At the end of The Avengers, when Nick Fury’s explains why he let the six most powerful people on the planet disappear with a war criminal and a source of unlimited energy, and that we should just trust them to return in the event of another alien invasion, “because we’ll need them to,” he is basically making an argument for authoritarianism: that we should trust a small group of powerful individuals with the fate of the world because they are already powerful.
That’s a troubling moral to the story, made worse because it is supported by the two real character arcs of the movie, Natasha Romanov’s and Bruce Banner’s. (Of the remaining four, three of the Avengers change very little over the course of the film, leaving them basically where they were at the end of their titular movies, and Hawkeye spends two thirds of the film brainwashed, and the last third pissed off about being brainwashed.)
Natasha’s arc is that of humanity coming to terms with the existence of superbeings. Black Widow is the most human of the Avengers, more so than even Captain America (who has Super Soldier Strength and his shield) and Hawkeye (who’s got trick arrows). Not that she isn’t a force to be reckoned with—she’s in control of what looks like the worst situation, and can outwit even Loki. But she’s limited to a human range of abilities. She could, for example, be dropped into a Bond film, or even an episode of 24, without breaking the world.
So, because she is used to being the most dangerous person in any room full of humans, Natasha’s near-death experience with the Hulk shakes her, leaves her shell-shocked and unable to move even as the Helicarrier falls. The Hulk, and the world of superbeings he represents, are simply beyond her ability to physically and emotionally cope with on her own. He’s literally too big for her to deal with.
Yes, Black Widow shakes off her shock, rescues Hawkeye, and becomes a vital part of the defense of New York. But she gets over her shock by accepting that there are powers beyond her, and to survive, she’ll need to rely on some super powered beings to protect her from others. When she welcomes Bruce back by saying “we could use a little worse,” on the one hand she’s forgiving him for losing control, but on the other she’s also admitting that she’s not capable of dealing with the alien threat by herself. And she’s not alone. Captain America practically begs Bruce to turn into the Hulk. The threats have gotten too big, and the humans must now rely on the monsters.
And what about the monster? Bruce Banner’s arc is even more troubling, because he learns to embrace and enjoy his overwhelming power. Bruce starts the film in control of himself, having not let the Hulk out for over a year. It’s possible that if SHIELD hadn’t brought Bruce in and Loki’s magic hadn’t set him off, he might never have turned into the Hulk again. Bruce starts the film knowing that with great power comes great responsibility. What he learns, specifically from Tony Stark, is to embrace his power, and use it to have fun. It’s fun to beat the hell out of bad guys! Fun to jump through buildings and crash space whales into Grand Central Station and fling evil gods around like rag dolls.
And, yes, it’s totally fun to watch him do that. But it’s only fun because the aliens have no personality and Loki is basically invulnerable. If we the audience had any sympathy at all for the Chitauri, as we did for the Frost Giants in Thor, then watching the Hulk grind them into paste would be sickening. Watching the Hulk throw Loki around is the best gag in the movie, but only because we know Loki can sit up afterwards and order a drink. If the villain had been the Red Skull or the Iron Monger—that is, if the villain had been human—then we’d have to question the morality of unleashing unrelenting brutality on our enemies. But we don’t have to ask that question, so Banner learns that it’s okay to be gleefully destructive as long as he’s fighting bad guys.
With these two parallel arcs, The Avengers basically argues that in a dangerous world, we should let the powerful do whatever they want, even if what they want is terrifyingly brutal. And that the powerful should be brutal, if that’s what’s fun for them.
What’s the role for non-superheroes in the Avengers? Well, if you’re the police, it’s to do exactly what Captain America says, because… well because he’s really good at beating up aliens. If you’re not, if you’re say a waitress caught in the crossfire, then your job is to thank Captain America for saving you once it’s all over.
The last thing a normal person should do is try to save the world themselves. Don’t try to make your own weapons based on Hydra designs or Iron Man armor, or Captain America and Iron Man will get angry at you. Don’t try to use those weapons to actually fight a god, that will get you killed. And certainly don’t fire a nuke at New York while the heroes still have a chance… actually, DON’T DO THAT! That’s stupid. Send in the air force and the army first.
Look, a lot of superhero stories have troubling levels of authoritarianism baked into them, because they’re stories about good people fighting for justice unbound by the laws of man or nature. That said, other superhero films are better about addressing an active role of normal people in a superhero world. Spider-Man ends with New Yorkers saving Spider-Man by throwing junk at the Green Goblin. The Dark Knight has Batman accept the blame for the murders Harvey Dent committed so that civil government can be seen to have some authority in the Gotham.
Even the other films in the Avengers series are better about this: Captain America takes orders from the U.S. Army, Tony Stark has to answer to Congress, even Thor learns humility and respect for others, both human and frost giant. In The Avengers, however, all of that “respect for others” is kind of tossed out the window as Iron Man redirects the nuke into the Chitauri ship. Which is like if Captain America had turned the plane around at the end of his film and rammed it into Berlin.
In The Avengers, superheroes are rewarded for using unrestrained force against an alien Other with the praise of the world, the freedom to go wherever they want, and control of an unlimited power source. The film says we should be thanking these gods and monsters, thanking them and just hoping that they’ll be there if we need them again. Also hoping that they don’t, you know, abuse the incredible power that they have. They answer to no one, jealously shut down all attempts to share their power, and can be stopped by no one. And this is supposed to be awesome!
The Avengers answers the question “who watches the watchmen” with a gleeful, ecstatic “NO ONE!”
Steven Padnick has written about comics and other subjects before on Tor.com and will surely do so again.