Posts Tagged ‘Freedom’

Review: The Avengers (2012)

May 14, 2012

The Avengers

Zak Penn and Joss Whedon; film, directed by Joss Whedon (Manhattan Beach, CA:  Marvel Studios, 2012)

            “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.”   Loki of Asgard

If, as Hamann thought, there is more joy in hearing five words of truth from a blasphemer than in a chorus sung by legions of angels, then there is little more delightful than finding philosophy in a Summer Smash’em Up Blockbuster Film.  That was the joy I found from this movie.  It makes the whole Ph.D. student debt thing totally worth it.

The movie revolves around a super-secret organization , S.H.I.E.L.D.  (for Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division) attempting to exploit an alien artifact of immeasurable power, and the trouble caused when beings who understand and can control that power far better arrive on Earth to claim it.  Thus put, the premise doesn’t sound much more exciting than the motivating force of the aliens in Plan Nine from Outer Space.  Human hubris leads to tinkering in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know, which in turn attracts the attention of powerful beings who feel they were meant to know, and then the wackiness ensues.  The philosophy, however, is deeper than that, and involves the very essence of human nature:  freedom.  Freedom is the ultimate question.  Are we mere organic mechanisms seeking nutrition and procreation, material complexes with no more freedom than a rock finding its way down the hill?  Or are we beings that create ourselves at least as much as we are created, choosing our own goals and values?

Given that the movie is largely driven by the sibling rivalry of two Aesir, it is fitting to analyze it through the eyes of Teutonic philosophers.  Loki seems to be the most philosophically inclined character, or at least the most philosophically verbose; so I shall start with him.  Loki presents himself not as a tyrant, but as a savior.  He has come, he says, to bring peace and joy to all humanity.  And he will do that, he says, by taking away human freedom.  Freedom is a burden, an oppressive responsibility; surrendering freedom allows one to enjoy the pleasures of life while allowing others to make the big decisions.  In essence, Loki seems to have put his finger on the problem of anxiety.  As discussed by Vigilius Haufniensis, anxiety is “the dizziness of freedom.”[1]  When confronted with a real, significant choice, good/or evil, life/or death, salvation/or damnation, the individual is overwhelmed by his or her own sense of power—-the power to go wrong.  The individual may know what choice he or she ought to make, as Adam knew not to eat the apple; but all the individual concretely knows is that a possibility exists.  There is no rational reason why the individual would choose evil; there is only the vertigo of freedom, the anxiety of possibility, and the individual swoons.  When the individual realizes he or she has chosen wrong, it becomes all the more difficult to deal with the continued burden of freedom, compounded now by the actual knowledge of good and evil (as opposed to the mere possibility of freedom with no first-hand knowledge of the alternatives).  Most individuals, Haufniensis says, find the burden of freedom intolerable, and seek to give up their individuality.  Freedom becomes the very thing they flee; conformism, philistinism, determinism become salvation. Haufniensis calls this attitude “the demonic.”[2]

Loki is the very personification of the Kierkegaardian demonic.  Your pain, Loki says, comes from the unending, wearisome task of constantly making oneself, the burden of freedom.  I will take that burden from you, and I will tell you what you are and what you may become; then you will have peace.  Haufniensis would say that whether we know it or not, most of us take Loki’s offer.

And in the scene where Loki makes this offer to a crowd of terrified Germans, who is the one individual who stands up and chooses to die rather than live as a slave?  It is the one who has first-hand experience with a previous offer of this sort.  This too fits the philosophy:  Paul Tillich and Reinhold Niebuhr, among others, drew on Kierkegaard’s explanation of anxiety and the demonic to explain the appeal of Hitler and Stalin in their own day.  It is perhaps unfortunate that the man did not die; his being saved by Captain America could seem to symbolize the idea that individual freedom is protected by the United States, and I don’t think that was the intention.  From the Kierkegaardian perspective, expecting any human agency to safeguard your personhood would be to surrender your personhood.  On the other hand, of course, Captain America doesn’t make the man free; he did that for himself.  All Captain America can do is show up later and try to shield the individual from the physical risks of having declared himself to be an individual.

But before I try to discuss the superheroes, I want to look at Loki himself.  He says of himself, “I am Loki of Asgard, and I am burdened with glorious purpose….  I come with glad tidings, of a world made free (from) freedom.  Freedom is life’s great lie.  Once you accept that, in your heart… you will know peace.”  This is from the opening scene of the movie, and it is the most Nietzschean thing he says.  In Twilight of the Idols, Nietzsche writes that freedom is a lie, invented to make men responsible for their actions—to make them guilty.  By telling them they were free and hence guilty, they could in fact be bound by their sense of guilt.  By contrast, the immoralists proclaim the psychological theory that there is no freedom, that all human action is determined by the instincts, and hence there is no guilt.[3]  Loki has come to free humanity from the burden of freedom, and thus to give them peace.  And in fact, he himself is not free, either.  He says of himself that he is “burdened.”  Banner says of Loki, “That guy’s brain is a bag full of cats, you could smell crazy on him.”  He is not free; he is driven by forces beyond his control—-by the bargains he made to get an army, by his ambition, by his hubris, his envy, and in short, by his instincts and his will-to-power.  If he has come to free humanity from freedom, he has started by liberating himself from its burden; now he is in thrall to his “glorious purpose.”

This very lack of freedom is what gives Loki his strength, and what initially weakens his opponents.  As he describes them, “You were made to be ruled.  In the end, it will be every man for himself.”  Hobbes comes to mind here; the only escape from war of each against all, says Hobbes, is when all surrender their freedom to a greater power that will enforce peace between the rest.[4]  Without an absolute monarch or other overwhelming leader, there is anarchy; no one can trust another so none can cooperate.  Initially, that seems to be the truth of the so-called Avengers:  “we’re not a team, we’re a time bomb.”  As free men, they struggle against each other, each determined to be the High Alpha of all Alpha Males.   As Hobbes would put it,  “All men (are) by nature equal… From equality proceeds diffidence…. From diffidence (proceeds) war.”[5]

The turning point in this story of superheroes is the death of a perfectly ordinary person, Phil Coulson.  In fact, it could well be said that he is the one who saves Earth.  Everything up to that point has shown Loki pulling everyone else’s strings, either literally turning them into puppets through his mind control “spell” or metaphorically by playing them off against each other.  The superheroes have spent more time bashing each other, or spying on S.H.I.E.L.D. itself, than they have fighting their supposed enemy.  Loki’s plans come to fruition when he finally traps Thor, turn the Hulk loose to fight the others, and cripples S.H.I.E.L.D. ‘s command ship.  He seems to have won.  At the moment of his victory, he is confronted by a perfectly ordinary S.H.I.E.L.D.  agent with a more-than-ordinary gun.  He’s still no match for a god, though, and Loki mortally wounds him.  The scene continues:

[after dropping Thor to earth, Loki turns to leave but Coulson stops him]
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.
Loki: I don’t think I…
[suddenly shoots Loki through the wall with the Phase 2 weapon which blasts out fire]
Agent Phil Coulson: So that’s what it does.

Minutes later Coulson dies, but not before expressing his belief that his death would be the catalyst that would bind the superheroes together as a group.  And in fact, that is precisely what happens.  With his self-sacrificial death, the heroes gain a sense of unity.  They become a team, “The Avengers,” their proclaimed goal to protect the Earth but their more pressing motive to avenge Coulson.  His sacrifice, his willingness to do his duty even when all logic said it was hopeless, moves them to put aside their rivalries and to work together for a higher purpose.  They gain conviction.  Loki lacks conviction.  He has no cause, no “idea for which I may live and die.”[6]  It is not his nature to put anyone or anything first, to “get behind” a cause.  And ultimately, that means he will abandon any cause that seems to be failing in order to try to save himself.  It is thus in his nature to lose, rather than to take the risks or make the sacrifices necessary to win.  By contrast, the superheroes sacrifice their safety, and what is more important to them than safety; each sacrifices his own personal sense of his superiority and independence.  Each must sacrifice a little pride, a little sense of self-sufficiency, to become part of a team.  When each subordinates his pride to the higher cause, they are able to win as a group.

Ultimately, The Avengers is about two conflicting paths to unity.  Loki’s path is the abandonment of freedom.  In this conception, “freedom” is an intolerable burden for the individual and fatally divisive for the group; the only way to attain personal peace or group success is to recognize freedom as “the great lie,” and to instead subordinate the people to the unifying will of a leader who is himself only a pawn for forces he barely recognizes and cannot control.  The other path accepts the individual differences and disagreements, rivalries and conflicts, personalities and freedom; but these are subordinated to a conviction.  When individuals freely accept a cause for which each can live and die, they have a unity without slavery.  They can accept authority for the purpose of achieving a task, and the one with authority can accept the individuality of the other and join it to the group rather than treating others as threats to his (or her) own status.[7]

It’s not my purpose to write a review that will tell people whether to go or not go to this particular movie.  My guess is that whether or not one enjoys a film has more to do with individual taste; and in any case, enjoying a movie because it got a good review is like laughing at a joke because someone else told you it was funny.  And I don’t suppose it even makes much sense to tell you that if you do go to see this movie, you should enjoy it for the philosophy rather than for the special effects or clever dialogue.  But there is joy in finding truth where one did not expect it, and that is a joy that anyone may experience who is open to it.  When one finds that joy oneself, one wants to share the news of one’s good fortune; that is what I have done here.  And if reading this helps anyone to be more open to reflecting on the moral and philosophical values of his or her own experiences and entertainments, so much the better.


[1] Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety:  a simple psychologically orienting deliberation on the dogmatic issue of hereditary sin; edited and translated, with an introduction and notes by Reider Thomte in collaboration with Albert B. Nelson (Princeton, NJ:  Princeton University Press, 1980) p. 61

[2] Concept of Anxiety, pp. 118-54

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, in The Portable Nietzsche, edited and translated by Walter Kaufmann (New York:  Penguin Books, 1978) pp. 499-500

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan:  or the Matter, Forme and Power of a Commonwealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil, edited by Michael Oakeshott, with an introduction by Richard S Peters (New York:  Simon and Schuster Inc.  1997) pp. 98-141

[5] Leviathan pp. 98-99

[6] as Kierkegaard writes of seeking for himself; it was this sort of conviction that Kierkegaard said led him ultimately to turn from egoism to the ethical-religious life.

[7] Even the Hulk can be a team player, when Captain America gives the proper order:  “Hulk:  smash.” I can think of no better example of a leader who recognized the individual strengths and needs of each team member, and who gave “orders” that allowed each to apply his or her uniqueness most appropriately.