The Sky Is Falling: Images of Mass Destruction in ‘The Avengers’

2012-05-04

If you are completely unimaginative, this article contains spoilers. However, those who are even mildly perceptive of the massive advertising blitz behind The Avengers should have figured out by know that the film ends with a large scale invasion of a major metropolitan area by a horde of anonymously evil aliens set loose by a razor thin supervillian of insurmountable puerility. You can guess what happens next: lots of lightning paced editing gone blurry to avoid the detailing required of 3D, a gaggle of egotistical heroes turned unlikely partners to help save the planet, and a myriad of toppling towers raining down on narrowly escaping pedestrians below, with the implication of large scale loss of life only insinuated by the brief flicker of a candlelight vigil and a remembrance wall amidst a flurry of TV screens in the ensuing post-waste denouement montage.

Since the film sprung from the exalted pen of Saint Joss Whedon, critics and fanboys alike have rushed to applaud the film’s witty banter and sharply-paced popcorn action. As an audience member, I concede that the film was thoroughly entertaining throughout. Like a good origin story, it focused the bulk of its narrative on uniting its disparate heroes, which excused the tin motives of the inchoate evildoers in the film, as well as the boulder-sized consistency holes scattered throughout. The Avengers delivered exactly what was expected of its summer fare without succumbing to the Traveling Wilburys syndrome of reverse-synergizing its collective franchising.

Something didn’t sit well with me about that ending, though. It wasn’t just the devastation porn aspect of watching the collapse of an urban empire without a speck of blood or a single tear shed (making films like this or any of Roland Emmerich’s earth-raping romps a comfortable PG-13 you can take the kids to). Since Independence Day and, disturbingly enough, since September 11th, the American appetite for these images has held steady (and those who would like to think Joss Whedon’s megalomaniacal id is any smaller than Michael Bay’s should probably steer clear of what he’s capable of with an unlimited budget). The dark shadow of the collective unconscious’s death drive, though still disturbing, is no longer what shocks me about cataclysmic cinematic acts like this film’s “exciting” conclusion. What makes me feel queasy is that this kind of sweeping violence has been so completely normalized that it’s not the least bit shocking at all. In fact, it’s pretty much expected.

The problem with this sort of destruction is that it’s not even earth-shattering, even when the earth is literally shattered. In fact, it’s just business-as-usual. Tearing down skyscrapers and overturning bridges is just the narrative glue the Randian supermen need to inspire them to work together, with Tony Stark as the heroic John Galt inventor/philosopher type using his ingenuity and cleantech motor to repower the world. At the end of the ordeal, order is restored and the heroes carry on as if falling just short of total ruination is some kind of win.

Comics and Sci-Fi have a long history of obliterating entire planets, their annihilation merely a minor setpiece to compound a bad guy’s already-established malevolence (think Krypton, Alderaan, or The Twelve Colonies of Kobol) or to illustrate the cosmic nature of said antagonist’s threat (Galactus, Ego the Living Planet, or Unicron’s planet-chomping capabilities). Only in the age of CGI, though, has the destruction of a city, land mass, civilization, or planet become such a common trope that its emotional impact barely even registers when transpiring on the screen.

Natural or man-made catastrophes so regularly haunt the fictional realm that it’s a wonder characters have not started fighting back against their authors. Fringe, an occasionally delightful slice of speculative pulp TV, enacts frightening new acts of bioterrorism or ontological malfeasance on its unsuspecting populations en masse every week, forcing its inhabitants to succumb to gruesome fates while the investigative “Fringe Division” of the FBI scramble to prevent said horrors from recurring. 24 and Lost set off nukes during the course of their runs and atomic explosions play into the plots of popular video games like the Fallout series and Call of Duty 4. Films of the past ten years saw their share of earthquakes, floods, volcanoes, viruses, chemical warfare, and monster attacks. One has to wonder if the brutal carnage of the final act of Alan Moore’s Watchmen would even register with today’s audiences (the film, which altered the ending slightly, was such an otherwise clinical reproduction that it’s not really a fair measure of affectations).

It’s perhaps unfair to equate Watchmen with The Avengers, though. Watchmen was a grim, novelistic tome that equated superheroism with psychopathology and The Avengers is prefab escapism. While The Avengers is not exactly crass — Whedon’s ability to construct a convincing rapport between archetypal misfits precludes this — it’s not above squandering all its character-building capital on a monster payload of pure explosive titillation.

In a way, The Avengers is the inverse of Watchmen. Both are tales of established superheroes who are from vastly disparate locations and temperaments who all need to be united to stop a common foe. Both end with unspeakable damage to a city. However, whereas The Avengers are recent upstarts who’ve been sanctioned by a shadow government agency (S.H.I.E.L.D.), the Watchmen are retirees who’ve long been outlawed by the powers-that-be. The most significant contrast between the two stories though may be the absence of any kind of extrinsic influence on The Avengers. With the possible exception of Black Widow, all of The Avengers appear to wield their powers out of the virtue of their own nobility. The Watchmen, on the other hand, are an assorted gaggle of dogmatic extremists and barely-functioning sociopaths. In fact, the most virtuous among them turns out to be the most villainous, committing his heinous acts in the name of the same kind of plenary nobility that The Avengers regularly tout to their merit.

Perhaps the problem with the The Avengers film is that it masks its intentions, which is really pure spectacle and little else. It takes iconic figures we care about, forces them to interact in entertaining ways, and then squanders the goodwill the audience has granted by relegating the whole affair to window-dressing, just build-up to a money shot.

The term “devastation porn” associated with Bay and Emmerich is apt only from today’s perspective. Porn in its modern incarnation is not about arousal or fantasy. Rather, it’s about satisfying sexual desire by the most functional, efficient, and economical means possible. Contrary to the porn film’s origins as romantic memoirs of sexual liberation (however wrongheaded those films may have been), the form now mainly exists as nothing more than a means to end.

Like most post-millenial porn, the plot of a film like 2012 is an insult to those who came to drool as the site of the frustrating world that seems poised against them collapsing like a house a cards under whatever tenuous premise the languorous storyteller could muster. If 2012 were an art film that just showed a tortured earth’s wrath in the face of constant industrial abuse, it would probably be phenomenal. Instead, the protagonist is a failed science fiction writer from a failed marriage trying to rescue a couple boring kids and refusing to be swallowed into the earth like the rest of the planet. It undermines the film’s own rote sentimentality to pick a single (uninteresting) family to focus on while millions of other far more intriguing stories are coming to their end around them as backdrop.

Destruction of this magnitude should not make us think of the unpredictability of the earth, nor of the fanaticism of the villain, but rather of the callousness of the author. One should resent authors who casually slay innocent people without showing the psychic consequences of these actions. It’s not as much a betrayal of the audience as it is a betrayal of the world he or she has created. In recent years, television shows like Battlestar Galactica and Fringe have responded to this problem of authorship/ownership of disaster by having recurring characters (Gaius Baltar and Walter Bishop respectively) who are mentally crushed by the weight of the suffering they’ve (in these instances inadvertently) caused. The implication is that godlike powers do not excuse the mortal man from empathy or sympathy.

Of course, no one is saying that the promethean heroes of The Avengers, godlike creatures in their own right, are incapable of empathy. They are, after all, risking life and limb to save the world. In this sense, they are like Atlas, the Greek god who held the world on his back and inspired Ayn Rand to write her tale of titan capitalist tycoons, combined with Prometheus, the benefactor to humanity who stole fire from the gods for mankind’s benefit. Superheroes share much in common with the gods of myth. Indeed, many were directly based off of them. In fact, the Clash of the Titans/Immortals genre of myth based action-fantasy, is practically a hybrid of the spectacle disaster film and the superhero movie, with its protagonists at the center of an epic struggle that holds the lives of the millions of anonymous commoners in the balance (Atlas Shrugged does this as well, as does the dystopian HBO fantasy series Game of Thrones and countless other works from literature, TV, and film).

Like Greek Gods, the superheroes of The Avengers seem almost unconcerned with mass destruction. In fact, at a pivotal moment, Tony Stark/Iron Man (wearing an oh-so-clever Black Sabbath shirt) even confronts Loki with the tepid ultimatum that “If we can’t defend the earth, you can be damned sure we’ll avenge it”. Prima facie, this seems like a contrived bit of dialogue forced into the narrative to explain away the film title, which otherwise doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to those unfamiliar with the comic (what exactly are they avenging?). But Stark’s comments are telling. They reveal that he sees The Avengers as existing outside of and beyond the rubble. Regardless of the fate of mankind, these superheroes will still be standing and they’ll at least make sure those bad guys pay when we’re all dead and gone. How reassuring.

The ‘Cleansing’ Annihilation of the Urban Landscape

Destroying the urban landscape accomplishes a number of things for Hollywood and its many complicit audiences. To the rural and suburban communities who see the cities as a hotbed of sin and transgression, an epicenter of corruption, crime, and ideological opposition, the annihilation of a city presents a cleansing. Through negation, the status quo can be restored and undesirable elements can be purged. Witness Representative Richard H. Baker’s comments after Hurricane Katrina that “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans”, which was unfortunately not an uncommon reaction to the crisis at the time. Hollywood’s long history of portraying the cities as cesspools has certainly colored the perception of the urban wild to outsiders, who may not actually wish physical harm upon the city’s inhabitants, but would welcome the possibility of renewal in the face of their destruction. Glenn Beck’s 9/12 Project also springs to mind, a campaign founded on the delusional idea that 9/11 somehow magically transformed New York City from a dystopian nightmare into a utopian world of altruism and fraternity overnight.

Vengeance against architecture specifically, though, offers another kind of negation. As edifices that outlast a mere mortal’s lifetime, skyscrapers and landmarks can themselves represent the perpetuation of an existing order. Even more than the building themselves, the businesses that own, operate, and occupy the mammoth and seemingly impenetrable monoliths of the city are as unshakable as Greek gods or superheroes. Thus, mass destruction can also be a metaphorical stand-in for the liberation of the masses from corporate or social control. Used thusly, destruction and negation of the manufactured landscape is not an expurgation, but a chance for a fresh start.

It all depends on context. In order for the destructive to become constructive, a narrative must first establish its world to be untenable in its current state. Both Alan Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta were grim dystopian renderings of amplified Reaganite America and Thatcherite Britain under the birth pangs of neoliberalism. Both ended with questionable acts of explosive violence whose ends, however justified, seemed to provide an ample opportunity for a repurposing of the cultural landscape by the survivors. The demolition of buildings housing the major credit card companies and consumer credit reporting agencies in Fight Club is intended to “erase the debt record” so “we all go back to zero”, essentially wiping the slate clean for debtors of all kinds. None of these books or the films based off of them necessarily glorify the destruction in their final acts, but, just as in The Avengers or the Emmerich films, they also do not discourage their audiences from taking perverse pleasure in it.

Though there is some concern in The Avengers over a shadow government conspiracy at S.H.I.E.L.D. to weaponize a powerful renewable energy source, the assumption is that the world itself, and particularly America (represented by its patriotic advocate, Captain America), is okay and undeserving of the backlash the Chitauri aliens are planning against it. One unexpected thing that should give audiences pause about this world, though, is the abundance of advertisements littered across the landscape. What’s troubling about this is not the product placement itself, which is not unique to the summer blockbuster film, but rather the placement of the product placement, which occurs with a stunning frequency during the very scenes of devastation under discussion.

Tight shots of Honda Acuras, billboards for Farmers Insurance, electrical systems designed by Oracle, and refreshing ads for Dr. Pepper all shine glorious like indestructible Greek gods as the world collapses around its consumers. It’s unclear what this is supposed to signify. Is it a comment on the saturated landscape? The amalgamation of logos adorning park benches, taxicab tops, storefronts, and street signs are probably not far from an accurate portrait of one’s daily exposure to endlessly replicating advertising within the cityscape. Yet, rendered in crystalline 3D, these don’t fade into the backdrop, they jump out like trolling pop-up ads competing for attention at the apex of the film’s action. What does it say that we’re being asked to consume at the exact moment when the world is at its most vulnerable, when it looks as if there could be no tomorrow?

This shameless display recalls the ways products are used on Fringe, where the commercialized occupation of screen time is so brazen it almost seems to be intentionally daft. Fringe will directly interrupt the show’s natural rhythm, adjust angles from the expressionistic to the static, and intercut completely pointless scenes to showcase cell phones and cars. On a show that regularly deals with alternate dimensions, these ads seem like transmissions from one, a reminder of the artificiality of our own reality, an insight that it doesn’t always take a room full of corpses to make a dystopia.

Is this what the product placement in The Avengers is telling us, that we essentially just paid money to watch one long commercial for the Marvel kingdom? In fact, the commercials and the alien attack seem to be one and the same. They are the payload, the things that make the entire rest of the film possible. The Avengers is trapped by its own spectacle, obligated to both blow up the world and sell it its own destruction.

An urban devastation scene in The Avengers

Another early summer blockbuster more openly enunciated its uncomfortable placement both within and outside the spectacle; The Hunger Games. Like Katniss Everdeen herself, the film was doomed at the outset to be trapped in the crossroads between its own rich critiques and the consumer buzz surrounding the filmic event. However, in The Hunger Games, the spectacle is not the nasty violence of young people ceremonially murdering one another as sport, but the games themselves as both shared experience and commodified ritual.

In The Hunger Games, the controlling hand of implied spectatorship dominates one’s success, particularly at points when the participants compete for “sponsors” to provide essential survival tools. But it remains unclear who exactly the games are for. As Rob Horning points out at The New Inquiry, “The potentiality of vicariousness, which our own experience confirms, makes this system of control possible…the Games are able to provide a pleasure that viewers can easily imagine someone else enjoying so much that they can’t imagine the others would be their allies in changing the system of which the games are a part”.

The Hunger Games takes place in a future where there is apparently no more war. The games instead stage war as a controlled activity, replaying conflict as sport and consigning any infighting that might occur between districts to surrogates. All that’s required to participate is viewership. Yet, the games are fixed, framed as they are by those who define the terms of the peace. Power remains centralized, mass inequity persists, and nothing changes except for minor fluctuations in the enjoyment of the permanent luxury class.

In Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Freud noted that humans were driven not only by their desires, but also by a confounding, biologically inexplicable compulsion to repeat. He used the example of child traumatized by the disappearance of his mother to illustrate the point. The child, in Freud’s eye, used objects to restage the disappearance and reappearance of his mother by hiding them and bringing them back. Freud said this could be partially explained by an intrinsic need to “master” the original trauma, stating that “At the outset he was in a passive situation, he was overpowered by the experience; but by repeating it, unpleasurable though it was, as a game, he took on an active part”.

Who better than the films to reactivate and “master” trauma than Hollywood? Hollywood may not be able to prevent the world from tumbling down, but it can save John Cusack’s family in 2012 or the woman who works at the coffee shop in The Avengers. It’s perhaps this primal repetition compulsion that keeps driving audiences back to the multiplexes for more acts of apocalyptic grandeur in the wake of September 11th. It’s a place where we aren’t forced into the complexity of the aftermath, but can revel in the brutal act’s immediate closure and resolution as a remastered event.

Freud saw another desire at play in the child’s game though: revenge against the mother for abandoning him. The Hunger Games illustrates the dual purposes behind Freud’s ideas of restaging trauma by “mastering” war with only two participants per district (though the wealthier districts recruit and train far more advanced fighters who tend to win) and engineering the games as a kind of revenge against the districts for a past rebellion. But what would films like The Avengers be seeking revenge for, particularly if its repetitions of devastation arose from a desire from audiences to seek out the tragedies of war? Should this be seen as vengeance against the complexity of a world in constant ruination, under persistent struggle, and in chronic peril, whose problems can’t be readily fixed by heroes with magic powers or navigated through by sponsored vehicles that duck and dive over crumbling terrain? Why are we so driven to imagine our own demise only to retreat into the safety of an immaculately clean conclusion? Does it do anyone any good to tear everything down if things are just going to return to normal immediately afterward?

If it’s all mindless entertainment, then what exactly is being satiated by devastation porn if not the mind? The ideology of a mindless film occurs exactly at the point where it asks you to turn your mind off.

Europe After the Rain II by Max Ernst, 1940-42

PopMatters