I went to see The Avengers because of Tony Stark. Maybe it’s because Iron Man has always been and is and always will be my favorite super hero. Ever. But that aside, I anticipated that his role in this film would transcend his typical charismatic and irascible brand of heroism.
Walking out of the theatre, I felt my anticipations were fully met. Joss Whedon, who wrote the script, made a smart move by taking one of the most popular characters and giving him a role capable of withstanding some fairly stringent dissection. The entire movie turns on Stark's personal character development, which is reflected both in the other characters and in the overall plot.
He is introduced at the very beginning of the movie standing at the top of his new energy efficient tower (something he repeatedly refers to as one-of-a-kind). Along the side of the building, his last name is emblazoned in huge neon letters. This is the Stark we all know. As he puts it, he’s “a genius billionaire playboy philanthropist.” What a perfectly balanced cocktail of the best of both worlds. Actually, it’s only one world—the one Stark owns. He’s the man.
Stark and Loki: Two sides of the same coin.
But there’s a problem. For all his seeming distinctness and bravado, his cocktail ends up looking a whole lot like that of his current arch-nemesis. How much difference is there, after all, between Stark and Loki (You know, the Norse god of subtlty and deception who’s been trying to take over everything)? Stark is happily on top of the world. Loki is happily trying to take over the world. Their end goal is the same—the exercise of unique and unchallenged power.
True: they have two seemingly different approaches: magic and science. And true: traditionally, magic and science have been opposing forces. But wait: in the Marvel Comic universe, as Thor tells us, “magic and science are one and the same.” You won’t find a difference between them there. Let’s keep comparing:
Loki unabashedly wants the acknowledgement of others. Entering earth through a scientific laboratory, Loki manages to destroy the machinery surrounding him in such a way that it looks less and less laboratorial and more like a cathedral. He kills a victim on an altar-like statue and he demands the worship of those whom he has subjected. He does not want mere commendation; he wants to be venerated. In the sob story of his journey to villainy, Loki reveals that he is actually the adopted brother of Thor, Norse god of thunder and golden-locked good guy. Basic story: he feels different, so he uses his difference as a claim to being superior. He elevates himself and enforces deference through intimidation.
Stark doesn’t destroy other people’s property for the sake of autonomy, but he does ruffle feathers with his bravado and he riles everyone with his snarky commentary. From the moment they meet, Stark works at putting down Captain America with cutting quips about “old-fashionedness” and “old age.” Only when Dr. Banner (a.k.a. The Hulk) lets loose a string of scientific terminology, does Stark roll his eyes and sigh, “At last. Someone who speaks English.” He manages to distance himself from everyone around him by siding with the only other obvious outcast. Essentially, he is doing the same thing among the Avengers that Loki does among the humans—trying to elevate himself on the basis of intellect and to elicit the deference of others through intimidation.
The conflict in The Avengers, you see, occurs on three different levels. There is, you know, the universal conflict between the forces of Good and Evil. On this level, we witness the collision of opposing armies. But in addition, there is personal conflict amongst the ‘good guys.’ The heroes are fighting with each other. Finally, there is the internal conflict experienced by each person—as exemplified in both Loki and Tony Stark.
At every turn, Stark finds himself fighting the same thing–the desire for autonomy–and it’s the thing that ends up fueling the movie’s other conflicts too. It is the cause of the struggle between Loki and the Avengers, it poisons the relationships between each member of the Avengers, and it is at the heart of Stark’s internal conflict. Because he’s like Loki, Stark makes the battle bigger. He brings right into the Avengers themselves.
Stark’s fight to get beyond autonomy.
In the film’s final cataclysmic event, a nuclear bomb is sent to New York and Stark finally proves his mettle. His ability to overcome his internal struggle for autonomy by being willing to sacrifice himself for others also resolves the external conflict with Loki and unifies the Avengers as a team. By overcoming his similarities with the bad guy, Stark wins the war on all three fronts.
In order to change, however, Stark has to be pushed to the edge. In the end, he has two choices: a) assert that, being different, he has no duty to the human race or b) pledge himself to the human race as a sacrifice. He chooses the latter, and saves everyone, including himself.
And, because of this final battle, the members of the team eventually fill roles suited to their specific strengths. Stark’s position makes him the capstone in the Avengers’ growing unity. By being willing to give up his life, he commits himself to their cause. But fortunately, he doesn’t die. (Imagine how dull the after-party would’ve been without him). Instead, his role is developed even further.
Stark’s new heroism: Integration instead of isolation.
What, after all, is the role of the Avengers once their common enemy is defeated?
It would not be fitting for them to continue as a militant unit. They are peacemakers, not warmongers. If there is no common enemy, there is no need to remain assembled for battle. Rather, they need to disband and go about their separate lives. But they don’t disband in spirit. A kind of unity remains: a unity that does not depend on spatial location. Friendship, shwarma-grabbing-style.
In the very last shot in the movie, we see Stark tower once more. It suffered some alterations amidst the fray. All that remains of Stark’s last name is a single letter: A. That’s the movie.
From multiplicity came singularity. Out of autonomy, a team. Out of the division of destruction, rose a victorious unity. This is the culmination of all that Avengers is testifying. Stark’s presence defines this testimony, beginning, middle and end.
P.S. Further Questions to Consider
As I continue to think about the Avengers, more questions inevitably come to mind. This is Wheatstone, after all. Here are several that I hope spark new conversations and thoughts about the movie for your small group.
1) How is the Stark tower a reference to Babel? Does the change it undergoes purify that reference or simply manifest it in a different form?
2) How many different kinds of deity are presented to us? What moral difference is there between them? Is Marvel making trustworthy assessments of gods and men?
3) What sorts of parallels may be drawn between Loki’s natural theology and the natural theology of Darwin?
4) If Loki were to rule the world, would there be a relationship between “church and state’? If so, what would it look like?
5) Can you tell a superhero story successfully without any romance? Why does the figure of ‘a girl worth fighting for’ consistently appear in stories of heroism?
6) What is the distinction between maturity and giftedness? What tensions commonly arise between those two traits? How are they resolved?