Living in The Avengers’ universe

‘Sergeant!’ says Captain America. ‘I want you to station your men in all these buildings, and I need a perimeter all the way down to 39th.’

The grizzled officer looks incredulous.

‘Why should I take orders from you?’

At that moment, a posse of Loki’s space gremlins – or whatever the fuck they are – attack, and Captain America effortlessly dispatches them some balletic chop sockery.

There’s a pause and the sergeant backs away. He turns on his radio. ‘I want men posted in all these buildings! And I want a perimeter all the way down to 39th!’

The sequence from The Avengers, the film currently topping box offices around the world, plays as comedy, the joke squarely on the uniformed chump doubting the authority of a superhero.

Yet, actually, the cop’s question seems entirely sensible question. Why should he (or anyone else) take orders from Captain America, who, throughout the film, presents as a perfect ninny unacquainted with the simplest aspects of the modern world? And why, more importantly, does a proficiency at violence establish a right to command – indeed, make that right so self-evident that a challenge to it becomes retrospectively ridiculous?

The radical journalist Robert Fitch once quipped that vulgar Marxism explains 90 per cent of what goes in the world.
In that spirit, the proliferation of superhero movies – at present, Hollywood seems to make almost nothing else – can be explained through crass economics. Film versions of much-loved comic books enjoy the same material advantage as remakes of classic TV shows, in that they bring an established fan base. A superhero blockbuster establishes a franchise that can remain lucrative despite the occasional flops or failures. Even more than, say, the James Bond series, a superhero can be rebooted and retweeked to efface the memory of any particularly unfortunate instalment (cf the Batman movies).
Most of all, superheroes particularly suit the horizontal integration that the media behemoths now rely upon in their financial planning. With their costumes and logos, comic book characters serve as walking trademarks, transitioning effortlessly from the silver screen to the computer games or Happy Meal tie-ins that may well be more commercially important than the film itself.
But are those the only reasons that superheroes dominate the cultural landscape? Is there something about the genre that reflects the current moment?

Superman, whose extraordinary success legitimated all the imitators that followed, can be understood in all kinds of ways. He’s the original immigrant: Kal-El from Krypton reinventing himself as a loyal American. He’s modernity’s invisible citizen, dreaming of a heroic escape from the anonymity of metropolis. He’s an anti-fascist revenge fantasy dreamed up by two Jewish kids as the Final Solution drew ever nearer. And so on.

Yet you cannot ignore the origins of Siegel and Shuster’s iconic creation in an era awash with supermen, from the Nietzschean blond beasts so popular with national socialists to the Stakhanovites inspired by Joe Stalin, the original man of steel. That doesn’t mean that the genre’s innately and inevitably fascistic, as is sometimes argued. Nonetheless, the concept of the superhero necessarily rests upon a distinction central to both the far Right and the Stalinist Left – the gulf between the (ordinary) masses and the (extra-ordinary) hero. Superhero narratives can play with that, and even consciously subvert it (as some of the more obviously leftwing films do) but they can’t escape it.

One of the biggest difference between our cultural situation and that of the 1930s lies in the relative absence of mass politics. That is, even as we enter a cycle of economic booms and busts reminiscent of the early twentieth century, we so far lack the political movements characteristic of that time (though, in Europe at least, that may be changing). To date, the neoliberal era has been defined by the atomisation of the citizenry, their sullen withdrawal from public life.

In the past, the superhero worked as a fantasy precisely because of the centrality of mass politics. The notion of the exalted individual performing heroic deeds appealed precisely because it seemed so fantastical at a time when politics was being shaped by collective forces as never before. The cult of the superman developed by the fascists, like its equivalent in Stalinism, was implicitly directed against mobilisations of ordinary people. The Aryan ubermensch was necessary precisely because the untermenschen against whom the fascists raged were so numerous and so well organized (in Nazi posters, the ‘blond beast’ emerges to cow the communists and the Jews), while the exaltation of the Soviet shock worker expressed the mentality of a bureaucratic class increasingly distinguishing itself from the ordinary Russian workers.

What happens, though, when the disengagement of the populace from political life gets thoroughly normalised? In such circumstances, the political class and its agents seem, almost by definition, able to perform feats that ordinary people simply cannot.

That seems to me the context for the new hegemony of superheroes. The genre no longer presents as wish-fulfillment so much as a kind of realism – an accurate depiction of the way society works. We are, in other words, already living in a comic book.

The most obvious example is the War on Terror, which, from its beginning, played out as the most clichéd super hero script. In what other context would the phrase ‘Axis of Evil’ be accepted as a serious proposition? How did it ever make sense to devote $1.3 trillion to defeating the tiny organization that was al Qaeda, unless you understood bin Laden as exerting the kind of mighty power wielded by the mad geniuses in comic books? Think back to the outrage that erupted when the Obama administration briefly contemplated trying the 9/11 perpetrators in a civilian court in New York. Why did that generate so much angst? Because, of course, they were Super Villains – and everyone knows that Super Villains always escape and run riot. Guantanamo Bay makes sense for the same reason we understand the special cage Nick Fury prepares for Loki.

Consider, for instance, the iconic photo of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and others staring grimly at computers in the Situation Room as the operation to kill bin Laden plays out.

It’s instantly familiar from scores of B-grade films – and it’s replicated almost exactly in The Avengers, as Samuel L Jackson monitors his crack squad of assassins from his mysterious flying base.

What I’m suggesting is that the lack of popular agency, the absence of mass participation in politics, made the presentation of the last decade in comic book terms not only possible but almost inevitable. As Jim Larkin famously said, ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees.’ In a period in which, for most people, the prospect of political participation seems entirely implausible, the depiction of world politics as a tussle between mighty beings makes intuitive sense – and our leaders have played on this relentlessly.

The Avengers is interesting, then, as making visible the dynamic of superhero politics. Take that encounter between Captain America and the cop. Why is the sergeant inherently ridiculous? Because the battle with the space monkeys demonstrates what should have been immediately apparent: that there’s a qualitative gulf between heroes and everyone else, and that fundamental division makes entirely risible attempts to hold the former to the standards of the latter.

Again, we all know this. This is, after all, the era of black ops and secret prisons, a time when heroes demonstrate their heroism by brushing away rules and laws and similar impediments. That’s why when Fury confers with his political masters, we already know they’ll do nothing but carp and vacillate and put obstructions in his way.

But The Avengers sequence also demonstrates the centrality of violence in separating the superheroes from the little people. Barack Obama’s made, in a new television commercial, the killing of bin Laden central to his re-election. Consider the following extraordinary dialogue that played shortly after the bin Laden operation between cable host Chris Matthews and the editor of the online journal Politico, Jonathan Martin:

MATTHEWS: It seems to me that this president is—and I mean this positively—cold-blooded. I think people who are chief executives of this country and have all the firepower before them, they have to be willing to use it, or they shouldn’t take the job. It’s very simple. If you’re not willing to use our military power, if you’re not willing to kill people when you have to, you shouldn’t take that job. This president is not a wimp about using power. In fact, I dare say he is pretty cold-blooded. He went after the pirates. He—he actually called for the contract. He called for the hit. He did it again here.

MARTIN: […] But this does I think provide a problem for Republicans on the issue of this narrative. What you touched on, Chris, the notion that he is somehow weak or, you know, unwilling to sort of use force, he doesn’t like violence. He’s sort of the faculty lounge guy who is unfamiliar with the U.S. military. He has a ready response for that now for the next year and a half. He can say, well, you can ask Osama bin Laden about how soft I am. You’ll find him at the bottom of the Arabian Sea.

MATTHEWS: Yes, I think he’s the man that shot Liberty Valance.

I’ve written more about this elsewhere but the Avengers provides a neat illustration of the transformative power of deadly violence: just as Captain America’s roundhouses remind us who’s really in charge, the killing of Osama bin Laden transforms Barack Obama from mild-mannered legal academic into a wild west gunslinger.

Is The Avengers a fascist film? No, it’s not. It’s a very rightwing movie but it’s an expression of the mainstream Right, not fascism. But it does hint at what might be around the corner.

That is, the movie drapes its final confrontation in 9/11 imagery, as firemen pull civilians from the ruin of New York skyscrapers. Yet, interestingly, it culminates not in a celebration of the victory over the fearsome goblins from outer space but in a montage showing the divisions emerging in the battle’s aftermath, as various opportunistic politicians blame the superheroes for the devastation.

In the wake of the First World War, German politics was dominated by the stab-in-the-back myth – the notion that German soldiers performed like heroes on the front line, but were betrayed at home by the socialists and the Jews. This became a central trope of far-right politics in the decades that followed.

Over the last decade, Iraq and Afghanistan became central to the ideological identity of the American Right. As the US shuffles, more-or-less defeated, out of both conflicts, we can expect an Americanised version of the stab-in-the-back narrative to become more and more prominent. The Avengers provides a taste of how it might work: heroes win the war but civilians lose the peace – and then punish heroism for being heroic. And, while the cop who challenges the right of a superheroes to lead might be comical, the politician who sells them out is despicable and dangerous.

That’s why I came out of the movie thinking about Jim Larkin. For there’s another part to that quote. In full, it runs like this: ‘The great appear great because we are on our knees: let us rise.’

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I was struck by how The Incredibles – and I don’t recall a lot of commentary at the time, but I might have just missed it – played with the same politics you’re describing here, but in a movie that is overtly for children as opposed to infantilised adults. The idea in that film that the exceptionals, the superheroes are rendered impotent by the civilian bureaucracy and a culture steeped in mediocrity and grievance sailed as close to fascism as I have witnessed in a film of that genre. But then Bird complicated things by making the heroes grow old (was that the American superpower itself aging?) whereas one of the constants of both the Marvel and the DC comic genre, as well as the Bond films, is that the heroes always get remade young and in today’s world. Doubly so, in the case of Captain America. The reason for the choice may be relatively obvious – were they period pieces, that increase might the nostalgic value for the readers of the original comics, but lose the younger audience – but I think it also points to a failure of the post-Cold War West to produce its own set of heroes.

  2. Nice post. I don’t agree that the Avengers etc etc aren’t fascist movies. Fascism may be just round the corner (though I think you’re being way too optimistic; IMHO it’s already screeched round the corner at high speed and is barrelling down the middle of the street.) If we were living in a fascist order I think we’d get exactly these kind of movies. They even have a kind of fascist aesthetic. They are like movies made by Futurists, if Futurists had access to 3D tech and played a lot of Halo. And they are probably an indicator that the kind of fascism we’ll get in the future will be very differently phrased and dressed up than the fascism of the past.
    It might be more like 1984 meets Futuretrack 5 but with shopping malls and ebay.

  3. I hadn’t thought of the comparison with Futurism but you are right. Marinetti’s manifesto would serve neatly as a synopsis of The Avengers: ‘We want to exalt movements of aggression, feverish sleeplessness, the double march, the perilous leap, the slap and the blow with the fist.’

    1. BTW, thanks for the phrase ‘balletic chop sockery’. I’ll be writing a review of Avengers for my local village paper and have to steal this – with due attribution of course.
      Avengers looks to me like an attempt to chisel out an image of a new benign American imperialism, that marries the old Captain America values with the new upbeat, super-humanitarian Iron Man values and the whole written by the Obama campaign team; Nick Fury as a version of Obama battling a faceless ‘council’ of white faces while he struggles to bring world peace and ‘limitless energy’ to the world and using his team of social oddballs (the green capitalist, the disillusioned soldier, etc) who he manipulates in his solitary moral isolation with the best of intentions (the bloodstained emblems of US patriotism – the playing cards).
      Its the Democrats who are really the holders of the idea of Team America World Police, and the myth of American goodness, fatally misunderstood, even though as Nick Fury admits “there have been recent mistakes.” It’s pretty sad really. That’s where the US left has ended up; contained within the Futurist aesthetics of the Avengers.

  4. Great piece, Jeff, and I like the differentiation between this sort of film and fascist art proper. I think the violent superhero is a uniquely capitalist-parliamentarian myth; it justifies, exactly as you say, the use of cold blooded violence in the service of ‘democracy’. An amalgam of the brutish/militaristic (‘Captain’ … ‘Super’) and the democratic, the people (‘America’ … ‘Man’). ‘Mythic violence’, in Benjamin’s sense; which makes me wonder what ‘divine violence’ (of the revolutionary kind) might look like cinematically.

    1. Jeff, what are they avenging exactly?

      In terms of Benjamin’s “Mythic violence” – superhero movies always remind me of Carl Schmitt’s “sovereign is ‘he’ who decides on the exception.’ That is, the person who re-establishes order when it breaks down.

      1. It’s a good question. In terms of the film, Loki’s the one actively seeking vengeance. The rest of them are just vaguely aggrieved.

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