The Avengers

The Avengers December 29, 2012

It took me until now to get around to watching the movie The Avengers. But I’m glad I did. In addition to action and great (if not scientifically feasible) special effects, it contains a great deal that is food for thought and discussion, for those of us interested in the intersection of religion and popular culture in general, or religion and comic books and/or science fiction in particular.

Perhaps it is obvious that a movie which includes gods as major characters has the potential to serve as a talking point about religion. But the movie in fact has characters talking about not only gods but also God.

Early in the movie, the tesseract (which, as in the also explicitly religious science fiction of Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, opens a doorway to other parts of the universe) brings Loki to Earth, where he says he brings “glad tidings” of peace. That expression does not merely echo King James English, as Thor also does, but is in fact found in the King James Bible.

From that point on, and over the course of the movie, Loki expresses his view that human beings are made for subjection and to be ruled, claiming that freedom is “the great lie” and that, if human beings accept this truth into their hearts, they will know peace. Later, in Germany, he will show off his power and demand that a crowd kneel before him. Against that background, the issue of a god demanding worship is set in explicit comparison with the sort of worship that dictators have demanded and received in human history.

Loki also uses the tesseract’s power to take control of the minds of several characters. When he does so, he touches their heart with his scepter. Clearly it is the symbolic heart and not the literal one that is in view. And while the experience is essentially a form of mind control, it is subjectively experienced rather differently by those so “possessed.” Erik Selvig says, “The tesseract has shown me so much. It’s more than knowledge. It’s…truth!”

Towards the end of the movie, Loki reacts to the arrival of the Hulk by boasting, “I am a god, and will not be bullied…” at which point the Hulk smashes him violently, and then says, “Puny god,” which may well be the only dialogue spoken by the Hulk during the entire course of the movie.

Loki is not the only god in the movie. So too is Thor. Both are in fact highly advanced aliens. But whether that has any bearing on their status as “gods” is unclear. It is arguable that other characters also have godlike aspects.

But when Black Widow says to Captain America not to interfere with the conflict involving Thor and Loki as well as Iron Man, saying that they “come from legend” and “They’re basically gods,” Captain America responds by saying, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that.” He then intervenes to end the squabbling between Tony Stark and Thor about Loki. It is interesting that the character who is arguably the most straightforwardly a hero is also an outspoken monotheist. And Thor himself at one point notes that, even though considered gods, the Asgardians brought squabbles and conflicts to Earth, a fact of which Thor is ashamed.

There are other moments with explicit religious overtones, which ought to be mentioned as worth discussing, even if we don’t explore them here. One is Loki’s reference to what he perceives to be Black Widow’s attitude as not merely “the basest sentimentality” but “a child at prayer.” Another is Nick Fury’s statement towards the end of the movie that he didn’t make a particular decision, he “just didn’t argue with the god who did.” And finally, there is Tony Stark’s question to his computerized assistant Jarvis, as he contemplates flying inside a menacing mechanical monster. He asks, “Jarvis, have you ever heard the tale of Jonah?” to which Jarvis replies that he has, but “wouldn’t consider him a role model.” It is a sort of throw-away line, but it also fits well with the actual story of Jonah, in which Jonah is indeed anything but a role model.

Have you seen The Avengers? If so, what did you think of it? Did you notice the religious elements, and whether you did when watching it for the first time, or didn’t until now, what are your thoughts about them?


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  • I loved the, “There’s only one God, ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that,” line. Popular fiction tends to skew pretty secular, whether due to the biases of the creators or not wanting to touch a controversial subject for no reason.

    But logically, in story set in the modern world (or an alternate universe with a lot of similarities to the modern world, like the Marvel ‘verse), of course there are going to be conventionally religious folk, and that’s one way for them to react to meeting purported gods.

    On the other hand, from my very secular perspective, I couldn’t help but think “gods should be more powerful than that,” where “that” = “apparently not much stronger than an ordinary human taking advantage of one or two pieces of nifty technology.” It really kills dramatic tension to realize that most of the heroes could have *individually* been an even match for the Big Bad.

    What should have happened is (1) Iron Man and Cap get creamed by Loki early on (2) controlling the Hulk is a genuine challenge the heroes have to overcome (3) ditto getting Thor back from Asgard with the Bifrost destroyed.

    • KRS

      I think part of the problem is that the movie used a lot of the “Badass Normal” trope ( In my opinion, they went overboard with it in a couple of places. The most notable example was Loki in Germany, where Cap, an optimized mortal with a really useful shield, was able to more than hold his own against Loki while waiting for Iron Man to show up. I thought there should have been more desperation and a sense that Cap was worried about losing or possibly dying.

  • I rarely see movies when they first come out — the price is far too outrageous. Usually I wait until they come to the second-run theatre in our town, where I can see them for $4 ($6 for 3D). But I made an exception for The Avengers, probably because I grew up reading Marvel comics in the 60s and couldn’t wait until all the superheroes were brought together. I wasn’t disappointed. I thought the script was very well written, with plenty of philosophical and theological meat to chew on (as you pointed out). And any film with Robert Downey, Jr. can’t go wrong. I have the DVD and watch it from time to time.

  • Jeff Carter

    Would it be bad form to link to my “Puny God” post?

    • Not at all. I avoided such posts when the movie came out since I had not seen it yet, and so appreciate reminders from other bloggers about things they wrote about the movie. Now I can finally read them! 🙂

  • Ric Schopke

    When I see “The Avengers” in a title, I first think of Steed and Mrs. Peel!