The Conservative Avengers
October 1st, 2012 - J. Hodgson
The Avengers has become the biggest movie of the year and there have been many attempts to figure out why. Perhaps it was the unique gimmick of creating a shared universe between a variety of film franchises and then bringing them all together for an ensemble piece. Perhaps it was writer/director Joss Whedon’s finely crafted script and masterful direction. Maybe people just liked seeing all the stars surrounded by amazing special effects. It could also just boil down to smart marketing.
None of these explanations really nails down the root of such a monstrous success. At well over $600 million at the North American box office and over $1.4 billion worldwide, there has to be another element that causes a movie to resonate so profitably.
That element is shared conservative values.
The shared values on display in The Avengers transcends cultural barriers. Displays of heroics, overcoming challenges, and staying hopeful in spite of outrageous odds are all things people around the world celebrate, but with this article we’re going to get a little more specific. This is Poletical after all, so we’re going to deconstruct the meaning and the messages through a political lense and show how The Avengers presents a very critical view of government and a very celebratory view of private initiative. The roots of The Avengers are conservative and libertarian to the core.
Loki: "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."
Captain America: "You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing."
And so begins the first big showdown between the newly formed Avengers team and the Asgardian God-of-Mischief Loki. On the surface, this set up looks like a simple formula, but the political implications of this movie are deeper than they appear.
S.H.I.E.L.D is a transnational government organization that is never really explained. The audience is to infer that they are above and beyond traditional intelligence organizations. When emergency strikes, they retreat to their mobile command headquarters in the form of a flying invisible aircraft carrier. Despite the power and resources available, this organization has implemented an initiative to enroll private citizens into their umbrella during times of need.
This is the first big statement of libertarian ideology the movie promotes.
The government isn’t capable of managing situations the same way private citizens can. It is always up to private citizens to take ownership over their situations. If you rely totally on the government, you’ll end up dehydrating on your roof in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The Avengers portrays a non-hurricane disaster beyond the government’s ability to control, in the form of an attack by Loki with an alien armada waiting in the wings for a global attack. The very process of ‘assembling the Avengers’ is an acknowledgement that private citizens are needed to step up in times of emergency.
And step up they do...
Captain America: 1940’s patriot enabled with superhuman abilities during a one-time-only science experiment. Trapped in ice and thawed out in the modern age, he’s a man out of time and displeased by the America he woke up in.
Iron Man: Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist. Former weapons industrialist who had a change of heart after being kidnapped by terrorists. Uses his high-tech armour to do as he pleases.
The Hulk: Dr. Bruce Banner used himself as a test subject when experimenting with the super-soldier serum that created Captain America. Things didn’t work as planned and his anger now turns him into a giant green rage monster.
Thor: Asgardian God-of-Thunder from the legends of Norway. Turns out he exists and just hasn’t travelled to Earth in awhile.
(Two other Avengers include marksman Hawkeye and assassin/spy Black Widow. They are top notch S.H.I.E.L.D agents and on the government payroll.)
It’s interesting to note how each of these characters gets involved in the war against Loki. Captain America is the most traditional hero on the team. He’s lured into service by his World War 2 sense of patriotic duty. He’s also lonely in a 21st century world and simply has nothing better to do. Iron Man uses the invitation to hack into S.H.I.E.L.D databases with his superior technology. He’s basically the Julian Assange of the team. Thor is settling a family dispute and doesn’t care much for his teammates or the government in charge. Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk, simply wants to help and is grateful that S.H.I.E.L.D got General Ross from the previous two Hulk films, off his back.
None of these characters serves out of compulsion to the demands of the state. They band together for reasons of their own and of their own free will. This is a hallmark of not only The Avengers, but of many superhero films. The classic idolization of the rugged individual, setting things right, used to be a staple of the West. Today, our cinema heroes wear capes instead of cowboy hats.
The rugged individualism of private citizens is on display in this movie time and again. The first battle with Loki requires the physical prowess of Captain America and the technology of Iron Man in order to capture him. Although it is revealed later, that this was all a part of Loki’s plan, sending in private citizens was still the first line of attack that the incompetent government felt was necessary.
Later on, the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier is under attack and it is again up to Captain America and Iron Man to stop the entire government funded contraption from falling out of the sky.
In the final battle of the film, the government completely loses control. Loki’s tesseract is opening a portal in the skies above New York, which is consequently allowing an alien armada to attack the Earth. The armada quickly overwhelms the local authorities and the Avengers are sent in to deal with the situation. It quickly becomes clear that this small band of individuals can act more quickly and efficiently than bureaucratic government forces and the invasion begins to be repelled.
At one point in the battle, Captain America commands the New York City Police with orders to move people through the city via subway tunnels and then create a perimeter. The policeman receiving the orders is reasonably incredulous and asks why he should take orders from a guy dressed like a flag. Captain America subsequently beats down two alien invaders and rips the arm off one of them and tosses it aside. The police officer, visibly impressed, follows the orders. Captain America is in charge not because he has credentials or official authority. Captain America is in charge, because he can be.
One of the most scathing criticisms of governmental decision making is the climax of the film in which the powers that be decide to cut their losses and simply nuke the city in order to disrupt the portal. To his credit, S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, tries to convince them otherwise, but he’s overruled. He even goes so far as to grab a rocket launcher in order to stop the jets carrying the nuclear payload from leaving the base. It doesn’t work, however, and the nuclear destruction of New York City is all but assured if not for the timely intervention of an ambitious private citizen in the form of Tony Stark/Iron Man. It’s because of the quick thinking of a capitalist tycoon that the people of New York are spared a flaming death at the hands of government.
Much like Ghostbusters, in which the Environmental Protection Agency is actually an enabler to world destruction via Gozer, the Marvel brand of superhero action constantly presents subtext showing how the government is a problem, not a solution.
Iron Man 1 and 2: Tony Stark sells weapons to the government, but they fall into the wrong hands. He trades weapons for clean energy and takes care of the “wrong hands” problem himself. At which point he is attacked by the U.S. air force. S.H.I.E.L.D then tells him to lie to the public about his identity and he refuses. In Iron Man 2, he has to defend his private property from senators that want to confiscate from him. Tony Stark then has to save the day when a lesser weapons contractor to the government screws up. Then the government steals his prototype suit anyway.
Captain America: Steve Rogers is used as a guinea pig by the government in order to try to create super soldiers. When it works, he is subsequently misused as a public relations gimmick. Only by taking matters into his own hands and going AWOL in order to rescue an imprisoned platoon, is he able to officially fight tyranny.
Hulk 1 and 2: Dr. Banner is trying to recreate the super soldier serum that created Captain America. It goes wrong and he spends two entire movies on the run from the government.
Thor: Thor arrives on Earth and spends half the movie trying to get his hammer back...from the government. His earthling allies try to help him, but are thwarted by the government after all of their stuff is confiscated as well.
Notice a pattern?
The themes and subtext of these movies are decisively of the conservative and libertarian bent.
The Avengers is the conclusion of what is known as Marvel’s ‘phase 1’ plan for the cinema screen. They are tapping into audience imaginations and values in a big way. They are striking a conservative cord with moviegoers that is all too lacking in modern leftist Hollywood. The good news is that with over $1.4 billion in box office receipts, this conservative cord will be financially reinforcing. With Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man slated for release soon, expect to see a lot more conservative goodness from Marvel Studios in the near future.