May 19, 2012

Some Assembly REQUIRED

So The Avengers is totally sweet!  It's damn near miraculous that the movie itself even exists, but the fact that it managed to be as great as it was makes it all the more amazing.  Don't worry, I'm not about to turn this into an in depth analysis of the Avengers (much), especailly when I know a few of you don't really care all that much about it.  That's cool...I've got something a little different in mind for how The Avengers will frame our topic.

One For All

A lot of things can be said about what The Avengers accomplishes just by it's very existence at this point in the history of media.  Even more can be said about what significance it has for the world of popular culture.  But I'm here to talk about what this movie has to say to it's audience about human nature itself. 

The Geek Age of Cinema (as I suspect it will come to be known) has brought us a lot of works based on intellectual property that has long been the exclusive domain of the comic book world.  While attempts at movies based on superhero comics are not exclusively a modern invention (Superman from the 70's or the Tim Burton Batman, for example), they've never had as wide an audience or as much variety as they have in the last decade.  In the last 5 years alone, we've seen the first appearance of Iron Man in live action, two renditions of the Incredible Hulk, a movie about the preposterous Thor, and a WWII pulp-film about Captain America, to say nothing of the rise of Christopher Nolan's Batman movies and the continuation of Spiderman's cinematic run. 

As impressive as all this is, though, I can't say it's been entirely a positive thing.  I've already touched on my issues with the "geek" community's response to their sudden popularity, and I don't want to rehash that when I've got something new to talk about.  Suffice it to say that the prevalance of the Super hero as a the all-encompassing mythology of the 21st century (in the US at least) hasn't had an exclusively positive impact on the cultural mindset of the current generation.  The good news, is that if you look hard enough, you'll see that The Avengers actually stands in stark contrast (see what I did there?) to the trend I'm referring to.  You see, what sets The Avengers apart from the pack is pretty simple, yet all-important: Teamwork.

As a part of the generation often called (disappointingly) Generation Y, I've had first hand experience of a rising culture that places an excessive emphasis on it's own radical individualism.  While I've certainly been guilty of this myself, I recognize that it's a problem that needs addressing.  I don't want to do that here, but it's worth mentioning that this overemphasis on individualism that I believe to be endemic to my generation has and will have some serious consequences if it isn't adequately addressed in some capacity. 

Back to our topic, though, I will say that I find it quite encouraging that The Avengers seems to make this point for me.  For the unfamiliar, the basic idea of The Avengers is that a team of Superheroes from various genres and series of their own (i.e. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America) are brought together to take on a threat to the world.  That's all I'm going to say about the content of the film specifically so as not to spoil for anyone, but that's really all you need to know.   

In the age of the superhero that tackles the world alone and lives to tell about it every time (yes, comic book characters die, but be honest...they don't stay that way very long), it seemed like pop-culture itself was fueling this adolescent notion that we are both special and totally independent.  While I'm all in favor of taking responsibility for your own actions and am also a huge advocate of individual liberty, I also recognize that it has gone too far.  With everyone out for themselves in this terrible economy, it seems like there isn't a whole lot of reason to think that teamwork will benefit you in any tangible way.  An yet, that's exactly what The Avengers is here do something about.

You see, the basic formula for a Superhero movie up to the present can best be summarized by "take an extraordinary individual, give him/her extraordinary powers, and have him/her solve extraordinary problems all by his/her self".  This isn't a recent phenomenon, as the majority of these characters have existed in some form for almost a century at this point, but in doing things by this set of principles, the comics and their movie counterparts deprive themselves of the opportunity to speak to the social aspect of our nature. The Avengers, on the other hand sets out to do just that. In essence, the whole message of this awesome film can be boiled down to that metaphor about the bunch of twigs that can't be easily broken. 

The whole first hour-and-a-half of the film is spent deflating all our previously established heroes.  I won't say how or in what ways, but I will tell you that this is a brilliant move on the part of the writer (thank you, Mr. Whedon).  Obviously it seems like a trope of team movies that each individual member needs to be taken down a peg, but these aren't just any characters; they're our literal heroes from pop culture.  Think about this: having established four incredible individuals as our icons of worship and idolization over the last five years, this new mash-up has the presence of mind to take the wind out of their sails for more than half the movie.  That may be what fans were expecting, but I can't deny that it's good timing. 

With our heroes humbled with regards to their own individual prowess, the movie then proceeds to set up it's primary point; namely that we are stronger when we are brought together with real leadership.  The script isn't heavy-handed about it; it just makes damn sure that you get the message.  It's rare that ensemble stories do this so effectively.  More often than not, they end up just letting each hero do their own "thing" while they happen to share a framing story.  But The Avengers goes above and beyond by demonstrating how vital their coordination and cooperation is to their success. 

Had the movie just spelled that out and called it a day, that alone might have been enough, but it actually goes a step further.  This group of people, unlike some hero ensembles (the Matrix sequels come to mind) is genuinely diverse in it's skill sets.  Rather than use that as a an excuse to just show off the CGI (although, by Odin, does it), it takes the opportunity to illustrate how that diversity is key.  The fact is, without all six of the principle characters, the team wouldn't work.  Even more compelling, is that no one's role in this remarkable group effort is downplayed.  Absolutely everyone in this team gets a moment to shine, but they do it without upstaging someone else or at the expense of the leadership that got them there. 

We're running long so let me wrap this up.  In an age where more and more young men and women are growing up with such individualistic influences, it's a welcome breath of fresh air to see a hero story where the real "hero" is unity of purpose under strong leadership.  It's proof that there is true grandeur to be found in our capacity to work together.  I won't say that this film is perfect (hell, it's not even my favorite superhero movie), but I will happily sing it's praises for it's very welcome story of the triumph of the group and of the social animal that we have always been.

As always, if you have something to add to this discussion (about The Avengers or human social behavior, or anything in between), feel free to post it in the comments. 

Thanks for indulging me in this little foray into my over-excited mind.  Next time, I'll show you what I can do with nothing at all.

I'm Trevor, and that's my Frame of Mind.

1 comment:

  1. I can't directly comment on this post, as I haven't seen Avengers, and probably won't until I catch up on some of its antecedent movies that I have missed.

    But I just thought I would mention to the readers of this blog a board game, Forbidden Island. It's a fun game to play (no, I don't own any stock) and unlike any other board game I know, the players win (either they all win or they all get wiped out) by teaming up and drawing collaboratively on their special powers to stave off a disaster that will wipe them all out. Suitable for adults and kids maybe 8 and up. It can be played by as few as two, but it's better with 4 or more players.

    Just sayin'.