“The Avengers,” 9/11, and the War on Terror

“If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.” – Tony Stark/Iron Man in “The Avengers” 

We ask a lot of the movies. We look to cinema to help us experience things that we can’t in real life. Sometimes it’s as simple as winning the big game or getting the girl you’ve been pining for. Sometimes you want the movies to win a war that you lost. That’s what happened in the late 1970s and early 80s, when the heroes of “First Blood,” “Red Dawn,” and other action movies continued fighting – and winning – the Vietnam War. At the movies, we cannot escape the major events in our nation’s history. For the last ten years, Hollywood has depicted us as a nation grappling with 9/11 and the wars that followed. Sometimes we get a thought-provoking allegory, like “The Hunger Games” or “The Dark Knight.” But for better or for worse, the imagery of 9/11 finds its way into more films than we realize, and in much of “The Avengers,” especially the film’s explosive final sequence, 9/11 and the War on Terror are impossible to ignore.

But before we get to the end, let us start at the beginning. When Marvel Studios released “Iron Man” in 2008 and announced plans to make origin stories for Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and Captain America, before assembling them all in “The Avengers,” it was the most ambitious franchise undertaking in history. Four years and three mediocre movies later (four, if you count “Iron Man 2”), “The Avengers” was released to a record-smashing box office and excellent reviews. It will likely go on to be one of the top-grossing movies of all-time. And you know what? It deserves to be.

Up front, I feel I should say that I am by no means a fanboy. I was a big fan of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, and I’ll argue to the death that “Batman Returns” is the best Batman movie ever made, but other than that, I have been mostly disappointed in comic book movies. “Iron Man,” of course, was an exception. Mostly because of Robert Downey Jr.’s unique sensibility, “Iron Man” broke through in a major way, and in fact its success paved the way for “The Avengers.” Had director Jon Favreau not crafted a blockbuster that pleased fanboys and general audiences alike, Marvel might have gotten skittish, and we might not have had “The Avengers” today. The Marvel team acknowledges this by making Downey’s Tony Stark the star of the film. Let’s face it: he has always been the most fun. Captain America is a compelling character and the moral center of the new film, but he is a bit too goody-two-shoes to be the star. The Hulk is certainly a fan favorite, but Bruce Banner’s reluctance to use his superpower makes him a bit of a downer. Black Widow and Hawkeye? Beats me, I’d never heard of them. And Thor….well, he seems like a nice guy, but he is a bit short on characterization.

Stark is the one we would actually want to hang out with, and he is the only character who experiences personal growth in “The Avengers.” As such, it is his movie. Downey commands the screen whenever he is on it, and our connection to him as an audience is layered. We are impressed by his quick wit, money, and charm, but we also know he’s kind of a jerk. “The Avengers” offers him a sweet chance at redemption that completes his story arc that began in the first “Iron Man.”

But beyond that, there are really three things that fanboys wanted to see in “The Avengers.” An average moviegoer, like myself, just wants to be entertained and have a thought or two provoked. But fanboys have very specific expectations. In “The Avengers,” they needed to see the following things:

1)    The clash of personalities that comes when you put these superheroes together

2)    The Avengers putting aside their differences and joining forces to fight evil

3)    Hulk smash.

The first two are accomplished by writer/director Joss Whedon with ease. Each of the heroes comes from very different worlds and has responded to the discovery of their powers in even more different ways. Much of our delight in the first half of the film comes from discovering which heroes gel and which clash. Stark and Banner could not be more different in temperament, but their mutual love of science bonds them. Captain Steve Rogers and Stark, on the other hand, are natural adversaries due to their professional histories – Captain America is an Army man and respects authority, while Stark has nothing but contempt for it.

But they put their petty differences aside when faced with a new, seemingly unbeatable enemy – an alien demi-god bent on world domination. The action set pieces are expansive; in some ways, Whedon has redefined just how big an action movie can be. But despite the film’s scope, his direction is always tight and assured. In the final battle sequence, when our heroes assemble for the first time to finish a fight it seems they cannot win, I will admit that even I, a hardened cynic, was in a minor state of awe. That’s why we go to a movie like “The Avengers” in the first place, and it can only be accomplished when you have a director who knows what he is doing.

Another piece that Whedon gets exactly right is the Hulk, whose depiction is largely what elevates the film from very good to very great. It reminded me of how Spielberg handled the shark in “Jaws.” See, Spielberg knew that everyone was there to see the shark, so he withheld it from the audience for a full hour and built up our anticipation. Whedon takes the same tact here. Banner gets riled up a couple of times and almost gets angry enough, but when he finally does go green, it is perfect moment of wish-fulfillment for all of the Hulk fans who have suffered through two mediocre movies and were afraid he would never be properly realized on screen. It is a near certainty that this Hulk, brought to life by serious actor Mark Ruffalo, will be spun-off into his own franchise.

Of course, movies like this are only as good as their villains. Tom Hiddleston hits some familiar but nonetheless satisfying notes as Loki, estranged brother to Thor. Like all great villains, Loki is bent on world domination and has built his insanity on a solid foundation of philosophy. In a chilling scene set purposefully in Germany, Loki explains to the masses that he hates us for our freedom, or, as he perceives it, our illusion of freedom. He believes that humans are built to genuflect, and he thinks that taking over a planet of such weaklings will be easy. It is here that a clearer picture of the film’s political milieu begins to emerge.

We expect action movies to be conservative in nature. Terms like “liberal” and “conservative” may be a bit fluid these days, but I still think of Republicans as the party who supports strong military action as a deterrent and Democrats as those who prefer to exhaust diplomatic options first. So it is not surprising that most action movies lean conservative, especially since they often promote individualism – commonly in the form of a cop who goes rogue –  as a virtue. While “The Avengers” strays slightly from that narrative by promoting teamwork and sacrifice over individualism, it hems close to the conservative action movie playbook by glorifying violence that, whether it is undertaken by Robocop, John McClane, or Tony Stark, a last resort against tyranny. Violence of that kind should not be glorified – it should be tolerated and respected.

Dozens of people are shot and killed in “The Avengers,” but the only blood I remember seeing is on the face of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) when she takes a tumble and scratches herself. Hiding the realities of violence is common in action movies, and it comes at a price: we begin to forget its repercussions.

In this way, much of “The Avengers” plays like a recruitment video for Special Operations. The filmmakers ask us, as audience members, to join an elite team of warriors who fight the battles no one else can against an enemy bent only on our destruction. And because there is no blood and our heroes can take a punch from a Norse God and just dust themselves off, it is very easy to root for their success and not give a thought to the consequences and meaning of their actions. The film’s final action sequence begins when Loki and his army from another world launch a full-scale attack on Manhattan. The images of Manhattan on fire cannot help but evoke 9/11, and as we watch this special force of heroes fight back an other-worldly army bent on destroying our freedom, the allusions to the War on Terror are unmistakable.

This is not to say that Whedon and his creative team sought to create an allegory that supported a military response to terrorism. It’s just that 9/11 and the War on Terror are part of the American myth now, and it is almost impossible to make an action movie that does not reflect this myth and support the violence of retaliation. This is why the Pentagon frequently cooperates with filmmakers, allowing them to use their planes, military bases, and weapons. Officials at DoD understand that action movies inherently glorify their violence – unless there is a specific intent by the producers to do the opposite – because film as a medium requires less intellectual involvement from the viewer and thus less moral judgment. The Pentagon in fact did not help with “The Avengers,” but they bowed out for a peculiar reason: they felt that S.H.I.E.L.D, the special department that put together the Avengers team and is run by a mysterious board of directors, was too unrealistic. In other words, they were uncomfortable with the idea of American heroes being controlled by anyone besides the Commander-in-Chief.

Whether or not you agree with its politics, “The Avengers” wildly succeeds as a piece of entertainment. Its politics don’t get in the way because the positions it takes are not controversial. Most Americans probably believe that we should defend our country against invasion with military force. But there are moments in which “The Avengers” take its defense of American values a little too far. As Tony Stark tells Loki, “If we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damn sure we’ll avenge it.” It’s a line that is written to be quoted, and it was good enough to reference the film’s title, but it speaks to a dark aggression beneath the film’s cartoonish visage. Although we may not know it, we are still recovering from 9/11, and the movies – for better or for worse – are leading the way.

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