Dragons and Conquering Death: Marvel’s Defenders
I enjoyed watching the Defenders series on Netflix this weekend. I was hoping for more workout motivation (watching people with super-strength casually haul giant stones around just kind of annoys me when I’m lifting) but overall, it was worth watching. I won’t spoil much of the plot here, partly because it got really confusing at the end, and I’m not really sure what happens, but I have to say, halfway through the finale I just had to stop and have a good, incredulous laugh at the villains’ motivation. It suddenly occurred to me that the thing they were seeking – “eternal life” – was on free and unlimited offer in any of the hundreds of churches in New York City, including (presumably) where one of the protagonists, a devout Catholic, attends. It’s a shame he knows so little of his own religion; perhaps he could have pointed them in the right direction. Apparently, this never occurred to him.
Now, these characters, like the screenwriters, may assume that they are sophisticated and intelligent people who would never believe in anything as outdated as Christianity. But then you have to wrestle with the fact that they believe in Thor and are centuries-old mystic ninjas. Not to mention the fact that their alternative is to find some mysterious substance (creatively named “the substance”) which is harvested from the bones of a dragon called The Undying (who, awkwardly but conveniently, has died), in order to “conquer death” by reviving their dead bodies again and again so that they can…. just keep doing all of this, apparently. You would think centuries-old masters would have more sense.
To clarify, their version of “conquering death” is like my saying that by bouncing a ball on my knee, I have “conquered gravity” because it never touches the ground. Obviously, one has not escaped gravity; the ball is going to keep coming down, and sooner or later I am going to miss it (generally sooner, in my case). Also, they claim they have “experienced death,” but only the way one might stick one’s head in an underwater tunnel and then quickly pull it out again. They’ve never gone all the way through and emerged on the other side; they’re too scared.
What would real conquest of death look like? You would have to go through the tunnel and come out the other side – and come out different. The ball, to ‘conquer gravity’, would have to touch the ground and, in doing so, become a different, sort of inverted, type of thing – something like a helium balloon, that will keep rising upward no matter how hard you push it down. That would be something worth spending centuries to find, something really worthy of the fanatical devotion these leaders seem to inspire in their minions. Unfortunately, they have settled for a substitute that leaves them mining tunnels under New York in order to dip themselves in black liquid and pop back up to do it over again.
Why is it more plausible for screenwriters, audiences, and these characters, that eternal life might be found by grinding up the bones of a mystic dragon (who died by being punched in the heart, by the way) than in the place people have been looking for it for thousands of years – in orthodox religion? I think I have an answer: power. Passing through death requires faith; it requires relinquishing control. On the other hand, grinding up dragon bones, if you think about it, is a straightforward biological/chemical process. There’s an animal whose chemical makeup will revive the human body, given the right circumstances, and can do it reliably and satisfy testable hypotheses. In the end, the mystic dragon is actually just an extension of modern science, and these ancient mystic villains are modern Western thinkers – because, of course, the screenwriters and the audience are.
All of which is a little disappointing; even when we talk about mystical Brigadoon-like cloud-lands and dragons, we’re still stuck in our reductionist mindsets, where everything has to be explainable, where we have to be able to control and predict it using steps 1, 2, and 3. But if there’s one thing these Marvel-Netflix shows demonstrate well, it’s that people aren’t formulaic. At the very core of each of us is something far more mystical and uncontrollable than those dragon bones. Let’s not take it for granted and go digging up New York when we really only need to look up for an answer.