I am a huge Joss Whedon fan. Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel are probably my favorite TV showes of all time, and I am reasonably certain that at the end of time, the Divine Liturgy will resume where it left off in Hagia Sophia at the time of the Turkish invasion, and be followed by a showing of the rest of Firefly (and, of course, season 4 of Arrested Development).
So, of course, I had to see The Avengers, written and directed by Mr. Whedon. I am also planning to see Cabin in the Woods, despite a distaste for horror films. Now that the semester is over, and I am don't have final papers hanging over my head, I have a little time to reflect on the film, and give a few thoughts on its moral and, yes, even theological themes.
The Avengers is probably the best comic book movie since the Dark Knight. It's well written, with snappy dialogue and great pacing, that keeps the dramatic tension high. One of the more impressive aspects of the film is how well the incredibly large cast of superheroes are balanced. It would have been very easy for the film to become fragmented, with each character having their own sub-plot, leaving little time for the main action. Think, for example, of the clumsy execution of the Fantastic Four movie with its two dimensional characters that each took up far too much screen time. Each of the Avengers, however, was a relatively well rounded, believable character, because each was given the space to develop through the course of the plot and through their interactions with each other. Whedon has a knack for this kind of group character development.
Like all of Whedon's stories, Avengers has a strong moral element to it. That's not to say it's a preachy film. This is a comic book movie, and wisely doesn't try to be more; but comic books, at least of the super-hero variety, are inherantly moral. Comic books assume a world where moral conflict makes sense, where there are good guys and bad guys. Of course, there have been plenty of bleak, super hero comics, like Alan Moore's V for Vendetta or Watchmen, but those books are precisely subversive attempts to deconstruct the whole mythos of the super-hero. Avengers isn't that sort of comic book movie. It's just a really, really well executed super-hero flick.
While his characters are complex and conflicted, often with major moral flaws, an overview of his stories shows that Whedon still believes in heroes. Behind all the winking post-modern ironies of Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Angel, the title characters of those shows are still champions of virtue. Which is why Whedon is the perfect person to make the ultimate Marvel comic book movie. He has enough sympathy with the moral world of comic books that he can make a movie that is unapologetically entertaining, unapologetically a comic book movie, and not trying to be anything else, while still packing in a bit of moral reflection on power and violence. And of course, we have Marvel and Stan Lee to thank for giving us complex, coflicted super-heroes, another thing Whedon is good at.
One of the most striking moments in the movie is what seems to be Captain America's throw away line, when he is warned not to try to fight with Thor and Loki, the Norse god's (who are in fact extremely powerful aliens in the Marvel universe). Captain America declares that "There's only one God..."
Some people have made rather a big deal about this line, because as much as its a throw away, I think it actually gets at a central moral question in the plot. Loki claims to be a god, and demands worship, but he demands it purely on the basis of power, thus raising the question, is it power alone that deserves worship? Or put more biblically, Whedon is saying "choose this day whom you shall serve."
This discussion is given a little more context with a scene that occurs after Loki has appeared with a show of power in Germany, and demands that a crowd bow before him, because, as he explains, human beings need a master. Freedom is too much for us. An old man in the crowd stands up and says "Not to a man like you."
Loki replies "There are no men like me."
"There will always be men like you." The old man responds.
Here the question is put quite blatantly: what kind of god deserves our worship? who will we bow before?
But again, apart from one passing reference from Captain America, we have no answer. What the film seems to say is that power alone is not enough. Might doesn't make right, and just because one man happens to hold all the power doesn't make him a god. This is another staple Whedon theme.
Whedon's heroes are all outcasts and underdogs, and he has a marked distrust of any sort of power structure. In this, I think he has an affinity with C.S. Lewis, who portrayed Hell as a particularly dreary bureaucratic office in The Screwtape Letters. If you are familiar with Whedon's other projects think of Wolfram and Hart, the literally demonic law firm in Angel, the Alliance in Firefly, or the Watchers council in Buffy, which is bungling and arrogant at best. Evil, in Whedon's universe generally comes in a corporate guise, and I think that is partly because he understands that evil is ultimately a depersonalizing force, something that eats away at the soul and makes a person into a dull, sad, cog in a machine. Evil is not fun, exciting or vital; it is a disappointing emptiness, the opposite of vital. In this, Joss Whedon is a good Augustinian.
The unfortunate thing is that he does not seem to have a corresponding grasp of the Good. Joss Whedon's worlds are all very moral, but there does not seem to be a clear moral center of gravity to them. In fact one of the marked weaknesses of all of Whedon's story telling is the way in which he handles religion. Religious characters are rarely portrayed well, and when they are, they are still somewhat comical, like Shepherd Book in Firefly (although the character showed signs of interesting developments had the show not been cancelled. Sigh...). The religious/ spiritual world of the Buffyverse, is a good example. There are plenty of powers and even 'gods' who mess about with the workings of the world, but in Whedon's storytelling Christian images coexist side by side with neo-Pagan style witchcraft. The spiritual world of Buffy is a post-modern, pluralistic smorgasbord, and there seems to be no one power, let alone a benevolent power, that wins out. This comes across particularly in the final episode of Angel, which concludes with a heroic last stand against Wolfram and Hart's diabolical "Senior Partners," that is heroic and noble, but ultimately there is no assurance of victory.
So where does that leave us? Where do we look for a moral center, according to Whedon's view of things? I think it is no coincidence that we hear a Christian proclamation from Captain America, a character who, having only recently been thawed out from a cryogenic sleep, is a throw back to an earlier age. There are at least two ways I think we could take this. Perhaps Whedon is looking back with a kind of nostalgia on an innocent faith that we could all hold once upon a time, but which is forever lost now. We can't go back to Captain America's old fashioned American values, of which Christian monotheism is a part. On the other hand, maybe Whedon is suggesting that it is precisely in looking to our past that we will find an answer.
In another scene Captain America is given his new uniform, which looks really rather a lot like his old uniform. He asks whether the Stars and Stripes aren't a little old fashioned. "With everything that’s happening, things about to come to light," the designer of the uniform says “people might need a little 'old fashioned.'" I don't want to attribute too much philosophizing to Whedon - he is first of all a story teller, after all, and a first rate one - but I think there is a hint of suggestion that the answer to post-modernity's moral disorientation lies in returning to the past, and even to tradition.
True, we cannot simply go back, and we cannot simply reclaim God as another American value along with Mom and Apple Pie. Perhaps though, we can come to what philosopher Paul Ricoeur famously calls the 'Second Naivete;' The point when we have passed beyond mere criticism of our formerly naive beliefs in God, religion or morality, gotten past the phase of being rebellious adolescents, and we can reclaim our old faith in a new, more mature way. Joss Whedon does not tell us what kind of God to worship, but I think perhaps he points us in a direction, and that direction seems to be toward the God of the Christian Tradition.