Digging in Deeper: Romans 12:19

Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for God’s wrath, because it is written, ‘Vengeance belongs to me; I will repay,’ says the Lord.” (CSB – Read the chapter)

What do you do when you can’t decide between two options? If possible, you choose both. This past week I finished watching a miniseries and finally watched a movie that first came out a couple of months ago. I had always planned to write a review of both once I finished watching them. I hadn’t planned on finishing both in the same week. And yet, as I have gone back and forth on which one to write about first, it became clearer and clearer that they both covered a whole lot of the same theological ground, although from different directions. Trying to treat them separately just didn’t make sense. Today, then, we are going to span two totally different media universes and talk about the recently completed Marvel series, Moon Knight, as well as the fairly recent latest offering from DC Comics, The Batman, and see how two different visions of the world reveal the Gospel is still the greatest vision of reality there is.

I’ve mentioned this before, but in the battle of the comics giants, Marvel continues to absolutely dominate DC. The competition between the two historical rivals has gotten to the point that it’s almost not fair for the latter anymore. Marvel’s cinematic universe (multiverse?) is cohesive and expanding. Each new story adds a fun new element. And every single project nowadays is part of the same grand arc. That doesn’t mean any single story can’t stand without the rest, but they are all informed by one another in ways that reflect a creative genius and, somewhere, a gigantic white board helping to keep everything held together and heading in the same basic direction. DC, on the other hand, while still utterly dominating the animation scene, can’t figure out what they are doing with their collection of live action films. They made a good run at copying what Marvel has accomplished, but they came late to the party and tried (unsuccessfully) to skip steps A-W in order to land on X, Y, and Z at the same time Marvel did. Needless to say, it didn’t work.

Moon Knight and The Batman are a bit of a case in point for me. I have been looking forward to Moon Knight for weeks (in spite of the fact that I know almost nothing about the character). I gobble up all of their content as quickly as I possibly can. For The Batman, on the other hand, in spite of a pretty extensive marketing campaign through the first three months of this year, I just couldn’t get excited to see it. I didn’t go see it in the theaters. I wouldn’t have seen it at all until it arrived in my HBO Max feed. I saw all the great reviews, but I just didn’t care about it.

As for what they are respectively about, Moon Knight is about a man suffering from dissociative identity disorder (multiple personalities). His three personalities (at least, his three main personalities) are Marc Spector, Steven Grant, and Jake Lockley. Marc is the original personality. Steven and Jake were both created in the wake of some trauma Marc experienced as a child (which is not an uncommon origin for multiple personalities in folks suffering from DID). At the beginning of the series, while Marc seems to know about Steven, the reverse is not true, and neither of them are aware of Jake.

In the series, what Steven doesn’t know is that Marc made a deal with the Egyptian god Konshu to become his avatar and a superpowered protector of the innocent as well as an agent bringing justice to those who deserve it. All Steven knows is that something happens to his body every night. He sleeps with a rope tied to his ankle to prevent himself from getting more than a few feet from his bed, and his bed is surrounded by sand to track whether or not he has gotten up and moved around at night. He keeps suffering from blackouts and waking up in unexpected or even unknown locations. The character is wonderfully played by Oscar Isaac who absolutely deserves an award for his performance. Honestly, he should receive the Emmy both for lead actor and supporting actor in a limited drama series. If this had been on the big screen, he would have been due for an Oscar (appropriately so).

The conflict in the series is centered on the efforts of Konshu’s former avatar, Arthur Harrow’s efforts to release the goddess Ammit so she can bring her brand of justice to the earth. Ammit was a goddess of justice, but she grew tired of waiting for people to do bad things and be punished. Instead, she is able to see the entire lifetime of an individual and judges them on the basis of both what they have done in the past and what they will do in the future. In other words, her approach is like the film, Minority Report, where people who will do bad things in the future are punished in the present to prevent those bad things from happening in the first place. The debate throughout the series, then, is which kind of justice is the best: Konshu’s, which punishes in the present for guilt accrued in the past, or Ammit’s, which punishes in the present for guilt that will be accrued in the future.

As for The Batman, it is yet another relaunch of the character with multiple sequels and spin-offs planned if it succeeds. The film picks up about a year into Batman’s crime-fighting tenure in Gotham City, which is just as dark and corrupt as it always is. In this particular version, the main antagonist is The Riddler who is far darker and more sinister than any of his previous appearances on the big or small screen. The Riddler has taken it upon himself to murder the city’s corrupt officials in gruesome, public ways as a way of bringing vengeance on the city for its sins against the innocent, including himself as a child. He begins with the incumbent mayor just before the election, moves from there to the police commissioner and the district attorney. All the while, Batman is following the clues he leaves to figure out who he is and to save his victims before he can claim any others. The Riddler’s final plan is to flood the city and set an army he has inspired with his social media posts to kill everyone the waters don’t drown when they all gather in a local stadium for safety.

It is perhaps needless to say that this is the darkest Batman film to date. I mean that figuratively as the plot itself is dark, but also literally as all of the various scenes are incredibly dark. In fact, the filming was so dark the post-production crew had to find ways to lighten it up so you could actually see what is happening on the screen. In the climax of the film, Batman confronts The Riddler directly and we learn that he had always envisioned himself as working with Batman to bring vengeance to the city. Batman’s effort to use fear and violence to fight back against the tide of corruption gradually rising to suffocate the city had left him inspired to take action against the people he deemed (arguably correctly) were most responsible for the city’s deplorable state.

I thoroughly enjoyed Moon Knight and actually wound up liking The Batman a whole lot more than I expected. The viewing experiences of each were very, very different, though. Moon Knight was pretty standard Marvel fare. Great story, high production values, mostly comic book violence, and lots of mystery along the way that was only mostly resolved at the end. Oh, and a post-credits scene pointing toward the future. The Batman was dark and gritty. I had to force myself to keep watching because it moved so slowly in the first two acts. The acting wasn’t as great and while Pattinson made a decent Batman, he generally made a terrible Bruce Wayne. The romance between him and Catwoman felt forced and never had any charisma. And although all I heard about leading up to the film was how it had so many villains, there were really only three. Catwoman was never a villain. The Riddler was the feature. Carmine Falcone was next (which was new for a Batman film). And Colin Farrell’s Penguin was basically an afterthought. They set up the Joker for a subsequent film at the end, but we’ll see what they do with him. Heath Ledger set the bar so very high in The Dark Knight.

But the thing that honestly kept me the most engaged with both offerings was their respective wrestling with justice. What is justice? How should we go about achieving it? Are justice and vengeance different? Whose prerogative is retribution? Can individuals seek justice, or is that only something the State can legitimately pursue? All of these questions loomed in the background of both features.

Moon Knight clearly leaned against the brand of justice Ammit pursued – she was the villain, after all. And even when Harrow made the case for this kind of pre-crime justice, Steven Grant’s questions in response revealed how utterly unjust it really was. For instance, would you kill babies for crimes they will commit later in life? The alternative, though, was Konshu’s judgment. This raises a rather insistent question, though: Who gave Konshu the right to pursue justice? On what basis were his judgments being made? What was the standard? And, Konshu’s justice was consistently death for those who were guilty. What crimes warranted death? Was there a line somewhere? Given that he is an Egyptian god, why would his justice extend beyond that nation? Are there similarly concerned Greek gods or Norse gods or Japanese gods who executed justice on those people? Furthermore, Konshu is clearly willing to use Marc Spector and lie to him in order to get what he wants. Isn’t that an injustice all by itself? If he’s okay with that kind of injustice, what makes the injustice he is avenging through his avatar sufficiently worse to warrant such punishment? Does Konshu’s judgment leave room for repentance? What if someone he has put to death for crimes committed in the past goes on to repent, turn his life around, and make an enormously important and positive contribution to the world later on? The questions begin piling up here awfully quickly. And in the end, Konshu’s justice doesn’t seem all that much more just than Ammit’s. What we need is a truly objective standard presided over by a holy and righteous judge. Anything less and we only wind up with more injustice.

The Batman wrestles with the question of justice and vengeance as well, but from a different angle. Batman has been doing what Konshu has assigned Marc Spector to do in his own city. But again, who gives him such a right? By what standard does he determine who gets punished and who doesn’t? If others were to follow suit, how could we determine whether Batman’s or their standard is the most correct. The Riddler does follow suit. His “solution” to Gotham’s injustice is clearly portrayed as wrong because he is very content with murdering people…lots of people. But if he’s only killing the bad ones, what’s wrong with that? Batman may not kill, but the justice system of the city he is ostensibly serving is so broken that none of the criminals he stops are actually facing justice. He’s just gumming up the works, not really making any improvements.

Again, then, we find ourselves with a whole series of questions that quickly reveal Batman’s brand of justice is no better than Konshu’s…or Ammit’s or The Riddler’s. When we make ourselves the judge and jury, things are never going to go well.

Where The Batman is very different from Moon Knight, though, is in where it lands. This landing actually moves it a whole lot closer to a Christian vision of justice than Moon Knight achieves. In the closing voiceover (just before they set up The Joker for the sequel), Batman spends some time reflecting on where the city is after The Riddler’s brief reign of terror. Here’s what he says:

Wednesday, November 6. The city is under water. The national guard is coming. Marshal law is in effect. The criminal element never sleeps. Looting and lawlessness will be rampant in the parts of the city no one can get to. I can already see: Things will get worse before they get better. And some will cease the chance to grab everything they can.

I’m starting to see now: I have had an effect here. But not the one I intended. Vengeance won’t change the past. Mine or anyone else’s. I have to become more. People need hope; to know someone’s out there for them. The city’s angry, scarred…like me. Our scars can destroy us even after the physical wounds have healed. But if we survive that, they can transform us. They can give us the power to endure and the strength to fight.

The Batman

Now, not all of this is correct, theologically speaking, and it remains to be seen what this looks like in a subsequent film, but Batman’s realization that people need hope more than vengeance is an important one. It’s correct. We do indeed need to know that someone is there for us. We need to know that justice will be served. When we don’t trust that society begins to fall apart. The rule of law is absolutely essential for healthy, functioning societies. But without hope, we are in an even sadder state. When we lose hope, we start to lose a vision for our lives at all. We lose a sense of meaning and purpose. Without that, we drift aimlessly along, seeking to experience real feelings wherever and however we can. Without hope, we begin to lose a real desire for justice because it doesn’t matter. In the absence of hope, personal vengeance becomes much more common and the threads of the very fabric of everything start to come undone. It’s not a pretty picture.

Hope is exactly what the Gospel offers us. It is why the Christian worldview is better than any of the others out there. Nothing and no one else offers the kind of hope that the Gospel does. There is no better, stronger, more appealing vision of tomorrow than what the Scriptures give us. And we can have this hope because we trust in a God who is just. But He is not only just. He is love as well. Love and justice in perfect balance. Nowhere else in the world can we find such a thing. We always and only lean too far in one direction or too far in the other. But God gets them right. Just right. This God is worthy of our lives. Stories like Moon Knight and The Batman are important because they reflect a culture wrestling with what is true and right and good. In the Gospel we find all of those things and more. There we find the answers our culture can’t give us; answers that truly satisfy because they are rooted in reality as it actually is. Let’s turn there and live for real.

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