Marvel and Disney films are not just popcorn movies — they're about life's greatest mysteries

The Marvel Cinematic Universe and stories of Disney princesses deal with the fundamental themes of being human. A.G. Holdier, a graduate student of philosophy at the University of Arkansas, thinks superheroes and princesses can serve a serious function in the real world.

A.G. Holdier believes that Marvel films and Disney princess movies would satisfy the existential inclinations

Promotional poster for Avengers: Infinity War. (Disney)

On the surface, it might not seem like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the world of Disney princesses have that much in common. 

But A.G. Holdier believes that when you look at them through a philosopher's lens, they both tackle what it means to live a life that matters in a deeply human sense. 

Holdier is a graduate student of philosophy and public policy at the University of Arkansas. He's written about where philosopher Søren Kierkegaard meets the Disney princesses and how the Marvel Cinematic Universe presents a window into the universal philosophical questions. 

Here's part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes about the parallels between philosophy and the perspective of Disney princess movies and the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

I really like the way you frame this, that superhero stories offer not just fleeting entertainment, but that they would have satisfied the philosopher Nietzsche who said human beings burn for the kind of satisfaction that fairy tales offer. So why do we burn for that kind of fairy tale story? 

I think Nietzsche has at least one answer to that question. For Nietzsche, he's got a picture of the reality of the world that's just battling back and forth between this kind of wild and chaotic force that he calls the Dionysian force and then this more logical, structured thing — the Apollonian. It's hard to really put words to exactly what he means by this, but the play between the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces is where we really find ourselves as humans.

We're these wild and chaotic creatures but we are also these logical and structured creatures. And we want that kind of animalistic, emotion-laden, action-packed feeling that existence really gives us, that the Dionysian is all about. That's where art is really going to be found — the kind of art that Nietzsche thinks gives the most deep meaning to life.

I'm curious about something you've written on the enduring power of myth, that myth invites you to focus on eternal truths. What are some of the big themes we're talking about here? 

With the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we're talking about themes like justice, goodness, and the triumph of good over evil, but also the timeless sorts of themes like family, and loyalty, and taking seriously our duties of care. 

We might not be Captain America; we might not be the Winter Soldier. But we are people who are in far more common situations, put in a place where we have to choose where to place our loyalty and where to place our trust.

Even if we're not trying to hold a helicopter onto a skyscraper. We still are called and able to put the needs of our brothers in front of other things. I think that's something that is very familiar and is approachable in a way that's more than just this massive divine interval between us and the demigods. 

You also study the Disney princess films. The conventional view is that Disney takes the classic fairy tales and leeches all that is profound and meaningful out of them. What do you think that view misses? 

I think it makes perfect sense why we would want to talk about Disney princesses and Marvel movies together, because it's another window into this same kind of murky, bubbling, emotional, inchoate, kind of cultural consciousness. 

The two differences that you typically see with fairy tales from Grimm or Anderson when compared to Disney is number one, Disney tends to be much less violent and have far less sexual content. Number two, it has far less overt religiosity. We can't forget that so many of the decisions made by Hollywood are driven by the fact that they're trying to sell tickets.

A.G. Holdier believes that some of history's greatest existentialists might have some surprisingly positive takes on modern Marvel and Disney films. (Paul Knightly)

You look at the Disney princess films through the lens of the philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. What is it about Kierkegaard that makes him such a good fit for modern day conversations about the human condition? 

So Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, these are two figures who are typically pointed to as being proto-existentialists. They're talking about the same kinds of themes, questions about what does it mean not just to live a human life, but to live a real human life that is significant and matters in a deeper sense than just going to work and coming home.

Kierkegaard happened to be living in a society that I think has a number of sometimes painful parallels to our current situation.

What are some of the themes you see coming up in the princess movies, themes that can be read either through the Disney lens or through the Kierkegaard lens?

Kierkegaard says, you might be the kind of human who is really interested in trying to come to grips with yourself. You're trying to accept who you are. Your life is a life that Kierkegaard describes as being about your esthetic existence. 

I connect this to the experience of Elsa in Frozen. She begins in this horrible place where her parents, especially her father, just drenches her with this guilt. And it's not until she manages to kind of, well, that's what the song's all about, right? "Let it go." It's not until she manages to let it go that she's actually able to come into a more meaningful perspective about herself and her life. 

After that, things start to improve and things start to get better. I'm oversimplifying a bit, obviously, but I think that her journey in that film can help us to understand what Kierkegaard is talking about with this esthetic sort of individual. 

So whether we're talking about Disney or Marvel, what does all of it suggest to you about the persistent human need for some kind of transcendence? 

I think that that's really the word that we've been dancing around in this whole conversation. I think this is just another way that we see it manifest in a very familiar sort of light. For a long time there's been this kind of division between what's sometimes called high art and low art. What I'm basically saying is that it's not just high art that connects us with deep, transcendental questions. One of the reasons why I think Disney films and Marvel films are so appealing to us is because we're human and they're dealing with these human questions as well. 

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced and written by Kent Hoffman. 


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