Avengers Dissemble: A Polemic
by John Bleasdale
So, what’s my problem? These movies are big, noisy, intelligent, often well-made fun. It’s entertainment. Am I a snob? An elitist? Am I going to start quoting Saint Paul - ‘But I am a man now and I have put away childish things'…? Am I set to get in your face about maturity, high art and the death of the novel? Again I repeat: I don’t dislike these films. I quite like some of them; but I despise them as well. George Orwell once said that, as a critic you can’t just admire a well-built wall without taking into account whether it surrounds a garden or a concentration camp. Likewise, comic books movies are well-built walls. They do what they do well, but we have to ask what they are doing - ideologically, culturally. What do they surround?
My argument would be that they are almost fundamentally bound to be mendacious and reactionary. All superheroes have big lies in their DNA. The secret identity is one such lie: Batman is actually Bruce Wayne, Spiderman Peter Parker, and Clark Kent Superman. Another lie is that humanity is helpless to stand up against problems without the super-powerful intervening, and thereby as often courting our ingratitude as our acclaim. These lies of the superhero film essentially evidence a distrust in society. In The Dark Knight, Batman conspires with Commissioner Gordon to cover up Harvey Dent’s crime, laying the blame on Batman. Why? Because the people need to be protected from the truth, we are solemnly told in the film’s final moments, via a child. But, again, why?
Society has to be passive at best, or a corrupt stew of villainy and vice at worst, in order to justify the intervention of a caped saviour. Gotham doesn’t need Batman half as much as Batman needs Gotham. The virtues of the superhero would mean nothing without the passivity or corruption of the society in which he finds himself. With The Avengers, Nick Fury is a politicization of this concept. He guides a shadowy paralegal security agency (S.H.I.E.L.D) with global reach, taking its orders from a committee of shadowy figures who can’t seem to get their web cameras to work. Throughout the film he employs a vocabulary of war and emergency, and once more the big lie comes again as he manipulates the death of the one heroic small man to motivate the Avengers. Human sacrifice becomes a convenient ingredient to a team-building exercise. The small man with his comic book geekiness is also the inscription of an ideal audience member into the film. So we (the geeks) have to die in order to be reborn as… take your pick.
Another lie is that these films are about saving the world. They are not. They are about blowing the world to smithereens. They revel in destruction, especially of urban spaces. Initially we were horrified by 9/11, but now we seem to keep wondering what it would look like if this happened to this sky scraper or to that. It is as if we want to relive 9/11, but this time to survive it. We want to be in the Twin Towers - but as Thor, or Captain America.
And what about the Nazis? The original ubermensch is a disconcertingly fascist creation, via Nietzsche, but many comic book films can’t help going back to the subject. X-Men uses the concentration camp as part of an origin story, but it’s for the baddie. Admittedly, there is more than a little ambiguity here. The mutants are seen as the Jews who need to be protected, and to protect themselves, from a similar persecution happening again. But there are two things wrong with this picture. First of all, the Jews weren’t mutants who had superpowers and were physically different from the surrounding populace - despite, it should be said, anti-Semitic propaganda. Secondly, the view of humans as a feral populace with itchy genocidal fingers surely shouldn’t go unchallenged. Professor Xavier’s relatively optimistic view of human beings is seen as more a result of his superhuman goodness than a realistic view of humanity. In Captain America the Nazis aren’t bad enough, so we get Red Skull and his ridiculous Hydra organization, with its two-fisted salute (not one hand, mind, but two fists). This little bit of fun shouldn’t be taken too seriously, we are encouraged to assume. All history is just a playground for this kind of postmodern romp. The film even includes a bit of knowingness about the propaganda origins of Captain America, so all is well.
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