The Avengers – Participate in the Story

Theological Reflection

Marvel Studios has proven that it is a studio uniquely capable of producing high quality, summer blockbuster superhero movies. Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, The Iron Man Trilogy, Thor and Thor: The Dark World, and Captain America: The First Avenger each surprised me with their humor, charm, engaging action, high production value, and believable characters in unbelievable situations. None of them are “great” movies, like Pixar’s The Incredibles or Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, movies which embrace the superhero genre and yet manage to transcend it, but taken together, these Avengers prequels deserve to be included among the best popcorn movies ever made.

The Avengers, the sixth movie in this series and a spectacle pic if ever there was one, is a worthy addition to the series. It is as charming, exciting, funny, visually stunning, and involving as its predecessors. I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the others, and that’s quite a lot all things considered.

I most enjoy movies that try to get at something more profound about humanity, the world, or God. There are glimpses of weightier matters in each of these stories, but these ideas are simply skipped across like a stone lightly touching on the surface of a deep sea, present just enough to create narrative ripples, but largely inconsequential. These Marvel Studios movies are the situation comedies of superhero flicks. Their characters deal with the same issues again and again and again, never really seeming to learn anything, and tickling our funny bones all the while.

The Avengers are one-note characters, but the genius of Joss Whedon’s writing and direction in this movie is that he sticks to those notes and plays them well. Iron Man still has to learn selflessness. The Hulk still has to learn to control his rage. Thor still has to learn to fight for someone other than himself. Captain America still has to stay true to himself and his cause.

Whedon’s skill, as demonstrated in his many ensemble TV shows, is his ability to play one-note characters together harmoniously. He was the right director for this movie, though he might not have the been the right director for any of its forerunners. And this is certainly Whedon’s movie. Even the dialog has a Firefly-like cadence to it.

My favorite of his touches was the humanization of Agent Phil Coulson. In The Avengers‘ antecedents, Agent Coulson is amiable if automatic. He reminds me of the assumed identity of Matt Damon’s character in one of the con scenes of Ocean’s 11 – he’s specific but not memorable, funny, but he doesn’t make us laugh. The audience likes him but then forgets him the moment he’s gone.

In The Avengers, in almost its first scene, we learn Agent Coulson’s first name – Phil. A short time later, we find Phil fawning over Captain America, in awe of his hero and asking for his autograph. Suddenly, Agent Coulson is no longer the government automaton of the earlier movies. He’s a person with a fan-boy’s appreciation of these super humans.

Agent Phil Coulson is us. Whedon makes Phil Coulson the avatar of the audience within the narrative structure of the movie. Later in the movie, after Loki stabs Coulson, with his dying breath, Coulson tells Nick Fury that he had to die so that the superheroes would have something around which to assemble. They needed something to make the fight personal. Shortly thereafter, when Fury throws a bloody batch of Coulson’s trading cards on the table, the Avengers reconcile and join forces to defeat Loki on behalf of Agent Phil Coulson.

But if Coulson is us, then The Avengers are rallying around the audience. They are fighting on behalf of the people in the theater seats watching them on the silver screen. The Avengers assemble for us. And this, I think, is this series’ greatest strength.

Marvel has made these movies specifically for the audience. Movies are the most collaborative of art forms, and Marvel Studios has remembered that the audience is part of that collaboration. These are not multi-million dollar passion projects. These are not blatant cash grabs that appeal to our basest instincts. They are fun movies made for people who enjoy having fun at the movies. These Marvel movies are movies that respects everyone and expects the best from everyone.

Individually, these Avengers movies are fine. They are each fun but, ultimately, unremarkable. Together though, they prove greater than the product of their parts. Together, these movies represent the best that a blockbuster franchise is capable of being. The Marvel name is well deserved.

Key Scenes

Clip 1

Clip 2

Discussion Questions

For All Ages

Watch Clips 1 and 2.

1) Is Agent Coulson someone you can identify with?
2) What is Phil Coulson’s purpose in the plot?
3) What does it mean for a movie to be made “for the audience?” How is the audience part of the filmmaking community?

Read Acts 17:10-34.

1) When you watch a movie, do you consider yourself a participant or merely a spectator?
2) When Paul arrived in Berea, the story he told about Jesus’ resurrection was foreign to the Jews there. How did the Berean Jews respond to Paul’s teaching? How can you respond to the stories in movies similarly?
3) How did Paul respond to the Athenian statues and poems? How can you respond to movies the same way?

Scripture and Related Resources

That same night the Lord’s followers sent Paul and Silas on to Berea, and after they arrived, they went to the Jewish meeting place. The people in Berea were much nicer than those in Thessalonica, and they gladly accepted the message. Day after day they studied the Scriptures to see if these things were true. Many of them put their faith in the Lord, including some important Greek women and several men.

When the Jewish leaders in Thessalonica heard that Paul had been preaching God’s message in Berea, they went there and caused trouble by turning the crowds against Paul.

Right away the followers sent Paul down to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed in Berea. Some men went with Paul as far as Athens, and then returned with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.

While Paul was waiting in Athens, he was upset to see all the idols in the city. He went to the Jewish meeting place to speak to the Jews and to anyone who worshiped with them. Day after day he also spoke to everyone he met in the market. Some of them were Epicureans and some were Stoics, and they started arguing with him.

People were asking, “What is this know-it-all trying to say?”

Some even said, “Paul must be preaching about foreign gods! That’s what he means when he talks about Jesus and about people rising from death.”

They brought Paul before a council called the Areopagus, and said, “Tell us what your new teaching is all about. We have heard you say some strange things, and we want to know what you mean.”

More than anything else the people of Athens and the foreigners living there loved to hear and to talk about anything new. So Paul stood up in front of the council and said:

People of Athens, I see that you are very religious. As I was going through your city and looking at the things you worship, I found an altar with the words, “To an Unknown God.” You worship this God, but you don’t really know him. So I want to tell you about him. This God made the world and everything in it. He is Lord of heaven and earth, and he doesn’t live in temples built by human hands. He doesn’t need help from anyone. He gives life, breath, and everything else to all people. From one person God made all nations who live on earth, and he decided when and where every nation would be.

God has done all this, so that we will look for him and reach out and find him. He isn’t far from any of us, and he gives us the power to live, to move, and to be who we are. “We are his children,” just as some of your poets have said.

Since we are God’s children, we must not think that he is like an idol made out of gold or silver or stone. He isn’t like anything that humans have thought up and made. In the past, God forgave all this because people did not know what they were doing. But now he says that everyone everywhere must turn to him. He has set a day when he will judge the world’s people with fairness. And he has chosen the man Jesus to do the judging for him. God has given proof of this to all of us by raising Jesus from death.

As soon as the people heard Paul say that a man had been raised from death, some of them started laughing. Others said, “We will hear you talk about this some other time.” When Paul left the council meeting, some of the men put their faith in the Lord and went with Paul. One of them was a council member named Dionysius. A woman named Damaris and several others also put their faith in the Lord.
(Acts 17:10-34)

More Resources for Further Reading and Discussion

Super Gods