Blair McClendon on some of the unsettling political and cultural implications of the still-reigning champion of this summer’s box office.

Avengers

Death comes from above. Half organic, half metallic aliens descend from a place where the sky has been rent open and tear New York City apart. Police officers and Firemen direct bewildered civilians away from danger, even though it has become clear that there is nosafe place. Buildings collapse, debris crashes to the ground, groups of huddled men and women await their death at the hands of foreign captors. The Avengers, like a number of films before it, is not afraid to unleash mayhem on American soil. There is, however, something eerier at play in a film that shows Captain America and a team of guns-blazing superheroes battling through the street of a New York that has been decimated by an alien flying force.

I do not mean to suggest that The Avengers is just a high-powered, CGI parable of September 11th. That would be giving it too much and too little credit. The Avengers is not a political film insofar as one might use that moniker for Far From Vietnam or even In The Valley of Elah. Nor is it interested in meditating on a moment of national crisis that has colored American policy and ideology ever since. Yet, a movie distributed by Disney and aspiring to outdo the “level of ZOMG-ness” of Transformers 3 laying waste not to a stand-in, but to an acknowledged New York City, does not do so without recognizing the visual and emotional relationship between what is shown and what is remembered.

 

It is strange to say this about a film featuring a rage monster, a Norse god and a flying aircraft carrier, but The Avengers for all its glitz and gloss aspires to a more relatable level of realism than its unnamed rival – The Dark Knight trilogy. Obviously, I have not yet seen the final installment of that franchise and so cannot speak for that film’s mechanics. Proceeding from the previous two as guideposts, and excluding a radical reconception of Nolan’s style, there is a greater interest in the myth, and in the hero as someone who creates, perpetuates and suffers from it. The heroes of Whedon’s film, for all of their mythic imagery (Captain America hurling a shield painted with a star and stripes at his foes) and backstories, are ultimately petty people. I do not say this to insult them; they are petty in the way that all of our divisions, fears and insecurities might seem to be in the face of our comprehension of reality melting away as what appears to be the mouth of hell itself opens above us. Whedon’s realism stems from this fact. Romanoff, Stark, Rogers and the gang may all be extraordinary but they are as whiny, self-righteous, selfish and irritating as any member of the great mass of people they are called on to protect. These people are not better than us, they are just more powerful.

It is because of this genuine effort to generate an attachment to these characters, not just as symbols and heros but as people, that destroying New York becomes important. When the Joker paints Gotham red, he is doing just that – painting Gotham red. The trailer for The Dark Knight Rises similarly obliterates American icons – a bridge spanning a harbor, a football stadium, the stock market – but it still does so to a different America, to one in which Gotham exists. Whedon’s world is one where The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings are cultural touchstones, coming up in casual conversations. The Avengers destroys the New York that upwards of eight million people call home. What’s more, when The Hulk and Ironman careen around the city fighting off the invaders, they seem to cause almost as much damage as their enemies. Of course, this being a PG-13 movie, there isn’t much blood and the direct consequences of either side’s actions are implied, but not shown. It isn’t really necessary and would probably detract from their attempt to generate the all out adrenaline rush the film’s last sequence aims for. Nevertheless, when buildings fall in the middle of the afternoon in New York the casualties will be high.

Iron Man, perhaps the rudest and most relatable member of the team, offers the team redemption. If going to bat against the alien menace was not enough, he offers himself up as a sacrifice for the human threat. Having lost faith in The Avengers ability to defeat the invasion, the shadowy members of S.H.I.E.L.D. launch a nuclear missile at Manhattan. No real authority figure from the United States government ever asserts itself during this crisis. Although the army is called into action during what is undeniably the beginning of a war, they are largely ineffective and Whedon does not cut away to show the President issuing any orders. The highest authorities are effectively those at S.H.I.E.L.D. who see it most fit to turn their weapons against themselves in hopes it will stop the enemy. Again, TheAvengers is not an explicitly political film, but it is not without its subversions. Iron Man, knowing that he will likely not make it back, meets the missile out over the Atlantic, steers it through the wormhole and hurls it into space.

The man-meets-missile scene is not unique to Whedon’s film. Two precedents immediately popped out to me: The Iron Giant (helmed by fellow Disney man Brad Bird) and Dr. Strangelove. The three films do, however, differ in how they resolve the threat of impending doom. Kubrick brings the bombs down with a laughing cowboy; Bird apotheosizes the alien robot willing to die for a small town; Whedon saves Iron Man and blows up the bad guys. Apparently, all’s well that ends well.

But how empty that seems when New York is in pieces. The movie ends with a collection of reporters interviewing survivors who vacillate between unconditional gratitude and fear that no one seems to be in control of these man-powered weapons of mass destruction.  “What should be done about these superheroes?” is effectively the movie’s parting shot. The idea may not be new (The Dark Knight ends on this note, the X-Men saga revolves around it), but it is a nod in the logical direction. No one really did anything right in this film: Nick Fury was a liar; The Avengers fought recklessly; S.H.I.E.L.D. almost murdered everyone in New York. Admittedly, the populace doesn’t know about the first and third, but they are not willing to completely accept their extraordinary defenders. Even Captain America, who in a stroke of genius is both an actual person and a pop culture reference within the film’s world, cannot be trusted.

Ultimately, The Avengers comes down on their side: the authorities are incompetent (the police need Captain America to tell them how to do their job), absent (no one higher in the chain of command than foot soldiers and first responders is shown) or somewhere between duplicitous and terribly misguided. In short, they cannot be trusted when the way things are become the way things were. A band of mismatched, divided compatriots must put aside their problems for the greater good. This is the adored politics of the center with a dash of just less than vulgar patriotism – all is well that end’s well, as long as things get done. Marvel and Disney did not set out to make waves. They set out to make a movie that would break $200,000,000.00 in its opening weekend. Whedon may not have set the high water mark for smart superhero movies, but he has offered an alternative to Nolan’s brooding. More importantly, he offers an alternative to the film his team tried to outdo. Behind the “eat your heart out, Michael Bay” explosions, The Avengers takes us on a ride that will outlast the ringing in our ears.