Sunday, May 06, 2012

The World's Mightiest Psychologists

Spoilers for Avengers movie follow:

When the plan for an Avengers movie was announced a few years ago, most of the what I read from the comic book fan community was a combination of intense excitement and practical trepidation.  On one hand, such a spectacular proposition was beyond the pale of anything superhero fandom could have ever expected not too long ago.  On the other hand, could they really do such a concept justice?  In a single film, could they tell a coherent (much less entertaining) story involving such a diverse cast of characters, while at the same time flushing out these characters, giving all of them a chance to breathe and develop?

Judging from the reaction of both the critical and the fan community, the answer is yes.  Personally, I would have liked the movie no matter what popular reaction was.  I predetermined that I would enjoy this movie.  Even if the execution failed, I was such a fan of the concept that I would cheer any attempt, any effort whatsoever.  But by all measures, director Joss Whedon and company succeeded.  They delivered an engrossing, entertaining movie that honored the source material while presenting an original story, filled with thrilling action, humor, and characterization.  In any narrative about a team (often seen in sports movies, but in other derivations as well), it is almost necessary to begin the film with dysfunction, only for the team to pull together and recognize strength in diversity.  In a superhero film, this is problematic because the dysfunction might strip the characters of the suffix "-hero," leaving nothing but a film about unlikable "supers."  Whedon managed to  straddle the line, to show how superpowered people might have conflicts without losing the right to be called heroic.

But beyond all that, what made this movie masterful to me was the rich subtext regarding conflict, even warfare.  The specter of war hung over the entire film, the notion that when power is harnessed and elevated, inevitably conflict results.  Despite converted pacifist Tony Stark's objections to being called a soldier, despite the initial rhetoric that SHIELD was attempting to use the "tesseract" MacGuffin in order to pursue "clean energy," everyone knew from the moment this film was announced that the climax of this movie would involve a superpowered version of a military battle.  Actually, this element can't properly be called "subtext"--when Nick Fury recruited Captain America the dialogue was centered on the concept of fighting (and winning) wars.  When Loki and Stark engaged in a rhetorical battle just prior to the film's climax, the discussion was about whose "army" was superior.  And on one level, the film provided a commentary about arms escalation and the inevitable consequences thereof (the perilous averting of a nuclear holocaust in New York City was not something I was expecting to see--but it actually served as an interesting counterpoint to the climax of Watchmen.  If that graphic novel was the "deconstruction" of the superhero genre, could The Avengers be a "reconstruction"?)

But in the end, it wasn't superior military might, or even tactical advantages, that netted the Avengers their victory.  In a fascinating subtextual comment on modern warfare, this film spotlighted psychology as the decisive factor.  The ability to control one's own emotional state, to have proper emotional responses, and to be able to manipulate the psychology of others--these are the true powers that allows one to conquer or to resist.  Many critics have remarked on the pleasant surprise of the prominence of Scarlet Johansson's Black Widow character in the film.  But given the prominence of psychological ops to the plot, it would be surprising if she wasn't a central character.  As a manifestation of the manipulative femme fatale superspy archetype, she is the type of superhero who wins wars.  Twice in the movie it appeared that she was at a disadvantage, once seemingly at a psychological disadvantage, only to find that she was the puppet master.

Of course, another character who attempted psychological warfare in the film was the central antagonist.  Loki's voluntary capture was all-too-reminiscent of the Joker's tactic in The Dark Knight.  He proved himself to be most dangerous when at close proximity to those whom he might manipulate.  And speaking of archetypes, the character of the Hulk is rife with application to this discussion.  A brilliant rational scientist is constantly battling his passionate and unthinking id.  Is it at all surprising that the god of mischief's chief strategy for destroying the Avengers from within would be the uncorking of Banner's id?

But Banner/Hulk was not alone in fighting his emotions.  With the possible exception of Black Widow, all of the Avengers stories involved a battle against their own emotions.  The first we saw Captain America, he was working out his aggression on a series of punching bags.  Iron Man had to overcome his sense of wounded pride at initially being left out of the Avengers (and showed his susceptibility to psychological manipulation himself when Pepper Potts convinced him to "play nice with others").  Hawkeye battled guilt and self-loathing after having his will violated by Loki.  And Thor had to overcome the complicated ambivalence he felt about fighting his brother (which Loki would later exploit in hand-to-hand combat, accusing Thor of the weakness of "sentiment").

But that's not to say that sentiment actually is a weakness in this film.  The turning point came after the Avengers rallied around the death of Agent Coulson.  In the end, Banner channeled his anger in order to unleash the Hulk as a force for good.  The Black Widow did show a flicker of emotion at one point when discussing her need for vengeance on Loki, and both she and Hawkeye channeled their personal grudge in order to help the Avengers triumph.  Iron Man channeled his love for Pepper as he pursued the nuclear missile.  It was the Hulk's roar of grief at Iron Man's apparent demise that caused Stark's revival.

Nor was Loki devoid of emotion.  For as much as he sneered at Thor's sentimentality, and for as much as he used psychology as a weapon, his own psychology proved his undoing.  In the tradition of the mythology from which his character is derived, his hubris and revenge drive sowed the seeds of his defeat.  And his final fate was sealed when his wounded pride overrode his rationality.  Even though he showed himself capable of brilliance, thinking he could stand up to the Hulk was a matter of pure stupidity.  Having lost the psychological advantage, he found himself contending on a purely physical plane with a brute force, leading to one of the most comically (no pun intended) satisfying moments in the entire film.

Beyond this mythical and fantastic cinematic world, I think the subtext of this film holds up as a commentary on modern conflict.  A coldly rational approach won't work.  Nor will an entirely emotionally-driven approach.  But those individuals or nations who can master and control their own feelings while understanding the psychology that drives their opponents stand to gain an advantage beyond what the most powerful weapons might offer.


Blogger VeronicaAnn said...

This was an awesome movie!

12:12 AM  

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