A Movie Review
by John David Ebert
If Star Wars is the creation of an American national epic by other means (than literary), Marvel’s new superhero film The Avengers brings into visibility before us how the superhero is becoming part of an unofficial American polytheism, or in other words, paganism by other means (than cults and liturgies).
The seven superheroes of the film’s pantheon are, of course, drawn from Old World prototypes: Thor, the giant killer, has been lifted out of whole cloth from Scandinavian mythology; Iron Man is a retrieval of the Medieval knight in shining armor capable of great deeds; the Hulk is the ancient Green Man, also a Medieval myth character; Captain America is a transformation of blonde Achilles with his magical shield; the Black Widow, played by Scarlet Johanssen, is the archaic Spider goddess; and Nick Fury, with the patch over one eye, reprises the role of one-eyed Wotan (or Odin) as the head of the Scandinavian pantheon. (Hawkeye is Egil the Archer).
However, these Old World mythic figures have been recoded with another semiotic stratum on top of them which makes their vectors point specifically to the American plane of signification: Thor is simply a modified version of the American jock hero football player; Tony Stark captures the American Howard Hughes / Ted Turner type of tycoon; the Hulk is the Bad Boy whose temper, like Marlon Brando in The Wild One or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, always gets him into trouble; while Captain America is simply the compliant American Soldier and Black Widow a retrieval of the muscle-flexing Rosie the Riveter.
The film’s characters thus constitute a specifically American pantheon which we can see emerging as a kind of unofficial American polytheism. But it is a polytheism with a purpose, as the mythic structures in the story amply demonstrate.
The plot concerns the anti-god Loki’s attempt to use a glowing cube of energy called a Tesseract to open up a portal in the sky to another world, through which armies of demons come pouring through into New York City, smashing it to pieces. The specific myth invoked here is that of the cosmic catastrophe which involves the shifting of the earth off its axis and a consequent tearing of a hole in the world ceiling: in its Chinese variation, a war between the god of fire, Zhu Rhong, and the god of water, Gong Gong, leads to Gong Gong’s smashing his head into Mount Buzhou, the cosmic pillar that holds up the sky. This event knocks the earth off its axis and tilts it toward the southeast, ripping a hole into the sky, a hole through which hordes of demons and evil spirits pour through, while the Chinese goddess Nu Wa desperately attempts to repair the hole using the four legs of a tortoise as cosmic pillars to replace Mount Buzhou as the central axis.
In the Chinese myth, the hole in the sky is a rupture of the membrane of the Chinese macrosphere, an immune system which protects the Chinese cosmos against the chaos of invasions from beings Out There. But in its American variation in The Avengers, New York City is a city that does not have a protective macrosphere of any kind (as 9/11 illustrated), for it is both a city without walls (gone since the invention of high explosive shells) and without a sky (the age of metaphysics as applied immunology which ended with the Death of God). Indeed, Nietzsche’s annunciation of the death of God, as the Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo has pointed out, was tantamount to the beginning of the end of all grand metanarratives whatsoever, but metanarratives are precisely a civilization’s metaphysical immune system that protects and immunizes it against the impacts of the Real by using metaphysical ideas to build a sort of translucent membrane both around civilization and around the individual Self.
Whereas Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis demonstrated the results of the Self without a protective membrane, The Avengers shows what happens to civilization in the absence of an immune system, for civilization now requires superheroes to take over this role, and that is precisely why American comicbook superheroes came into being in the first place, namely, to serve as immune cells to defend New York City against attacks by beings from the astral plane.
It should be pointed out that New York City has been pictured in superhero movies ever since the first great Christopher Reeve Superman films as being under attack by astral entities from other worlds. With 9/11, the attack became a reality; and the recent hurricanes, both Irene and Sandy, have made it impossible to think of New York as anything else but a cosmic Target for aggrieved Titans. Art, whether high brow or low, is always a generation or two ahead of developments in the Real that actually come along later, and I think we are now being forced to the conclusion that these apparently “worthless” superhero movies have actually been functioning as oracles all along, oracles with an ear open to Being that we have paid scant attention to, but which have proven to be correct in the dire implications of their imagery.
After all, can it really be an accident that New York City was pictured in our pop culture narratives for the past two or three decades as under attack by astral forces that subsequently became manifest in reality as aggrieved terrorists and a disturbed biosphere?
But I don’t think so.
Fantasy always precedes the horrors of actuality — the Columbine killers, for instance, filled pages and pages of notebook fantasies of killing people before it became an actual reality — and so I think we need to pay a little more attention to the semiotics of our popular narratives. They do come from the folk, after all, and the folk are closer to the Real than us “learned city folks.”
The imagery of such narratives functions in a way that is analogous to the imagery of dreams (since, in essence, they come from the same Source), a point that I made seven years ago in my book Celluloid Heroes & Mechanical Dragons. I think that Events since have tended, more or less, to bear out the strength of those insights.
The future always casts its shadow backwards in time, which is why oracles and dream interpreters like Joseph were such big hits in the ancient world, which knew to take Imagery of all kinds, from dreams to omens to stories, seriously. The literature of the ancient world, too, though, took a cosmopolitan turn of Cynicism that ridiculed the old narratives in the invention of the Greek novel, a perfect example of which is Lucian of Samosata’s True Story, a title dripping with sarcasm and which makes fun of all the old myths. Meanwhile, the earthquakes kept coming, and soon, the Romans too arrived to subjugate the Greeks.
Suddenly, novels like Lucian’s weren’t so funny anymore.
And I think that, nowadays, few people are laughing any longer.