The Awesome Politics of "the Avengers"

Joss Whedon, writer and director of this weekend’s blockbuster film The Avengers, has slyly inserted politics into the film, the latest in the Marvel comics superhero franchise, stacked it with some of Hollywood’s most progressive stars (including anti-fracking advocate Mark Ruffalo and activist/liberal Scarlett Johansson) and kept what’s probably going to be one of the year’s biggest film on topics consistent with progressive politics—without being heavy-handed about it.

Here’s how it happens: the United States has discovered a “cosmic cube” called the Tesseract that leaders believe can be harnessed to create an unlimited source of clean, sustainable energy. Gleaming electrified blue and the size of a bread basket, the cube is still being tested in a Tesla Coil-like device, when it’s used as an outer-space portal by Loki (the demi-god!) to descend to earth and begin enacting his master plan to enslave us all and “free us from freedom” because, as he says, “it’s human nature to be subjugated.”

Anyone who stands up to Loki gets blasted with a knife-shaped scepter that’s got a glowing orb of the blue Tesseract stuff, which gives us a bad feeling about what that kind of cosmic goo can do. And while Loki’s embarking on his philosophical rants about freedom and humanity and how we’ll be happier when we no longer have free will, he’s so nonsensical (he’s the god of chaos, after all) that it’s impossible not to be reminded of right-wingers, particularly those in power who try to convince us we’ll have more when we have less. (Looking at you, Paul Ryan.)

It gets a little more complicated than that, but it’s remarkable that the phrase “unlimited source of clean, sustainable energy” is uttered at least twice in its entirety, and that it’s a foregone conclusion in the film why that would be a thing worth fighting for. There is a bit of a twist which I won’t spoil here, but suffice to say, it’s 1) slightly confusing; and 2) doesn’t really distract from the clean energy point. Also, almost all the vehicles driven in this film seem to run on some super-stylized future go-juice, which underscores the effort, although there is no doubt the use of petroleum was used in the creation of Johansson’s super-tight fight suit. You win some, you lose some, I suppose.

Virtually all superhero films have some political subtext by their very nature, whether it’s the 1980s Superman films underscoring the weird wild world of Reagan’s America or the proliferation of X-Men franchises rising during the George W. Bush administration. The Avengers seems a little freer than most, maybe because of the general awesomeness of writer/director Joss Whedon, widely admired for his feminism, atheism and liberalism. It also might be the best superhero movie in the Marvel franchise yet, not just because it’s jam-packed with all your favorite characters and marquee actors—including Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man, Chris Evans as Captain America and Samuel L. Jackson as Nik Fury—but because Whedon understands his subject so well. He not only has a background in comics, he’s still revered—worshipped?—for bringing Buffy the Vampire Slayer to life. Far from the heavy-handedness of Captain America or the dunderheadedness of Wolverine, Whedon should probably just be employed to direct all Marvel movies from here on out. He makes populist multimillion-dollar blockbusters—which might sound contradictory, but his inclusive nature is evident.

Take The Avengers’ stark feminist perspective. Even in X-Men, where powerful female characters like Storm, Jean Gray and Mystique are front and center, there’s always a subtext that the directors view them as corollaries to their male counterparts. Not so in The Avengers: Johansson’s Black Widow is just as front-and-center as the rest of the cast, and her stunts are possibly even more awesome: she kicks ass with agile gymnast flips and knock-out kicks, and Johansson portrays her talent for manipulation as a boon for the art of spying, rather than any kind of femme fatale cliche. Whedon, once again, did the ladies a solid, and Johansson did awesome justice to Black Widow, whom we only saw a glimpse of as Downey’s then-antagonist in Iron Man 2. (It’s totally without condescension when I say this is one of her best performances ever.)

Back to the plot: The Avengers must band together to defeat Loki and his gross, mouth-breathing outer-space helpers before they unharness the power of the Tesseract and subject humankind to slavery and bad hairdos. But first, they all have to get over themselves and their egos, which are super-sized to correspond to their powers. Iron Man is, of course, the cockiest, with his post-Gordon Gecko magnate attitude and classic rock fixation, and he spars with Captain America, who’s been asleep for 70 years and thinks Iron Man’s attitude is gauche. And with David Banner trying to keep “that other guy” (the Hulk) from going out of control and destroying everyone on the hero-ship (which Ruffalo does brilliantly), basically Black Widow is the only one who’s game. It takes a tragedy to band them together and, you know, avenge.

Because every film and their mother has to be 3D-ready these days, The Avengers is full of block-rocking butt-kicking, and every character gets his or her time to shine because the film clocks in at over two hours. (Unless you’re trying to get somewhere or have to pee, you won’t notice.) It’s even a thrill watching the entirety of midtown Manhattan be destroyed by space invaders, particularly if you’ve ever actually been to the hellish streets of midtown Manhattan. Admittedly, a flash of “too soon?” entered my mind watching all those skyscrapers crumble to the ground, but Whedon smartly leaves monuments like the Empire State Building intact, letting imaginary buildings like Iron Man’s Vegas-y Starks Enterprises take the brunt of the damage.

Speaking of Starks, his punchlines were actually funny. While most action films have at least one groan-worthy cheap joke, all of The Avengers’ are genuinely funny, and even the physical gags got the audience I was in laughing. Even the ham-fisted Hulk got in a couple of zingers; it’s a testament to Whedon’s acumen that he can, in Buffy parlance, “make a funny,” but also to his savvy. The man knows his audience. And ultimately, he was able to make a politically minded action film that didn’t smash you over the head with his intent. That’s as graceful a move as you can expect from a $220 million movie.

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