Plot Exiled from Asgard, Loki schemes to rule Earth. He captures the Tesseract, an extraterrestrial energy source being held by Nick Fury’s secret government agency S.H.I.E.L.D. Fury revives an abandoned plan to form the Avengers, a team of superheroes: Steve Rogers, WWII supersoldier Captain America, Dr Tony Stark, billionaire genius inventor of the Iron Man suit, Superspy Natasha Romanoff, known as Black Widow, and Dr Bruce Banner, whose humanitarian work has suppressed his Hulk alter-ego. After assembling on S.H.I.E.L.D.’s ship, the team apprehend Loki, and recapture him after Thor intervenes. Caged on ship, Loki manipulates the team – which now includes Thor – into fractious infighting. Hawkeye leads a raid to free Loki, which leads to Hawkeye being freed form Loki’s influence, the Hulk’s emergence and a death, which Fury uses to bond the team. The Avenger’s head to Stark Tower, where Loki is launching the Tesseract’s portal. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s overseers order a nuclear warhead to destroy Manhattan. Stark redirects the bomb, destroying Loki’s army in the process.
Film Note The Avengers (2012) marked a new chapter in the development of superhero films. The film is distinguished in the way it was conceived and produced by Marvel Studios, in its subversion of postmodern sensibilities, and in its breaking away from the simple superhero format of good vs. evil in order to deal with more complex issues.
Marvel make films The franchise or the sequel is nothing new in Hollywood. Neither is adaptation, nor the borrowing of stories or tales from different media. Superman (1978), marked the first big blockbuster adaptation which derived its source material from the comic book format. Sequels of varying critical and commercial quality followed and even an attempt at a spin-off: Supergirl (1984). The success of Superman meant that more comic book material was adapted by Hollywood, again of varying critical and commercial success. However, in 2008 a new strategy was implemented by Marvel Studios which culminated in The Avengers (Avengers Assemble in the UK). The Avengers was Marvel Studios’ attempt at creating a franchise for the 21st century. Not only would there be sequels and spin-offs but the creation of an entire filmic universe. CNN reported the success of The Avengers by referring to its patchwork nature: “The superhero smorgasbord featuring Captain America, Iron Man, Thor and The Hulk brought in $200.3 million its opening weekend in 4,300 U.S. theatres, smashing the previous domestic record for any movie’s first three days” (2012). A description of Marvel Studios’ distribution strategy can help understand the phenomenal successful of the film and its subsequent franchise.
More than fifty superhero films has been released between 2002-2012, making more than $15 billion in global box office, pointing to the worldwide appeal of the genre. (Hassler-Forest 3) Hence, adapting The Avengers, a comic book series that unites some of the most popular superheroes, was a logical business move. Marvel had already experienced success in licensing the rights to their characters to major Hollywood studios, with films such as Spider-Man (2002), X-Men (2000), Fantastic Four (2005) and The Blade Trilogy (1998, 2002, 2004). Although Marvel had no creative control over these films, licensing helped save the company from bankruptcy and Marvel became the fourth in “worldwide retail sales of licensed product at $5.78 billion in 2008” (Collins). However, despite the fact that Spider-Man 1 and Spider-Man 2 brought a total of $3 billion global revenue for Sony, and the first three instalments of X-Men and Fantastic Four made nearly $3 billion combined for Fox, Marvel received a relatively low return. The revenue returned to Marvel was only $62m from Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2, $26m for three X-Men instalments, and $13m for Fantastic Four (Leonard 2007). Thus, in order to “finance production on its own and recapture creative control and box-office profit from its studio partners” (Johnson 1), Marvel created Marvel Studios.
Marvel Studios officially announced plans to make The Avengers in May 2008, but the film was already hinted at in a post-credit scene in Iron Man (2008) released a month earlier. In the scene Samuel L. Jackson, as Colonel Nick Fury, asks “Stark [Iron Man] to consider himself as part of a larger superhero ecology” and that he has become part of a bigger universe, which echoed Marvel Studios’ own intentions, and acted as a “bold declaration about how its comics’ characters would be used in cinema henceforth” (Johnson 5). The idea was first tested in 2005 when Marvel Studios “obtained a financing commitment from Merrill Lynch Commercial Finance Corp. for a $525 million revolving credit facility over seven years to permit Marvel to fund the production of its film slate” (Marvel). Four films followed: Iron Man (2008), The Incredible Hulk (2008), Iron Man 2 (2010), Thor (2011), and Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). With each film “Marvel continued its tease” (Johnson 6) on what is to follow, with cameos, shared characters and post-credit sequences. This not only created anticipation and excitement but also “drew from Marvel comic book traditions” (Johnson 7) of a shared universe, where characters appear in many other Marvel stories outside their own. Thus, these cameos did not only act as narrative teases, but also as attributes of convergence from one film to the next. Chuck Tryon suggests that “film narratives are crafted to make repeated consumption on DVD more compulsory [and] the narrative links constituting the Marvel Cinematic Universe thus encourage careful, repeated and often frame-by-frame viewing” (qtd. in Johnson 7), an example of this would be in Iron Man, where Captain America’s shield appears in the background to one of the scenes.
Marvel did not simply rely on the hardcore fans who would recognise or seek these hints out. They extended their ability to create convergence by creating spin-off media. Video games and animations formed a key part of this. Derek Johnson states that with the tie-in video games, Marvel executive Justin Lambros, proposed “a creative hierarchy in which Marvel’s filmmaking operations trumped anything developing in other markets” (Johnson 2). Thus these media acted as advertisements – an attempt to create a proliferation of material that promoted The Avengers and the Marvel brand. Animation was used to prepare a younger audience for upcoming films via “softer versions of the Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, and Captain America characters” (Johnson 8) which were put into a shared universe in The Super Hero Squad Show (2009). President of Marvel Studios’ animation division described the intent behind this was “to create synergy with the brand by having a continual awareness of different interpretations of the characters in the marketplace” (Keveney). Through these strategies “Marvel developed a unified narrative brand for itself and for Avengers at the same time that it sought a diversity of approaches to mobilizing the characters that made up that brand” (Johnson 8).
By utilising the tried and tested methods of the franchise and the sequel in combination with Marvel’s own comic book staple of the shared universe, and embracing new media such as video-games, Marvel created a cinema of convergence. Thus, Marvel raised awareness and extra revenue for its products, which culminated with the great commercial and critical success of The Avengers.
The superhero and postmodernism Hollywood embraced postmodern pastiche and the ‘nostalgia mode’ especially after the success of Pulp Fiction (1994) which was in line with Roland Barthes’ idea that, “the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture” (146). Charmaine Fernandez considers Fredric Jameson’s concept of the ‘nostalgia mode’ as “indicative of contemporary society’s inability to cope with time and history” (1), echoing Jameson’s idea that “in a world in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles in the imaginary museum,” and pastiche is such imitation (115).
The Avengers is littered with such elements of postmodernism: “The narrative […] involves an assembly of superheroes thrust into a contemporary setting, each symbolising a surviving fragment of a lost cultural past” (Fernandez 1) However, Fernandez suggests that while the film, “presents a pastiche that promises to amalgamate fragments of history into a coherent whole [it] denies the sustained fulfilment of this fantasy of return” (1).
The superhero can be traced back to ideas of the mythological hero. Both perform “a fundamental role in formulating, revitalising and even affirming cultural mores, beliefs and identities, across societies and throughout history” (Fernandez 2). In each of the films prior to The Avengers the main heroes follow the mythic hero’s journey of “Departure, Initiation and Return” (Fernandez 2). This is obvious in the character development of Thor. In Thor he starts out as a brash and war hungry prince and is thus banished to Earth because of his arrogance. He begins a journey of self-discovery and humility in which he learns the necessary traits to become a leader and defeat his enemy, his brother Loki. The story concludes with his return to Asgard.
The Avengers is not concerned with any such singular hero’s journey, however. Instead, the film presents us with a team of heroes whose main task is to work together, and their greatest weakness seems to be their inability to get along. Fernandez suggest that The Avengers’ structure means that it exist within a postmodern form, as the “six individually contained, yet interconnected narratives, the epilogues in The Avengers project present what Lyotard describes as ‘a heterogeneity of elements’” (Lyotard qtd. in Fernandez 7). The five individual films that lead up to The Avengers are all concerned with their own narratives but each “self-consciously asserts itself as part of a larger project” (Fernandez 7). This is achieved by interwoven characters and plot devices that span times and worlds within the narrative context with such seemingly unrelated stories as that of the Norse god of thunder and a billionaire playboy. Thus, The Avengers becomes a “distinct product of the postmodern moment” as it is built upon a “structurally cyclical and non-linear” format (Fernandez 7).
In line with Jameson’s idea of the ‘nostalgia mode’ of postmodernism The Avengers brings these characters together in a contemporary setting, where their previously unambiguous characterisation become problematised, in effect criticising the “valorisations of the cultural past” (Fernandez 7). Thor, appears barbaric and unable to understand contemporary American social mores. Instead he portrays himself as a proud Asgardian uninterested in the Avengers’ goal, as he is preoccupied with his own. This idea of ancient barbaric man is subverted as Thor “remains level-headed and deeply forgiving of his brother’s machinations” (Fernandez 7). Furthermore, although he appears to be from a primitive culture “Asgard is presented as a technologically-advanced society” (Fernandez 7). Captain America portrays a nationalistic rhetoric “that characterised the Second World War era” (Fernandez 8). Because of this he comes into conflict with both Thor and Tony Stark. He dismisses Thor and Loki’s godliness, retorting that there is only one God. This suggests a fear of the unknown, the foreign, and an unshakable trust in an seemingly old-fashioned and nationalist conception of God and country. He is combative with Tony Stark due to the industrialist’s selfish nature which is not compatible with World War II-era ideals of service and self-sacrifice. Captain America’s selflessness and humility mean that he is the assumed leader of the Avengers as he represents “a mythos that celebrates the ‘old-fashioned’ in preference to the present” (Fernandez 9). However, this is undermined as “Rogers’ decisions are repeatedly challenged by the team, [and he too] is faced with an unfamiliar system of signs and is unable to comprehend cultural references” (Fernandez 9).
Tony Stark represents “the rise of the industry and military-industrial complex” (Fernandez 8). He embodies late-capitalism not only in his career, as a weapons manufacturer but also in his brash and arrogant personality, and his action-first attitude. His interaction with Captain America is emblematic of this. When Captain America criticises him for only fighting for himself and not being the guy to lay-down on a wire and let the other guy crawl over him, Stark replies that he would just cut the wire. Yet, Stark’s postmodern characteristics are once again subverted as “his corporeal body is weakened by the very product that defines his own super-heroic persona,” which undermines “the idealised portrayal of the Iron Man superhero, representative of urbanisation and exponential economic success” (Fernandez 8).
The Avengers utilises postmodern pastiche in its ‘cinema of convergence’ while appropriating “an active confrontation with, and more importantly, reclamation of the past for the witnessing spectator in the present. The Avengers thus seeks to ameliorate historical amnesia by subverting ‘the nostalgia mode’” (Fernandez 9). Therefore the film breaks away from the traditional superhero films as the journey of a mythical hero, and challenges the nostalgic reiteration of such journeys for the postmodern present.
Superhero films and 9/11 After 9/11 the superhero film flourished. The release of Spider-Man was intertwined with the tragic events of 9/11. The film was released shortly after 9/11 but it was filmed before and certain scenes were reshot to remove any reference to the Twin Towers. The teaser trailer for the film featured a gang of robbers attempting to escape in a helicopter only to be foiled by Spiderman’s webbing which trapped them between the two Towers. The popularity of the superhero film can be attributed to its seemingly innocent agendas to portray the battle between good and evil in an increasingly complicated political climate. Spiderman’s triumph against the Green Goblin could momentarily fulfil America’s post 9/11 need for redemption at a time when America saw itself as being under attack by an unknown enemy with unknown intent.
The rise of the superhero began in the 1930s and 1940s during the most turbulent time of global conflict: World War II. Michael Welsh states that “[c]omic books became a common way of spreading WWII propaganda to both soldiers overseas and audiences at home. [And] Cord Scott argues that superheroes such as Captain America, The Shield, Uncle Sam, and Citizen V were created in direct response to the events of WWII” (qtd. in Welsh 17). Captain America’s adventures provided both a symbol of hope during World War II and a way to escape the dire realities of the war by turning it into a fantasy. In Captain America: The First Avenger the Nazis are not the main villain, instead the super-natural Red Skull takes centre stage. Rather than supporting the Nazi ideology he appears to be concerned with world domination and destruction for their own sake, once again alluding to superhero films’ ability to white-wash the grey area and convert it into a battle between good and evil. In the end Captain America sacrifices himself by taking down a plane that was going to destroy New York and as a result makes the world is safe. Such an ending does not only resolve the threat of evil within the film, but also rewrites the events of 9/11; the good (US) dissipates the threat of evil (foreign terrorists) and saves New York. Thus, superhero tales quell anxieties about war and disaster, focusing on the heroic side of larger than life individuals, rather than dealing with or commenting on the inevitably complicated nature of such issues. The popularity of superhero films in a post 9/11 world can be attributed to the global climate echoing the popularity of comic-books during the 1930s and 1940s. These media offer escapism within the context of what may cause anxiety (war, terrorist attacks, and so on), providing a neat conclusion that is satisfying to an audience dealing with real crises.
New Yorker columnist Richard Brody refers to The Avengers as “a work of prodigious skill and efficiency that carries out its cartoonish mission while addressing graver concerns—the construction of a post-9/11 revenge fantasy that takes place against the backdrop of unpopular foreign wars” (2012). The New York setting suggests this. Although 9/11 is never mentioned in the film, there is a lingering feeling that the Avengers will not let something like 9/11 happen again and will punish anyone who seeks to threaten the US. Tony Starks’ speech to Loki vocalizes this: “if we can’t protect the Earth, you can be damned well sure we’ll avenge it.” At the end of the film, the extent of damage done to New York is disguised despite multiple buildings being damaged during the battle. Instead the focus turns to positivity, and gratitude that the Earth has been protected from foreign threat. Thus the film refuses to divert from the good vs the bad format as it ignores the impact that the ‘Battle of New York’ would have had, had it been a real event.
The Avengers’ good (US) vs. evil (foreign) narrative relates to the idea of American exceptionalism. Jason Dittmer states that “American exceptionalism can be understood as the notion that the United States is unlike other states in terms of its creation, settlement and sense of wider mission in the world” (115). The fact that the world threat in The Avengers is centred on America and only seems to involve Americans makes this clear. Even the foreign members of the Avengers are Americanised; an Asgardian who is visually depicted as an all-American poster boy, and Black Widow who seems to have lost any of her Russian heritage despite a brief scene in which she speaks the language. No other city is attacked, and no other country’s governmental agencies enlist to help. These examples demonstrate that superhero films promote American exceptionalism. The Avengers’ enemy – the Chitauri – sustain such American exceptionalism. They are portrayed as the foreign other, without any discernible characteristics, or ideologies. Such depiction of the threat can be likened to the Bush administration’s assertion that America was under attack because its enemies hated their freedom. However, the Bush administration’s simplification is amplified since there is nothing to suggest that the Chitauri have any reason, even in their own justification, to attack. Thus, The Avengers conforms to simplifying global issues into a matter of intrinsic evil vs good in its treatment of the enemy.
After the 2008 financial crash, there has been a growing distrust in the assumed benevolence of institutions, ranging from the financial to the governmental (Uslaner 110). While The Avengers seems content with providing its simple tale of good triumphing over evil, it does touch on this distrust. Tony Stark does not trust S.H.I.E.L.D. and attempts to reveal their secrets. Although ultra-nationalist Captain America initially scorns Stark for this, doubt creeps in his mind and he investigates, finding out that S.H.I.E.L.D. has secretly been producing weapons of mass-destruction. This scene points to the wider distrust of government agencies, even though this is explained away by Fury saying that the weapons were created because of the new threat and that he never believed the weapons would be necessary, believing in the Avengers instead. Fury, again, seems to be a manipulative force of questionable morals when he dupes the Avengers into working together by using Agent Coulson’s trading cards following his death. Rather than questioning the morals behind this he is ultimately forgiven by the narrative as he states that the Avengers needed a push. Later in the film, S.H.I.E.L.D goes against the government who decides to nuke New York; this is the most scathing aspect of the film as the government are willing to let millions of innocent New Yorkers die. These plot points present the complex, often corrupt, workings of institutions rather than employing American exceptionalism which posits the US as always right and its enemies as always wrong, reflecting the contemporary climate where the seeming goodwill of institutions are being called into question.
While the superhero films still hold on to the good vs. evil format of Spider-Man ten years later, The Avengers is one of a number of films that show a growing dissent and distrust towards the government post 2008 financial crisis. Part of the reason for the popularity of superhero films can be said to be their ability to simplify the narrative of the complicated world, which explains the rise in popularity post-9/11. However, the postmodern subversion in Marvel’s ‘cinema of convergence’ suggests that superhero films which touch upon complex issues, such as distrust in major institutions and organisations, are more relevant in the post financial crisis climate.
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Written by Nicholas Subramaniam (2014); edited by Aybuke Kavas (2015), Queen Mary, University of London.
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