Film Review: The Avengers and their Mythology Revisited

There be spoilers here. You’ve been warned.

I wrote a very short review of The Avengers film a little while ago, but in light of much more detailed reviews and analyses: such as the relationship between genii Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and Loki as master manipulator and challenger of the once and future geek status quo I thought that I might expand on some things a little more and maybe even respond to a few of these articles as well.

Remember, this is a spoiler alert: if you have not watched this film–and you should–then you have again been duly warned.

Avengers really reminded me of a lot of the lore that I used to read from Marvel cards and it totally played on the fandom that has generated around the Marvel universe and the superheroes that make up the Avengers team for decades. Again, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage myself in viewing this film because I have not seen Thor, or Captain America. Unlike Ex Urbe in the second link I posted, I knew that this wasn’t an extension of the great Ragnarok event that plagues the Nordic gods and it deals with the Marvel comics mythology instead: unfortunately I have been pretty rusty to that regard and having not been there in a very long or consistent time.

Each character was bang-on with regards to their comics incarnations as far as I remember. But like I said, I really like how they were played for the most part. If Captain America had been created in our time, he would been seen as a very transparent and tasteless living embodiment of propaganda. I know that during his Death in the comics world, there was a whole thing about selecting a new Captain America and showing just how different that Captain in our time would have been from Steve Rogers we know from WWII.

The Captain America in the film was played as a legendary hero–a relic of a certain moral structure that not even many people in his time or country embodied–and I like how he is seen as a piece of history: which for all intents and purposes he is. He is also still a human being who–while he follows orders–does not follow them blindly. After all, even after ages of suspended animation, Cap is not like the enemy soldiers he used to fight during the second World War. In fact, he makes reference to that time at one point in a very poignant but quick way that devolves into another battle.

Tony Stark is still a wise-ass that always thinks about contingencies, while Thor is still a strong being yet also very noble and cautious. I like that portrayal of the Asgard: because while his mythological archetype was generally stupid and little more than an over-sized brute that would have rivaled the Hulk in mentality and action, the Marvel Thor that we see is a being that wants to protect others and actually thinks about the implications of his advanced people’s presence and technology on the people of Earth.

I can’t say much about Black Widow and Hawk-Eye except to say that they seemed more like secondary characters compared to the others. I do like, however, how Loki plays on them: how he plays on both of them and you see as a viewer just how–for all everyone involved are supposedly superheroes–they are not all innocent. Certainly Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is as no-nonsense and as much of an “inglourious basterd” as ever: though a little more refined than the comics Fury (who I believe was a contemporary of Wolverine and Cap during WWII and he was the one who fought H.Y.D.R.A. instead of Cap) and in some ways very much more underhanded for the “greater good.”

I think though that the performances that really got me were Bruce Banner and Loki. First, let me deal with Dr. Banner. I have in fact seen both relatively recent films created around the Hulk, yet this film does something the others really don’t. Avengers looks at Bruce. You notice how I don’t say the Hulk and there is a reason why I do this in particular. In almost every other bit of media–film or otherwise–the green gamma beast is brought out for his spectacle effect and Bruce Banner simply tries to contain him. But here we see Bruce Banner as a person. We see a brilliant but haunted man who does not want to cause destruction and pain. He has suffered and yet despite this still tries to help people with his knowledge. He is a solitary person by his own perceived necessity if not by choice and in a lot of ways he is a very sad man.

A good portion of the film has people walking egg-shells around him and thinking they have contingencies in dealing with the “green nuclear djinn in a human bottle”: not realizing just how strong Banner actually is and how many “contingencies” he himself has undergone. Beth in her own review shows that the only person who doesn’t treat Banner as an accident waiting to happen or a potential resource is Tony Stark and she gives very compelling parallels between the two: to the point where I remembered Tony Stark taking a drink before dealing with Loki and actually wincing at that segment alone more than anything else in the film. They are both brilliant men that have their own demons. and they can relate to each other. However the difference is that Bruce Banner has a lot more control over the Hulk than people even think.

Personally, I think there is a difference between Banner being agitated enough to release him and purposefully bringing his alter-ego out. When he does the latter, the Hulk is in a lot more control and in fact–when it comes down to it–there is no difference between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. They are and always have been the same person. “The Other Guy,” that kept Bruce Banner from killing himself, is not just anger but a fury for passion and life and ironically as the film progresses you see Banner actually almost coming to terms with that. It is no coincidence how in the comics, Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk permanently yet manages to keep all of his intellect along with the righteous fury. Even in the movie, Banner says that the secret to controlling his power is that he is “always angry.”

And then you have the threat that brings all of these disparate beings together: Loki. Loki himself, like Thor, has his precedent in the Nordic mythological cycle. Loki is a trickster god and an agent of chaos. He is not biologically related to the Asgard deities but instead has Jotnar (or frost giant) blood in him. While Loki begins as a mischievous prankster, he ends up creating Ragnarok: the twilight of the gods. He transforms from trickster to destroyer. Perhaps in Thor, this role is prevalent as well in its own Marvel incarnation, but I want to talk about him in the film: something that I only alluded to in my earlier article on this Blog.

Loki feeds off of chaos and he is not an overt player. Ex Urbe really goes into immense detail with regards to Loki in the film, but let me just reiterate something I said in my last article in that he plays a really good game. He manipulates and feeds on the power of discord that the Avengers feel towards each other. His very presence caused their assembling and exacerbated the cracks between them. In many ways, he arranged it so that they were almost as dangerous as he and his allies were. As to how far his foresight goes–if he knew they and they particular would be chosen to deal with him–is another matter entirely.

As I said, Ex Urbe really looks at how clever Loki is. You notice, for instance, he barely ever fights and he likes to make his enemies think that they can always beat him. The moment Black Widow thought her interrogation strategy had worked on him, I knew she was screwed. Never try to trick a trickster or play their own game because they will beat you with experience. He sat back and let Captain America, Iron Man and Thor fight each other. And then, when he seemed to have failed in his mission to conquer Earth, he conveniently gets captured by Thor and they go to Asgard with the cube away from the wrath of the trickster god’s vengeful allies. All and all, I think he was right to postpone and then later ask for that drink.

I also really like the part where Loki is in Germany and he asks everyone to bow down to him and one old German man won’t who states, “Not to men like you,” and then later adds, “There are always men like you.” The thing that you need to understand is that Nordic mythology really played a powerful role in German culture. Others, including Richard Wagner, played off of these archetypes in the collective unconsciousness of the German and Germanic people. Wagner was also a really well-known anti-Semite and his operas were well loved by various members of the Nazi Party later on. Nietzsche referred to a figure of the “actor” or “demagogue in music.” Looking at Loki forcing everyone to bow in front of him–with the compelling words and presence of a trickster and “god”–with all of that historical resonance the immediate background and that old man standing up to him really put chills down my back.

In this, Ex Urbe might seem wrong in stating that Loki is attempting to help humans and gods beyond the status quo: that he is just another fascist power. Of course, there is another way of looking at this in an analytical sense: that by posing as a dictator (and one really bad at ruling apparently and inefficient in other ways), he is making humanity challenge him and the established order of things. Remember that the role of a trickster deity in mythology is to challenge the status quo and subvert authority. A trickster also helps humanity by giving it something that can potentially destroy itself and stealing it from the divine order, but also creating an order with it. In addition, trickster gods can take a lot of physical punishment–a lot of it–and they almost seem to goad others into delivering it to make them think they have the upper-hand. In this way, Loki is almost a comic mockery of the things he rebels against, a Wagnerian parody and by serving as that cardboard cut-out effigy he helps to subvert it. So perhaps in that way, Loki is more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than his “demagogue in music.”

Then there is Captain America’s reply to that–which actually plays well into the above idea: if Loki is leading him and others by the nose. There is also something else Captain America says afterwards. When Black Widow refers to Loki and Thor as virtual gods, he states, “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I don’t think he dresses like that.”

While this last quote can be seen as very culturally chauvinistic, because there are many different beliefs out there, it definitely shows Cap as a relic of his time: as someone who views the world in a certain way. At the same time though, if looked at from a different perspective, Cap could be seen as stating that even these perceived gods and superheroes–least of all himself–are not above a greater morality or law of some kind. He interprets that as God. The others interpret it as something else. Loki probably interprets it as freedom of power and chaos.

Of course, there are other concepts of absolute powers or incarnations of concepts as well. Long after the film is over and Loki is captured, you find out that the invaders were working with someone behind the scenes. The leader of the invaders tells his real master that invading Earth will only bring destruction and Death. Notice how I capitalize *Death.* Neil Gaiman was not the only writer who created incarnations of certain facts of life in anthropomorphic figures. In the Marvel Universe, there are beings called Embodiments and while you do not see Death at the end, you do see the being that … serves her female incarnation. And if you have read the comics, you know who I am talking about and you begin to realize that Loki is not the only being that plans things out. This is the Marvel plots-within-plots structure in film form, social commentary and mythological cycles of sequential drama all done well by Joss Whedon.

I think that I am going to leave this off right here. All and all I really loved The Avengers. I never even thought of a movie based on them and it worked very well. The mythology–both comics based and older–created excellent resonance along with Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue. I also look forward to its sequel and I wonder … just what was that small dagger that Loki stabbed Thor with towards the end of the film? And just what role will Death and her harbinger play in the scheme of things? I hope to find out soon enough.

ETA: Here is an obligatory and intriguing article by M. Leary on gods in Avengers and Marvel. Excelsior!

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