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The Politics of "The Avengers"; Or, Can Clean Energy and Old-Fashioned Jingoism Mix?

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik May 7, 2012 at 10:10AM

I couldn't help myself. Not because I'm a fan of comic books, blockbusters or Josh Whedon, but because I'm always curious about a cultural phenonemon, and often feel the need to interrogate what is at play in our most popular movies, and especially since this may be the most popular one of all time. "The Avengers" embodies what I've always felt about Hollywood juggernauts: they're a hodgepodge of political views and ideological undercurrents, colliding with each other to create a mainstream entertainment that, if you look close enough, manages to uphold old-fashioned reactionary American values. Here, it's such myths as militaristic might, individual sacrifice and the renegade American hero--allthough, it also seems to throw a bone to contemporary liberal views on energy policy at the same time.
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I couldn't help myself. Not because I'm a fan of comic books, blockbusters or Josh Whedon, but because I'm always curious about a cultural phenonemon, and often feel the need to interrogate what is at play in our most popular movies, and especially since this may be the most popular one of all time. "The Avengers" embodies what I've always felt about Hollywood juggernauts: they're a hodgepodge of political views and ideological undercurrents, colliding with each other to create a mainstream entertainment that, if you look close enough, manages to uphold old-fashioned reactionary American values. Here, it's such myths as militaristic might, individual sacrifice and the renegade American hero--allthough, it also seems to throw a bone to contemporary liberal views on energy policy at the same time.

US Army

So far, op-ed pieces on "The Avengers" have addressed a multitude of subtextual messages in the film, from the left (Alternet.org's "The Awesome Politics of The Avengers,": "it’s remarkable that the phrase 'unlimited source of clean, sustainable energy' is uttered at least twice in its entirety, and that it’s a foregone conclusion in the film why that would be a thing worth fighting for") to the right ("The Avengers Is Great and Libertarian": "the film is surprisingly able in depicting the state as a counterproductive threat") to the middle (Washington Post's "The Avengers: Good, evil and politics": The superheroes in Marvel’s ‘The Avengers,’ who can’t pull together as a team and who have no empathy for each other or for humanity, can be a cautionary tale on the state of American public life today.")

This convoluted mix of political views, however, seems to overlook the core of the film: "The Avengers" may be some of all of the above, but it's also something much simpler: An American combat film for the 21st Century. Not so different from a conventional American war film, from which "Captain America" sprung last summer, where a mix of different soldiers, from different backgrounds, come together for the good of God ("There's only one," says the Captain, in "The Avengers," "and he doesn't look like that") and country (can you guess which one?) to fight a foreign evil Other. In this case, it's monstrous aliens--always an easy and politically simple bugaboo--rather than Nazis--but what's the difference, really?

"The Avengers" upholds the classic image of the rogue American masculine hero--and I'm sorry but I don't think Scarlett Johansson's ass-kicking superspy sufficiently counteracts all the testosterone on display. What we have is Captain America once again emerging as our fearless, white, wholesome, brave and bold leader and Samuel Jackson's Nick Fury proving how his ragtag band of soldiers don't need to follow the rules of the bureaucratic state--and I'd argue this isn't libertarian; this is stars-and-stripes America, folks. From the lone cowboy to the renegade cop to the war hero, throughout our cultural history, we have always championed individuals over the government. This is pro-American individualism and exceptionalism, a classic Reagan-era conversative power move that only further propagates American might.

This myth of the renegade outsider is all over the "The Avengers," but the irony, of course, is that they are the ultimate insiders. Like any number of political candidates who present themselves as outside the beltway (but, in fact, are squarely inside, reaping all the benefits therein), "The Avengers" have money, strength, good looks and unlimited power. In fact, my biggest problem with the movie is that all of the characters seem pretty indestructable. It's a nice fantasy to have, and one that Hollywood and American hegemony continue to put forward--and audiences continue to lap up. But I'm sorry: Real life on earth is far more fragile.

This article is related to: Rightwing Extremism, Anti-Hollywood, War