I rarely see films more than once in the theatre any more.
When I was young and could spend money on just myself, it was easy. I love movies, and I love seeing them on the big screen. In 1988, for example, I saw Robert Zemeckis’ amazing movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit no less than 13 times. (I admit that seems a bit weird, now.) But these days, with kids and finances tight, if we get to a movie at all, it’s once and only once.
I have made a huge exception to that this year. I’ve seen Marvel’s The Avengers twice in the first week it opened–and I plan on going again soon. I can’t wait to sit back in my theatre seat and watch the adventures of Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Hulk again. I want to see those moments that took me by surprise the first time again, I want to relish the interplay between heroes, and to see the highly underrated Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson one more time.
I’m not a comic book collector or geek. (I will admit to having every issue of the original incarnation of Power Pack in mint condition. I will also admit that I was a huge fan of X-Men during the Chris Claremont years leading into the infamous Mutant Massacre of the late 1980’s.) But I have never collected Thor comic books, or Captain America, and frankly, was not a huge fan of Iron Man, who seemed like kind of a jerk the few times he showed up in those Marvel titles I did read.
So why am I such a huge fan ofThe Avengers?
It’s a simple word that I think explains why the film has broken box office records around the world, taking everyone in the “industry” by surprise. And it’s a word–a feeling–an emotion–that is strongly lacking in our world at the moment.
It’s not an easy commodity to find today. Global finances are in crisis, with the Greece’s current economic disaster capturing the news. An election year in the United States filled with disillusioned people who wonder what path the great Republic will take. Personal and professional uncertainty as joblessness rises, gas prices spike, and even groceries cost more than they used to.
The Avengers has plenty of bad stuff going on, too. It’s not like it takes place in a perfect, Metropolis world. One of the hallmarks of the Marvel Universe is that all of its costumed heroes live in and inhabit the real world. All the craziness of superpowers and supervillains takes place in the same world you and I live in. Part of Stan Lee’s brilliance with the creation of these characters is that he placed them in the middle of real world problems–not in a fictionalized version of some big city (yes, I’m looking at you, Gotham).
I won’t give away the plot here, because it really doesn’t need to make a lot of sense. Yes, it may operate in a “real world” universe, but it deals with other-worldly power sources, superbeings, and a flying aircraft carrier. And no, it may not make a lot of sense in a literal way. But it resonates in a way that I am certain the new Batman film will not because its central characters are all about hope.
Tony Stark/Iron Man shows the hope that each of us have in that our past does not need to dictate our future. Although Stark’s original legacy was one of weapons of warfare, he used his knowledge and ability to become a superhero. No longer being just “about himself,” Stark brings hope to people around him by defending them. Because of this change in his own life, he is also able to help others who may have lost hope, to discover it for themselves.
In Steve Rogers/Captain America we can see the hopefulness of someone who refuses to give up, who sees every opportunity as a moment to lead others, and holds those around him to a higher standard than they may even hold themselves. He never forgets what the scientist who helped him become Captain America reminded him: “You are a good man.” Although he himself has lost everything he held dear, he stands up and fights, leading new allies to understand that they are more than what they may have allowed themselves to become.
Thor shows us the hope we can have in others, never losing belief that even the most lost among us can still be redeemed. It is his own brother who has twice caused world-wrecking havoc (across several dimensions)–and who has betrayed his trust time and again. But Thor’s love for his brother, his hope that there is still good in him, shows hope for a better future for everyone–a desire for not just peace, but reconciliation and friendship.
From Bruce Banner/The Hulk we learn what happens when hope is lost. When people doubt us, when people lose their hope in us, we feel hopeless as well. Banner’s transformation into the Hulk seems to be a hopeless thing–until Tony Stark speaks into him and reminds him that the “monster” that is the Hulk is not something he needs to run from and be ashamed of. When people believe in us, when they offer us hope, we can see that even the dark valleys of our lives have purpose.
Those are the big four of The Avengers. I believe both Hawkeye and Black Widow also give the audiences glimpses of hope–neither of them are “super” heroes in the truest sense of the word, but both are willing to risk everything for the hope of a better tomorrow. They have been through scarring, difficult trials, and they have each offered each other hope–that they can be saved, that they are “more than what they have become”–and it transforms them.
Hope is a transformative thing. People who have no hope are lost, blind, aimless. They have nothing to believe in, to fight for, to stand up for. Without hope, there is no reason to get out of bed in the morning, really. When we have hope, we can see our current situation and say, “No, this is not what was intended for me. This is not what I was created for.” We look at the circumstances of our lives not as accidents of fate, but as moments that lead us further down the path to our ultimate destination.
The villain of the film, Loki, cannot see past the imperfections. He can’t see anything but the brokenness, the humanity, of “earth’s mightiest heroes.” This is made clear in one of the most quoted dialogue moments of the film:
Loki: What have I to fear?
Tony Stark: The Avengers. It’s what we call ourselves, sort of like a team. “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” type thing.
Loki: Yes, I’ve met them.
Tony Stark: Yeah, it takes us a while to get any traction, I’ll give you that one. But let’s do a head count here: your brother the demi-god; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breath-taking anger management issues; a couple of master assassins, and YOU, big fella, you’ve managed to piss off every single one of them.
Loki: That was the plan.
Tony Stark: Not a great plan. When they come, and they WILL, they’ll come for you.
Loki: I have an army.
Tony Stark: We have a Hulk.
Loki: I thought the beast had wandered off…
Tony Stark: You’re missing the point! There’s no throne, there is no version of this where you come out on top. Maybe your army comes and maybe it’s too much for us but it’s all on you. Because if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it!
Stark’s last line to Loki is something that only someone with hope can say. Hope isn’t about who has power now. Hope isn’t about how circumstances look right now. Hope is always about tomorrow. It’s always about the fact that this moment is not where you will end.
He realizes that yes, circumstances are against them. Odds are not stacked in their favor, but in spite of that, they will fight. And not out of a hopelessness, either. “Well, you’re going to win anyway, but we’ll die fighting the good fight.” Stark’s reply is that yes, they may go down for the count, but they will get back up and win in the end.
That is hope. That is why the line is popular, and why it is so thrilling to hear. Audiences already have enough leaders who are saying the best days are behind us. We’re already experiencing emptiness in our souls and in our pocketbooks. The last thing we want to hear is someone saying, “Well, we’ll do out best, but we may lose.” What we need to hear is someone who says, “You may lose, you may face horrific losses, but you will come back and you will win.”
There is no hope in the Batman franchise. Batman doesn’t fight because he believes in a better tomorrow. Don’t get me wrong. I loved Batman Begins. I even loved Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Danny DeVito. But these movies are not about hope. No matter what the incarnation of Batman, his very being–the very reason for his existence–is not about hope for tomorrow. It’s about the bleakness of today and the fact that sometimes–often times, according to its universe–you may become the very thing that you are most fighting. That is not hopefulness. That is nihilism. That is emptiness.
The Avengers ends with audiences cheering because the heroes, although scattered, promise to come back and stand strong again when tomorrow is threatened. At the end of The Dark Knight, Batman runs off into the night, alone, after confronting an evil that is very much like the tortured complications of his own soul. Compare the final lines of The Dark Knight:
Because he’s the hero Gotham deserves, but not the one it needs right now…and so we’ll hunt him, because he can take it. Because he’s not a hero. He’s a silent guardian, a watchful protector…a dark knight.”
with the final lines from The Avengers:
Agent Maria Hill: Sir, how does it work now? They’ve gone their separate ways, some pretty extremely far. We get into a situation like this again, what happens then?
Nick Fury: They’ll come back.
Agent Maria Hill: Are you really sure about that?
Nick Fury: I am.
Agent Maria Hill: Why?
Nick Fury: Because we’ll need them to.
The difference is clear.
The Avengers will come back because they offer hope. They represent hope. This what true heroes bring: hope that no matter what troubles and problems we face, we are not alone–it’s not for nothing. The Avengers inhabit a different world than Batman. Yes, they may have dark places in their past–but none of the characters remain there–all of them will unite to stand as a light to a better tomorrow. Hope isn’t self-centered–it’s always about the other. It’s always about someone else. When The Avengers fight together for someone else–earth itself–they find their greatest good.
Batman can never call himself a hero–his actions are always based out of revenge, out of the darkness within him, never as a path to a better tomorrow, never as a light in a dark world. Batman can’t offer that hope or promise because he himself is lost. He doesn’t see a better tomorrow, he doesn’t see himself as much different from the very villains he is fighting against. He can’t even live in the light, defended by officers of good, because his actions and motivations are uncertain, unclear to the very ones he is defending.
This makes The Avengers sound much more philosophical than writer/director Joss Wheadon, as awesome as he is, intended, I’m sure. Yes, it’s a comic book movie with great special effects and battles and jokes and several moments of sheer enjoyment. Performances are enjoyable all around, and the music by Alan Silvestri is heroic and anthemic and reminds me a bit of a cross between the trumpets of John Williams and the heavy percussion of Hans Zimmer. This track, which plays under Nick Fury’s final speech as the team goes its separate ways, is a great example:
Even the end credit song by Seattle rockers Soundgarden, is a song about hope. I’ve never been a fan of the band or their sound as grunge wasn’t my thing. But the lyrics to the song–even at their most bleak–are filled with promise of new light, the hope of tomorrow:
What if all you understand
Could fit into the center of your hand?
Then you found it wasn’t you
Who held the sum of everything you knew?
We’re in sync but not alone.
You hold on, and they’re gone.
Like the sun we will live to rise
Like the sun we will live and die,
And then ignite again.
Like the sun we will live to rise.
That’s hopefulness. We will are not alone. We may fall, but we will rise. And we will blaze with light. When you realize, as the song says, “You aren’t the sum of everything you know,” you can have–you can bring–hope. This is a most-fitting summary of The Avengers.
But The Avengers succeeds, and has been a success, not because it is just a well-made movie. None of the characters are heroes that audiences have been clamoring for. But the film works and is wonderful because of the humanity of its characters, and the hope they embrace–the hope they represent. That even the darkest moments are only pathways to something better. That even the ones we work with who may bug us and annoy us have something they can bring to the table. That even when it seems ridiculous and useless to fight, we will fight and we will persevere. Because–and this is the key–there is always hope.
It’s not just a statement. As Nick Fury says, “It’s a promise.”
I can’t wait to go see this movie again.