Film is a weapon, but not all film is alike. A documentary is like a rapier, capable of small, precisely delivered blows that can be shrugged off unless the target is precisely hit. An independent, “political” film is a dagger, capable of slitting throats or delivering a fatal strike, but limited by its short range and penetration. It’s easy to point out the dangers of these kinds of films, as they are usually announced in advance. These are simple enough to handle, as we can see them coming, but what to make of the popcorn thriller, the film that grosses hundreds of millions, the kind of movie that spawns an entire industry? If film is a weapon, then The Avengers is Mjolnir itself.
Of course, The Avengers is not just a film, it’s a franchise. Years of build-up and smaller movies (all blockbusters in their own right) have led to its production, so that the mighty commercial forces of The Hulk, Captain America, Iron Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor can join together to wage unrelenting war on the savings of any family with 12 year old boys. By combining the mythologies and plotlines of some of the iconic heroes of American culture, The Avengers is a marketing colossus, an excuse to sell toys, games, lunchboxes, and other plastic garbage produced in Vietnam that has Captain America’s picture on it.
However, precisely for that reason, the story cannot transgress social taboos, break new ground, or violate the usual channels of American mainstream culture. Summer blockbusters have never been popular with critics or academia precisely because they celebrate reactionary ideas such as masculinity, heroism, and war. Touching films about the struggles of gay rabbis may win awards at film festivals, but they won’t make $200 million opening weekend (domestically) like The Avengers. The summer blockbuster is a short circuit to the lowest denominator of the culture, the perspective of the everyman, the beating heart of our great vibrant democracy.
The story is almost irrelevant to the film – actually, it’s hard to say what the story actually is. The threat to humanity this time comes from Loki, who in the film’s mythos is the adopted son of Odin and brother of Thor, exiled from Asgard and up to now up to no good on Earth. For some reason, he has been chosen to lead an alien invasion assuming he can deliver the extraterrestrials the “Tesseract,” a relic that is capable of great power. None of this really matters, and the Tesseract mostly functions either as a MacGuffin or as an excuse for the science savvy characters to babble about fictional physics to the confusion of everyone else.
The real excitement comes from seeing the great heroes in action, and seeing if they can work together, like we all learned in public school kindergarten. The team is being assembled by SHIELD, a shadowy organization with an apparently unlimited budget. SHIELD’s leader is Nick Fury, a white World War II hero appropriately retconned into Head Nigger in Charge Samuel L. Jackson to make him more “cool.” The Avengers are a group of white heroes (with one, well, green) and so it would not do to have their commander white as well in the Age of Obama.
Of course, one of the greatest questions of the film is who, precisely, does SHIELD work for? Fury is seen conferring with a shadowy “council” on various video screens, but the President of the United States or Secretary General of United Nations does not seem to be part of it. Captain America is part of the United States military but still takes orders from some shadowy elite. Countries, nations, and peoples seem largely irrelevant, and nowhere it is answered who is in fact paying for the extraordinary infrastructure and technology SHIELD possesses, including flying aircraft carriers and futuristic weapons. Interestingly, the real life United States military abandoned its usual cooperation with the Hollywood producers precisely for this reason, with the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison asking, “We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it . . . did we work for SHIELD?”
The transformation is not subtle, as the heroes of today fight for global liberal values, all the better to sell products to a global audience. Tony “Iron Man” Stark is obsessed with expanding “clean energy” and even SHIELD claims it wants the Tesseract’s power to develop the same, although it also wants to use it to develop powerful weapons. As it would be impolitic to name an earthly enemy and might endanger foreign markets, the only reason SHIELD needs such weapons are to guard against extra-planetary foes.
Loki is portrayed predictably. He is explicitly compared to (all together now) Adolf Hitler, beginning his attack on the Earth in Germany. He forces the humans to kneel, and tells them, “It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
You can guess what happens next. An old man of vaguely Jewish appearance stands up from the rest of the kneelers and says, “Not to men like you.” Loki responds, “There are no men like me,” to which the old man retorts, “There are always men like you.” To make it explicit, Captain America, a man of the 1940’s now in our time after being frozen for decades, enters the scene and says something to the effect of, “You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing.” Hitler is the enemy. Hitler is always the enemy. Hitler is the only permissible enemy. Loki sneeringly calls Captain America “a man out of time,” but he is certainly not a Man Against Time, as the Captain enthusiastically fights for a world that despises the America he fought for. The Avengers will fight in the name of a modern understanding of freedom — superhumans and gods joining together to resist to the death the idea of hierarchy.
Captain America, literally a product of the old evil white America who has no place in the modern multicultural world, never seems to be too uncomfortable with the contemporary post-nation. He obeys orders faithfully, seemingly no matter whose they are, and only has a conflict with Tony Stark over the latter’s flashy style. Aside from occasional confusion about a cultural reference or new technology, there is only a passing comment about the things that were “lost” from the America he loved and served. Nonetheless, Captain America, second in Aryan appearance only to Thor himself, unquestioningly serves the new order. As in real life, America has been assimilated into serving the new masters of the world and everyone is quite comfortable with this.
Thor, as might be expected, has a pivotal role as the brother of the main villain. He appears in a manner befitting the god of thunder by flying down from Asgard in the midst of a storm. Unfortunately, despite being a god and current lord of Asgard, he learned how to be a good little democratic American in his own eponymous film. Attempting to convince his adopted brother Loki out of his war against Earth, Thor falls back on the usual arguments that no one is better than anyone else. “Do you think yourself above them?” he asks, outraged. “Then you miss the point of ruling, brother. A throne would suit you ill.” Of course, a few minutes later he mocks the other Avengers with the line, “You people are so petty . . . and tiny.” It’s actually rather unclear why they need any heroes other than Thor, as he single-handedly destroys a huge chunk of the alien invasion fleet by shooting lighting at them from the top of the Chrysler Building while other heroes like Black Widow and Captain America are using pistols and fisticuffs respectively. If he had just stayed there for a while longer, he could have taken them all out himself.
The heroic sacrifice of one of the SHIELD agents (which was probably faked so the supposedly dead Agent Coulson can return in the next film), the heroes learn to work together after some initial tensions. Tony Stark (Iron Man) cracks wise, Captain America acts suitably heroic, the Hulk destroys everything in sight, and Black Widow wears tight clothes. Predictably, they save the day, with plenty of comic relief added in, including the mighty god Loki rather anticlimactically being smashed by the Hulk. The heroes celebrate their victory in modern style by eating shawarma together. They are just like us.
Even this was too old fashioned for some liberal critics. Feminists are upset about a scene that writer/director Joss Whedon bragged about sneaking in wherein Loki calls Black Widow a “mewling quim.” (Presumably American audiences didn’t know what it meant.) While some progressives are rejoicing that Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow got to show that girls can kick butt too, she mostly serves as eye candy and doesn’t contribute much to the climactic battle. Indians are upset about a scene in which the slums of India are portrayed as slums, so as to allow Dr. Bruce Banner (The Hulk in human form) to heroically save non-whites with free medical care.
Nonetheless, the overall message of the film is rather adaptable to the modern Zeitgeist. It’s not old-fashioned in the manner of a John Wayne film, with heroes bucking up to die for God, country and comrades. Instead, it’s unaccountably bland, empty, and laced with irony. We don’t know why these heroes fight or what they are fighting for. They don’t sacrifice in the name of a country or creed but a series of vague egalitarian slogans and the promise of “clean energy.” Insofar as the movie has a theme, it is about the importance of extraordinary people (and gods) to fight for a world where no one is extraordinary, and the need to maintain the benevolent rule of some shadowy global organization.
Is The Avengers a deeply political movie? Not really. That said, the battles of Thor and the Hulk will inspire the playground fantasies of young males around the country and in that way be more politically influential than anything Michael Moore ever did. While a child of the ’40s may have dreamed of fighting the red Indians, and a child of the ’50s fantasized about storming Iwo Jima, the postmodern child of today will play a video game wherein he follows the orders of SHIELD. There’s sacrifice without explanation, a cause without content, and no community or people to serve except “humanity” in the vaguest possible sense. When films become a reason just to sell toys to a global market, even heroism is cheap.