“Avengers Resemble. . .”: Marvel’s Mega-Series, What the Kids Are(n’t) Reading, and Political Allegory

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Review by Google“>Shawn Stjean

Marvel Studios has achieved something almost frighteningly big with its 21st-century film releases, Avengers: Age of Ultron only the most recent: not merely a franchise, but essentially an ongoing TV-type mega-series, with a cast of hundreds and a monetary value inestimable.  No longer content to re-boot and re-hash origin stories, filmakers can now rely on a continuity that allows story and character arcs to develop over years.  And that grandmaster of the long game, Joss Whedon, as he has done with all the other shows he’s run, has got all the pieces in motion and can pass the baton to whomever shares the vision.

Fans of Buffy and Angel would have to be dim not to recognize Whedon’s trademark setting of the “Big Bad” behind the scenes, scheduled to emerge 2/3 into a “season” as a major threat to the small group of heroes, while discreet episodes detail the rise-and-falls of minor bad guys all witlessly advancing a grand scheme.  Themes are also put into place, some of which resonate indefinitely (see the excellent final season of Angel), and some of which seem abortive or merely fun.  Avengers 2, for example, deploys a consistent but confusing array of Judeo-Christian religious allusions.  Perhaps a Jim Starlin could suss them into something coherent–recall he’s the creator credited with the Thanos/Warlock death-and-resurrection mythology that Whedon has anticipated–so I’ll leave that task to him or others like him. And the Avengers is also a family drama.  More pertinent today would be to trace some political implications of the elements in this latest sequence of films especially.

Students in first-year college English courses become familiar with Jonathan Swift’s method in “A Modest Proposal,” in which he bitterly attacked both the British and Irish gentry, nearly three centuries ago, for their roles in the starvation of the Irish working class.  In outlining a plan requiring the Irish to eat their own children as a solution, Swift employed enough levels of irony to take a four-hour night-class to unpack, and Whedon follows suit.  Keep in mind that the point of political allegory is not only to insulate the social reformer/artist/critic from counterattack by distancing her from the social criticism (“It’s just a kids’ movie,”) but to tell two stories at once: on the literal level, the Marvel Universe contains a host of “enhanced” individuals who struggle with their abilities, each other, and their enemies; on the figurative level, these characters face the moral ambiguities that we all face every day, of living in the most politically and technologically powerful nation on the planet.

Turns out that the small-screen extended narrative structure works well for social criticism, which has always been deplored as “bad art,” going back to ancient Greek tragedy.  A series of interlocked stories allows the social critic/artist to diffuse the attack, both time-wise and target-wise.  Marvel’s favorite theme is government abuse of power, and SHIELD stands in for whatever agency you like to hate, or all combined (FBI, CIA, NSA, ATF, and so on.)  In Whedon’s Firefly, they called it the Alliance.  Character mouthpiece for these attacks has by default become Captain America, a man frozen in ice at the end of WWII and awakening to a world where technology threatens constantly to supplant human values of liberty and justice.  “This isn’t freedom,” he insists to Nick Fury in The Winter Soldier (a subtitle hearkening back to investigations into Vietnam War crimes in which American veterans testified,) referring to SHIELD’s hovering platform that murders “hostiles” from orbit, in a clear nod at the US unmanned drone program.  Cap will complete that unfinished statement in Age of Ultron, as Fury’s helicarrier rises to evacuate the imperiled civilians of a floating city: “This is what SHIELD was meant to be.”

The reform agenda may be as mystifying to some as the religious elements.  Subtle touches like casting Robert Redford (who portrayed Watergate investigative journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men and the betrayed protagonist of Three Days of the Condor, among other anti-establishment vehicles) as the puppetmaster World Councilman, though a neat bit of irony for those in tune, will be lost on the young.  Mark Twain, a virulent social critic in the late 19th century, was deplored by some contemporaries as “selling out” by covering up his artistic reform with low humor.  Above all, these films chronicle action.  And let us never forget that mega-corp Disney pulls the strings, to the tune of billions of dollars.

At times, though, Whedon’s/Marvel’s criticism becomes pointed, as when Ultron himself declares “Men always create what they fear. . .Invaders create Avengers.”  Aside from a cheeky reference to another of Marvel’s super-groups, I can’t help but hear in that the director referencing the unending cycle of violence that has come with America’s involvement in the Middle East.  Though the reference could apply, for all I know, to the destruction of the Alamo–endless revenge cycles are a very old story.   But not a subtle one–nor is the free-fall collapse of a skyscraper visually linked to the 9/11 collapse of the World Trade Center.

Contrary to Cap, Tony Stark would like to see machines take all work out of human hands, whether it be robotic weapons for the military, or the Avengers themselves: “I see a suit of armor around the entire world,” he announces in Age of Ultron.  Naturally, he’d hold all the codes, because at bottom he’s a fascist who doesn’t believe in deciding by referendum.  Instead, he keeps his own counsel and custody of the tech–which makes him and Nick Fury uneasy allies–and relies on personal charm to persuade Bruce Banner to help him create Ultron (in the future, watch for him to work his seduction on Peter Parker.)  Echoing Neville Chamberlain’s doomed vision of “peace for our time” after his 1938 meeting with Hitler, Stark can’t see his own God Complex, creator of a Frankensteinian metal army in his own image.  Opposing him, temperamentally and verbally, is Steve Rogers, extending his deep misgivings about secret agendas into this episode:

“How can you beat that?” challenges Stark, implying some threats are too imposing to be met with anything less than equally destructive force.

“Together,” affirms Cap.

Stark scoffs openly.  “We’ll lose.”

“Well then, we’ll do that together, too.”

From the audience’s perspective, it’s hard not to align with Cap’s self-reflexive naivete, his belief in democratic principles, and he has the right of it.  If we really do live in a republic, then we can’t relinquish moral decisions to machinery, whether of government bureaucracy or armed soldiers; “Ultron thinks we’re the monsters.  This isn’t just about beating him–it’s about whether he’s right.”

Ultron (Iron Man’s doppelganger) insists we should, as humans, evolve.  Is he right?

After all, we’re willing to let the supposedly better-informed tell us who our enemies are, direct evidence be damned; we’re willing to allow them to kill them for us, a few civilian casualties be damned; we’re even willing to let machines execute the so-called criminals without charge or trial, and our leaders brag out of television screens about it.  Never mind all the thousand little tasks machines daily take out of our hands, so that we may do worse mischief with them, or let them lie idle, or tap endlessly on cell phones.

The trouble with mechanistic thinking is that it can’t account for certain equations.  As Dostoevsky wrote, “2+2=4 is a very fine thing, but sometimes 2+2=5.”  And that’s Humanity for you–illogical, emotional, idealistic, cynical, intuitive–at our best, more than the sum of our parts.  But Stark’s robot AI, as obsessed with building ever-more-powerful anthropomorphic bodies as Iron Man himself with upgrading his armor, can’t see such distinctions.  “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it.  I wonder where he gets that from?”  Yes, abandoning freedom in defense of security–it would be as pointless as eating one’s own children.

Artists like to play disingenuous or directly disavow the political implications of their work, of course–a more famous case being J.R.R. Tolkien denying that The Lord of the Rings was not a re-(pre-?) telling of the nuclear denouement of World War II (his stated defense was that his good guys didn’t use the Ring of Power.)  Joss Whedon, famous for his Whack-a-Mole interview responses, would no doubt evade likewise.  But, in a sense, readers matter more than artists.  The values of Marvel Comics and films still make it through to the kids, however clothed: It’s disastrous to keep secrets from your friends, or to do a bad act in a service of a good ideal;  people can change, albeit painfully; and loving someone sometimes means having to push them off a cliff.

We might anticipate where all this is heading–we’ve witnessed, in spite of a visible concern for civilians in the way, a vast amount of property damage follow in the Avenger’s wake, especially the Hulk’s.  In 2016, the next Captain America fim, entitled Civil War, will likely dramatize the governmental response to this, with Stark and Rogers’ antagonism boiling over: “I don’t trust a man without a dark side.”  “Maybe you just haven’t seen it yet.”  The theft of Wakanda’s vibranium stores (stripmining of natural resources) prepares us for blowback from Wakanda in the upcoming Black Panther film.  I also wonder if the Scarlet Witch’s addition to the cast might bode some shades of House of M and Avengers Disassembled.   Asgard only knows that Marvel has an embarassment of riches in macro-event-mythology, to draw from.

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