The Avengers and the Individual

The Avengers is one of the best superhero movies ever made. Like some other recent superhero movies, what made it so good wasn’t just the spectacular adventure, but the personal stories intertwined with that adventure. Real characters that develop as the story unfolds, adding a literary depth to the well-crafted adventure. In this case, a key theme was how a bunch of diverse and independent characters came together to battle something bigger than all of them, and how they ultimately succeeded. There’s was a success born not only from physical power, but from a paradox ultimately more powerful than even the tesseract. The seed for this paradox was planted near the beginning, during Loki’s speech.

At one point, Loki speaks to a crowd under his control. After commanding them to kneel, he proclaims that humans “were made to be ruled”. Interestingly, no argument is made against that, but exception is taken to Loki being the ruler. In a very real sense, the statement is true, because we all choose who is the ruler of our lives. One way to frame this is whether we choose to focus on self or selflessness. Basically, we decide who is going to be master of our life; ourself, or someone else.

In the movie, the heroes faced this dilemma as they struggled to work together without destroying each other (and perhaps the entire world) in the process. All of them were powerful and strongly independent. For example, Tony Stark was so arrogantly independent and egotistic, that he was deemed unsuitable to work with the in a team (“I don’t play well with others”). As powerful as they were, as long as each asserted his own will, they had no success. Whenever they worked together, they were less than the sum of their parts.

It was only upon the death of Agent Coulsen that they began to look beyond themselves and came together in a spirit of selflessness. They realized the necessity of putting their individual perspectives below the greater need of defending the planet. Each had different abilities, and could support the effort in a way that none of the others could. The best chance for success lay in making sure they each used their special talents the most effective way possible, but coordinated so that they worked in harmony instead of conflict. Thus, each one had to put his or her strength in the service of the group.

For this to work, they needed a leader to coordinate. But in this context, any leader had to be selfless as well, able to think of the whole space, and not just those aspects he was special at. This leadership position fell naturally to Captain America. He was a natural choice for two reasons. First, they were in a war, and he was the ultimate soldier. Second, and more important, he was the most selfless one of the group. Although others, like Thor and to some extent Ironman, developed some sense of self-sacrifice in their growth as heroes, Captain America was chosen from the beginning because of this trait. While still normally human in his origin movie, a pivotal event occurs in which he throws himself on a grenade in order to save others. And in the Avengers, while part of an elite group with incredible powers, he acknowledged the reality of an even more supreme power.

As the Avengers came together as a team, the secret to their success was each one working to the best of their ability. But beyond that, each worked to the best fulfillment of their ability. Directed by Captain America, each one took on a task for which they were especially suited. Thor held off the new invaders with his lighting, weilding a large-scale weapon suited not available to anyone else. Ironman covered large territories, working the periphery with agility and speed available to no one else. The value of his unique agility was enhanced by Hawkeye’s special perception, who also provided aerial support. The Hulk brought to bear a level of simple force unmatched by any other team member, while the Black Widow infiltrated the heart of the tesseract installation, discovered the secret, and brought it under control. Captain America, in addition to acting as leader, gave special attention to shielding civilians as he engaged enemy troops on the ground.

The key here is that each found fulfillment of their own gifts by falling in line with the overall program and working as a team. This is a picture of the paradoxical nature of spiritual freedom: the more we give ourselves to the divine prerogative, the more we become personally fulfilled. As we allow the divine to lead our lives, he gives us the freedom to be ourselves. As our relationship with him grows, we come to know ourselves better. The more we turn over to him, the more we have. And as we allow him to live through us, his power becomes available.

But the reverse is also true. The more we focus on ourselves and the world, the more we become trapped by it. As we follow the world’s lead, we start conforming to the world because that is the easy path. As we become more engaged with this world, our true selves disappear into something the world defines. As we try to take more and live for ourselves, we find we have less and less. And as we live by our own efforts, the world dominates us more and more.

We face a choice, just as the Avengers did, in who we let be master over our lives. We can choose our own path and to follow the world, or we can choose a path that leads to true freedom and satisfaction. Victim or superhero, it’s your choice.

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