The wife and I saw the Avengers last night. It really is that good. Neither of us had any idea that two and a half hours went by – it felt like the movie starts, exciting and interesting things happen and then it’s over. In the middle future film school classes will assign papers about how Chris Nolan and Joss Whedon (also, possibly, Richard Donner and Tim Burton) set the modern standard for movies about people in funny outfits disagreeing with their fists.
Let’s set aside what you probably already know: it’s a Whedon movie, and quite a good one. Every other line of dialogue could end up on a t-shirt, characters come across as layered and real, conflicts involve profound philosophical differences where it is only sometimes clear who has the ‘right’ side of it, and one or more title character will have a very near-death experience. With a nod to a popular comics readership capture trick, at some point just about everyone at least takes a swing at everyone else. Whedon told interviewers how he made a point of pitting each ‘hero’ against the bad guy one at a time to make the point that they had to work together, but maybe you wondered who would win a fight between Thor and Captain America. How about who walks away from a scrap between Scarlett Johansson, who apparently has no superpowers other than an action-movie heroine’s good luck, good sense, great timing and a knack for violence, and an unkillable eight foot tall rage monster that might be the strongest thing in the universe? That is fan service. Whedon shoehorns in a few fights just to show that he knows that you know what he’s doing, such –late-in-the movie spoiler alert– a funny bonding moment between Hulk and Thor.
However, even if the movie was not profound, which it was, at least as we measure movies released in the warm months, any cat litter commercial that makes a billion dollars will become Important to people well outside the entertainment press. A lot of people talking about it means that a lot of people will get things wrong. And you know what that means.
Take for example, inevitably, Sullivan. The movie does not simply invoke Clarke’s Law, that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem indistinguishable from magic, and dismiss religion just like that. Characters in the movie talk about the Law and/or use it to their advantage, but the movie has more to say about religion than that. To explain why necessitates some key spoilers, so find more hastily-written screed after the jump.
Like usual Joss Whedon gave fair time to a wide mix of perspectives. Thor and Tony Stark are well aware of Clarke’s Law and Loki has internalized it to the point where he seems to believe that the gap between earth people and him really is man and god rather than just technology with a side of good breeding. The way he goes on and on about it gives the distinct impression that he still has to convince himself.
Other characters have other points of view. Take the moment when an agent asks Steve Rogers why the hell he would jump out of a plane to chase Thor, a god, who just jumped out of the plane with another ‘god’, Loki. Cap quips, “there’s just one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure that he doesn’t dress like that.” Captain America, of course, represents the American values of a wartime propaganda film. He stands so fiercely for freedom, liberty, and a bland, inclusive protestantism that at one point in the Civil War story arc he organizes a fifth column against the U.S. government rather than go along with a policy that violates his principles (Tony Stark, inevitably, takes the other side of that argument). Bruce Banner might practice an eastern religious/meditative faith like he often does in the comics but, characteristically, he chooses not to wear that on his sleeve. Natasha Romanov only just shrugged off her programming by an atheist materialist empire, and the S.H.I.E.L.D. agent orientation packet clearly encourages employees to skip religious arguments at work.
The Marvel universe already has ‘a’ god figure, a fellow named the Beyonder who comes awfully close to an omnipotent unmoved mover, plus a Satan figure in the person of Mephisto, dealmaker (read the fine print!) and father of devilishly handsome teleporters Azazel (naughty) and Nightcrawler (nice). Whedon left this stuff on the cutting room floor and instead made a movie that is genuinely multitheistic, as opposed to polytheistic, in the sense that it gives equal respect to all of the major belief types. Norse mythology, populated by recognizable and very non-omnipotent personalities who might as well travel from another planet via wormhole and wield spears and other tools that have the same sort of added value as an iPhone compared to a rotary model made with Bakelite, in fact syncs quite well with Clarke’s Law.
In the movie’s climax Loki faces down Bruce Banner in Hulk form and tries one last time to convince someone, maybe himself, that there is still a grand metaphysical gulf between himself and the Earth peons who keep punching him, shooting him and blowing him up. This misunderstands how polytheism works. Mortals rise, gods fall and new players show up at any moment, either fully formed from Jupiter’s thigh or by way of a horny dalliance between deities who never seem to practice birth control. Hulk answers by grabbing Loki’s ankles with one hand and whips him around like a dirty throw rug. Loki whimpers in a crater while Hulk mutters ‘stay, god’ and wanders off to smash something else. Apparently the higher powers frown on a demigod’s hubris just as much as when regular folk do it.
Most comic book houses have little to say about modern monotheism. When your métier is violent disagreement the polytheistic traditions offer a much richer workspace. God you cannot very well punch, but gods? Oh yes. I have heard it said to the point of cliche that comics are the new polytheism, in the sense that they tell stories that personify aspects of us (Natasha – guilt and the search for redemption; Banner – the appeal of destructive, cathartic release and the constant dreary struggle to restrain it, aka Thomas Hobbes in green ink; Tony Stark – the unexpected burdens and temptations of runaway success). Comics, at least the interesting ones, exaggerate these qualities, empower them, and put them in conflicts that reflect our internal struggles (type specimens: Xavier and Magneto, Batman and the Joker). Naturally Whedon’s film handles this with flair. More impressive is how he gives space and respect to western monotheism. I am hardly a believer but I appreciate that Whedon gave a fair shake to every perspective*, including heroes who believe that stuff sincerely and unironically.
(*) Excepting an evil alien army with the character depth of the bad guys in an Xbox shooter.
It appears that Hulk said ‘puny god’ and not ‘stay, god’. I admit that the theater was laughing so hard that I had to read his lips.