The Avengers Cinematic Universe presents an uncompromisingly problematic worldview. On the one hand, Marvel and Disney have established an unprecedented level of intrigue in their Grand Cinematic Experiment, forcing blockbusters to strive for a higher level, higher budget, higher income, and higher expectations from producers, filmmakers and filmgoers alike. The consolidation of characters and crossover of story-lines to this degree is something completely new to screens, and has truly made the comic-book movie the subject of newfound respect. Yet, on the other hand, the world they are painting is riddled with subtle and barbaric implications about the nature of heroes and humanity.
First and foremost is the treatment of the average human citizen in these films. They are virtually worthless and expendable, incapable of being anything other than faceless bodies in a large crowd, always perched upon a precarious structure that is about the topple or crumble or explode. Anyone without a costume to mark them as important will be distinguished by little more than a Wilhelm Scream. All of earth’s authority figures, political bodies, social groups, hierarchies, emotions or actions are reduced to children playing with guns, or ants crawling up the leg of the boy with a magnifying glass. The police force are portrayed as incompetent and idiotic in The Avengers, unable to comprehend or assist anyone until Captain America gives them orders; the president is kidnapped and almost executed on live television by being set aflame in Iron Man 3; even the Illuminati Shadow-Government Council are little more than self-interested empty shells that can’t even properly order a nuclear strike on an unknown enemy, the one thing that secret government agencies are actually supposed to be good at.
Loki truly had it right when in Berlin he rhetorically asked:
“Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity, that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power, for identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”
In the Avengers Universe, this is not far from the truth. Though one elderly man stands and speaks back, Loki attempts to make an example of him only be saved in a timely fashion by Captain America. Without him, he would have been killed outright and the kneeling only prolonged. Even when a regular human stands up to the villains, their actions are hollow and meaningless unless a hero can save them just in the knick of time. It is easy to make an argument for the countless lives lost off screen due to toppled buildings or misplaced laser bolts, but even the men and women we do see represent a troubling perspective for our existence. A collage of images from the world over show just how commercial our heroes have become in so little time – and not a one of them takes an individual stance. Rather, each puts on a toy mask of their favourite celebrity, not unlike what we do here and now with real celebrities. No one seeks any accountability. They would rather mindlessly bow down to a slightly different superpower in a slightly different way.
Nick Fury and his S.H.I.E.L.D agents, while not technically superheroes, are still active members of the club and therefore exempt from the laws of government and physics. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Fury literally cheats death using the oldest trick in the book, only to return and shoot the villain in the chest without due process. Despite being the only non-superhuman hero to ever have a chance at survival (the one other member of this group, Agent Coulson, has the only relevant human death in the entire series, and even he comes back miraculously for television). The results of this should be clear from a legal standpoint – unless you are above the law. Black Widow gets upset during a congressional hearing and walks out, after telling everyone that she can do so because “you need us” while the members look around at each dumbfounded. One of the most powerful judicial systems of the American government sits back with a perplexed, disgruntled expression, as an ex-KGB agent and now-confirmed government assassin gets up and struts out. Yes, she did do something genuinely heroic when she compromised herself and uploaded S.H.I.EL.D.’s files onto the Internet, a clear mark of transparency rarely seen. But she goes unpunished – we live in a world where we do have people who do this, and they are among the most wanted criminals in the world, unlikely to even be given the chance for a congressional hearing.
From invisible force fields that protect protagonists from Stormtrooper blaster fire, to narrowly avoiding a cave-in’s largest boulder, to always being the second-to-last one to jump across the chasm before it falls completely – this generation of superheroes have devolved into infallibility. The Avengers often take it a step farther by seemingly bending the rules to the breaking point. Tony Stark flaunts his technological prowess and vigilante justice openly in court, where the only two men in the world that are willing to call him out are an incompetent, self-interested government lackey (Senator Stern, later revealed to be a lecherous member of Hydra) or a self-important, pompous and scheming corporate weasel (Justin Hammer). Stark gets away with it because he is charming, not noble or inherently good. And Bruce Banner just wants to be left alone. Despite being one of the most volatile and destructive powers on Earth, if not the universe, he is in the rare position of having a real problem (outside of housing the big green smash) – he is a failed experiment on the run from the military. Yet despite this S.H.I.E.L.D tracks him down, rips him away, and forces him into the most compromising position imaginable for one of his unique position. He actively tries to remove himself from society, but Black Widow forces him at gunpoint to join the cause (on the basis that he is technically government property).
It must be admitted that despite these flaws, the modern Marvel superheroes are still heroes, and we see that there is more to them than one-dimensional ubermenscher. In the first Captain America, Steve Rogers is not only the first Avenger, but the only one chosen to be a hero – it was his integrity and selflessness that place him above other candidates despite his physicality being substandard. He does not view himself as above the rules and regulations. After disobeying a direct order, infiltrating and ultimately saving the lives of nearly every man lost behind lies during a single-man assault on a Hydra facility, his first action is to turn himself in to the commanding officer for a potential court martial. Captain America plays by the rules of the humans he sees himself as representing.
Unless those rules are selfish. In his sequel film, Captain America is willing to do what it takes to take down S.H.I.E.L.D. after he discovers just how deep the corruption goes. The problem for anyone who is not either fighting alongside him or an active member of S.H.I.E.L.D knows the reasons for his motives. To the average consumer of filtered American media, Captain America disappears after killing members of a respected government agency and destroying what is at least thousands of dollars worth of technology. He returns only to take the entire agency down, spending only enough time to explains himself via a hope-filled speech to S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. He is at best a rogue military asset and at worst a domestic terrorist. Black Widow’s attempts at transparency by declassifying S.H.I.E.L.D. and flushing their documents onto the Internet ring hollow – we live in a world where we have seen just this multiple times with government whistleblowers with barely a grain of sand moved as a result despite popular uproar. The only person we can truly trust is Captain America himself, and what could he say to alleviate our concerns? That he learned the truth in a run-down government bunker while speaking to a Swedish Nazi supercomputer built to imitate a 70s spy villain? His arc in The Winter Soldier would brand anyone else as a traitor. His actions were just, but would the average citizen know this? Or would we simply see our hero on a murder spree and crashing stuff into the Potomac?
Comparatively, Iron Man’s greatest contribution to humankind was the liquidating of Stark Industry’s arms department, threatening to bankrupt his company, in favour of pursuing clean, renewable energy. Yet the technology to run it is a closely guarded secret – no one in the world, no scientist, entrepreneur, or philanthropist – can be trusted other than Stark himself. Thor, on the other hand, is so fundamentally removed from the human condition that even the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D refer to him as a god only half as a joke.
However, not every Marvel film repeats this process. The Spider-Man franchises, in all their myriad flaws, shine through with a beacon of hope. In Sam Raimi’s original origin story and subsequent sequels, Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker quite literally never grows up. Though never entirely persuasive as a high schooler, Maguire’s Parker nevertheless seems to occupy a fixed quantum state, forever unchanging and stuck as a socially awkward outcast only comfortable when hiding behind a mask – the true indicator of a regular, maladjusted human being. His story arc is almost exclusively a constant reminder that every major disaster in his, Spider-Man’s and New York’s life is somehow indirectly his fault, whether it is Uncle Ben’s death, Doc Ock’s rise or Harry Osbourne’s fall.
This is taken even further in Sony’s re-origin. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Peter has developed the rare ability to love being both Peter Parker and Spider-Man. However his nemeses gallery, despite all being forced into such tight cinematic confines, are just as human (if not more so) than our web-slinging hero. The Amazing Spider-Man 2’s Electro is, shockingly, one of the most realistic portrayals of a villain on screen. Despite the film’s best attempts to use him as comedic relief, the constant reminder and underlying message is that Max Dillon has deep-seated emotional and social issues. At best he is socially inept, at worst delusional and manic. He becomes obsessed over Spidey after a single meeting, convinced that they are friends because he has none. When he realises that there is no one out there to help him, he reacts like any person in his situation would – emotionally. He does not turn into a criminal mastermind, he does not become a super villain. He lashes out at those he thinks did him wrong with his new powers. Every act of criminality he engages in is simply fuelled by human emotions. And in the end, he simply cannot handle superpowers. He is thwarted by his own rash behaviour, like so many of us before him.
Comparatively, Harry Osborn, though fuelled by rage and guilt, still has a completely justifiable reason for his actions, and one of the most human of all – he doesn’t want to die. He literally begs his best friend to help him get the only thing that could be possibly save him – Spider-Man’s blood.
And Peter says no. His reasons are relatively sound – he has no idea what it will do to Harry. Yet Harry retorts, and acknowledges that it could kill him, but he is already dying. Peter denies him the only chance his best friend has because he is afraid. The result is inevitable – Harry Osborn becomes the Green Goblin which leads to the death of Gwen Stacy, an outcome that could arguably have been avoided altogether if Peter had yielded in the first place.
This shows that Peter Parker and Spider-Man are human – they are fallible, they make mistakes, and when they do, those mistakes come back to haunt him. Yet he picks up his mask in the end and continues to fight because that is what the good guys do. That same little boy he saved from bullies in the middle of the film is now out there standing in the way of tyranny because Spider-Man emboldened him to do so. Spidey steps forward and the movie ends with him fighting Rhino – it does not end with him beating Rhino, because winning is not what is important. Fighting is what is important. In Iron Man 2, Tony Stark saves a little boy, then flies off into the night as suave as can be. In The Amazing Spider-Man 2, that little boy saves Spider-Man. He stood up because he too was saved by Spider-Man before. But unlike Electro, he did not obsess about an ideal – that boy took a stance for himself. He did not idolise Spidey – he was inspired by him.
Pop culture was once populated by heroes that were forced to earn their recognition – pulling the sword from the stone was not a preordained moment, but a privilege that could be lost. A superhero without morals was simply the villain; and now even the bad guys are granted their own exceptional hero worship, with Loki the cause of swooning fits worldwide and Thanos being teased in an annual game of cat-and-mouse.
On many levels our love and affection for superheroes rests within their capacity to do that which we literally cannot – whether it is fly, turn invisible, super strength, etc., – the truth is that they should represent what we find difficult to do. Stand up against injustice, protect those in need, be willing to put themselves in harms way without guarantee of reward. Spider-Man loses so much, and becomes so much more as a result. The Avengers have lost very little – no Uncle Ben’s have died, and the few losses they have suffered are short lived or ethereal at best. Agent Coulson comes back, Odin is simply lost, and Bruce Banner’s romance altered. The more and more a hero becomes invincible, the less and less human they become. To idolise a superhero who cannot fail is to distance ourselves more and more from them, and make the ideal of a hero increasingly impossible to fulfil in reality.
Heroes have always been constrained by their humanity. Heracles and Achilles, the greatest warriors of ancient Greece were brutally arrogant, drunkenly violent and hubristically boastful. Only heroes like Perseus who, with tangential assistance from the gods above, manage to accomplish the impossible by ingenuity, selflessness and a little bit of luck.
Guardians of the Galaxy came close to perfect with their rag-tag group of misfits coming together and standing against a common evil. Holding hands and willing to sacrifice all, they survived the Infinity Stone’s destructive power quite literally through the power of friendship. Putting aside their differences and accepting their faults made them powerful, and would have made them unique, had a throwaway line that it was Peter Quill’s cosmically unique heritage that ultimately saved him. Superheroes should be more than us because that is what entertains us, but they should not be above us. It is their idiosyncrasies that make them relatable, make them unique, and make them human. Iron Man, crippled with alcoholism; Thor, constantly striving to prove himself to a godly hammer more powerful than he; Bruce Banner, shamed by the knowledge of what he is as the Mr. Hyde inside him tries to force itself out; and Captain America, heroic symbol of a dying ideal.
Godly weapons and mechanical owls only get you so far – you need to fight the Gorgon yourself.