This reflection is based on Mark 16:15-20 for the feast of our Lord’s Ascension. (Spoiler alert!)
I needed a break the other day, so I decided to treat myself to the perfect movie. The perfectly mindless movie, that is: “The Avengers: Age of Ultron,” that global blockbuster that features an all-star cast of superheroes plus platinum robot drones, with lots of flying, pummelling, explosions, and every possible CGI trick that technology could pull out of its latest hat.
Just the kind of movie I needed, I told myself at the ticket booth as I opted for the 2D because it’s cheaper and 3D makes me dizzy anyway.
The movie didn’t disappoint. Shot virtually like a video game, some of its best scenes managed to include every single Avenger in carefully choreographed action sequences amidst a blur of flying hammer, shield and arrows. But what had promised to be a mindless movie turned out to be surprisingly thought-provoking. Seriously. And the irony of ironies is that the thought-provocation came from–of all the available superheroes in the cast–the least cerebral of them of all, the Hulk.
[If you haven’t seen the movie yet and don’t want spoilers, you must stop reading right here, and please find another reflection on the Ascension.]
By the time we get to this movie, a budding relationship has begun to develop between Bruce Banner (the scientist who turns into the Hulk) and Natasha Romanoff (the assassin-turned-S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, Black Widow), so much so that only the Black Widow can calm the Hulk down and coax Bruce to reemerge. More than ever, however, Bruce realizes the danger his uncontrollable alter ego poses. Despite Natasha’s willingness to take the risk, he is reluctant to pursue their relationship, afraid that the Hulk would end up harming her. ‘Where in this world am I not a threat?’ he asks poignantly in one scene, a deeply human question from the apparently least human of the Avengers.
He answers that question towards the end of the movie. In the final scenes, the Hulk jumps on a jet to grab their escaping nemesis, Ultron, and throws him back down to Earth, leading finally to his end. The Hulk remains in the auto-piloted jet, hears the Black Widow gently instructing him to place the jet out of stealth mode so that he could be tracked and brought home, but the Hulk decides instead to shut down all communication. Later, we learn that the abandoned jet has been found near Fiji, but no trace of the green Avenger.
To his question, ‘Where in this world am I not a threat?’ his own answer is: “Nowhere.”
As I thought about this, a strange question crossed my mind: “Could the Hulk be some kind of Christ figure?” Used loosely, a “Christ figure” refers to any character, fictional or otherwise, that somehow reminds us of Jesus. That character need not be holy, but whether intended by the author or not, an action or event in that character’s story resembles something in the Lord’s life and starts a meaningful conversation.
I never thought of it before, but it struck me that the Hulk could be some kind of Christ figure. The scientist Bruce Banner has a dual nature, and for obvious reasons, he tries his very best to hide his uncontrollable and destructive alter ego. Our Lord has a duality as well–his divinity and humanity–and for a completely different reason, he hid his duality during his earthly life. But just as the Hulk occasionally slips out of Bruce, every once in a while in our Lord’s early life, his divinity would shine through–such as in the Transfiguration, the Resurrection, and of course the Ascension. But–and this is crucial–unlike the case of the Hulk, it is anything but anger that unleashes the divine in the Lord Jesus.
Once we manage to look beyond the vast differences, we may even–to our surprise–recognize in the Hulk a loneliness that the Lord must have experienced as the Incarnate God on earth, a deep loneliness familiar to every creature who has for whatever reason felt too odd in a world much too flat.
The fate of the Hulk in this particular Avenger movie is particularly significant for today’s celebration of the Ascension. For the sake of those he loves, the Hulk takes flight.
Sounds like the Lord’s Ascension.
For the sake of those he loves, the Lord goes into hiding, so that in the hiding, the Holy Spirit is poured into the world, a more universally pervasive though hidden presence.
I think that one sad, powerful message of the Ascension is captured by that image of the Hulk sitting quietly alone before the computer screen in that jet as he decides to go into hiding. Sometimes, to love others, we need to leave them, to let them go, to tell them to “stop holding on to us” (John 20:17).
Sometimes loving means leaving.