Augustine and the Avengers

Unless you’ve been living off the grid (and even then, you have to be pretty far off), you’ve heard the big news from Hollywood: “Avengers: Endgame” is on the cusp of becoming the highest grossing movie of all time. At the time of this writing, the latest entry in the sprawling Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is a mere $44 million away from beating out James Cameron’s masterpiece “Avatar” (aka “Dances with Blue People”). It has already surpassed James Cameron’s other masterpiece, the uber-chick flick “Titanic” (aka “There’s enough room for Jack on that door, you heartless wench!”)

Fontevrault and I are what I like to call “casual fans” of the MCU. Neither of us have read the comics, nor have we even seen all of the movies, but we’ve enjoyed them ever since my sister-in-law got me “The Avengers” for my birthday. Sadly, we have not had a chance to see “Endgame” yet (having five children tends to make going to the movies difficult), but from what I hear, it is both visually stunning and emotionally powerful. It will need to be both in order to dislodge the original “Avengers” from the top slot in my mind.

I like action movies as a genre, but it’s uncommon for such movies to engage the mind as well as the senses. The first movie I remember doing so in my adult lifetime was “The Matrix,” with its riff on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” But so far, the MCU has consistently balanced four-color eye-candy with more thought-provoking fare, a rare accomplishment in this day and age.

Oddly enough, my favorite scene in the entire MCU involves none of the titular team of heroes, but rather their nemesis; Loki, god of mischief. While the majority of Marvel’s villains are weakly characterized, the complexity of Loki has made him a fan favorite. In this scene, after brutally assaulting someone for a retinal scan (don’t ask for an explanation), Loki engages in a comic book staple: the villain’s monologue:

On the one hand, Loki’s words represent standard dictator boilerplate: “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must,” as Thucydides put it in his Melian Dialogue. The scene takes place in Germany and the old man who defies Loki evokes the spectre of that country’s totalitarian past. We naturally cheer when Captain America, the living symbol of human freedom, saves the old man and knocks Loki to the ground.

And yet, isn’t Loki right? Doesn’t human history show how easy it is for men to kneel before those in power, to beg them to protect and console us? In doing so, do we not “crave subjugation” while at the same time deceiving ourselves that we want to be free?

Every time I see this scene, I am reminded of the opening words of St. Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions:

“Great are You, O Lord, and greatly to be praised; great is Your power, and of Your wisdom there is no end. And man, being a part of Your creation, desires to praise You — man, who bears about with him his mortality, the witness of his sin, even the witness that You resist the proud, — yet man, this part of Your creation, desires to praise You. You move us to delight in praising You; for You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You” (I.1)

Augustine would have found no fault in Loki’s speech. Men are indeed “made to kneel;” we are born to be humbled, despite all our frantic efforts to declare ourselves to be our own masters. We succumb to the “bright lure of freedom” every time we sin, which indeed “diminishes our life’s joy” (a fact that Augustine himself knew very well). Yet Augustine would also know that the old man speaks the truth as well. We may have been “made to be ruled,” but “not by men like [Loki].” In the end, such men (or Asgardians) fall very short indeed.

Did Joss Whedon, the writer and director of The Avengers and an avowed atheist, mean to incorporate such a spiritual message into his movie? I have no idea. But that’s the great thing about art: it reflects fundamental truths, sometimes despite the beliefs of the artist who created it. If a comic book villain (and an alien at that) can clearly explain the truth of human nature, maybe there is hope for the rest of us.

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