“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.