VIII. The Message behind the Superheroes
As the leading American blockbuster force of this time period (and thus the most universally recognized and economically potent blockbusters, period), it is fitting that the franchise represents its native country’s most fundamental and sacred slogan — no, not “God Bless America,” but “e pluribus unum.” That phrase is Latin for, “From many, one.” It is on the Seal of the United States of America, and what better cultural force to represent America than its own most recognizable cinematic invention, the principle driver of the world’s greatest modern art form, the blockbuster? Marvel’s Avengers represents America like few other things in these modern times can (they’re led by Captain America, after all), and that’s by being loud, proud, and often overwhelmingly ubiquitous and obnoxiously over-the-top —- but that’s the way blockbusters are meant to be. The US invented them after all. And the MCU, like its American homeland, is considerably more than the sum of its parts.
From many, one.
If there is any doubt of the blatant American symbolism behind the franchise (I for one don’t see how there could be; the patriotic overtones are pretty obvious), than these final words from Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in The Winter Soldier should convince any non-believers. After the discovery and fallout of the Hydra takeover of SHIELD, our heroes are questioned by the remaining government authorities over whether they (the Avengers, Captain America, Natasha Romanoff in particular) should be trusted and whether they’re best suited for defending the safety of the free world. It’s a valid question, certainly, after all the political intrigue and cloak-daggers of the Captain America sequel, and it’s a carryover from the end of the first Avengers film. Many, if not all of these Marvel characters come from conflicting, ideologically complex backgrounds and fight evil forces who are in some way connected to their own heroic origins. In other words, the Avengers’ creation and presence is often responsible for many of the evils they’re fighting to save the world from, that theme itself a carryover from the influence of The Dark Knight and its analysis of the concept of escalation.
This idea of escalation is so pertinent to much of Western history and particularly American foreign policy that it’s an integral part of today’s modern American icons and American consciousness. America often likes to think of itself as the hero of international warfare and yet has been derided as an intrusive, destructive “global police force” on numerous occasions. The nation’s government has repeatedly compromised its core principles of freedom and liberty in the name of national security and dubious future national interests, something that the equally dubious, shady dealings of SHIELD have come to represent in a painfully obvious, but perfectly appropriate way. Comic book movies these days discuss things like terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the conflict of individual vs. group freedoms, and ideological liberty vs. public safety in a way that no American superhero movement has done so before. They have adapted to the modern era, so to speak, and in doing so take it upon themselves to address whether they, the Avengers, (America) are chiefly responsible for their own threats, whether they are indeed heroes we should call upon, and whether anyone can trust them (us) in the first place and in the wake of so much troubled and contradictory history.
It’s fitting then that Captain America’ second film, the first of his standalone titles to take place in modern times, addresses the sticky current situation of modern America (and the world) in these troubled, politically murky, and seemingly morally ambiguous times. When asked if she or the rest of the Avengers should still be trusted or locked up in chains by a Washington security hearing, Johansson replies with the painfully blunt but also the most American response possible:
“Yes, the world is a vulnerable place, and yes, we helped make it that way. But you need us. You know why? Because we’re also the ones best qualified to defend it.”
In the end, nothing lasts forever. Marvel’s cinematic universe will eventually peter out and die, and so will DC’s Batman v Superwomen: Dawn of Crossovers or whatever. I’ll admit, parts of the whole craze have been super-fun to experience, particularly Christopher Nolan’s first two Dark Knight films (2005, 2008) and the MCU highlights of the original Iron Man, the mega-blockbuster Avengers (2012), and of course my personal favorite, The Winter Soldier (2014).
Much of what motivates my interests to follow the MCU and its competitors, including writing a massive, multi-part analysis on it like this, is the fact that the franchise is so trendy right now. It’s just a fad, but right now it’s the fad. Superheros and the MCU in particular are the defining American blockbuster of my adolescence and early adulthood, the time when people change the most and develop into the adults they’re going to be for the rest of their lives. I may have my complaints about the MCU, and I always will and I stand by them, but for better or for worse, The Avengers and their brand competitors like Superman and my own personal favorite, Batman, are the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movie stars of my day. Sure, I may be more partial to much of what the ’80’s had to offer as far as cinematic action, on-screen violence, and overall tone are and concerned, but for what it’s worth these are fascinating times for movies that we are living in, and I’ll be damned if I don’t let everybody know how I feel about it 😀
If there’s one, universally respected and coherent message that can be inferred from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is this: From many, there are one. The franchise has been far from flawless, but given the artistic and commercial success that Marvel has achieved with some of their formerly least recognizable and least marketable stars, they deserve credit where credit is due. Even when Tony Stark donned that Iron Man suit for the first time and shocked us with a surprisingly real, honest depiction of a man that had to confront his past while breaking the sound barrier, a calm, cool, one-eyed Samuel L. Jackson strode into the room after the credits rolled to give our snarky Stark hero a reality check: You’re not the only superhero in the world. You’ve become part of a bigger universe.
So, that’s what the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the modern superhero film are all about. They’re as flawed and their dominance as temporary as any mainstream, sidestream, or niche trend in movie history, and it’s important to acknowledge that. They also represent their native Hollywood industry and country better than most anything out there in the cinematic landscape of today, for better and for worse. However, that’s not to say we can’t have fun picking apart their flaws while also losing ourselves in the ecstasy of watching Thor smash his hammer into the Hulk’s face.
Perhaps this release of maddening amounts of superhero movies upon the world has gotten out of control; perhaps this escalation of comic book-goodness (and mediocrity) has stretched beyond the breaking point; and perhaps this mighty Marvel Cinematic Universe will crash and burn sooner than we think; but as Nick Fury once proudly proclaimed after a messy but triumphant debut of his superhero team in the war-torn streets of New York, our heroes will always come back, “Because we’ll need them to.” Sure, they may be loud and overly drawn out, but there’s something universal and timely about looking up to larger-than-life heroes who can fight the battles we never could, those remarkable people who are able to come together to become something greater than any one of them could on their own.
Case in point:
……oh, and then shwarma after 😉