[T]he Avengers is the biggest international grosser this season and the success of fantasies and films about superheroes has had people wondering if films about normal human beings can ever make so much money. The Avengers has the advantage of offering the public six superheroes instead of one and this is proving to be unbeatable. Superheroes have been very popular in cinema for several years now but the thing which I find most interesting is that all of them had their origins in the 1930s or 1960s and are apparently performing a different cultural function now than they were originally intended to. Another feature that is interesting is that every superhero in the western world originates in America – although Japan perhaps also had its own share of superbeings after the War. Judging from the fact that the major superheroes emerged in the late 1930s and early 1940s and, after that, only in the early 1960s, it would appear that a superhero fulfils a historical need of some sort and there is perhaps a similar need which has arisen now that needs investigating.
All myths deal with superheroes and demigods and it is perhaps the lack of an ancient mythology in the US which was responsible for it having to create the superhero of the comic book and the first comic book superhero was Superman, who came out of DC Comics in 1938. America was already ascendant by the late 1930s and there is perhaps something incongruous in a superpower being without a credible superhero. The world was on the verge of war in 1938 and the crime-ridden city in which Superman lives – Metropolis – suggests the looming presence of Germany because Metropolis was also the name of Fritz Lang’s 1927 film about a future urban dystopia. Batman came out in 1939 from Gotham City – evidently derived from the word ‘Gothic’ associated with Germany. Gotham City, as we see, it is full of dark shadows as if daylight never enters it and its conception apparently owes to German Expressionism in cinema – films like Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) and Fritz Lang’s Mabuse films about a super-villain. Superman and Batman may have had their origins in world politics but both of them are content to perform an apolitical task locally – fight crime. Urban crime was perhaps the closest to ‘evil’ that Americans had come to – by their own reckoning – and the preoccupation may have come out of the great depression. American noir, it may be recollected, is usually about normal people drawn into crime because of greed and/or want and roman noir (as in James M Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice – 1934) had its origins in the depression. The superhero fighting crime every day can perhaps be regarded as the converse of noir.
The next phase in the American superhero may be defined as the patriotic phase. Although Superman was also clad in blue and red – the colors of the American flag – his instincts were not especially patriotic and neither were Batman’s although Captain America’s (1941) were so. Most of the superheroes featuring in The Avengers are from the 1960s phase – owing less to DC Comics than its competitor Marvel Comics – in which, overtly or covertly, the primary stimulus appears to be the Cold War and the prospect of nuclear war – around the time of the Cuban missile Crisis of 1962. Iron Man, in 1963, was a genius industrialist kidnapped to help build weapons of mass destruction but who escaped by building a miraculous suit of armor for himself. The Hulk, in 1962, was a physicist exposed to ‘gamma radiation’ from a bomb he invented. The Black Widow a.k.a Natasha Romanoff was, in 1964, a Soviet-trained spy who defected to the US because she fell in love with the criminal-turned-superhero Hawkeye, and Hawkeye (the World’s Greatest Marksman) was himself inspired by Iron Man. Captain America, who appeared in the earlier phase in 1941, was a frail young man who was enhanced to the peak of human perfection by an experimental serum in order to aid the United States war effort. Thor, who was first seen in 1962, is not the effect of technology but a Norse god punished by his father Odin for his arrogance and placed in the body of an American medical student vacationing in Norway. Thor was also more accustomed to dealing with aliens than with terrestrial villains. Thor’s adversary was his brother Loki the mischief maker and the two lived on a planet named Asgard. Many of these superheroes are members of S.H.I.E.L.D an espionage agency headed by Nick Fury and intended to neutralize extra-terrestrials. Now that the origins of all the superheroes in The Avengers have been duly taken note of, the next step, evidently, is to examine what they are doing in The Avengers.
In The Avengers the Tesseract is a powerful energy source of unknown potential from Asgard which is being experimented upon on Earth. Although the possession of the Tesseract by earthlings is legitimate, Loki wishes to retrieve it and enlists an alien race to assist him and also subjugate Earth. Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson), director of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D., and his lieutenant Agent Maria Hill arrive at a remote research facility during an evacuation, where physicist Dr. Erik Selvig is leading a research team experimenting on the Tesseract. Agent Phil Coulson explains that the Tesseract has begun radiating an unusual form of energy. The Tesseract suddenly activates and opens a portal, allowing Loki to reach Earth. Loki seizes the Tesseract and uses his scepter to enslave Selvig and several agents to aid him in his getaway. In response to the attack, Nick Fury reactivates the Avengers Initiative (‘If we cannot save the Earth, we will avenge it.’) Agent Natasha Romanoff, who is being interrogated in Russia, is rescued and sent to India to recruit Dr. Bruce Banner (The Hulk); Coulson visits Tony Stark (Iron Man) to have him review Selvig’s research; and Fury approaches Steve Rogers (Captain America) with an assignment to retrieve the Tesseract. The Avengers have been assembled but Loki (who is the Norse god of mischief) is adept at pranks and he manages to divide the Avengers over their course of action. Thor, however, also arrives on the scene and with his help the Avengers repulse the alien invaders and stop Loki.
There are several aspects to The Avengers that deserve comment. In the first place, apart from filming in the US the film is ‘global’ in its choice of locations and therefore shows us Russia, India and Stuttgart, Germany. ‘Russia’ is represented by a dilapidated industrial shed in which a shabby Russian military official interrogates Natasha Romanoff. This perhaps corresponds to what America likes to believe is the present state of Russia and the same is the case with ‘India’ – where we find Dr Bruce Banner working in a slum with sick children. Stuttgart is represented by a philharmonic orchestra listened to by a ceremonially attired audience. All this suggests that the primary discourse in the film is that while the rest of the world is still primitive (‘as it was’), America has moved on because of technology. But there is another aspect of the film which takes the film beyond this reading.
When the film initially shows us America, it is not the America made familiar to us by Hollywood but a stunningly imagined and reconstructed ‘technological America’ and this is different from the New York that the Avengers rescue from Loki and the aliens. When this latter America is finally shown, it is the everyday America of the average drama dealing with daily life in New York. In effect, therefore, the film creates two separate Americas, one a technological America of experiments and inventions and a second America of ordinary people desperately needing to be saved from perils that might be from their nightmares. As instances of the first America, I cite the spectacular experimental facility in which the Tesseract is examined and destroyed even more spectacularly and the ‘helicarier’ – a helicopter which is an aircraft carrier. But if there are two Americas, the dividing line between them is also deliberately blurred. Stark’s futuristic headquarters takes its place on the New York skyline with other structures that we know to be real.
Where the technology in the original comics had a strong grotesque element in them, here it is celebratory in a straightforward way. The superbeings are divided into those who have divine powers and those enhanced by technology and the gifts of technology are shown to be superior. “He claims to be a god but we know what God looks like and He looks nothing like this,” a superhero remarks to another about Loki. Loki’s protests are also in vain when, at the conclusion, the Hulk grabs him by a leg, slams him again and again to the ground and reduces him to a limp rag. But if the portrayal of technology is celebratory, the blurring of the dividing line between the plausible and the fanciful is conspicuous. The least convincing part of the film pertains to the monsters let loose by the aliens and even Godzilla looked more believable. But I suggest that this is because enemy is secondary in The Avengers and only provides a pretext for the film to show off technology. When the film ends, many of the New Yorkers who have just been saved are not even aware that they have been saved and the general sense is that what has happened is so outside their experience that they cannot even take cognizance of it. In effect, therefore, the film places itself in the gap between technology’s actual achievements and what the public knows about them. If it is selling itself as a fantasy, the public is not too sure which parts are fantastic and which are plausible. This, it must be asserted was not the way of the original comics which could often be science fiction with the tone of Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. If the original superheroes provided reassurance in turbulent times, today they justify technology. The fact that this technology – from Spider-Man (2002) to Iron Man (2008) – is largely military is significant because it brings out the true nature of America’s interface with the world today. America interfaces in two principal ways: the armament industry and Hollywood and the latter is apparently helping to reinforce the former.
The Avengers is a film which is grounded in technology but what has just been said is also applicable to other kinds of films – like the Ocean’s 11, 12 and 13, Enemy of the State (1998) – in which advanced technology is strongly suggested but no effort is made to explain it to the audience. It is as if the public wouldn’t understand and explaining it is pointless, this perhaps becoming a pretext for pushing the implausible. Many of today’s Hollywood films set in an actual political context – like Afghanistan or Iraq – also do this. I am not suggesting that Hollywood is consciously acting in this way but the myth of technology is perhaps a way of assisting in an enormous pacification project. If surveillance equipment undreamt of are shown as a fact of everyday life, people might be careful about what they do. If advanced weaponry of an implausible nature is vividly evoked in relation to Afghanistan, the impossibility of winning there might become irrelevant. The myth of technological America is perhaps a way of keeping political America manageable.