Girard would say that the one child has learned that the toy is desirable by observing the other child’s interest in it. As in this example with the children, mimetic desire often brings us into conflict with others, eventually culminating in an act of violence, and the original object of the conflict ceases to matter. One act of violence, however, demands a reciprocal act of violence. (Pg.41)
Mythology, Mimesis, and Apocalypse in Jonathan Hickman’s Avengers Matthew Brake.
René Girard is probably best known for his mimetic theory—the idea that humans are imitative creatures. Not only do humans imitate each other’s behaviors, but humans learn how to desire by watching other humans. A famous example would be of two children playing in a nursery. If one child picks up a previously discarded toy, then the other child will begin to fight with him for it. Girard would say that the one child has learned that the toy is desirable by observing the other child’s interest in it. As in this example with the children, mimetic desire often brings us into conflict with others, eventually culminating in an act of violence, and the original object of the conflict ceases to matter. One act of violence, however, demands a reciprocal act of violence. This begins an unending cycle of violence that only ends when the final blow has been struck, which each party attempts to do. Girard maintains that religion, and specifically the institution of sacrifice, developed as a means of redirecting or channeling that violence into a different avenue, essentially “tricking” society’s violence by directing it toward a victim or scapegoat that offers no threat of retaliation and that the participants in the sacrificial ritual believe is something that the divine commands. Girard maintains “that great writers” are able to pick up on the true nature of human desire and the source of conflict, not in any particular object, but in the imitative nature of desire itself (Girard 1965, 3). They bring to light the truth of the human condition. (Pg.41)
There are a number of places throughout Hickman’s run where one can see these Girardian themes. In Secret Wars, some of these themes are at play in Dr. Doom’s own personal myth about being god on Battleword, his mimetic conflict with Reed Richards, and the apocalypse that brings Battleword to an end.3 The storyline between Namor and T’Challa throughout the main Avengers run is a great example of mimetic conflict and vengeance.4 I could even argue that the very idea of the incursions between earths is a cosmic illustration of mimesis. However, for our purposes, it will serve to focus specifically on the relationship between Steve Rogers and Iron Man in Hickman’s Avengers run-proper. (Pg.42)
For religion to work and for mimetic violence to be circumvented, a theological explanation is required, which functions as a shell that hides the true purpose of sacrifice from its practitioners. As Girard writes, “The celebrants do not and must not comprehend the true role of the sacrificial act. The theological basis of the sacrifice has a crucial role in fostering this misunderstanding. It is the god who supposedly demands the victims” (Girard 1977, 7). For religion to work and the cycle of revenge to be curtailed, the true origins of violence must be hidden. A delusion must be created in order to initiate “a sanctified, legitimate form of violence” to prevent sacrifice from becoming simply another form of violence contributing to “the vicious cycle of revenge” (Girard 1977, 24). (Pg.43)
The death of the scapegoat brings a halt to mimetic violence, thus causing those who follow to see the scapegoat as a divine figure who brings peace (Girard 2010, 22). Where the scapegoat is initially blamed for the disruption in the community and cast out, the peace and stability his departure brings about causes the community to view him as “a supernatural being” and “mysterious savior” (Girard 1977, 86). The community may even wonder “whether [the victim] is not somehow responsible for the miraculous consequences of his own death or exile” (Girard 1977, 85). (Pg.43)
ESCALATING TOWARD THE APOCALYPSE
New Avengers #1 begins with a startling revelation: the universe is accelerating toward an early extinction. Because the earths of the multiverse are colliding with one another in the incursions due to the actions of a group of higher beings called the Beyonders (as well as the machinations of Dr. Doom), the Illuminati find themselves faced with an impending apocalypse.
Girard has a surprising amount to say about the apocalypse. For Girard, founding myths and the institutions they spawn only work as long as the truth about the original victim remains hidden. When the truth about the violence that is covered over is revealed, the legitimacy of the social order breaks down; however, a key element of Girard’s theory is that the Christian narrative of Christ’s crucifixion lays bare the truth of all founding murders by providing a story in which the innocence of the victim is explicated. By doing so, the “system of scapegoats is finally destroyed by the crucifixion narratives as they reveal Jesus’ innocence, and, little by little, that of all analogous victims” (Girard 2010, xiv). But if our institutions and their founding myths rest upon the scapegoat, and institutions “are the only means that humanity has found to postpone the apocalypse” (Girard 2010, 22) and to hold violence in check, then the revelation about the truth of the scapegoat has the potential to release unbridled violence upon the world. As Girard writes:
Freed of sacrificial constraints, the human mind invented science, technology and all the best and worst of culture. Our civilization is the most creative and powerful ever known, but also the most fragile and threatened because it no longer has the safety rails of archaic religion. Without sacrifice in the broad sense, it could destroy itself if it does not take care, which clearly it is not doing. (Girard 2010, xiv)
Do we not see this even in the Illuminati’s attempt to create bombs that can destroy alternative earths during an incursion, itself a type of cosmic mimesis with both earths “desiring” the same space and violently destroying each other through collision? While the scientific minds of the Illuminati, and Tony specifically, create a number of incredible inventions during Hickman’s run, including a Dyson’s Sphere that harvests the sun’s energy and is able to phase a rogue planet through the earth, he is also capable of the terrible decision to create destruction on a global scale. In our own world, Girard asserts that “history has speeded up over the last three centuries,” with the breakdown of “the wars of gentleman” to absolute war as the underlying principle of all wars, accompanied by an increase in technology capable of destroying the planet (Girard 2010, 14–15). Likewise, the acceleration toward the end of the world in Hickman’s Avengers exacerbates the mimetic conflicts that already exist, and once the founding myth of the Avengers World is uncovered and the tragic truth of Captain America’s mind erasure is revealed, things continue to accelerate toward extremes, as Girard would put it.
This acceleration toward extremes, and ultimately toward annihilation, is how Girard conceives of the apocalypse, not as a violence unleashed by God but as the “amassing” of our own mimetic violence “that is looming over our own heads” (Girard 2010, xvi) now that the truth of all religious sacrificial systems and mythologies has been revealed. As Girard writes, “The apocalypse is a real threat today on a planetary level because the principle of reciprocity has been unmasked” which can only spell our doom because “humanity itself tends towards annihilation” (Girard 2010, 19). In other words, once the vicious cycle of violence and revenge is uncovered, the tit-for-tat of reciprocal violence, there is nothing left for that violence to do than to accelerate toward catastrophe. As the myth of the Avengers World is uncovered, the mimetic conflict between Steve and Tony spills over into the Avengers themselves, and indeed, the entire superhero community. Existing mimetic quarrels between other characters, like Black Panther and Namor, accelerate. The Avengers find themselves splintered as violence overflows to the entire world and the universe itself.
Avengers #44 does recount an attempt by Steve and Tony to bury the hatchet one last time. They meet at a diner in the middle of nowhere, with Steve begrudgingly listening as Tony explains that they still have a chance to team up before it’s too late and save the universe. Tony draws Steve’s attention to their waitress, Tamara, whose alias, Captain Universe, was a part of the Avengers World even though she suffered from a brain injury sustained in her alter ego. For a moment, Steve begins to believe Tony and asks him, “Are we really going to find some way out of this?” to which Tony replies, “I know we can.” At this, Captain Universe powers up, exclaiming to Tony, “Don’t lie. . . . You promised us a great machine of salvation, yet built no such thing. Do you know what lasting thing you built, Anthony Stark? Nothing. A house built on lies.” Perhaps Steve and Tony could have built something together if Tony could have established another lie and built another myth, but the universe itself seemed intent on exposing all such lies. With all of Tony’s lies exposed, the mimetic conflict between the two men accelerates, and the two men’s violence paves the way for the apocalypse.
MYTH, CONFLICT, AND FINAL BATTLES
Hickman’s Avengers run ends with apocalyptic levels of violence. In order to avoid the destruction of the universe, an alliance of alien races including the Shi’ar, the Kree, and the Skrulls attack the earth with the intention of destroying it to save the galaxy, despite their gratitude to the Avengers for their previous efforts in saving the universe during Hickman’s Infinity story. While Iron Man is successful in saving the day, he merely postpones the apocalypse, as the heroes of the Marvel Universe are faced with another incursion, this time from the Ultimate Universe Earth, the setting for a line of Marvel comics whose stories took place in a separate continuity. One could even say that the conflict between Marvel’s regular continuity and its Ultimate continuity represents a real-life mimetic conflict within Marvel’s own publishing line. This rivalry between two lines comes to a head at the end of Hickman’s Avengers run, with a conflict between Marvel’s main 616-continuity (the model) and the Ultimate line, in which its earth is referred to as Earth-1610 (the disciple), ending with an apocalyptic violence that partially destroys and absorbs the Ultimate line into the main 616 universe. But even as Earth-1610 launches its attack on Earth-616, Steve and Tony fight on the ground, each man seeing the other as the problem, and each one secretly harboring jealousy of the other’s traits. As both men are killed in the streets of New York City, Hickman narrates his last issue of the Avengers, “It started with two men. One was life . . . and one was death. And one . . . always wins. Everything dies.” We can almost hear an echo of Girard’s own words here: “[V]iolence is a terrible adversary, especially since it always wins” (Girard 2010, xvii).
Hickman’s Avengers story does start with two men, although Avengers #1 celebrates Captain America as the one founding myth of the Avengers. As Girard would point out, the myth of autonomy is a lie. New Avengers #1 reveals the tragic truth that the myth covers up—the turning of the Illuminati against Cap and the latter’s mind erasure. There is always a community of at least two and a scapegoat at the foundation of every myth. This scapegoat and the myth that grows out of it serves to hold violence at bay, but should the myth be exposed as a lie, then the institution founded on it will fold as well. Unless another myth can replace the old one, mimetic violence is unleashed upon the world, and in our own age of accelerating mimetic violence and lack of scapegoats, we, like the Marvel Universe, are accelerating toward violence. As Girard notes, “the fighting will have cosmic consequences” (Girard 2010, 115). (Pg.52)
“Theology and the Marvel Universe (Theology, Religion, and Pop Culture)” by Gregory Stevenson, Matthew Brake, Jr. Dan W. Clanton, Daniel D. Clark, Austin M. Freeman, Amanda Furiasse, Kristen Leigh Mitchell, Levi Morrow, Kevin Nye, Taylor J. Ott, Tim Posada, Jeremy E. Scarbrough, Andrew D. Thrasher, Andrew Tobolowsky
WE&P: by EZorrilla.