“The idea was to bring together a group of remarkable people, and see if they could become something more.”
That’s how S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) defines the Avengers Initiative in Marvel’s The Avengers. While that notion kicked off a narrative that would be continued through two more films, including the new Captain America: Civil War, Fury’s declaration also serves as a working definition for intentional spiritual community: a group of individuals, living and ministering together, with the goal of becoming something greater.
While the fellowship depicted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe isn’t spiritual in nature, the films do tell the story of an evolving community. They depict a close-knit group of people with different worldviews who change expectations, combine perspectives and set aside differences to achieve a common goal.
The early church described in Acts 4 is often considered the blueprint for how an intentional spiritual community should function. But, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer reminds us in Life Together, while unity and cohesion are the goal, the end result doesn’t always look the way we first expect. As Bonhoeffer writes, “The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God's grace speedily shatters such dreams.”
When Fury first assembles the Avengers, they have one goal in mind: finding and securing the Tesseract, a dangerous piece of alien technology. Fury recruits Captain America (Chris Evans) as muscle. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are tapped for their scientific expertise. These characters all serve different functions as the needs of the story change. The typically egotistical Stark enters the fight and displays extraordinary self-sacrifice. Banner, initially wary of unleashing his inner rage, gains confidence in letting the Hulk become something other than a force of mindless destruction. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), a Norse god, humbles himself by compromising his own goals to help S.H.I.E.L.D. By the end, the Avengers have become the team Fury needed, but not what he (or they) expected.
The Avengers is about forming a community. Age of Ultron is about sustaining that community. Captain America: Civil War shows us a community in conflict.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, the first sequel, opens on the team raiding an enemy base. Director Joss Whedon employs a continuous shot to flow between each of the Avengers as they fight their enemies, culminating in a thrilling shot of the entire team taking down a line of combatants simultaneously. If we weren’t getting the message already, Whedon slows the action down to drive it home: this is a team operating at peak efficiency.
As with Paul’s analogy of the church and the body, each person here is effectively serving their function. Their witty banter, complete with in-jokes, shows they’re also having a great time doing it. These characters know each other well and clearly enjoy being together. But for a community to function as a whole, each person must not only fulfill their role, but also trust the others to fulfill theirs. This is a lesson the Avengers have yet to learn, and it comes at a dangerous cost.
Tony Stark creates Ultron, the film’s villainous artificial intelligence, out of fear that his teammates can’t successfully fight off another attack of the scale they faced in the first film. Ultron is meant to be the planet’s first line of defense. This backfires when Stark’s creation decides Earth’s greatest threat is mankind itself and sets about engineering humanity's extinction.
Stark’s actions breed distrust and infighting. The Avengers are reminded, however, that when it comes to fighting Ultron, working alone means certain failure. The Vision (Paul Bettany), a more advanced artificial intelligence that has come to the Avengers’ aid, provides the blunt truth the group needs when he tells them, “Not one of us can do it without the others.”
The Avengers is about forming a community. Age of Ultron is about sustaining that community. Captain America: Civil War shows us a community in conflict. The movie reveals what happens when a community fails to function, and what it takes to rebuild. This mirrors Bonhoeffer’s observation, “Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight.”
In Civil War, Stark and Captain America disagree over whether to acquiesce to sanctions against the team, holding them accountable for the damage they’ve caused in battle. These disagreements, and the conflict caused by personal loyalties, threaten to end the Avengers’ cooperative for good. The characters still care for each other, but they hurt each other as well — some physically, others emotionally.
However, our heroes do reconcile, understanding that their bond is more important than being right. By the end of Civil War, the Avengers’ next steps are uncertain, but the movie ends on a note of unity. Whatever happens next, whether the group stands or falls, we know they’ll do it together.