There’s a very interesting article over on Tor.com about The Avengers, titled No One Watches the Watchmen: Authoritarianism and The Avengers. The article is chock full of spoilers, so if you haven’t seen the movie do not read it. It gives some of the best moments away. But it’s basic thesis is that more than in other super-hero stories—even other Marvel movies—in The Avengers the message is that supreme heroes should have no supervision, no restrictions on their unlimited power to do anything they want as long as they seem to be exercising their power for us, and we should simply be happy to let them save us and never question their authority. The author’s point, of course, is that this is a troubling message, one we shouldn’t so quickly accept.
Author Steven Padnick supports his argument well, but I’m not so quick to agree with what he sees as the authoritarianism in The Avengers is, in fact, the message of the movie. Yes, The Avengers are a set of super powered heroes. Yes, they run amok without human intervention. However, I don’t think they’re completely unsupervised. It’s clear that Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, in a wonderful underplayed performance) is in charge of them, not through force, but through manipulation. He and S.H.E.I.L.D. assembled the team, he tells them the mission, and he sets them loose. He also serves as their liaison with an authority even above himself. So while The Avengers may be the equivalent of an undiscaplined special forces squad, they are (ostensibly and voluntarily) operating within an organizational structure.
Padnick also feels that the message is that those outside the “anointed group” wouldn’t be allowed to exercise the kind of power that The Avengers do. What that fails to take into account is that initially, most of these heroes exercised their power without any form of institutional approval. Thor, Tony Stark, and Bruce Banner certainly had used their own powers truly on their own until Nick Fury and S.H.E.I.L.D. stepped in and co-opted them under his umbrella. So it seems to me that rather than “common acts of heroism” being repressed, those common people who invent “Iron Man” levels of technology would in fact be invited into the “Avengers Initiative,” and indeed future movies will have different lineups than this first one.
I’m taking the idea of authority in The Avengers seriously, both because it’s fun to do, and because the author did, and I respect his article. But we should mention that the superhero genre in general includes a whole lot of adolescent power fantasy elements thrown in simply for their fist pumping moments, and not meant to be dissected for their philosophical ramifications. That is not to say that superhero stories are just mindless fun and we should ignore deeper themes. The heroes are archetypes, and we as audience members understand this. For example, we can trust Thor with power because we understand that for all his human character traits, he is a demigod, the embodiment of a powerful race’s promise to protect “Midgard” and that as much of a egotistic loose cannon as he can be he will never let us down. We can grant Thor a pass as he causes mega-destruction because this isn’t a documentary about the abuse of power, it is a fable that uses archetypes and fantasy to address how we see ourselves, what we would like to believe that we are capable of in our darkest hour if we let the brightest part of ourselves shine.
I already reviewed The Avengers and how much I enjoyed it. I also understand the author’s unease that the movie on the surface seemed to represent a mindless surrender of our humanity to super-human messiah figures to whom we depend completely for our salvation. But I don’t believe that the movie goes that far. I believe that The Avengers do operate to some degree within a framework. Humanity is far from helpless. And that ultimately, superhero stories are fables about being the best we can be, not so much documentaries on realpolitic.