Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Avengers -- manipulation and teamwork, freedom and subjugation

Director: Joss Whedon, 2012. (PG-13) 

The Avengers is awesome, an action-packed blockbuster that finds time to allow the characters be real and grow. It is both fun and funny, with numerous throw-away one-liners.  

With Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), The Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) all together in one film, the fear is that the screen would not be big enough to hold them and the story too small to give them their space and freedom. The good news: such fears dissipate rapidly. Even without watching some of the individual superhero movies that told their creation narratives (I only saw Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk), the story still makes sense. Surely, there are some nuances that are missed by skipping those films, but it did not detract from the enjoyment of this film.

The plot is simple. Loki, the evil Norse god of mischief and half-brother to Thor, has come to Earth to bring it into slavery to him as its king. To do this he plans to open a portal in the universe to bring an army of reptilian aliens as his soldiers in this war. The earth and all humanity is at risk and only the team of superheroes stand in the way of supreme subjugation.

The film opens in the headquarters of SHIELD, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) has a team of scientists investigating the tesseract, a curious other-worldly cube with infinite energy potential. When Loki appears from nowhere right out of it, the movie kicks into high-gear and rarely lets up.

Recognizing the enormity of the danger, Fury begins calling his team of Avengers together, using Black Widow to manipulate and persuade Dr Banner (aka The Hulk) to join the “team” and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) to invite Tony Stark. He himself meets with Steve Rogers (aka Captain America).

But this is no normal team. In fact, it is a collection of egos, massive, superhero sized egos. And they argue and fight, literally butting heads while causing massive destruction! Used to working alone without a rule book, Thor, Iron Man and The Hulk are not team-players by nature. Only Hawkeye, Black Widow and Captain America understand the need for order and following orders. And they should, after all they are soldiers and agents. It is only after they have figuratively gone at each other’s throats, a result of uncovering some of Fury’s secrets, that a final piece of manipulation via Fury’s “pep talk” pulls them finally together as a true team.

Manipulation and teamwork form the first pair of conflicting themes in The Avengers.

Manipulation usually refers to delusion, deception and betrayal, and carries negative connotations. For example, the Gibeonites manipulated the Israelites into letting them live with their careful deception in Joshua 9. And for much of The Avengers, manipulation masks such deception.  But the definition of manipulation refers to the skillful art of managing well. And Fury’s final manipulation, though deceitful, has a positive purpose – to form a team. This act is indeed artful management, even of superheroes.

Teamwork focuses on the cooperative or coordinated effort on the part of a group of persons acting together in the interests of a common cause. The superheroes here were a ragtag collection of individuals at the start. Characters all, but cooperative they were not. The scene with Iron Man battling Thor with Captain America intervening tells that story. But when given the right motivation and faced with a challenge that none alone could defeat, they bonded as a team.

It reminds me of Jesus’ twelve disciples. Not superheroes, they were ordinary men plucked from ordinary jobs by an extraordinary leader. During his three years of earthly ministry they bickered and postured for the better positions of power (Mk. 10:35-45). They were not yet a true team. But once Jesus died and rose from the grave, he formed them into a team and challenged them with the great commission to reach the world with the gospel (Matt. 28:18-20).

As we consider working with and forming teams, we might consider these lessons from the Avengers and the Disciples. Teamwork is more than simply bringing talented people together. They must be forged into one team, with a common mission. Artful manipulation and motivation is necessary to challenge them to put petty personal issues aside and look to the greater good of the common cause. It takes a true leader to create a true team.

It is this team that plays together in the final act where the war comes to New York. Director Josh Whedon brings all the sound and fury we would expect to the climax with a solid half-hour of non-stop action that explodes with thrills. This brings with it a satisfying culmination in the character arc of most of the superheroes, most notably Tony Stark, the narcissistic playboy.

The second pair of opposing themes is freedom versus subjugation.

Early in the film, Loki appears in Germany and cries out to a crowd of humanity:
Kneel before me. I said... KNEEL! Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It's the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life's joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.
 God created humans as creatures with the freedom of choice. And their choice in the garden led to the entrance of sin into the world (Gen. 3). From that moment on, humanity was condemned to be slaves to sin (Rom. 6:20). For thousands of years we have been subjugated by an invisible force. But through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ we “have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Rom. 6:18). Our freedom came at the price of Christ’s death.

But what is true freedom? Is it total absence of external control? Surely this form of freedom would lead inevitably to anarchy and chaos, just as pure anger led The Hulk to constant destruction. Paul tells us “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). But he goes on to put a voluntary restriction on anarchic freedom: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13). Clearly there is a positive freedom and a negative freedom. The bright lure of positive freedom in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit enhances your life’s joy through the cultivation of the fruits of the spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Yet there is still a truth to the concept of subjugation. Loki is a demi-god. And he wanted to be worshiped. The true God, Yahweh, deserves to be worshipped and loved completely. Jesus told Satan, “‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only’ ” (Matt. 4:10). In the Sermon on the Mount, he said, ““No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt. 6:24). Money here can represent anything that stands in the way of devotion to God. We must choose. And God is a loving master; his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matt. 11:30). 

Loki is correct that we will kneel, but not to him. Paul tells us that “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phil. 2:10). We will kneel before God. We can choose to do so voluntarily here on earth, knowing Jesus as a loving and caring Savior. Or we will do so involuntarily in the afterlife when we face God as our just Judge who will confer on us what our hearts unfortunately wanted, a life apart from God and his grace and goodness, a life, not in subjugation to Satan, but a life of eternal isolation and loneliness. If we are ruled with perfect love, will we consider this a gift or a curse? You decide.

Copyright©2012, Martin Baggs

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