The Avengers, philosophy, and the narrative of our time

I saw The Avengers on Saturday night, and I was impressed.  SourceFed has a video on the newsier aspects of the release, so I'm not going to cover that, except to say that this is the most successful, and arguably the best, comic movie yet. (More on that later.) What I want to talk about is the basic cultural premise:  extraordinary individuals as individually responsible for massive world events.

This has been a major way that humans view civilization's progress and change, and it's called the Great Man theory of history.[1. John Green concisely explains some of the problems with this view of history at 2m32s in Crash Course World History #8]  It's easy to look through history and find people who seem like superheroes -- Benjamin Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, Joan of Arc, and so on.  The idea of superheroes bears a superficial relationship to Nietzsche's idea of the Übermensch, and in some cases dips close to actually reflecting it.

I believe that the reason The Avengers was so successful, the reason superhero movies have been getting as much traction as they have been, is that our culture desperately wants to believe this story.  We want to believe that a few extraordinary people can save us from the uncertain future, and from the individual supervillains we believe are out there.

What we're looking for

We want extraordinary people watching over us, partly because we can see the vast size of the problems we face, and we know that most of us have no hope of comprehending them, never mind solving them.  The economy is a good example:  almost no one understands what went wrong in the past ten years, and almost no one understands how to fix it.

There are two ways to have hope in that situation.

Some people reached for a heroic concept:  the libertarian view that, if we make the market free, it will save us all.  I think this is the wrong way to go, because it's not believing we can conquer huge problems, it's believing the problems we face are small.

Others (like me) reached for a hero.  We hoped to find someone better than us, better suited to the job, with an incorruptible spirit against insurmountable odds, who we could trust to save us from an enemy we could never hope to fight.  I think that's how a lot of people saw, and a reasonable number still see, President Obama.[2. I'm definitely voting for Obama come the next election, but I've grown cynical lately about the kind of belief in heroes that I'm writing about.]

What we're afraid of

I'm happy to admit that I don't like blaming things on 9/11.  There are few phrases I've found more annoying in the last ten years than "9/11 changed EVERYTHING."  But I have to grudgingly admit that it did change some things about our culture.

The premise of a supervillain, a superpowered individual who causes massive damage with minimal resources, was kind of absurd in the '90s.  Intuitively, it made sense that the amount of damage one could cause was proportional to the resources one had access to.  But it happened in real life, and suddenly bad guys like the Joker are a lot easier to believe.

I mentioned the economy and the future above, as well.  I could add technology to that list -- things we don't understand, that our lives[3. That is, our lifestyles in the modern world.] depend on.  I don't think there are many people who believe that Loki and an army of aliens are a serious threat.  But we have no way of knowing what the threats that are coming look like.  We just know we're going to need some yet-unknown fraction of uniquely talented people to face them.

The narrative of our time

I don't happen to believe that superheroes are going to save us all.  I believe the progression of history is far more affected by factors that superheroes can't control than it is by the interventions of "Great Men."  But we do need superheroes for some stuff.  There's a broken economy to deal with.  Global climate change.  Wars, corruption, censorship and the terrifyingly inscrutable future.

These are problems individuals can't solve, if our representatives and our geniuses aren't working to solve them.  It may not be solely down to the individual heroes, but when the population believes their representatives can save the world, we will hold them accountable.  We will find people who can do the work that needs to be done, and we will be paying attention when they fail.

There are also the social issues that we need heroes for.  Racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on.  In this category, The Avengers is pretty weak.  Great Man theory is pretty intrinsically sexist, and this movie doesn't do a lot to contradict that.  It doesn't even pass the Bechdel test, which is a shame because there were three named female characters, and I'm not actually sure they were ever even in the same room.  I don't believe there was any implication that homosexuality even exists in the Marvel film universe.

Problems with the Hero model

I said at the start that The Avengers is arguably the best comic movie yet.  I'm not sure about whether that's a good thing.  It bolsters a worldview that our society desperately wants right now, but I'm uncertain whether it's the worldview we need to get us through the hard times ahead.

Heroes have served us well in the past, but they've also presented some pretty big problems.  The Avengers doesn't shy away from that fact -- not many people in power are thrilled about the idea of trusting the fate of the world to a handful of volatile, impulsive "freaks."  And one person's superhero is usually another's supervillain.[4. Insert Godwin's Law here.]  In the case of comic book heroes, we're generally talking about the triumph of one philosophy over another by violence.

I mentioned its lack of progressive values, too.  A return to the "old-fashioned," like Captain America's uniform, implies steps backwards for a lot of people.


I've got my hopes, and my concerns, about the future of society, but I'm not disappointed that the blockbusters of our generation are optimistic.  Also:  I can't wait to see what The Dark Knight Rises will be like.