‘The Avengers’: Good, evil and politics

Handout photo REUTERS “The Avengers” kicked off Hollywood’s summer 2012 season, the four-month period is dominated by superheroes, sequels and … Continued

Handout photo

REUTERS

“The Avengers” kicked off Hollywood’s summer 2012 season, the four-month period is dominated by superheroes, sequels and franchise reboots featuring epic battles between good and evil.

“We’re not a team, we’re a time bomb,” says thoughtful Dr. Bruce Banner, whose rage sometimes unfortunately turns him into a green, killing monster called the Hulk. Marvel’s ‘The Avengers,’ based on the comic books, is breaking box office records across the country. It is great escapism.

The Avengers’ is also a snapshot of our cultural struggles as a nation. The ‘Captain America’ character, unfrozen after having successfully fought the Nazis and Nazi-wannabes, is clearly out of his time. He wants the dysfunctional superheroes, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Black Widow to pull together and fight for earth. They’re more interested in fighting each other.

This is pretty much a perfect metaphor for our politics.

The heroes are deeply flawed; so is the villain. Loki, Thor’s adopted brother, is a deeply troubled demi-god who is bent on subjugating the people of earth. Loki is less evil and more just delusional; his motivation for getting the people of earth to bow down and worship him is not as much an evil power scheme as it is a desire to deal with his soul-destroying jealousy of Thor.

Loki claims he wants to bring peace to the world by forcing humans not to kill each other all the time. Ironically enough, humans do try to kill each other frequently, and in this film even the superheroes that are supposed to be stopping Loki spend most of their time bashing each other.

The difference between good and evil is not clearly defined. To blur that line even further, these Superheroes discover that the director of the “peacekeeping organization” S.H.I.E.L.D., Nick Fury, is lying.

Comics have come a long way from Blondie, Archie, and the squeaky clean, early Superman. Comics are both entertainment for and mirrors of their cultural epoch. Graphic novels in particular illustrate the trend of the anti-hero; films followed as typified by ‘The Dark Knight.’ Such heroes are driven by their own internal demons far more than they are by a desire to protect humanity.

This pertains to all the superheroes in ‘The Avengers,’ even Captain America who, when he is recruited to help save Earth, is dealing with a pretty serious case of post-traumatic stress disorder by destroying one large punching bag after another. Yet, it is also Captain America who organizes the protection of citizens from the raging aliens. The other Avengers seem to lack empathy for the very people they are supposed to protect, or, indeed, not really protect, just “avenge” after the carnage.

Having an “empathy gap” has become a political issue today. It is fascinating that American political candidates like Mitt Romney are criticized for having an “empathy gap.” It used to be enough that Americans felt that a candidate was someone they wanted to have a beer with; now they want empathy too.

That’s because we, as a society, have a widening “empathy gap” for each other. This is a dangerous situation, as the writings of Robert Jay Lifton teach. Lifton is an American psychiatrist and author, chiefly known for his studies of the psychological causes and effects of war and political violence. Lifton, from his early studies of Nazi doctors, has sought “knowledge of human susceptibility to evil” and found it over and over in the deadening of the capacity for empathy. For Lifton, a lack of empathy is at the root of social pathology.

Lifton has been concerned that Americans have demonstrated less empathy, especially post 9/11. Yet, he argued in a 2008 commencement address, as Americans we are nevertheless “capable of embarking on less violent, more diplomatic, more shared directions.” He reminded the graduating class that we can “regain our capacity for empathy for others.” He noted that this empathy is rooted in “our most valuable and specifically human attribute – our creative imagination.”

Comics are, if nothing else, “creative imagination.”

The superheroes in Marvel’s ‘The Avengers,’ who can’t pull together as a team and who have no empathy for each other or for humanity, can be a cautionary tale on the state of American public life today. Tony Stark, the “genius billionaire philanthropist” who is “Iron Man,” gets a lot of the good lines in the movie. Captain America, however, is the hero to watch in this film. He struggles with his own psychological scars, and yet tries to pull a team together, and he, at least, gets that the job is not so much “avenging” as it is “protecting.” What does it say about us as a people that he is the odd man out, a throw back to an earlier time?

There’s a lot of fun in this film, but there’s also one serious moral lesson: the “empathy gap” is not really with our leaders, it’s with each other.

About

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is Professor of Theology and immediate past President of Chicago Theological Seminary. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress. Her most recent books are "#OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power" and, as contributor and editor, "Interfaith Just Peacemaking: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Perspectives on the New Paradigm of Peace and War."
  • Stevedore1

    Aptly put. Although, highlighting this is the interchange between Captain (America) Rogers and Director Nick Fury of SHIELD, a man of international intrigue and protectionism who seems to answer to a namless global council. When Fury asks Captain America to don a re-enginneered version of his old threads Cap responds: “Aren’t the Stars and Stripes a bit too old fashioned for these times”. Fury’s cold response: “When faced with a threat like this, maybe we all need some Old Fashioned to win this” It is simply put, yet is it able to bridge that so-called “empathy gap” you refer to? I don’t believe it is an empathy gap Cap bridges as much as an ever-growing sense of moral relativism that leads to apathy and inaction that Cap draws the line between what he believes is noble and others would scoff at.

  • ccnl1

    Susan T, noted: “Comics are, if nothing else, “creative imagination.”

    She should have added: “As are all religions!!!!!!!”

  • DigitalQuaker

    Thank’s for your “brilliant” addition to the coverstation.

    not

  • ccnl1

    More on Susan T’s comic issues:

    AND THE INFAMOUS ANGELIC CONS CONTINUE TO WREAK STUPIDITY UPON THE WORLD

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:——>

    Joe Smith had his Moroni.

    “Latter-day Saints also believe that Michael the Archangel was Adam (the first man) when he was mortal, and Gabriel lived on the earth as Noah.”

    Jehovah Witnesses have their Jesus /Michael the archangel, the first angelic being created by God;

    Mohammed had his Gabriel (this “tinkerbell” got around).

    Jesus and his family had Michael, Gabriel, and Satan, the latter being a modern day dem-on of the de-mented.

    The Abraham-Moses myths had their Angel of Death and other “no-namers” to do their dirty work or other assorted duties.

    Contemporary biblical and religious scholars have relegated these “pretty wingie thingies” to the myth pile. We should do the same to include deleting all references to them in our religious operating manuals. Doing this will eliminate the prophet/profit/prophecy status of these founders and put them where they belong as simple humans just like the rest of us.

    Some added references to “tink-erbells”.

    newadvent.org/cathen/07049c.htm

    “The belief in guardian angels can be traced throughout all antiquity; pagans, like Menander and Plutarch (cf. Euseb., “Praep. Evang.”, xii), and Neo-Platonists, like Plotinus, held it. It was also the belief of the Babylonians and As-syrians, as their monuments testify, for a figure of a guardian angel now in the British Museum once decorated an As-syrian palace, and might well serve for a modern representation; while Nabopolassar, father of Nebuchadnezzar the Great, says: “He (Marduk) sent a tutelary deity (cherub) of grace to go at my side; in everything that I did, he made my work to succeed.”

    Catholic monks and Dark Age theologians also did their share of hallucinating:

    “TUBUAS-A member of the group of angels who were removed from the ranks of officially recognized celestial hierarchy in 745 by a council in Rome under Pope Zachary. He was joined by Uriel, A

  • ccnl1

    Think about the logic (or lack thereof).

    “I believe the Bible is inspired.” “Why?” “Because it says so.” Would anyone let that logic pass if it came from the followers of any other book or person? “I believe x is inspired because x says so.” Fill in the blanks:

    x=Pat Robertson
    x=the ayatolloah Sistani (sp?)
    x=David Koresh
    x=the Koran”

    more “logic”?

    “I believe there is One God Jehovah because He is revealed in the infallible Bible. I believe the Bible is infallible because it is the Word of the One God Jehovah.”

  • James210

    Finally a class on Gravitational theory and Dimensional distortions?
    “my parents met at a party”
    couldn’t you have found something abit more challenging professor brooks.
    nero’s vessel was a fav.

    The return trip to caserta (?) though I’m guessin, a holding cell and witchcraft charge waiting, entering the bastille?

    Just a guess but, falling off a boat, wearing a 7mil in 85 degrees is much different then stepping off the Platform…., Come forth demon(?) and the lack of proper dress? Man-up and wear the robe?
    maybe, though the piece wasn’t just….

    there was story of a man who had 1 year too build a home. One wishes to remember the beauty of spacious skies.

    Saladmander runnin around needs to layoff the Sugar…T
    aggravated-battery low
    it’s the cold-ness of life, that turns one, into what professor,?
    revel ? There is no difference in past agreements of 230 years ago and present day ministerial work.

    Wine issues? Who’s running the house? wounded soldier at the door is my guess. God forbid a soldier of the “house comes home and say’s” what’s going on”? who’s in charge here?, why are all, these kids throwing rocks at each other.
    party over…

  • SimonTemplar

    ccnl1 is just trying to earn back the respect of other atheists after he was accused of being a good Catholic by another post.

    I don’t simply believe the Bible is inspired just because it says it is inspired. I believe it because it gives us evidence for being so in the form of incredible prophecies contained within it’s pages (maong other reasons). While many have tried to come up with natural explanations for these prophecies, (yes, I’ve probably seen them all) or tried to compare them to Nostradamus or some other mystic, their theories have too many holes to be convincing and the comparisons fall apart upon close examination.

    Likewise, your comparison of biblical subjects to comic book heroes does not hold up to scrutiny. Though it does make for entertaining reading in a forum like this where snarkiness is often considered a virtue.

  • ccnl1

    Summarizing with a prayer:

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    The Apostles’ Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus’ story was embellished and “mythicized” by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

  • SODDI

    You know what else is in this film is emblematic of our ethics and “morals”? The original creators of the characters in “The Avengers”, most notably Jack Kirby but also Don Heck, get no credit for their talent and vision – a long roster of faceless producers get their names on screen, but the artist who created Captain America and Thor and Nick Fury and the Hulk not so much.

    They also didn’t get paid for movie sub rights.

  • quiensabe

    I am commenting because I don’t want you to be ignored. Tom Toles, the political comic, or court jester, got over 100 responses on the same day as you. What you are involved in is much more important; your work must continue.

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