Thursday, June 21, 2012

Can You Wipe Out That Much Red? Avengers, Themes

Note: yes, this post was supposed to be published on Wednesday. Yes, this is Thursday. I didn't get it finished on Tuesday and then was sick all day Wednesday. But hey, better late than never, right?

When I watched The Avengers the first and second time I really watched just to enjoy the movie. But the third time I watched it (with this review in mind!) I tried to pay closer attention to the theme.

I identified two themes, one of which I think is the "heart" of the movie, and another which is not quite as crucial to the plot. Call it a theme and a subtheme. Like a plot and a subplot.

And of course I must add that this is not, strictly speaking, a "review." It is riddled with spoilers, so don't read if you're trying to decide whether or not to watch it. My recommendation is: go ahead, watch it! You will most likely not be disappointed. And then you can come back and read this review.

You have been warned. On we go, after the jump...

Theme 1: You Were Made to be Ruled
Loki: [to crowd] 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.
German Old Man: [stands] Not to men like you.
Loki: There are no men like me.
German Old Man: There are always men like you. 
First of all, that old German man is possibly my favorite character in the entire film. As others have pointed out (and as is certainly implied) he most likely lived through World War II, and of course with Loki we get a parallel to Hitler, which is reinforced when Captain America comes in with his line ("Last time I was in Germany...")

Secondly, what Loki says is essentially true. We are made to be ruled. (Because, of course, I believe that we were made by God, who is our ruler).

But what the German old man says is also true. We were not made to be ruled by men like Loki. And we should not kneel to men like Loki.

This whole theme of "made to be ruled" is repeated when Loki first arrives on earth ("an ant has no quarrel with a boot") and when Thor argues with Loki ("then you miss the truth of ruling, brother!") and then again with Nick Fury's derisive comment ("let me know if real power wants a magazine") but is then seemingly dropped in the middle of the second act. Not that it doesn't come up once in a while with Loki's whole "world domination" idea and the alien's quip at the end about the humans being "unruly."

But while it does give Loki motivation, it's not the heart of the plot. It's not the main theme, the question that is answered by the film. I believe that question is....

Theme 2: Can You Wipe Out That Much Red?
Loki: Can you? Can you wipe out that much red? Drakov's daughter, Tugenov, the hospital fire? Yes, Barton told me everything. Your ledger is dripping, it's gushing red, and you think saving a man no more virtuous than yourself will change anything? This is the basest sentimentality. This is a child at prayer... PATHETIC! You lie and kill in the service of liars and killers. You pretend to be separate, to have your own code, something that makes up for the horrors. But they are a part of you, and they will never go away!
This theme is the heart of the movie, the absolute central idea. Can you wipe out that much red?

Why do I think it's the heart?

Well, I think structurally there's evidence for it. The question (part of Loki's speech) occurs in the middle of Act Two, right before a crisis point. While Loki is doing his little spiel the camera cuts away to the other heroes and characters, which signifies that they are also included as the object of his rant.

And it's played out dramatically in the characters themselves. The question can be applied to each of them.

The Black Widow is the most obvious example, since she's used directly in Loki's quote. Drakov's daughter, Tugenov, the hospital fire. She herself admits that she has "red in her ledger."

Hawkeye also has red in his ledger. He was hired by shield to kill the Black Widow - he was a trained assassin. Also, under Loki's spell he's killed or helped to kill quite a few people. (Remember, he asks "how many agents did I -")

Bruce Banner has red in his ledger as well (from the previous Hulk movie, and all the other times he's hurt people). Remember what he said when Tony invited him to New York?

"Last time I was in New York I kind of... broke Harlem."

Also, when he wakes up after landing in the warehouse he asks "did I hurt anyone?"

Nick Fury is described by Loki as a "liar and a killer," and by Tony as "almost as bad as Loki." He's a man who'll do whatever it takes to accomplish his mission - whether it be entirely ethical or not (e.g. his using the blood-stained cards to motivate the heroes, or shooting down the first jet that tried to bomb Manhattan).

Tony Stark also has red in his ledger - and not just figuratively either. Besides his less-than-stellar lifestyle (see: Iron Man 1 & 2), we also have the weapons that he made in the first Iron Man movie that killed innocent people because he didn't care enough about his company to keep track of what was going on.

And like all of the others (okay, maybe except Nick Fury) he has "red in his ledger" and he knows it.  The reason he became Iron Man is because he realized what a mess he'd made of his life. He's trying to make up for it by being a hero. Which is why Captain America's comment stings as much as it does.
Captain America: you may not be a threat, but at least have the decency not to call yourself a hero. 
That actually made me a little mad when I heard it during the movie. Because Captain America is attacking exactly what makes Tony Stark such a unique hero. Tony knows that he's not a good person, and knows that he doesn't always act like a good person. It's so much like us. We try to be heroes, we try to be good, but we always fail.

-------> side note: I realize that I haven't specifically detailed Cap and Thor in this list. That's because they're the two most "perfect" characters. Cap more so than Thor. They are flawed, but they don't have such glaringly "red" pasts as our other characters. (end side note) <-------

And this is the heart of the movie. Can you wipe out that much red? Can you overcome such a terrible past? Can you work with people who have done bad things? Can you work with people who know that you've done bad things?

Can a group of fundamentally flawed people overcome their differences and actually do good?

The answer, unsurprisingly, lies with Phil Coulson, whose death contributed to a lot of the themes, motivations, plot structures, and ideas of the movie. (Yes, I'm saying that his death was essential. Sad, but essential.)

Remember the scene, right before Phil dies? Remember what he says to Loki?
Agent Phil Coulson: You're gonna lose.
Loki: Am I?
Agent Phil Coulson: It's in your nature.
Loki: Your heroes are scattered, your floating fortress falls from the sky... where is my disadvantage?
Agent Phil Coulson: You lack conviction.
You lack conviction. Of all the things he could have said to Loki - you're alone, you're evil, you're cruel, good will always win, the heroes will never stop fighting - why does he choose you lack conviction?

It confused me a little at first, but now it makes more sense.

"Can you wipe out that much red?" is the central question of the movie. "You lack conviction" is the answer.

So can a group of fundamentally flawed people overcome their differences and actually do good? Not if they lack conviction. Not if everyone thinks that he himself is perfect and that it's the people around him that are flawed. (log in your own eye before the speck in your neighbor's)

Can you still call yourself a hero when you've done bad things, and when you still continue to do bad things even though you try to be better? Yes, if you have conviction.

Loki doesn't get it. He doesn't know. He does bad things and doesn't think about the consequences. He's the god of mischief and chaos. He doesn't think. He isn't convicted. He doesn't repent.

And until he is convicted, he can't be redeemed. Thor tried to convict him at the end of the movie - "end this now!" - but Loki stabbed Thor. He lacked conviction.

It shows us both answers to the question. Both consequences of the decision.

Flawed people can overcome their pasts/actions and work together for the common good if they are convicted of their actions. One of the reasons that The Avengers was so successful is because it had this truth at the heart of it. It wasn't "lone individual saves day" or "spotless hero single-handedly saves earth." No, it's something much more applicable to us as normal human beings.

Because though we may not be able to smash alien monsters or shoot arrows without even looking, at heart we're all fundamentally flawed. And without conviction, we'll keep repeating the same mistakes over and over and over again.

 Do you agree with my assessment of the themes? Did you catch any other themes in the course of the movie?Am I going to be murdered now for saying that Coulson's death was essential? ;) 

Read part 1 or part 2 or part 3.

Make sure to check back next Wednesday for part 5 - Burdened with Glorious Purpose: Avengers, Conclusion.

All images from Fandango unless otherwise noted.


  1. You're making me like this movie more and more. I didn't catch the importance of this theme when I saw it, but I love it. You're a smarty-pants, you know.
    I think Thor's background did have as much red in it as some of the others, though. Doesn't he wipe out almost a whole planet or something? But yeah, Captain America remains pretty flawless.
    Thanks for this!

    1. I'm glad you enjoyed the review!

      Yes, I know I'm a smarty-pants. I've been told. My excuse? I don't do it on purpose! :D

      You're right about Thor.... he does have that. But it's not as obvious as the other heroes, who are still struggling with their inner demons.

  2. I never got this, at all. I need to see it more. I mean, I knew there was something different about this movie. It is very funny, which helps in making a movie popular, but there was more. And this is it, I believe. Also, the good vs. evil and good winning, which people want to believe. But yes, they had their flaws and overcame them. Loki had his and refused to admit he could change, even saying as much once to Thor's pleading of him to end it. He still had a chance, but he refused it. The others had a chance and took it.

    Great post! Loved it 8-D

    1. Glad I could help you see the movie a little differently!

      Yes, you're right about Loki having had a chance. But he was hard-hearted and refused it. That's the way of the villain.... :)

  3. It's all the layering in The Avengers movie that made it so good. I LOVED the old guy too. Each time I read your post, I'm so jealous! I NEED to see it again. I can't wait to own this on DVD.

  4. I just got a chance to read this and I'm so excited I did!!!! This is so true and I completely agree :) awesome job !! Write more.

  5. Oh wow! Now I want to go see it again. I love your analysis and when you said God is our ruler I wanted to jump up and cheer. Off to read the other posts...



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...