(*No spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron*)
Myth does not care about the narrative medium used to transmit it. Myth only cares to be transmitted, understood and to live within our actions.
I speak of myth as if it were sentient. It isn’t. But we are. And we created myth. I believed that we created it, from ancient times leading up to now, in part to remind ourselves of fundamental truths and wisdom that we knew we would continually forget in the midst of life’s myriad complexities.
Modern cinema, due to its reach and technological sophistication, is a particularly powerful way of transmitting myth, far more powerful in many ways than the oral traditions our ancestors began with. But insofar as the original purpose of the mythic tradition I have just spoken of, there are also disadvantages, ones that can potentially overshadow the highest value of what these stories have to offer us.
While watching Avengers: Age of Ultron recently, a movie that I mostly enjoyed, I had occasion to pause and reflect over some of these disadvantages. What they come down to are what I would call the superficial trappings of the culture and business of modern entertainment.
What are these superficial things? They are the hype, the glamour, the at-times excessive marketing, the manic over-commercialization of everything associated with a given creative property. It is also our culture’s fixation with celebrity culture and our penchant for escapism that can border on the obsessive at times.
It isn’t that I believe any of these things are “bad” or “wrong” or should be changed. They are simply the way of business and of our culture, and I believe they can have their place. In many ways they even make these films possible to begin with. And so let it not be mistaken that I hate these things and wish them gone. All I want is that what I believe to be the deepest and most precious value of these stories, of this pop mythology, isn’t neglected in the face of the more alluring superficial elements.
What triggered my rumination over these things is the emphasis, in Avengers: Age of Ultron, on making every aspect of the movie bigger both in terms of the movie itself and its marketing: more budget, more action, more press coverage, more merchandise, more everything. And it seemed to me that this ethos of “more and bigger is better” was being reflected almost in a meta way within the story and world of the movie itself.
I am thinking, in particular, of a particular scene early in the film when our heroes are gathered together at an extravagant party. Here, inside an opulent palace, is this glitzy, glamorous party filled with all these impossibly powerful, attractive, and multi-talented individuals who have everything anyone could possibly dream of in terms of both internal and external resources. One almost can’t help but go goo-goo eyed at this lavish display of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and their beautiful friends living it up in Fantasyland.
Now, it’s just a small scene and nothing more. But it’s a scene that somewhat mirrors the increasing emphasis at large on the things above that I have called the superficial things. And my only concern here lies in what I perceive to be an increasing association by young viewers, both consciously and subconsciously, of heroism with the superficial trappings of these stories in media and pop culture—the wealth, the power, the beauty, glamour, genius intelligence, all the images that are seductively displayed both in the story itself and in the multi-industry marketing blitz surrounding it. And this becomes perpetuated when young audiences naturally come to associate the heroic characters with the glamorous celebrities who play them. The cumulative effect with many viewers, both children and adults, is an increasing sense of being far removed from the concept of superheroism because they are just ordinary people working 9 to 6 jobs while to be a superhero means to be gifted with all the abilities and resources that we could never have.
Again, let me stress that I am not inherently against the way a movie like Age of Ultron is written, made, marketed and covered in the media. I am only here to quietly remind people that they need not be so in awe of these characters, the celebrities who play them or the sheen of glitz that coats every facet of the movie in its media coverage and in the telling of the story itself.
Back when I still used to teach, I’d often have casual conversations with my students about pop culture just to gauge where their minds were at. Superheroes being all the rage these days, I’d often ask who their favorite characters were. The most common answers were Batman and Iron Man. Partly, this might have been a reflection of the simple fact that the Iron Man and Dark Knight films have been so successful in recent years, and thus these characters were naturally more in the public consciousness. But when I’d ask my students why they liked these characters, the answers I often got were ones like, “Because he’s so rich and handsome and he has so much cool technology.” In other words, the very things that I have called the superficial. And I remember other conversations in which I’d ask students about ways they’d like to contribute to the world, and an answer I heard more than once was to “make a lot of money” so that they could use that money to help people. A fine sentiment but the problem is that (1) it neglects the fact you can contribute plenty without money, (2) making a “lot of money” is so difficult that attempting it will leave you with little time to contribute to your society in any other way, and (3) money has a way of sucking you into its distractions and making you forget the noble intentions you had for making “a lot” to begin with.
This is actually why, despite my own love for both Batman and Iron Man, I think there is a downside to their growing popularity in recent years. Despite the idea that Batman is “the most identifiable or realistic superhero because he’s human,” I actually find him to be one of the least identifiable and realistic in that sense. At least with a character like Thor there’s no denying that as a god he is pure fantasy. But with guys like Iron Man and Batman, there’s this notion that we could be like them, that we too could be heroes, if only we had the same things they had: money, power, prestige, lots of cool gadgets, a genius IQ and a mastery of a dozen languages, martial arts and academic disciplines. And good looks, we musn’t forget good looks.
Nothing could be further from the truth. It is true that we can be heroes but not because of the superficial things. Heroism cares not about status, wealth, power, beauty, talents or even intelligence. Heroism is simply about giving a damn and doing one’s best to contribute and make a difference in the small ways that one can whether one has things like money, intelligence and beauty or not. Therefore, for most of us, heroism is actually about trying to do good not because we have the superficial things but in spite of the fact that we do not have them and probably never will.
This is why I would actually like to see characters like Captain America, Spider-Man and Daredevil be more popular than Iron Man or Batman because they are more like regular guys. Captain America was a physical weakling and a nobody before he became Captain America but he was still every bit the hero that he later became, probably even more, because he tried to make a difference despite being poor and weak. Spider-Man struggles to pay his bills and keep his life together, just like the rest of us, but he’s still out there trying to do what he can. He’s smart at science, yes, but he’s not ridiculously brilliant nor does he have a gazillion other talents. As a lawyer, Daredevil forsakes a more comfortable life by refusing to take legal cases for money and instead crusading for the downtrodden while being content with making just enough money to get by. Sure, he’s also an expert at martial arts, but if he didn’t have at least that then it wouldn’t make for much of an action comic or TV show. Besides, from a mythic viewpoint, superheroes’ abilities are best viewed as metaphors. We may not have a million talents like Tony Stark but we all have some talents. And we can use those talents to contribute.
Obviously, superhero stories are fantasy and fantasy was never meant to be realistic. In fact, this is why I never get involved in those Internet discussions that argue, for instance, over whether Black Widow’s outfit is practical to fight in or anything like that because if we’re going to argue about realism then I’m pretty sure that an outfit wouldn’t be among the more grievous sins of unrealism in superhero fiction. So this is not a rallying cry for greater realism. This is an attempt to help you see superheroes as the mythical metaphors that they are, and to encourage you that no matter who you are and what you have (or don’t have), you can be a superhero. You can be everything that the most awe-inspiring of heroes in superhero fiction, even guys like Iron Man, were intended to only symbolize. Despite the fact that Robert Downey, Jr., happens to play Iron Man in the movies and even shares some of his fictional character’s wealth, fame and beauty, I assure you that he is no more inherently Iron Man than you are capable of being. The same goes for whomever your favorite Avenger may happen to be.
When viewed within this mythical framework, any superhero can actually be identifiable and “realistic”—even Iron Man and Batman. All you have to do is to deemphasize the fictitious character details of them being billionaires, geniuses and talented at everything and simply emphasize their considerable flaws and psychological struggles and how, despite these things, they are still able to do good. Or how having all the wealth and girlfriends in the world does not make them content but how contributing to the world does. Or you can view their wealth too as simply another metaphor for something. Friendships, for instance, can be a source of wealth, and one that we can enlist to our aid as we go about trying to heal the world, just as Iron Man utilizes his money and gadgets.
To the credit of Avengers: Age of Ultron, there are some themes/moments in which the underlying sentiment, consciously or not, does seem to be that the very things that make us regular human beings are what make us heroic. I won’t point them out individually to avoid spoilers, but I hope that people can notice them and talk about them with their children, and also talk about the things I’ve discussed in this essay, so that younger generations don’t grow up with the deep-rooted sense that money, beauty and unrealistic talents are necessary to do good on this earth and make a difference. If anything, those things are more often distractions than anything else. The “great power” that is spoken of in the Spider-Man mythos is not physical, political or financial power. It is the power of compassion which everyone has, and therefore it is everyone’s “great responsibility” to do something to help.
Since the way superhero movies like Age of Ultron are made and marketed will not change—nor as I have said, do I even want it to—it is really just up to each of us to not be dazzled by the seductive lure of superficial things whether we see them glorified in the stories themselves or in the culture and media images surrounding those stories. Let us not forget what it is about these stories that truly matter in terms of our survival and growth as a species. Let us spend less time obsessing over celebrity news and geeky fictitious details that are ultimately unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Let us instead spend more time thinking of ways to become more like that which we profess to love so much. In the name of the Avengers, let us become more like the Avengers.
Toward this end, it is my hope that the Ant-Man movie will symbolize in a more obvious way—even more obviously than Spider-Man, Captain America, or Daredevil—that we the small, invisible people of the world are also powerful in ways that we only need learn how to see, and that we also have important roles to play in the healing of a world in crisis.
So let’s celebrate the small, the poor, the average, the unknown, the disenfranchised, the weak, the ugly, the sick. Let’s celebrate ourselves. Because heroism begins here and now in the presence of these things, not in the absence of them.