How Superhero Movies Have Co-Opted Meditation Without Acknowledging Its Origins
Google "meditation" and click on the images. The search results yield photos of women in fitted tank tops and lycra pants sitting near bodies of water with the sun either setting or rising in the distance. There are a few men. Most of the people in the photos are Caucasian. It takes a significant amount of scrolling to find semi-accurate representation of the practice’s origins. These days, the ancient Indian practice of meditation has been co-opted by the Western world of wellness and self-care. For years, it's also been popping up in possibly the most popular form of Western entertainment right now: superhero movies.
Dark Phoenix, the most recent X-Men film, begins with a young Jean Grey taking a deep breath, closing her eyes and concentrating on controlling what the audience knows to be her supernatural abilities. As an adult, she (Sophie Turner) absorbs an unknown cosmic entity, which increases her powers exponentially, and makes checking her dangerous abilities even more difficult. Her mentor, Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), founded a school with the mission of teaching young mutants to do exactly that. The word is never used in the film, but to anyone familiar with the practice, it's obvious that Jean, the X-Men, and their students are all meditating.
“Meditation is a means of transforming the mind,” explains the nonprofit Buddhist Centre on their website. (Meditation is linked to several spiritual belief systems, including Buddhism.) “Buddhist meditation practices are techniques that encourage and develop concentration, clarity, emotional positivity, and a calm seeing of the true nature of things. With regular work and patience these nourishing, focused states of mind can deepen into profoundly peaceful and energized states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life.”
You can spot interpretations of these techniques in comic book movie after comic book movie. Meditation is what Shazam utilizes as he's learning to harness his powers. It's the primary tool that keeps Dr. Bruce Banner from turning into the Hulk. And it's how the X-Men's Nightcrawler teleports from one place to the next. So why is it rarely called that onscreen?
“Meditation is a loaded word in Western culture,” says Sylvia Maldonado, a meditation expert and founder of breathe bar, speaking over the phone. “There’s a lot of perceived notions about what meditation looks like. You say it and many people imagine someone sitting on a mountaintop in lotus pose, silent for 10 days. Very few words conjure so many reactions and feelings.”
The term is is only used twice across the 22 existing Avengers movies. First in Ant-Man, when super-villain Darren Cross mentions to Hope van Dyne that the practice is part of his daily routine, then dives into a monologue about how her father failed them both. The second time the word is said is during Doctor Strange when Mordo suggests the titular protagonist (Benedict Cumberbatch) pass the time by practicing the mental exercise. Mordo is later revealed to have crossed over to the dark side.
Considering the way many of the MCU narratives lean on the practice of controlling one's mind and emotions, it's somewhat strange that meditation is only called such by two bad guys in two of the franchise's middle-of-the-pack films. The absence of the word may have something to do with the superhero genre's overall discomfort with ideas of femininity and foreignness. Doctor Strange notably was criticized for whitewashing the character of The Ancient One and for orientalism in general. The X-Men franchise has dealt with sexual misconduct and harassment accusations leveled against Brett Ratner (who directed X-Men: The Last Stand) and Bryan Singer (who directed four X-Men films). Both men have denied wrongdoing. The fact remains that the writers, directors, and executives behind superhero blockbusters are still predominantly white and male.
“It’s interesting that [movie studios] don't use the word [meditate] even though that’s what they’re doing,” says Paul Booth, associate professor of Media and Cinema Studies at DePaul University, over the phone. “Meditation is seen as a feminine activity. It’s associated with emotions, calmness, nonviolence, not being aggressive, taking a step back and being empathetic — these are character traits society predominantly attributes to women. It’s telling that it’s happening in a lot in films featuring superheroes, action and adventure which are usually oriented towards a male audience.”
To explain why the word is omitted from the superhero lexicon, Booth provides a simple reason: “It is an attempt to reach more viewers. By including it but not naming, [movie studios] don’t alienate audiences.”
Star Wars is an interesting case study, as it's built on the lore of "the Force." When characters like Yoda, Luke Skywalker, and Rey "feel" the Force, communing with the energy emitted by all things, it looks an awful lot like meditation. The films linger on the potential of the energy force and how their heroes and villains draw strength from it, in a way we don’t see in comic book films. As a result, the Star Wars lexicon around the Jedi belief system is a way of acknowledging the influence of meditation.
“Every religion has its own form of meditation,” says Maldonado. She explains how Catholicism calls it contemplative prayer, while "mantras" — the repetition of a word or phrase — are often connected to Hinduism and Buddhism. However, she also says that meditation is a tool existing inside and outside of the walls of organized religion, so to view it only as a religious practice is a mistake.
“Just like we have personal training to develop your physical health, meditation is a way to mentally train your brain,” says Maldonado. “Brain health doesn’t happen on its own. Just how if you want to be physically strong, you do cardio activities. If you want your brain to be strong you need to work out your brain. Meditation does that. If there’s more awareness and education around it, people become curious and are more willing to try it.”
This rationale is exactly why Booth says that popular films avoiding the use of the word does more harm than good.
“As somebody who has meditated and looks at it favorably and as a helpful part of my life, naming it and calling it out is important,” he explains. “It helps people see it as something attainable and normalizes it.” Visually representing the practice without using the correct terminology also dismisses the real people watching who attach value to the mental exercise.
With a new X-Men movie out on the big screen that heavily leans on the practice, it’s time to finally admit the truth: superheroes meditate, and there’s nothing wrong with that.