The Avengers of Civil Society?



While watching the summer blockbuster Avengers: Age of Ultron, I had trouble shaking thoughts from two books not usually connected to action heroes, let alone movies: Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments and C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves. I doubt writer/director Joss Whedon had these social philosophers in mind when he was writing the screenplay. But, then again, perhaps the principles underlying these books are not that far-fetched for the creator of such character-driven projects as Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In the 2015 film, Ultron uses each Avenger’s deepest and darkest personal fears to manipulate them and neutralize their effectiveness. Tony Stark’s (Ironman) hubris leads him to overreach in his ability to control and manipulate artificial intelligence, which becomes a professional and personal breaking point for the team. Natasha Romanova’s (Black Widow) personal brokenness from her training as an assassin and spy makes her vulnerable to manipulation that immobilizes her during a fight. Bruce Banner (The Hulk) becomes incapacitated through his fear over a lack of self-control and trust that others can rein him in. The Avengers are thus defeated by Ultron and forced to retreat to a safe house.

In their quest for personal redemption and world salvation, the Avengers can’t operate as solo heroes or even as just a team. They need to become a group that interjects different skills at tactically important times. They also must be strategic. This requires a deeper understanding and a more complete embracement of individual motivations, values, and priorities. The superheroes are forced to forge new bonds and develop new understandings among each other. Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanova bond over their inability to have children after Bruce sees that her relationship with Clint Barton (Hawkeye) is platonic. Trust destroyed by Tony Stark’s machinations with artificial intelligence (after fears instigated by the Scarlet Witch) is rebuilt as the Avengers recognize the necessity of mutual cooperation, accept the sincerity of their personal goals, validate the truth of their common objectives, and find pleasure in working with each other and achieving success.

All of this action takes place in a virtual anarchy. Governments are not strong enough to defend themselves against the existential threat posed by Ultron. S.H.I.E.L.D., the international espionage, law enforcement, and counter-terrorism agency, at various times under the direction of the U.S. government and United Nations, has fallen. The erstwhile Executive Director, Nick Fury, is nowhere to be found.

The term “avenger” refers to someone who seeks justice by using vengeance to inflict harm or injury on someone who has been harmed by another. As a plot device, vengeance does not require a sophisticated plot line or nuanced character. Avengers: Age of Ultron breaks from the superhero formula because it explores the interpersonal dynamics of the protagonists, and most have a more clearly defined arc. They are “better,” morally and ethically, because they have grappled with their personal fears and failings and rebuilt their community (of superheroes) to accomplish something bigger than themselves as individuals.

This is the stuff that would interest Adam Smith and C.S. Lewis. While I doubt Whedon is familiar with Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments, his insights into interpersonal interactions are fundamental to understanding Smith’s understanding of trade and markets in his more famous The Wealth of Nations. In Moral Sentiments, Smith argues that our experiences with other people have intrinsic value, and these interpersonal relationships become the essence of our understanding of our personal self worth and of those with whom we interact. This interaction, and its moral purpose, cannot be replicated by beings created via artificial intelligence. It also can’t be forced. This human bonding becomes the cornerstone of the trust needed to formulate a plan to defeat Ultron.

This is also why I think C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves is worth pondering. Many in contemporary society think of love as Eros—romantic love. But Lewis explains that three other “loves” are as important, if not more, to human bonding and social interactions: empathy (Storge), friendship (Philia), and unconditional giving or charity (Agape). The Avengers aren’t at the point where their love for each other is unconditional in an intimate family sense or, in Lewis’s parlance, “God” love, but we see throughout the movie the importance of the bonds of friendship and empathy.

The Avengers start out as simple teammates united in the quest for a simple goal. They need to know little more than the skill set of the other Avengers and trust that they will follow through with their contract. But as the Scarlet Witch undermines their own confidence and ability to combat evil, they are forced to confront the global holocaust devised by Ultron. They see the value in each other’s humanity–Barton’s affection for his conventional family and wife, Steve Rogers’s (Captain America) concern for protecting the broader community and its values, Stark’s loyalty to Pepper and their recognition of each other’s value. They move to empathy—the bonds formed through familiarity–to friendship. In friendship, their bonds become close and strong, more similar to adult siblings than teammates. They become a community of avengers, and this very human interaction gives them the strength to take on the artificial Ultron.

Notably, Lewis believed that friendship bonds were “the least natural” of the four types of loves. These bonds emerge out of human interaction, and they strengthen the human community by building trust and allowing us to rely on others to achieve a greater good. This is not too different from markets that are able to achieve much more through voluntary, individual collective action than one can achieve by oneself. This social interaction and the trust on which it depends allows for the division and specialization of labor.

Some have lamented the lack of action in Avengers: Age of Ultron. I found Whedon’s exploration into the interpersonal relationships among the individual superheros a storytelling choice that deepened the film and characters.

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