There’s no denying that The Avengers has tapped into an element of the modern zeitgeist. The film’s extraordinary, record-smashing success can not be simply laid at the feet of marketing. It’s not doing the numbers it is doing simply because it’s the culmination of five previous films (this week The Avengers will have grossed as much as Captain America, Thor and The Incredible Hulk COMBINED). When this movie beats The Dark Knight’s astonishing box office take (it will probably pass that film in about two weeks), it will be because it is giving audiences something they really, really wanted.
That something, I believe, boils down to sincerity. The Avengers is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, that doesn’t have much cynicism and contains zero ironic distancing. It’s a movie that isn’t afraid to be big, to be silly and to embrace very traditional images of heroism.
When The Dark Knight became a smash success it was also feeding off the zeitgeist of the time. The post-9/11 security state was coming to a head, and we found ourselves in a world where things weren’t black and white, they were maddeningly black and grey. The film reflected that, setting up Batman as a hero who needed to do bad things for good reasons, and America - just about to get out of the Bush era - responded in a big way.
But zeitgeist has a way of changing over time. The economy tanked not long after The Dark Knight was released, and that year’s presidential election showed that the nation was looking for something different. In some ways The Dark Knight represents the last hurrah of the Bush administration, the last moment when you could make a movie about a hero who used extra-Constitutional methods to keep people safe. Just as Death Wish fully captured the moment when our nation’s cities became terrifying to white people, The Dark Knight captures the last moment when Guantanamo Bay was a good thing.
Times were tough when The Dark Knight came out, but they were tough in a large, existential way. There were two wars and a lot of fear mongering, all of which felt present yet distant at the same time. It was the stock market crash in 2008 that brought it all home, and it’s what set the stage for The Avengers.
We are living in a time of precipitous uncertainty. Nobody is interested in the grey areas anymore. Much like the 1930s - the time when superheroes were birthed - we’re hungry for something that feels optimistic, something that’s hopeful. Something that tells us it’s all going to be okay.
That something is The Avengers. It’s the most relentlessly positive blockbuster in years. The big conflict in the film isn’t between the Avengers and the Chitauri, it’s between the Avengers. It’s a movie about squabbling, disparate people coming together to get things done. No character feels extraneous, and everyone has something to do that only they can accomplish. The film's money shot isn't an explosion or a fight scene, it's a shot of the characters standing together, united. It’s exactly the fantasy that will appeal to a nation divided drastically along seemingly insurmountable partisan lines. It's the fantasy of teamwork.
At the lead of The Avengers is the star-spangled man himself, Captain America - a character who was seen as almost impossibly cheesy a decade ago. The idea of a big screen version of Captain America NOT mired in post-Watergate political cynicism would have been a joke before 2008; he would have seemed out of touch and square. But now a little square is appealing, and with all the lumps America has taken lately Cap’s non-partisan, non-jingoistic patriotism feels right and good.
And talk about fantasy figures who play to modern needs - the other big lead of The Avengers is a billionaire who wants to do nothing with his money but good, a vision of the rich that reflects very little of the real world around us, but that speaks to what we’d like to see from our moneyed class. Iron Man’s story arc in The Avengers is a trip towards socialism - the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one rich guy. Ayn Rand would shit herself.
The team comes together under the banner of a shadowy government organization that is itself under the control of an even more literally shadowy cabal of leaders - but their big moment comes when they step outside of that and stand as united individuals. And even the most cynical character in the piece, the manipulative Nick Fury, disobeys his masters and does everything he does out of a sense of the triumph of the human spirit.
It’s interesting how little The Avengers wallows in the murky governmental aspects of SHIELD. While Bruce Wayne wiretapping Gotham was a major plot point, an even more overreaching surveillance effort by SHIELD is played off in a line or two. Much of that comes from the very different attitudes the films have - The Avengers is much more fun - but most of it comes from a sense of optimistic realism. Yes, this is the world we live in, where the government can listen in to your conversations and might even be willing to nuke a major city, but we don’t have to live like it’s a dystopia. There’s still hope for decency as long as there are decent people. Acknowledging the negative realities allows the film's optimism to feel grounded.
What’s more, The Avengers is a movie that is not ashamed of what it is. Christopher Nolan’s Batfilms constantly distance themselves from their comic book origins; Joss Whedon’s film embraces comic bookiness in a big way, even including a physically implausible flying aircraft carrier. That’s refreshing in an era where every blockbuster seeks to soak itself in a kind of realism that stunts the joy of imagination.
That lack of shame extends to the way the movie views its heroes. These are not conflicted people. They have their own issues, their own neuroses, but every single Avenger wants to do good. There’s no ‘refusal’ as per the boring Hero’s Journey playbook. There are moments of self-doubt - Thor hesitating to see if he remains worthy of his hammer - and there are moments of conflict - the entirety of Cap and Iron Man’s relationship - but these guys are always, throughout the film, dedicated to doing the right thing. Iron Man never wants to just go home and play with his toys.
Their heroism is uncomplicated. It has different dimensions - I especially like the way the film contrasts Bruce Banner, who seeks to help people on a very one-to-one basis, with Tony Stark, who seeks to help the whole world - and it has different approaches, but in the end it is straight up heroism. It isn’t the dark vigilantism of Batman, and it isn’t even the reluctant heroism of Spider-Man. This is old-fashioned good guys doing good things because they should. That’s refreshing, and it’s something we want to see in the world around us right now.
Their heroism is also people-based. It’s great seeing The Avengers taking time out of their city-destroying final battle to assist civilians and to work with the cops. Batman protects Gotham City, but that protection always feels conceptual rather than actual. It’s the same reason Richard Donner’s Superman resonates - we see Superman helping people, not just battling baddies. Too often in superhero movies the threat is so personal as to render the city or planet being protected abstract; while The Avengers has a personal element to the villainy (thanks to Thor), most of our heroes are in it for us, not to defend their girlfriend or themselves.
We’ve been culturally mired in irony and cynicism for decades now. Our comic books and the movies that come from them have been caught up in deconstruction for too long; we have come to a place where we forgot why these characters were heroes at all. But the Marvel characters had a certain immunity to this; they were created with their problems and their quirks in place, so it’s much harder to deconstruct a Spider-Man or an Iron Man. The deconstruction is part of their initial construction, and so that allows them to be heroes with feet of clay, not heroes with rotten innards.
Those feet of clay allow the characters to be sincere. They don’t have hidden fetish dimensions, and they don’t represent fascist power dreams. They’re not gods who need to be cut down through psychoanalysis (even the ones who are gods). They’re regular people with irregular abilities doing good for the simple reason that you should do good. Ironically it’s the complexity of the characters developed by the House of Ideas that allows them to be so directly simple in their heroism.
The Avengers aren’t just the heroes we deserve, they’re the heroes we need right now.