Pass the Popcorn: The Movie for Our Time

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Thrice armed is he that hath his quarrel just;

And he but naked, though locked in steel,

Whose conscience is with injustice corrupted.

                                            Shakespeare’s Henry VI

You lack conviction.

                                                            Agent Coulson

Finally! I finally saw the Avengers tonight.

Greatest superhero movie ever made – yes or no? It’s a tie. Or it’s apples and oranges. This is a movie that can stand next to The Dark Knight without shame, yet the two are doing completely different things. Nolan’s Dark Knight is a movie for all times and places, becausee it’s about the struggle between good and evil in every human heart and in every human city. Whedon’s Avengers is a movie very much for our time and place specifically.

Obviously, spoilers lie in wait for you ahead!

The theme of “war” is invoked repeatedly in this movie. Where Nolan’s movie was about the struggle within hearts and within communities, this movie is about a struggle between communities – in other words, a war. Not America versus the aliens, but one America versus the other.

Yes, the culture war. But perhaps not in the way you might think.

It’s obvious that the three characters who matter in this movie are Steve Rogers, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner. Before we look at them, let’s look at why they’re the ones that mattter.

Politics wears two faces. Politics is power, and politics is justice. The great first question of political philosophy throughout the ages, the question that determines how you answer all the other questions, has been which of these is primary. Throughout history, a small minority of cynics – Thrascymacus, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Marx, Nietzsche – has said that power is primary.  Over against the cynics, the large majority of political philosophers and the nearly unanimous voice of humanity at large has insisted that justice is primary.

The other characters in this movie are about power. Thor is a warrior, obviously a man of power. Nick Fury and the Black Widow are mainly good at manipulating people, which is another form of power. And Hawkeye isn’t even a character, he’s a plot device. Smart move – nobody was ever going to care about him as a character, so Whedon didn’t even try to make him into one. They might just as well have changed his name to Agent MacGuffin.

You might have expected Thor to be about more than power because he’s a god. This is a trick of the historical lighting. From our privileged perspective as children of the mature religions, we expect that all supernatural beliefs involve a moral element. But the pagan gods were never really divine. They were just projections of ourselves, with all our flaws and our humanity, into the cosmic forces of the unseen universe. That’s exactly why they vanished from history as religion matured. You can read all about this in Plato, or in Chesterton. All pagan gods are “puny gods.”

There’s no indictment in saying these characters represent politics as power. They’re not amoral – even Black Widow has an ethic. Yet none of them is really bringing a robust vision of justice to the team. That’s why they’re not the ones who ultimately determine the fate of the world.

Steve Rogers has a vision of justice. He might seem to be about power rather than justice because he’s fighting for America. Yet his interest in America clearly has nothing to do with the structures of American power. That’s why he has no difficulty turning against Nick Fury and the Council. What he’s loyal to isn’t any particular manifestation of America, but the ideas of justice to which America is committed and which America represents. Steve Rogers has an integrity that transitions seamlessly from obeying the Council to resisting it, because the Council is not the America to which he is loyal. Because of this, his commitment to justice can’t be subverted by anyone or anything in the tangible world claiming the mantle of “America.” His commitment to justice is transcendent and therefore independent and immovable.

This fact is not unrelated to the fact that he believes in the one true God.

Tony Stark is every bit as American as Steve Rogers, and everyone knows it. From the beginning, America’s Tony Starks have had as much claim to have made this country what it is as its Steve Rogerses.  And Tony Stark is committed to a vision of justice. The Tony Starks of the world wouldn’t have nearly the influence they do if they weren’t driven by a very powerful vision of justice. Although he might never put it in these words himself, Stark believes in Romantic individualism, capital R. He worships neither gods nor God but the divine spark within, the sacred self. This can produce silly behavior, but on the whole it is not to be scoffed at. Remember that in the end Stark is willing to die to save other people. He could easily have flown away instead of pulling the missle into the portal. Romantic individualism is a creed that people have been dying for (and killing for) for centuries.

Only two things can enable a man to sacrifice his own life in cold blood: religion, or strict training in moral virtue. Tony Stark has not undergone strict training in moral virtue.

The conflict between Rogers and Stark, which manifests itself as a conflict over justice, is at bottom a religious conflict. Justice and religion flow in and out of one another in perplexing ways. People of different religions can reach moral agreement – if it weren’t so, we’d all have torn each other to pieces long ago. Yet even when our senses of justice align, the religious difference never quite goes away, never quite stops threatening to break out into a war.

Standing between these two figures is Bruce Banner. However handy Stark might be with computers, Banner is the real man of science, the Enlightenment figure. The real essence of Enlightenment ethics is rational self-restraint – to exercise rigorous control over the soul’s dark impulses because the intellect discerns it is advantageous to do so. Rogers has few discernable dark impulses because he’s surrendered himself to transcendent powers. Stark gives his dark impulses relatively free reign, wherever he can get away with it. Banner will not surrender himself to the God without (who can purge the darkness) nor to the god within (who will cultivate it). He disciplines himself, surrendering to nothing. He is always angry.

He worships neither the justice of God nor the justice of the self. He worships justice itself, for its own sake, just like the ancient Stoics, or Kant and Adam Smith.

It is not a coincidence that Banner is objectively the most powerful of the three central characters. Rational self-control is a fantastic engine of power.

Yet he ultimately does not stand on equal footing with Rogers and Stark, because his religion is narrower. Justice alone isn’t sufficient for human life. Rogers and Stark are the two great poles, the two truly ultimate visions of justice, and Banner is the man of greater power but lesser vision whose allegiance would tip the scale one way or the other, if he gave it.

Here’s why this is the movie for our time: the history of modernity is the history of great religions – Christianity, Islam, Marxism, Fascism, Romantic individualism, etc. – struggling for control of the great engines of power unleashed by the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. America was the product of a great alliance between two of these religions, Christianity and Romantic individualism, against the others. It was not merely a temporary pact to share power but a real forging of deep alliances, resting on a robust sense of shared morality between the two. In spite of the differences, there really are deep undercurrents of similarity. Christianity really does celebrate the preciousness and dignity of the individual; we call it the imago Dei, the image of God in every human being. Romantic individualism really does seek to encompass both moral seriousness and an authentic sense of spiritual renewal (to see justice and mercy meet and kiss, as the psalm puts it). Yet in our time the alliance is strained. The differences between religions must always run just a little bit deeper than the similarities; otherwise they wouldn’t be different religions, they’d be different branches of the same religion. And now those differences are rising back up to the surface. The conditions that forged the original alliance have passed. Can it be reforged?

An existential threat submerges the differences and renews the alliance for a while. In the movie, it was an alien invasion. In our time, it has been 9/11. That doesn’t last, however. In the end of the movie, the heroes disperse to go their separate ways.

The closing note of the movie is Nick Fury expressing certainty that if an existential threat ever arises again, the heroes will reunite. Why does he think so? “Because we’ll need them to.” That is the optimistic scenario. I believe (for theological reasons) that there are rational grounds that logically justify a limited amount of optimism about how things go in the world. I am optimistic about renewing the old alliance that defines America. Yet there are limits, and in our time we are testing them.

11 Responses to Pass the Popcorn: The Movie for Our Time

  1. Alsadius says:

    I find your take on theology rather interesting, and a little too modern for a religion as old as Christianity. Religion was not primarily about morality until very recently(historically speaking), it’s spent most of its time being about much more concrete things. Religion existed to explain all the confusing bits of the world – bad things happen because you’ve angered a god, good things happen because you’ve pleased one, and that anger or pleasure takes the form of real and obvious things, like lightning or tidal waves.

    It wasn’t until science chased the dragons out that religion had to retreat to abstract morality as its whole. And to this day, there’s several religions that refuse to fully retreat – we look at faith healers and “Terrorists happen because God is angry at us for letting gay people do things” and their ilk as crazy, because they are, but they’re also the only ones left in the world who practice religion in the old fashion. It wasn’t so many centuries ago that everyone thought like that.

    God and Jesus seem quite a lot more human if you look at how they were portrayed further back in time. The God of the Old Testament seems like basically a third-world dictator – totalitarian, obnoxious, and happy to shed rivers of blood to help out his tribesmen(unless they get uppity, in which case they get purged). Jesus was basically his mirror image – very mellow, and spending all of his time talking about how nice we should be(…because the Romans had a bigger stick than God did, so you had to be nice instead of mean). Saddam and the stoner, if you will. There’s not nearly so large a palate to paint the human experience with when you only have two characters, but they seem like the same sort of over-the-top archetypes as Odin or Ares.

    (Yes, I realized that I just replied to an Avengers review at length without mentioning the Avengers. I love a good tangent.)

    • Greg Forster says:

      I really don’t think these views will survive much expose to the biblical text. Two examples: The idea that the Bible isn’t concerned with morality is difficult to sustain in light of the Ten Commandments, the Mosaic laws, the entire epistleatory output of James, Peter, and John, and pretty much everything else in there. (If you’re relying on a division between morality and religion, read the psalms and see how often religious devotion to God is connected to God’s moral goodness, eg #19, or read Peter’s letters.) Second example: I’m not sure where this idea that Jesus was “mellow” and was all about telling people to be “nice” first came from, but however frequently one hears it in other places, the one place it’s not reflected is the New Testament.

      • Alsadius says:

        I don’t mean that the Bible is unconcerned with morality – as you say, there’s always been a strong moral element. However, morality wasn’t the only concern until comparatively recently. Look at how much of a legal system is embedded in it that is completely ignored today(the infamous “kill people for wearing mixed fabrics” bit, say). And while I phrased it in a deliberately pop-culture fashion, Jesus always seemed like a pretty nice guy to me. Feeding the hungry, resurrecting the dead, loving the sinner – all that is nice, fluffy stuff. I’m actually rather fond of Christianity, even as a nonbeliever, because it’s basically about saying that you should be nice to people, particularly in the more modern versions. But it spent a long time being a theory of science, law, governance, and history too.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Well, I would say that once something is about nothing but morality it has ceased to really be a religion. This is why the churches preaching what you call “modern” Christianity, which really is “basically about saying that you should be nice to people,” will all be gone within my lifetime. That’s not my prediction, it’s theirs. Go to their conferences and you’ll hear them talking about how they won’t be around in a generation. Why? Because that’s not a religion, it’s a bunch of empty platitudes. Historic Christianity isn’t basically about saying that you should be nice to people, it’s basically about telling people that they’re not nice to people (which they’re not) and that this fact isn’t going to change (which it isn’t) because we’d have to be nice people to change it (which we’re not) – and what God has chosen to do about this whole unpleasant situation. Christianity is good news, but “you should be nice to people” is not good news, it’s bad news, because we’re not and we’re never going to be.

        This is why Jesus doesn’t really come across as a “nice” guy if you sit down and read the New Testament. Tremendously compassionate, yes, but as hard as nails at the same time. He was a stern, fierce man. And based on all the documentary evidence, both in the Bible and outside it, there seem to have been only two responses to him: worshipful adoration and boiling hatred. There is no record anywhere of anyone having responded to him as a nice person.

  2. Brilliant post, Greg. Just really smart and full of insight.

    I only saw just recently as well, but have been anticipating it from the moment I learned that Joss Whedon was directing and, obviously, writing the screenplay. Whedon is one of the premier storytellers of our time, and all the mono-myth and historical allusions you note are precisely the sort of tale Whedon would tell.

    What I found particularly compelling – and it was integral to his stories from the first episode of Buffy – was the humanity that Joss brings to the superhero. These heroes are clearly demigods, but what makes saving humanity so important is their personal connection to the human experience. They are flawed and struggling, even as they wield the sort of power mere mortals only dream of.

    I was particularly fascinated by Banner’s line, “That’s my secret – I’m always angry.” To embrace the dark side as a way of owning it is the essence of humanity, and it has been explored in all the great coming-of-age allegories.

    Interesting read. Thanks for sharing your summation.

    • Greg Forster says:

      Yes, that’s one of Whedon’s strengths. But I think this movie (and Serenity before it) reflects some impressive growth in the scope of his narrative ambitions; Buffy and Angel overpersonalized things, I thought, such that while we regularly encountered pure evil we were left with the distinct impression that there was no pure good. That’s a cynical view if the universe in the end. Serenity and the Avengers do more justice to the good.

  3. Lisa Jones says:

    Fabulous post! Greatest superhero movie ever made – yes!

    Keep up the good fight, Jay!

    “Because we’ll need to.”

    • Greg Forster says:

      Thanks for your kind words. It’s always an honor to be mistaken for Jay! 🙂

      • Lisa Jones says:

        Oops!! Sorry about that… then a take a second to interject that a new, updated post on Public Discourse regarding Common Core [Fed Ed Overreach via] Standards would be much appreciated! 😀

  4. […] summer I published an extended argument that The Avengers is about the culture war. Steve Rogers is the cultural product of historic Christianity; his behavior can be explained in […]

  5. […] Christianity and Romantics agree that compassion for the suffering should be a central concern in both personal and social ethics. Indeed, this agreement has been one of the great driving forces in modern politics; it has been one of the most important ingredients in the glue that has held together the great alliance between these two religions – an alliance that founded America and defeated totalitarianism. […]

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