Review: The Avengers (2012): Some assembly required

My wife and I took in a matinée showing of The Avengers this afternoon, a movie I’ve been anticipating for a while.  After the movie was over and we emerged from the theater, I watched as a little boy dressed up in a Captain America outfit pranced about the lobby, jumping and then landing to strike dramatic poses with his plastic shield.  He must have been about five.  Some fifty years ago, that might have been me.

Just not in public.

As I confessed in an earlier post (“Of Cowboys and Superheroes,” 4/23/12), I was a big fan of Marvel Comics when I was a kid.  When I could, I read Captain America, Iron Man, and yes, The Avengers, whose rallying cry was “Avengers, assemble!”  It sounds hokey now, but I didn’t think so then.

Movies like this just bring it all back–the days when you could be a hero just by tying a towel around your neck and leaping off the sofa.  I have to admit, it’s harder when you’re a grown-up.  Not only would you look ridiculous, but you just might hurt yourself.

This was a pure popcorn movie, stuffed to the gills with action and CG effects, all seamlessly and expensively staged.  Joss Whedon, who helped bring us everything in the pop-culture spectrum from Toy Story to Buffy, somehow managed to weave all the competing movie franchises into one story that actually worked.

Was there a message to the story, something of redeeming social value?  Well, yes, sort of.  As Roger Ebert drily observes, the Avengers have to

learn the benefits of Teamwork, which is discussed in speeches of noble banality. So you see this is sort of an educational film, teaching the Avengers to do what was so highly valued on my first-grade report card: the concept of Working Well With Others.  (Read the full review here.)

Superheroes are, after all, generally loners who take it upon themselves to keep the world safe, existing in their own narrative universes where, most of the time, no other superheroes seem to exist.   If there is a message to the movie, it comes in the way the death of a colleague forces these rugged individualists to set aside their egos and work together for the common good.  They have to stop fighting with each other before they can fight together against the Bad Guys.

Like I said, pure popcorn, right down to the Moral of the Story.  And Whedon, of course, inserts enough self-deprecating humor into the script to remind us that we’re not supposed to take anything too seriously.  Just sit back and enjoy the ride.

We who are of a more sophisticated and scholarly bent can sniff at the shallow philosophy of a movie about people in costumes running around to save the world. (Of course, if the costume department had to stick to how the characters actually appeared in the comic books, nobody would take anything seriously, and you’d probably have to pay the actors a whole lot more money.)  The Avengers aren’t really role models, and even superhero violence is still violence (albeit sanitized by making the enemy into a faceless and somewhat reptilian evil).

But as my anonymous five-year-old friend has reminded me, this is, at least to some extent, the way we think.  Or at least, the way some little boys think, including the little boy in me.  We live in a culture that still impresses the lessons of individualism at every turn.  One more counter-lesson in Working Well With Others couldn’t hurt.

Especially when it comes to the spiritual life.  We’re not meant to go it alone.  Yet there is a kind of spirituality promoted by our culture that emphasizes a kind of individual heroism, against the background of some faceless organized religion.

Rather, the Christian life is lived against the backdrop of the true battle of Good vs. Evil, even if we’re not always aware of it.  As John Eldredge has recently written: “I am staggered by the level of naiveté that most people live with regarding evil.  They don’t take it seriously.  They don’t live as though the Story has a Villain (Epic, p. 39).”  And in that battle, God’s people must stand together as one on the side of what is right and good in his eyes (Rom 12:9-21).

The church isn’t perfect, but it is God’s plan.  Heroic and solitary spirituality is not.

As with the Avengers, some assembly is required.

(Update, 5/28: if you haven’t seen the movie yet, or plan to see it again, stay all the way through the very end of the credits; there’s one more scene that I think you’ll enjoy.)