Avengers: A philosophical investigation of the first Avengers movie

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the last month or so you know that Avengers 2: Age of Ultron comes out in movie theaters today. But instead of talking about that movie I just took the time to go back and look at the first installation of Avengers.

Pretty loosely, the story revolves around an evil demigod named Loki getting an army from a cosmic entity named Thanos, in order to conquer earth. The defense of Earth requires a team called the Avengers to come together to fight on its behalf.

What I found interesting was how Joss Whedon, the Director and Screenwriter of Avengers wove the story into an allegory about the fundamental things that make America (and in his view maybe the world) tick.

The team of the Avengers is comprised of:

Thor: A demigod and Loki’s brother

Captain America: A soldier given immense superpowers

Ironman: A brilliant scientist who invents a suit that gives him superpowers

Hulk: Another scientist who has a serious Jekyll and Hyde complex and turns into a raging monster when he is angered.

A group called SHIELD: Represented by Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and Phil Coulson.

If we look closely at these characters we can see that they actually represent the conflicting aspects of western civilization.

The first conflict of the movie pits Captain America against Loki. This is interesting because as Loki appears he seeks to subjugate the human civilization under his dictatorial rule. In the first scene he attempts to make an example of a human being by killing him, but is prevented from doing so by Captain America. Here we can already see in a rather simple scene that Loki is representative of evil in general. In America that is represented by Nazism, Fascism, Terrorism, or Communism these things are anathema to Democracy. In his role, as the personification of Nationalism and Democracy, Captain America naturally is there to save the person from destruction. Then, on behalf of democratic values Captain America engages Loki in battle.

Ironman joins this fight. As I said earlier Ironman is a brilliant scientist. He represents the ingenuity and innovation of another pillar of Western Civilization which is Capitalism. In fact, Ironman or Tony Stark is an unapologetic capitalist and his character is one of wisecracking arrogance, which most people associate with businessmen in general. We view Capitalism through all of these lenses, on one hand it harnesses and some would say unleashes human innovation and ingenuity and on the other hand it creates terrible income inequality, encourages selfishness, and arrogance.

The combined forces of Capitalism and Democracy are briefly able to defeat Loki’s oppressive force, but they are soon visited by Thor who claims ownership over his evil brother and the right to judge him as he sees fit.

As a demigod, Thor quite literally represents God, or rather is the personification of Religion. In its worst form Religion seeks to usurp Capitalism and Democracy as the arbiter of truth and justice in the world. It passes judgement on Capitalism for its vices in its attempts to push humanity to a higher form of enlightenment and views Democracy as the inadequate philosophy of unevolved humanists. In this role, Thor claims jurisdiction over Loki and seeks to take him out of the possession of Ironman and Captain America. He engages Ironman first and this is our first chance to see the competing ideals of Religion and Capitalism. Ultimately they fight to a draw and are joined by Captain America. Thor briefly engages Captain America by trying to smash him with his hammer but finds Captain America’s shield impenetrable. Religion, Democracy, and Capitalism have fought to a draw, but still have unresolved differences. I also noticed that during the fight Thor actually finds Ironman an inadequate foe, and upgrades the power in his suit by 400%. In my view this represents the idea that Religion, when used correctly gives us purpose and allows us to reach even higher levels of ingenuity and innovation.

At this point Captain America, Thor, and Ironman take Loki to the SHIELD aircraft carrier, which also turns out to have the capability to fly. Here, they are joined by Dr. Banner who is the alter ego of the Hulk. On the ship, it is revealed that Ironman and Dr. Banner have many similarities in that they are both genius scientists and speak the same scientific lingo. The difference is that while Ironman is powered by selfish innovation and ingenuity, Hulk is represented by repressed anger. So naturally we can say Hulk is the personification of anger, but it is a particular kind of anger. Hulk is the personification of the repressed anger that comes as a result of Capitalism. He is the repository of the racial and class anger of the oppressed. When this socioeconomic anger explodes it can destroy everything in its path. In the movie, Ironman wants to unlock the potential of this anger, much as people are motivated to succeed by the lure of elevated social status. As their ongoing debate on the ship devolves into conflict, Dr. Banner eventually transforms into the Hulk and fights Thor. Thor tries to convince Hulk that he and the rest of the team, Religion, Nationalism, and Democracy, are not his enemies. He is temporarily unsuccessful and eventually the team is broken up by Loki’s escape from the ship.

In the movie the SHIELD agent Phil Coulson is killed and his death provides the conviction the team needs to look deeper and realize that they are not enemies and that they need to work together to restore order. This is dramatized by the Avengers uniting in New York City to defeat Loki’s evil army. This reveals that if we can find a way balance the competitive urges of Religion, Nationalism, and Capitalism, we can overcome the anger created by class and racial inequality and unlock the ultimate potential of society. In the end we will be able to triumph over the evils that constantly pull us toward slavery, anarchy, and war! So how do we find that balance?

In all this, I have yet to discuss the SHIELD organization. SHIELD is characterized by Black Widow, Hawkeye, Nick Fury, and Phil Coulson, and is the personification of Government. Most directly embodied by Nick Fury, the Government houses all kinds of plans and secrets in the name of protecting society. This is represented by the fact that Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Nick Fury all wear black. This is a skeptical view of government and the characters always remain skeptical of SHIELD and Nick Fury in particular. Nick Fury is worthy of this skepticism as he continues to manipulate and coerce the Avengers into working together while keeping a myriad of secrets. He doesn’t use superpowers or any kind of magical prowess to accomplish this; he just tries to direct those forces at the real enemy. Sometimes he plays the role of the villain but it is all to try to facilitate the growth of the team. He helps with the development of weapons of mass destruction, but ultimately places his bet on the forces embodied in Religion, Democracy, and Capitalism to be the savior of humanity and encourages them to work together. In this way, we can see the role of Government as proper and necessary in keeping order and maintaining balance in society. We may not like it and may in fact view it as villainous. It is not perfect, our policymaking often has negative consequences, and our black ops often keep secrets, but it is the best system of order we have and at its best it brings the best out of us and brings us closer to our ideals, pointing the way to higher levels of enlightenment.

In the end of the movie we are reassured that this is possible, when the selfish and arrogant Ironman shows that he is willing to sacrifice his life to save the planet.