May 21, 2012 What The Avengers Say About America
It was a big weekend. Obama officially launched his reelection campaign, the French equivalent of a Tea Party President lost his, and The Avengers swept box offices. The Monday was also the anniversary of Germany’s unconditional surrender. Coincidences? Obviously. But revealing ones.
The Avengers is a love-to-hate-you letter to Adolf Hitler. Marvel Entertainment is telling us that without a supervillain to focus us, America can’t reach its superheroic potential. And it’s not just any supervillain we need. The Cold War’s Evil Empire only gave us nuclear deterrents. Global warming just gives us something to bicker about. But Hitler, he gave us unity.
Nazi nostalgia is ingrained in the superhero formula, but director-scriptwriter Joss Whedon makes it explicit. Nordic ubervillain Loki declares his dictatorship in Germany, and the star-spangled Captain America is the first to sock him on the jaw. The World War II hero is the heart of the film, showcasing the “old fashioned” patriotism that launched Golden Age superheroes and still keeps them afloat.
But America has changed in seventy years. Our worst enemy isn’t a Democracy-stomping dictator. It’s ourselves. We’re like a bunch of superpowered leotards bounding off in contradictory directions. We waste our time smashing our hammers against each other’s shields. The Avengers are at their worst while Loki is chilling in his cell. No threat, no unity.
Once things start exploding though, we know how to rally. Democracy is messy, but when it really matters, it works. Even narcissists like Tony Stark, the ultimate 1%-er super-CEO, eventually fall into line. Those equally self-righteous religious types finally stop talking about Asgard and start taking orders from the American flag. Why? A cop on the street voices the question, and Whedon answers: anyone standing on the front line blocking bullets for you (or whatever those shiny blasts of energy are) is the guy to get behind.
Being truly democratic, the team also includes some of our darker sides on its roster. Black Widow reminds us of all the blood on our national ledger and our collective need to atone for it. And lest we think the ledger ended with the sexy Soviet Union, Hawkeye murders his victims right on screen. But it’s okay, he was brainwashed by a demagogue, so let’s not torture ourselves by counting up the number dead (in, say, Afghanistan or Iraq). It’s the lesson that matters: America is always angry, always capable of unthinking destruction, but we can learn to control that rage and use it for good.
The trick is how to inspire unity. Nick Fury learns that barking orders isn’t enough. You have to make us want to be a team. Sure, trading cards are dorky, but they’re about childhood. They’re about believing in simple truths. So what if Nick dipped them in blood for dramatic effect? He did it for the right reason. Which I guess means Whedon does too when he plays the 9/11 card at the end of the film. It’s okay to copy ground zero memorial footage as long as you show America coming together as a result.
Though it turns out disunity is important too. Fury isn’t just taking orders from upper ups. Some in-fighting is necessary. It’s evidence of our national health. In fact, it makes us stronger. So when the space portal opens and the legions of doom descend, we’ll be the best team possible. Not a government mandate, but a grass roots majority guided by its own (slightly manipulated) will.
Too much government is a will-devouring dictatorship, too little is nation-splintering anarchy, but The Avengers serves democracy just right. It’s the baby bear balance suitable for all political persuasions. It’s also a nifty way to earn $417 million in two weeks.
When the fight’s over, we splinter again, and that’s okay too. Because we’ve reminded ourselves and the universe that America is always secretly ready. Plus, now that we’ve proven we can pull together, we’ve earned the right to be free of government surveillance. Fury and Whedon turn off the cameras, and we all go home feeling good about being Americans. We can hardly wait for the next catastrophe to make us all feel even better.