February 27, 2010 / Filmwell
James Gray’s latest wraps three distinct, remarkable characters around a haunting question. It may make you miserable while you watch, but it will stick with you like few love stories do.
May 15, 2012
Or at least, I think that is what he may say if pushed. We don’t quite have the opportunity to press Captain America on his theological background, given that reference to divinity in The Avengers is pretty spare. (This is okay. The primary purpose of the film is to be awesome, and it certainly accomplishes that.) But even if spare, the few references to divinity and godhood in the film crackle with an interesting spark.
In the first set of references we have an exchange between Captain America and Black Widow about the metaphysical origins of Loki and Thor. In a second reference, Tony Stark simply refers to Loki and Thor as demigods. And lastly, Hulk refers to Loki as a puny god. Let’s look at the first and third of these references.
The first set of references to divinity happens in a scene immensely gratifying to my inner Thor geek. Several of the Avengers are transporting Loki via plane to their invisible sky fortress. Dark clouds begin to amass, thunder rumbles, and we hear a dramatic thump. Yes, Thor is now part of the film, which just raised the level of awesome by about 28%. But, as Thor drags Loki from the fuselage and they tumble into sky, Iron Man soars after them. Not one to sit on his duff when justice can be served, Captain America begins preparing to do his thing. “Wait,” Black Widow says. “You might wanna sit this one out, Cap. These guys are basically gods.” To which, the Captain replies, “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I don’t think he dresses like that.” And out of the plane Captain leaps, his fall to earth surely cushioned by his ideological purity.
This is a telling moment, an opportunity the film takes to nod toward the paradox in the Marvel universe between science-based origins and myth- or religion-based origins. The latter set of origins is hard to capture with one hyphenated term, as “myth” is a pretty loaded category. Regardless, it is a moment of conflict between a mythical polytheism and a sloganeering patriotic monotheism that raises two questions: What is Captain America actually saying? Who wins?
He is saying exactly what he is expected to say, in that as the icon of the American military-industrial complex in its finest hour, Captain America is fully cognizant that whatever juridical success he embodies is ultimately an expression of the will of God – that God being the one enshrined in the pledge of allegiance. This is American civil religion at its finest, by which a Judeo-Christian monotheism serves as the code that standardizes and homogenizes our civic identities. This is why Captain America knows that God does not look at all like Loki or Thor. These guys wear capes and horns and stuff. God is far more dignified than that, he is far more like us. Whatever Loki and Thor are from a metaphysical perspective is irrelevant to Captain America – the fact that they do not align with the Captain America/God mythos means that Captain America will surely be able defeat them.
And he does! Well, his shield does. Which even though one could argue was made by God at some point because it is from elements and stuff, it was actually forged by a metallurgist who stumbled across this new vibranium-based alloy and then improved by Tony Stark. Given the technocratic nature of Captain America’s victory, in that he does stop the epic Iron Man/Thor fight, the theological conflict previously raised simply peters out. Whedon steps in and says: Listen everyone, let’s get back to what matters. Captain America’s shield is awesome, perhaps even more awesome than Thor’s hammer. All the god stuff is ancillary to our main concern here. And frankly, this is a fine turn of events as it is consistent with the similar focus of the Marvel universe on the conflict between existing powers, however they came to be. But the residue of this exchange is nifty glimpse into the conflict between the God of America and the constant threat of Otherness over which we will surely prevail. Right?
Moving on to Hulk. In the penultimate victory over Loki, we find him drawing down on the Hulk. But before this happens, we get the obligatory comic-book villain speech in which they get one last shot to explain to the universe exactly why they are so important and powerful. The grand rhetoric here turns out to be the set up for one of the film’s most comical moments, in which we then see Hulk grabbing Loki by the heels and flopping him around like a bored toddler with a doll. Walking away from this confrontation, Hulk reflects on Loki’s self-affirmation by declaring him to be a “puny god.”
There are a few important structural elements here. First, the respondent is Hulk. Hulk is a fine place to begin exegeting the relationship between materialism, science, and super awesome power in the Marvel universe. He is indesctructible, immensely – even unthinkably powerful. Among the Avengers, Hulk is the most god-like of them all in terms of sheer metaphysical grandeur. Yet, Hulk has a bit of a problem in that his form is accidental, the fallout of exposure to a gamma bomb detonation (which in the Marvel films is part of an attempt to reduplicate the Captain America experiment). The great existential crisis of Bruce Banner is that while being immensely powerful, Hulk is a manifestation of his angst and anger – making a sense of shame or failure the ultimate pivot point of their relationship.
This is the unique set of qualifications that makes Hulk’s theological analysis of Loki as “puny” so meaningful, in that the film ultimately resolves this conflict between God/gods/science by simply dissolving it in spectacle. We were prepared for this in a previous scene when Hulk and Thor battle a giant space beast. They take it down, and while standing over its corpse, Hulk unexpectedly punches Thor off. Why? Because why not? He is Hulk; he is apophatic and a little bit embarrassed about that. This is the same rationale he brings to his fight with Loki. God talk bore Hulk. Hulk smash. Again, Whedon steps into the film, but this time with his atheist and/or anti-“Sky-god” hat firmly in place. Whatever nuances could be probed about the nature of science, God, gods, what-have-you are shelved for something far less cosmic in scope. All this Loki business needs is a good dose of Marvel full-page spectacle.
Which is fine. The film can’t be expected to be a tractatus on these metaphysical concerns. I simply find it interesting that even if they are not intended to be meaningful at all, references to God and divinity always have a way of becoming so.