Hypocritical humanism in The Avengers

The big surprise of Marvel’s The Avengers – a culmination of at least five previous superhero movies – is that it isn’t Iron Man or Thor or Captain America or even The Hulk who proves to be the most interesting character. It’s the villain Loki, largely unknown outside of comic-book circles.

An alien who has lost a power struggle on his own planet, Loki has come to earth wielding an army and advanced technology. Played by Tom Hiddleston with amusing petulance, Loki expects this outgunned civilization to be an easy conquest. When he’s told that humans have no quarrel with him, he shrugs in agreement and says, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”

Loki enjoys squashing. Later in the film, he stands before a crowd of cowering victims and commands them to kneel. “You crave subjugation,” he says. “It’s the unspoken need of humanity.” Everyone obeys except for a single older man, who looks at Loki and tells him he refuses to bow “to men like you.”

The Avengers wants to side with that lone man. Though populated by aliens, super-powered scientists and others who have astonishing mental and physical skills, the movie does its best to put on a humanist face. The defense of humanity – the protection of its dignity – is the rallying cry that brings this superhero team together. What’s more, writer-director Joss Whedon is adept at emphasizing the personalities and relationships of his characters, so that we learn their insecurities and foibles. We’re meant to cheer for the heroes precisely because they’re fallibly human (well, most of them anyway) going up against inhuman odds.

Yet at its heart, the movie yearns to kneel. Agog at the powers its characters wield, The Avengers can’t resist becoming a dazzling showcase for how far they can leap, how hard they can punch, how clever they can be. The camerawork itself is a giveaway. More than once, we look up at a looming superhero from the vantage point of their boot. An ant’s-eye-view if I’ve ever seen one.

In the way that its faith in humanity leads to the creation of pop gods, The Avengers echoes the tension that can be felt by Christian humanism. At its best, Christian humanism is a blending of respect for imago dei with reverence for the Almighty. The Avengers, by the very nature of its narrative, forgets the Almighty part, of course. But how often do we? To what extent do we marvel at our “gods” – our athletes, our rock stars, Steve Jobs - before we find ourselves coming close to kneeling? At what point do we forget to say, “Not to men like you?” The Avengers is a reminder of humanism’s ugly side, the one that yearns to not simply venerate, but to elevate.

Perhaps this is why superhero myths have always had a hold on our collective consciousness. We hold others up for adoration out of a misguided sense of humanism, yes, but also because, deep within us, is the desire to worship. Could it be that Loki was right? “You were made to be ruled,” he sneers to that cowering crowd. Christians would agree.

What Do You Think?

  • What themes resonated for you in The Avengers?
  • What do you think the movie emphasized: its characters' humanity or their godlike abilities?
  • How would you define Christian humanism?


Comments (5)

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As my wife and I left the theater, we wondered the EXACT same thing aloud as Josh commented here…were Loki’s comments completely off base?  Aren’t we as humans (God’s wonderful creation) made to serve our maker?  And as we serve him, our life is easier, more understandable and complete?  Loki certainly was made to look like the loon when he gets his comeuppance at the end, so thus his thoughts are thrashed about as silly just as he was by the one particular character.  But is being “Lord” in all instances really that freeing, people of earth?

I went to see THE AVENGERS with my pastor. We are both comic book nerds and had gained the glad permission of the women in our lives to revel in this “guilty pleasure” without their company. We knew we wanted lots of action, lots of cheesy moralistic sentiment, and for the good guys to triumph over seemingly impossible odds. We were not disappointed.

I think what makes movies like this so attractive is that it taps into the natural human yearning—the “superman” urge—to be something more and better. One of my favorite parts about the Captain America movie is Dr. Erskine’s explanation to Steve Rogers that the super-soldier serum amplifies more than just the recipient’s physical attributes. It also amplifies all aspects of personality—for better or worse. That was what made a puny guy with a golden heart a more attractive candidate for the program than the muscular bully Tommy Lee Jones’ character favored. That’s one of the themes I definitely picked up on in the Avengers: humans can be more and better when they find purpose in serving others rather than pursuing self-aggrandizement.

God may not exist in Stan Lee’s fictional utopia; but morally speaking, it reminds me of a certain Kingdom another “superman” named Jesus once announced.

Nice piece, Josh.

Yes, Loki was an interesting character for Christians to consider. For me it was not only his musings about humans being meant to be ruled, but also his mocking of humanistic freedom, particularly since autonomy is modern society’s highest virtue.

In a sense, Loki reminded me of Ledger’s Joker, who I thought was often speaking some truth about humanity in THE DARK KNIGHT.

And I like your description of Christian humanism.

Good thoughts.

Though not nearly as deep or meaningful, I loved when Black Widow commented on Thor and Loki’s battle - calling them “gods” - and Captain America said, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I don’t think He dresses like that.” Between that and his concern that the “stars and stripes” might be a little old-fashioned I really felt like the film twitched toward a more traditional, monotheistic and even moralistic ethic that has been all but absent in Hollywood for a long time. Just the idea that there is a higher calling than self-preservation, wealth, power… that’s something!

Also, when a villain says something with no truth in it, there’s really nothing to be scared of. The power behind The Joker, Loki, Darth Vader or even Hannibal Leckter is that there is some truth behind their evil.

Ooh, I like that last bit John. Perhaps a good way to distinguish between an average movie villain and a great one.

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