theorizing of how many mutants (and mystics) receive their super-powers from a moment of being "zapped" (often by cosmic or solar energies or entities): Captain Marvel fits here, not only in the traumatic moment when she gains her powers ("zapped" by an energy-generating cosmic battery), but also in her loss of memory and personal quest for identity through the memory-gathering she goes through in order to re-claim her original identity as Carol Danvers. This follows Kripal's psychoanalytically-informed hermeneutic that personal trauma (physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual) initiates or causes a superhero's superpowers to emerge in the first place (or initiates the individual into the superhuman/superhero role, as well as becomes of guiding value throughout their developmental trajectories: think Batman's early loss of his parents that both initiated and fueled his "calling").
One sad and celebratory side comment is in regards to the film's comparison to Dark Phoenix, which was an unfortunate flop compared to Captain Marvel. The downside is that Dark Phoenix really had the potential in this historical and political moment to be something truly spectacular and to speak to the needs of an emerging, younger generation of burgeoning female super-heroines. The positive is that Captain Marvel in all its cosmic glory simply stole the show. Carol Danvers becomes the cosmic super goddess that Jean Grey's "Phoenix" character was (in the original X-Men comics' series) and should have been in the film. The positive is that we still get an incredibly strong female lead who is cosmically identified with god(dess) like capacities. No wonder Captain Marvel stole the box office show, and Dark Phoenix didn't quite come (anywhere nearly) as close.
Marvel made a bold and celebrated decision to cast Brie Larson as the strong, female lead for this historically male character. In doing so, the Marvel cinematic universe continues to be a major force and cultural catalyst in helping us to evolve not only our notions of women in power, but also women as super-powered. In re-visioning classically male superheroes for a new and next generation of female heroines, this Marvel blockbuster shifts and empowers our religious and spiritual imagination, and furthers an emergent mythology of biological goddesses who can see their own inherent super-powers reflected back to them in high definition and digital surround sound.
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