Hypocritical Humanism in The Avengers

Josh Larsen

The big surprise of Marvel’s The Avengers – a culmination of at least five previous superhero movies – is that it isn’t Iron Man or Thor or Captain America or even The Hulk who proves to be the most interesting character. It’s the villain Loki, largely unknown outside of comic-book circles.

An alien who has lost a power struggle on his own planet, Loki has come to earth wielding an army and advanced technology. Played by Tom Hiddleston with amusing petulance, Loki expects this outgunned civilization to be an easy conquest. When he’s told that humans have no quarrel with him, he shrugs in agreement and says, “An ant has no quarrel with a boot.”

Loki enjoys squashing. Later in the film, he stands before a crowd of cowering victims and commands them to kneel. “You crave subjugation,” he says. “It’s the unspoken need of humanity.” Everyone obeys except for a single older man, who looks at Loki and tells him he refuses to bow “to men like you.”

The Avengers wants to side with that lone man. Though populated by aliens, super-powered scientists and others who have astonishing mental and physical skills, the movie does its best to put on a humanist face. The defense of humanity – the protection of its dignity – is the rallying cry that brings this superhero team together. What’s more, writer-director Joss Whedon is adept at emphasizing the personalities and relationships of his characters, so that we learn their insecurities and foibles. We’re meant to cheer for the heroes precisely because they’re fallibly human (well, most of them anyway) going up against inhuman odds.

Though populated by aliens, super-powered scientists and others who have astonishing mental and physical skills, the movie does its best to put on a humanist face.

Yet at its heart, the movie yearns to kneel. Agog at the powers its characters wield, The Avengers can’t resist becoming a dazzling showcase for how far they can leap, how hard they can punch, how clever they can be. The camerawork itself is a giveaway. More than once, we look up at a looming superhero from the vantage point of their boot. An ant’s-eye-view if I’ve ever seen one.

In the way that its faith in humanity leads to the creation of pop gods, The Avengers echoes the tension that can be felt by Christian humanism. At its best, Christian humanism is a blending of respect for imago dei with reverence for the Almighty. The Avengers, by the very nature of its narrative, forgets the Almighty part, of course. But how often do we? To what extent do we marvel at our “gods” – our athletes, our rock stars, Steve Jobs - before we find ourselves coming close to kneeling? At what point do we forget to say, “Not to men like you?” The Avengers is a reminder of humanism’s ugly side, the one that yearns to not simply venerate, but to elevate.

Perhaps this is why superhero myths have always had a hold on our collective consciousness. We hold others up for adoration out of a misguided sense of humanism, yes, but also because, deep within us, is the desire to worship. Could it be that Loki was right? “You were made to be ruled,” he sneers to that cowering crowd. Christians would agree.

What Do You Think?

  • What themes resonated for you in The Avengers?
  • What do you think the movie emphasized: its characters' humanity or their godlike abilities?
  • How would you define Christian humanism?

Topics: Movies