When you go to see a Hollywood superhero movie you should expect a little glib American patriotism, however Joss Whedon’s The Avengers is much more than this. It endorses the worst aspects of the “War on Terror” including the idea high tech surveillance and torture keep us safe, that unilateral U.S. military power will save the world and that Americans needs to unite around patriotism to defeat its enemies. Ominously The Avengers can be seen as ideologically not just glorifying existing U.S. wars but helping to prepare the country for the next World War.
The Avengers is thick with “War on Terror” imagery. For example Loki, the chief villain of the piece, decides to stage his attempt to defeat The Avengers on a high profile skyscraper in New York. The Hulk flies into the tower echoing the Twin Tower planes, debris falling falls like bodies from the building and we see fireman and police direct terrified civilians fleeing the scene. These visual references to the 9/11 attacks help contextualize the rest of the movies underlying political themes.
The real hero of the movie is in many ways not the supernatural caped crusaders but Nick Fury who leads the shadowy intelligence organization S.H.I.E.L.D. which is tasked with the responsibility of keeping the world safe. It is Fury who brings the Avengers together and motivates them to overcome their differences. The methods of Fury and S.H.I.E.L.D. deliberately mirror the tactics of the CIA and the U.S. military in the War on Terror. One particularly shocking reference is made which indicates Fury has been directly involved in torture. When a character states that Loki will not reveal important information even under torture Fury replies “In my experience that’s what people say before they have experienced the pain”. This reference is nauseating in the context that the U.S. has either directly tortured or sent many people to be tortured in other countries. For example 9/11 suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded 183 times in March 2003. Loki is also held in isolation in a metal cage that reminded me of the tactics used to break “enemy combatants” at places like Guantanamo Bay.
The capacity of S.H.I.E.L.D. to use sophisticated surveillance to locate its enemies is emphasized throughout the movie. For example, Loki is located through a global search via surveillance cameras using face recognition technology. The Black Widow is saved from Russian mobsters who are told over the phone that their address is known and a missile could be delivered to that exact address if they do not cooperate.
Images of black clad heavily armed special forces also occur repeatedly. In one of the few scenes not set in the U.S., the Black Widow meets David Banner a.k.a. the Hulk to recruit him to The Avengers in a hut in the unnamed Indian shanty town. The hut is surrounded by Special Forces who look very much like they are about to kick down the doors of a house in Kabul or Baghdad.
In a strange twist on the real world, it is uncovered that S.H.I.E.L.D. has developed its own WMD program but only to keep the world safe from aliens of course! Nick Fury defends the WMD program to the skeptical Avengers by stating new more deadly weapons were necessary to protect humanity (insert U.S.A.) from the numerous “alien” threats which had left them “hopelessly outgunned”.
The endorsement of U.S. militarism is extended to the ideology that the U.S. in order to protect itself cannot be constrained by the forces of Internationalism. In the vision of the U.S. foreign policy hawks who launched the War on Terror, it is the mission of the U.S. to use its military power, unilaterally if necessary, to reshape the world and “defend freedom”. These ideas were articulated in documents such as the “Project for a New American Century” even before 9/11 and found there clearest manifestation in the U.S. pre-emptive war on Iraq in defiance of the UN. In the Avenger’s, Nick Fury is constantly arguing with “The Council”, a faceless multicultural world governing body, that is clearly modeled on the UN Security Council. Both Nick and The Avengers in the movies denouement must ignore and defy the wishes of the Council to defeat the aliens and achieve a victory for freedom.
The imperial mission of the U.S. as the defender of freedom is clearly articulated in a scene where the villain Loki demands a crowd of humans kneel before him. He informs them that humanity should realize that freedom and choice are a curse and that humanity is actually happier when it follows and surrenders. This ode to the beauty of totalitarianism is broken up by, guess who, Captain America who flies in to crash Loki’s moment of triumph.
The comic character Captain America was created during World War Two to inspire patriotism amongst Americans. His role has not changed in the current The Avengers movie. The story involves Captain America having been recently awakened from a state of suspended animation where he has lain since World War Two. His self-sacrificing, courageous, virtuous patriotism is at first cast as old fashioned but it quickly becomes apparent Captain America is not out of time and place but in fact the man of the hour. This is made explicit when one of the characters explains why he put the stars and stripes so prominently on Captain America’s new uniform stating that people in times of war are going to need old fashioned things. One of the most unlikely scenes in the movie given the role of U.S. banks in the global financial crisis is when Captain America flies into a bank in New York where civilians are trapped under Alien attack. The movie makers did not choose a school, hospital or theatre as the place to locate this rescue but a bank. Perhaps this reflects that Marvel Studios were only able to develop the Avengers movie after receiving a loan from U.S. investment bank Merill Lynch in 2005!
Captain America’s relationship with Iron Men is also illustrative of the reactionary politics of the movie. Robert Downie Jnr’s character is cast as both skeptical of both the military and authority. At first Captain America dismisses Iron Man as an individualist however as the story progresses Iron Man soon becomes Captain America’s partner as he begins to mirror the Captains sense of sacrifice.
The transformation of the individualistic Iron Man into a soldier willing to die in pursuit of his patriotic duty perhaps reflects how much the politics of the large sections of the U.S. progressive left has also transformed from vehemently anti-war in the Bush years to too falling patriotically behind the imperial wars of the Obama presidency with its Afghanistan surge, drone assassinations and “humanitarian” intervention in Libya. The Director Joss Whedon, whose previous work on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who was seen by many as a feminist icon, is firmly from this milieu. Whedon personally donated $28,500 to the election campaign of Obama in 2008. This endorsement has often taken the form of silence in the face in the crimes of the Obama regime. Similarly, the pro-war message of the Avengers has been ignored by Liberal America. This review which appeared on the U.S. liberal news website Alternet, praises the politics of The Avengers as “awesome” because the Black Widow is a strong female character and the movie repeatedly talks about renewable energy! In contrast right-wing shock-jock is his review is under no such illusions about the underlying themes of the movie stating that its primary message is “America is kick ass” and gets thing done. The movie apparently made him want to say “Take that Europe!”.
Lastly and perhaps most ominously the movie felt to me in some ways an ideological call to arms for a new period of world war. The threat faced by the U.S. is clearly not just a terrorist one. Loki the villain is a crazed lone terrorist figure however it is the alien army that poses the real threat to humanity. Since 2011 the Obama Presidency and U.S. military have been openly following a policy of a “pivot” to Asia to aggressively tackle the rise of Chinese influence and power. The U.S. is boosting its military presence and security alliances with countries all around the Asia Pacific including Australia which is now home to a permanent presence of marines. The U.S. recently announced it will have 60% of its military might based in the Asia Pacific by 2020. This policy is clearly designed to contain China and threatens the outbreak of a cold or even hot war between these two nuclear armed nations. Perhaps just as in the science fiction of the 1950’s and 60’s where the aliens so often represented Communism , in this new era of major power rivalry China has become the new aliens. I was disturbed by the way that ultimate victory against the aliens in the Avengers was secured when their mother ship was blown up by a nuclear bomb. For me this echoes too closely how the U.S.A. won the last great war in the Asia Pacific.
So was the Avengers just a rollicking escapism or was it the U.S. superhero version of “The Triumph of the Will”? The movie has already taken over $1 billion dollars at the box office globally and the story has clearly resonated with audiences. I sincerely hope I am wrong and this ode to U.S. militarism is not the zeitgeist movie of dark times ahead.