Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Avengers

I watched the movie The Avengers today with my two children and my father. My children, both teenagers, were dying to see it and would gladly have attended the premiere, had their mean old father allowed them. I had mixed expectations regarding the film. One of the film critics I most admire, Jeffrey Overstreet (with whom I also went to university some years ago), had given it a positive but not ecstatic review
But I knew my children wanted to go and even Overstreet did not totally pan the film, so I went expecting to enjoy an exciting action film with limited depth – and that's exactly what I got. As Overstreet describes it: “I enjoy a good superhero movie the way I enjoy a bowl of ice cream, and this is a six-scoop sundae covered in toppings.”

I won't pretend that I didn't enjoy the film. I did. The action doesn't drag. My emotions were suitably aroused and manipulated as these flawed heroes rose to defend humanity from the alien forces of evil. I laughed at the one-liners and other humorous moments. In many ways this is an enjoyable movie and I would not discourage anyone from seeing it. In fact I'd tell you to watch it on the big screen to get the best experience. Your home plasma screen tv, no matter how large, is just not going to give you the same visual experience. (We didn't watch it in 3D because 3D doesn't really do anything for me.)

I do wonder, as I reflect on the movie (which I probably shouldn't bother to do anyway), what message this type of movie sends to our culture. Sure, our superheroes now demonstrate their flaws more openly than I remember them doing when I was young. I guess that's a positive development. But as someone who has begun to wrestle more with the predominance of violence in our culture, I see some reasons for concern in our glorification of it in films such as these. Yes, the violence is (ultimately) directed against the really evil, nasty villain who is leading an army of space aliens to subjugate the earth. Who wouldn't cheer for those fighting against them? But in doing so do we become desensitized to violence in general? Do we begin to see it as the best or only option for resolving conflict? By outsourcing evil to extra-terrestrials, we can avoid the complex issues of what it means for humans to resolve their intra-human conflicts through violence, while exalting as heroes those who resort to violence in the name of a good cause. Is it such a big step from viewing aliens as evil threats to our way of life to viewing those from other cultures or backgrounds that way?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I am not an avowed pacifist and could still see myself resorting to violence in certain situations. Perhaps I would resort to it more easily than I care to admit – maybe I am a bit like Dr. Banner after all. And wouldn't I like to be able to destroy evil with such powerful blows? But would I remember to think about those innocents whom I injure or kill in the process?

Maybe it's best not to analyze a film like this too deeply. And maybe, just maybe, a person can be positively inspired by the superhero mythology. I think of my own children, who love superhero tales far beyond what I did at their age. Perhaps this superhero world can awaken in them a longing for the heroic, a desire to be avengers of justice and truth and to stand on the side of the weak and oppressed. I hope so. I'm reminded of an old song by Steve Taylor – Hero. 

Maybe this love of superheroes can remind us of our need for something beyond our ordinary human nature. Maybe, just maybe it can turn our thoughts to the one true hero, the one who can transform individuals and cultures and civilization – although in a most un-heroic way that renounces violence and embraces humble servanthood. Maybe at its best moments a film like The Avengers can point us to something beyond itself and ourselves.

Or maybe it will just leave us with a sugary headache...

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