By alex wilgus
May 4, 2012
Marvel’s mega-blockbuster The Avengers releases today, and unless you were one of the superfans that caught the midnight showing (or one of the crazies who attended an all-day Marvel marathon), you haven’t seen it yet. On the face of it, it appears many buildings are going to be smashed and several people are going to deck themselves out in some hilariously outlandish costumes. Is there really any more to say about it? After all, the most common admonishment when going to a summer blockbuster like this one is, “Turn your brain off.”
Never! Never, I say! In fact, it is all the more important to keep your thinking cap on tight while sitting through these colorful summer blockbusters—because with all those explosions and building-smashing, it’s easy to miss the rich symbolism and thematic undertones, the deeper meaning and introspection The Avengers provides.
But wait. The Avengers is just another big, dumb action flick, right? It’s just trying to sell action figures and Burger King cups, right? There can’t be any deeper meaning to a movie about a group of testosterone-pumped super-guys (and one girl) smashing buildings in the name of justice, right? If only it were so simple. Movies are sermons, even the big, green, building-smashing ones, and whether you like it or not, most of you reading this article will congregate in the sanctuary of the movie theater, popcorn in hand, to listen, taste and see.
So, what should we be watching for? Nothing much beyond the obvious: The Avengers is about a group of people either gifted or cursed with tremendous powers who want the same thing (to save the world) but have vastly different ideas of how to do it. Sounds like ... America? Let’s look at the cast of characters and what they’re actually playing at.
1. Captain America is patriotism
He’s blond-haired, blue-eyed and literally wears the Stars and Stripes. There’s no more obvious representative of conservative America than this. He’s the literal embodiment of the Greatest Generation, a believer in simple truth, justice and down-home, corn-fed traditionalism. He's “Am’rica” (omitting the overly educated second syllable). Morality’s not too hard for Cap, but his oversimplifications make it hard on everyone else who didn’t skip over the last 70 years.
2. Iron Man is corporate America
He’s Steve Jobs: brilliant, eccentric, arrogant and driven. He’s an individualist who built his empire with his own brain and refuses to be controlled by any interests other than his own. His development of a conscience in the last two movies harkens back to the high-powered philanthropy of Bill Gates and Bono, but like most high-profile do-gooders, he’s flawed, inconsistent and often unruly.
3. The Hulk is scary science
Nuclear threat, artificial intelligence research, human cloning—all the paranoias of our modern age roll up into one green monster capable of doing serious damage to humankind, or protecting it from other threats. The scientific wonders of our age have the potential to change the world for good or ill, and it all depends on who’s in its way when it goes off.
4. Thor is religion
Out of touch, magisterial, mythological and impractical would be good ways to describe the secular perception of organized religion. Thor, too, is from another world, from a magical land in the sky with his own code of ethics and behavior. His concerns are often broader than the situation at hand. He does, however, claim to smite evil with a divine hammer.
5. S.H.I.E.L.D. is the government
Hawkeye, Black Widow, Nick Fury and all the other “expendable crewmen” are a fictionalized representation of government agencies. They’re a system who often find their procedures challenged by the inclusion of the exceptional people they employ.
Conspicuously absent from the lineup is the Everyman. There is no 99 percent in Superheroland, a fact that is often cited by highbrow naysayers as proof of its escapism and irrelevance. But we ordinary folk are not absent from the picture. The truth is that most of us will be in the theater, watching our heroes under the same half-cocked eyebrow we wear when watching the news. Industry, government, older generations, the Church—they've all been eviscerated by healthy skepticism and a lively blogosphere. America has grown up and left its hero worship behind, both the comic-book and real-life kind.
But still we watch. Director Joss Whedon is no man out of time. He knows the age of unqualified optimism in which these heroes were born is long past and that we are more comfortable with a tortured Dark Knight than a guy with Old Glory on his chest. But he is also smart enough to know that those glimmers of optimism have not faded completely from the American mind. So he has made a film that addresses our disillusionments with our institutions by imbuing their spirits into our heroes: They are often self-centered, unrealistic, rigid and sectionalist. Most of the film's tension comes from the question: Can they get along and work together? He then gives us the wham-bang finale of a unified America fighting as one. It's enough to make your hair stand on end.
And if you do find yourself caught up in the action, excited by Iron Man's technical skill, Cap's square-jawed determinedness, Thor's roguish crusade for good and S.H.I.E.L.D.'s cool, steely effectiveness, then don't be embarrassed. Give a little fist-pump for America—because once in a while, particularly when faced with the most overwhelming problems, perhaps we can come together and be on the same team.
Alex Wilgus is a lay catechist at Logan Square Anglican Church in Chicago, Ill.