Making the Universe Great Again

Thoughts on Avengers: Endgame

animation of super heroes

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Two-thirds of the way through the interminable Avengers: Endgame, I leaned over to Stella and whispered, “They say a shared ordeal makes a marriage stronger.” Gaping plot holes, characters that were more like self-caricatures, scenes that seemed as if they were grafted in from another movie, and concatenations of vapid one-liners that served as dialog made the film nearly unwatchable.

Unwatchable to me, anyway. When I offered my complaints to my teenage son, he gave me quite a passionate schooling. My incomprehension of the movie was due largely to my having somehow missed most of the other 22 films in the Avengers franchise. No matter. Philip is right that it is unfair to pick on Avengers. Most of what I am about to say applies to countless other Hollywood action movies of recent years.

At this point it is customary to issue a spoiler alert. I am going to reveal pretty much the entire plot. That won’t matter though, because if you have followed the series you have already seen this film. If you haven’t, you will find the plot so contrived and the characters so flimsy that you won’t care what happens.

Walking out of the theater, I felt something else besides the smug glee of ridicule and the annoyance of three hours squandered. I felt alarm, even dread. Aesthetics are inseparable from other dimensions of human creation and human relating. They are political, they are economic, they are ecological. That such a film even exists, especially with large budget and resounding commercial success, is diagnostic of a severely diseased civilization.

The aesthetic shortcomings of Avengers: Endgame reflect disturbing trends in politics and society. Worse, the film is a propaganda and indoctrination vehicle for those trends.

I’ll explore three of them here: the shattering of causal connections and holistic understanding; escapism into delusions of restoring a heroic past; and the descent into a virtual reality of image that seems to excuse us from the laws of material reality. All of these have profound political implications.

Restoring the Past

Avengers: Endgame is the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War, in which the arch-villain, Thanos, succeeds in his evil plan to collect all six infinity stones and kill half of all living beings in the universe. (Along with them, he kills half of the superhero Avengers, including Spiderman.) His rationale is, amusingly, humanitarian and ecological: to alleviate the suffering caused by overpopulation. Refreshingly, the villain wins complete victory in that film, which ends with Thanos retiring to a remote planet, enjoying the sunset as he rests after a job well done.

A few minutes into the new film, a squad of the remaining Avengers find him on his remote planet. He is occupied in his garden, and has destroyed the infinity stones so that no one will ever be tempted again by their power. Unmoved by Thanos’s transformation into an organic gardener and unswayed by what appears to be his stirrings of regret or at least doubt, they chop off his head and return home, avenged.

The rest of the movie is occupied with their use of time travel technology to go back in time, collect the infinity stones from the past, and use them to undo Thanos’s handiwork. What the stones can do, they can undo. It is not only the stones that they bring back from the past though, it is also Thanos himself, and along with him the familiar dramatic engine of heroes versus arch-villain. Moreover, the Thanos they bring back is not the nuanced, evolving Thanos in his garden, but an old, unregenerate version, purely malevolent and unproblematically worth killing.

Neither the filmmakers nor the superheroes knew what to do without him. Their identity cannot stand without an evil to define them as good, as heroes. Without Thanos, Thor becomes a drunken oaf, Ironman becomes a suburban dad, Hawkeye becomes a vigilante assassin, and Hulk becomes a giant green scientist. Their superpowers are as superfluous as the MX missile became with the demise of the USSR.

In the milieu of geopolitics, the last truly credible good-versus-evil story died with the Soviet Union, a signal event that inaugurated the slow dissolution of the good-versus-evil storyline altogether. Despite various attempts to resuscitate its corpse, the succession of candidates for the New Evil – Colombian drug cartels, radical Islam, the ‘axis of evil,” and so forth – inspires little dread. These puny opponents are inadequate to incite war fever or justify the continuation of the military-industrial complex. Imagine an Avengers sequel with a smaller, weaker Thanos.

Failing to find a new foe as mighty and diabolical as the old Soviet Thanos, we try to bring it back from the past in the form of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. But this is not the movies. No amount of narrative management, psyops, or political prestidigitation can inflate today’s Russia into anything as scary as the Soviet Union, with its ideology of global communist revolution, its totalitarian police state, its Gulag Archipelago, and its Iron Curtain.

Before the Avengers (and the filmmakers) brought back Thanos, evil had essentially retired. The Avengers and their powers were, like the military hardware in the American arsenal, obsolete. It is still obsolete; unable to win a decisive victory over puny opponents like Afghanistan or Iraq, the United States military succeeds only in sowing chaos wherever it strikes. It is as if the Avengers themselves have become the new evil.

To Make America Great Again requires some kind of reference point. Great in respect to what? What exactly is it about the past that Trump and other national chauvinists around the world seek to restore? While Trump might harbor erratic non-interventionist tendencies, these necessarily collide with the ugly truth of “greatness” in an imperial system, where great equals dominant. Supremicism requires someone to vanquish and subjugate.

Here is a plot summary of the Avengers series to date. A bad guy appears, the fate of the world or galaxy is at stake, and the hero(es) destroy him. Then another bad guy appears, the fate of the world is at stake again, and the heroes destroy him. Then another, and another…. What is the reason they keep appearing? There isn’t one, except that they are bad. Maintaining a livable world, then, requires an endless series of fights. Does that remind you at all of American foreign policy? Establishing evil as elemental, the cause of our troubles, the Avengers series elevates a simplified Hero archetype, promotes a puerile conception of greatness, and writes a prescription for endless war.

The Avengers plotline expresses and, I fear, validates a political nostalgia, suggesting to the public that greatness might be resurrected, and that the hero-state is still a viable national identity. Like most action movies, it harks as well to another kind of nostalgia: for the days when problems could be solved by force. Wanting to become again “the greatest” – Trump’s version of the neocons’ “full spectrum dominance” – makes sense only in a world where dominating the Other brought benefit to the self, a world where progress meant more effective ways of killing, conquering, and controlling, where the next antibiotic, the next weedkiller, the next weapon would bring happily-ever-after victory. It is a nostalgia for a time when our arsenals were actually useful for something, when humanity could escape ecology, and when unfettered capitalism brought prosperity for all. It is doubtful whether such a time ever existed (in any case, nostalgia usually recalls an imagined past), but at least the illusion seemed true at the time. Judging by the success of Avengers, part of us holds to that story still.

Making Nonsense of the World

The reader might attribute my dislike for this movie to my over-intellectual resistance to a bit of mindless summer fun. If so, my highbrow disdain was shared by an eight-year-old boy and his sister who, along with their bewildered mother, were the only other occupants of the theater. Meandering around the aisles and paying only sporadic attention to the movie (which, admittedly, is just as watchable in random ten-second chunks as in its entirety), they brought to mind a similarly jaded and inattentive American public.

Take a few days’ or weeks’ break from watching the news, and you may discover upon your return that current events make no less sense in sporadic bursts than they do in one continual stream. The media makes little attempt to connect events to each other or to larger historical and economic processes, offering the thinnest of plotlines, or none at all, for the seemingly senseless barrage of shootings, wars, scandals, coups, election results, and so on. In the film as well as the news media, it is not as if events are wholly unexplained; it is that the explanations cannot bear scrutiny. Juvenile metanarratives, simplistic motives, and ad hoc explanations pass without question. As with Avengers, if you have immersed yourself in the stories and become attached to the fictional world of the mainstream news narrative, what is senseless to the newcomer makes sense. Only by pulling back is the nonsense manifest.

The problem with Avengers is not that it conflicts with reality – it is, after all, fantasy – it is that its internal reality seems so contrived. Why are Pim Particles necessary for time travel? How does Thanos transport an entire army though time using a one-person supply of them? Why, despite its high technology, does that army rely on hand-to-hand combat? Why, if the whole universe is involved, are nearly all the superheroes from one tiny planet, Earth? The viewer automatically lets such questions slide, accepting the inconsistencies and ad hoc explanations because he knows it is necessary for the plot to proceed. This goes beyond a willing suspension of disbelief; it is a willing suspension of rational thought. Any explanation is good enough as long as the narrative requires it.

Outside the theater, what thoughts daren’t we think? What questions and inconsistencies do we let slide, so that the show might go on?

Above I referred to gaping plot holes, and while there are a few, what disturbs me more aesthetically and politically are the unbelievable patches used to hold the fabric of the plot together. The contrived explanations of how and why in Avengers: Endgame eerily parallel the way the news media present current events to the public. Some rationale is needed for why multiple trips to the past are impossible, so the Pim Particles, in limited supply, are called in. Some rationale is necessary for bombing Syria, so poison gas attacks are called in. In the movie, the flimsiest pretext – or sometimes none at all – is sufficient to motivate a character’s action. The viewer endures a cacophony of loosely connected events. Usually I could fill in the gaps with a stretch of imagination; other times my imagination snapped in disbelief. To perform these imaginatory calisthenics requires a certain degree of buy-in to the drama, a willingness to suspend disbelief, give the narrator the benefit of the doubt, and fill in the gaps. This film was practice in accepting absurd premises to collude with the storytellers in upholding a narrative.

The story of the world that established power offers us, in both its liberal and conservative variants, is not much more coherent than Avengers: Endgame. In the real world, so attached is the public to a political mythology that preserves its national and cultural identity, that it ignores gaping plot holes and logical incoherencies. Venezuela’s economic crisis can be blamed on “economic mismanagement” even after years of crushing sanctions. Pariah states like Iran and Cuba can be excoriated for their human rights violations even as allies like Saudi Arabia and Guatemala commit worse ones. Neoliberal austerity is prescribed for financial crises caused, self-evidently, by past austerity policies. The political class complains loudly of Russian interference in elections, while the United States has egregiously interfered in elections for the last seventy years, and mounted coups and invasions when the interference doesn’t work. And the very same politicians and journalists who used obviously fraudulent claims of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction as a pretext for war now offer equally flimsy claims about Assad’s poison gas attacks and Iranian plots to attack US forces and Russia’s plans to disable the US power grid, claims which reverberate through the mainstream media as if the Iraqi WMD fiasco and all the other frauds had never happened.

Conditioned by films like Avengers, the public accepts without much question thin and incoherent plotlines like the Mad Dictator, America the Exceptional Nation, and the Bloodthirsty Other. Political leaders can ply their base with infantile stories demonizing the other side, as if the other side comprised comic book characters with debased, cartoonish emotions and motivations. I am afraid that it is not only the xenophobic, bigoted sectors of the political right that deploy this tactic. Limited to the vocabulary of fighting, campaigns, and struggles, activists and dissidents on the Left often mirror the system they hope to change. Disagreeing on the identity of the bad guy, they agree on the fundamental good-versus-evil paradigm. Evil takes the form of “corporate greed,” “white supremacy,” and so on, embodied in caricatures of real human beings like the “racist cop,” the “entitled frat boy,” or the demented “climate denier.” Here are the people to hate! My point here is not to argue that racism or misogyny are just so much storytelling. It is to warn of the trap of a simple but false narrative that locates blame for these evils on Evil, that reduces human beings to cartoons, and offers false solutions (defeat the bad guy) accordingly.

The Avengers films are, of course, live-action renditions of what was originally a comic book; it is to be expected that the emotions, relationships, and psychology of the characters remain cartoonish. That reviewers saw fit to describe the film’s trite emotionality with words like “pathos,” “somber,” “intimate,” and “devastating” bespeaks either very low expectations, or, worse, a coarsening of emotional perception.

Instead of bringing comic book characters to life, it was as if the screenwriters were flattening the characters into cartoons. (Again, it is unfair to pick on Avengers – nearly all action movies do the same.) This conditions the public to accept the dehumanized versions of world actors that are necessary to maintain dominant political narratives. Thus stupefied, the public passively acquiesces to the cartoon version of world affairs presented for its consumption, content never to search for a more coherent story that would account for the choices and conditions of real, full human beings, embedded in complex historical, social, and economic conditions. So used are we to senselessness, that we (the collective public) seldom pause to say, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense. Let’s get to the bottom of this. Who stands to gain here? How are these decisions made? Where is this information coming from? What assumptions are taken for granted?”

Blithe acceptance of superficial narratives forestalls deeper investigation into causes. For example, blaming terrorism on diabolical fanatics who “hate our freedoms” or on the vague shibboleth of “radical Islam” bypasses any discussion of decades of neoliberal extraction, covert support for dictators, subversion of democracy, and military violence, all of which create conditions for desperation and hate. Even that list is dangerously reductive, simplifying a long, complicated history to four bullet points, but it is a start.

One cannot really blame the public for their ready acceptance of the spurious, contrived narratives of politics and entertainment. It is hard to engage in critical thinking when we are barraged by one luridly urgent crisis after another. In both film and reality, the hyperbolic shrillness of the action distracts us from the incoherency of the plot. There is no time to think – the crisis is now! It is urgent! Time is running out! It’s a matter of life and death! Failure in this moment brings dire consequences!

In such circumstances, normal rules of civil order do not apply. We must allow those with power to use that power to intervene, urgently, and do whatever it takes to save the day.

It is not that urgent crises are illusory. Right now, there are people on the verge of starvation, execution, expulsion, torture, dispossession of land, unjust detention, ebola, death squads, floods, fires, etc. who will suffer or perish without quick intervention. But these events are like the pinnacles of a vast, structured iceberg. Looking only above the surface, they look random, disconnected. Only by directing our attention beneath the surface of mainstream media consciousness can we see the structural causes of these horrors.

Films like Avengers condition us to be satisfied with incoherency. Unlike in the film, though, in the real world, underneath the cacophony of the news, which has shattered reality into disconnected fragments, there is a deeper story. A couple levels down, there is a story of dollar hegemony, the ideology of development, and the role of corporations and finance in serving the compulsion of economy to grow in a debt-based system. That story brings some order to the chaotic appearance of world affairs; it also gives birth to new questions, new why’s, which in turn open a portal to a deeper story still.: Separation, humanity separate from nature, individuals separate from the world, an objective reality outside ourselves to dominate and control. To perceive that story, we must become intolerant of the senselessness born from it.

Society of the Spectacle

An odd thing has happened with the development to near-perfection of CGI (computer generated image) technology: as the verisimilitude of the images increases, so does the unreality of the story the images tell. This might exemplify a more general principle: the more control one has over the representation of reality, the farther from reality one strays.

The Marxist philosopher Guy Debord described something quite similar in his 1967 classic, The Society of the Spectacle. He wrote:

When ideology, having become absolute through the possession of absolute power, changes from partial knowledge into totalitarian falsehood, the thought of history is so perfectly annihilated that history itself, even at the level of the most empirical knowledge, can no longer exist. The totalitarian bureaucratic society lives in a perpetual present where everything that happened exists for it only as a place accessible to its police. The project already formulated by Napoleon of “the ruler directing the energy of memory” has found its total concretization in a permanent manipulation of the past, not only of meanings but of facts as well. But the price paid for this emancipation from all historical reality is the loss of the rational reference which is indispensable to the historical society, capitalism. It is known how much the scientific application of insane ideology has cost the Russian economy, if only through the imposture of Lysenko. The contradiction of the totalitarian bureaucracy administering an industrialized society, caught between its need for rationality and its rejection of the rational, is one of its main deficiencies with regard to normal capitalist development. Just as the bureaucracy cannot resolve the question of agriculture the way capitalism had done, it is ultimately inferior to capitalism in industrial production, planned from the top and based on unreality and generalized falsehood.

The 3D animation of CGI technology exacerbates this tendency by suggesting that reality can be whatever we declare it to be. It exemplifies the divergence between what we portray, and what actually is, a key characteristic of Debord’s spectacle. We live, he said, in a spectacle, a show, performing the roles of consumer and producer, occupying a job description, alienated from the totality of the production process of commodities (which themselves are real things rendered into economic things, defined in terms of human convention, stripped of uniqueness and relatedness, abstracted from the matrix of being; i.e. part of the show). As commodity production takes over the world, we plunge into a world of representations, a spectacle masquerading as the real and, through our immersion in it, becoming the real. The digital world, increasingly realistic thanks to CGI and VR, is just one of its manifestations.

By a “totalitarian bureaucratic society,” Debord was referring primarily to the Soviet Union. Fifty-two years later, it is hard not to notice how our own society has gelled into the same mold, as it assumes more and more the character of a totalitarian state, particularly in its use of surveillance and its control of narratives. Who would not give a start of recognition at the phrase, “…the permanent manipulation of the past, not only of meaning but of facts as well.” The past means, “That which has happened. That which is already real.” We live at a time when the authorities seem simply to declare reality into existence. When, some years or decades thereafter, their declarations are revealed as arrant lies, no one much notices, at least not enough to stop them from doing it again.

Today’s cinematic CGI is also very much a declaration of something into reality. To the eye, it looks real. There it is happening before us. Yet as I said already, despite (or perhaps because of) its verisimilitude, the story the images tell is increasingly ridiculous. Much the same could be said for the political stories fed to the public, which grow increasingly unmoored from both common sense and lived experience.

The same digital technology that allows the cinematic declaration of something into seeming reality also allows the altering of existing records: text, audio, and video. We cannot necessarily return to a website to verify that so-and-so actually said what we remember. Orwell imagined a cumbersome process by which past newspaper articles were modified or replaced, and the newspapers reprinted for the archives, to keep them current with the official narrative of the day. Now that is possible with a few keystrokes. Articles and video footage can be excised from the record, or modified to fit the current “reality.” I am told that many of the original TV broadcasts in the hours and days after the 9/11 attacks substantially contradict the official narrative, but have been expunged from the Internet. More commonly, heterodox “meanings and facts” are squeezed to the margins of Internet reality through manipulation of search engine algorithms to give greater weight to “reputable” sources. Thus it is that in the last year, anti-war websites, anti-vaccine websites, anti-GMO websites, and sites discussing unconventional cancer cures have become harder to find on Google and Facebook.

It would be unfair to pick on Avengers: Endgame for its reliance on CGI to create its pretend reality. It is far from the most extreme example in film. I mention it here because it complements the rest of the film’s unrealism: the contrived and flimsy plot, the cartoonish characters, the simplistic good-versus-evil storyline. It is as if by making the images loud and lurid enough, the filmmakers could force the viewers to accept the story, aid their suspension of disbelief, overcome their resistance to poor screenwriting. That is why CGI is an enabler of lazy and arrogant filmmaking. Instead of acting or plot drawing us into an alternate reality, the filmmaker can rely on mere image.

The corollary powers of image manipulation in the political sphere are used in the same way, to overcome the inconsistencies and absurdity of official narration of reality. At the gross level, there are faked photographs and staged videos used to support questionable storylines. These are in addition to the more subtle “camera tricks” of the pre-digital era: for example, featuring a tiny violent minority of an otherwise non-violent gathering of protestors. As technology progresses, it is becoming possible to fabricate fake “recordings” out of whole cloth. “Deep fake” videos can depict a public figure, or anyone actually, speaking words that he never said. As on the movie screen, we can no longer judge what is credible and what is not by the realism of the images that present it.

Return to Reality

Avengers may seem to offer a gloomy diagnosis of American political consciousness, but the extremity of its aesthetic shortcomings also suggests the end of an era. I think again of the bored children who shared the theater with us. Despite the lurid CGI special effects, despite the awesomest badass monsters, despite the jaring, attention-grabbing sound effects (we wore ear protection), despite the hyperinflated threat level (the fate of the universe is at stake), and despite scene after scene of superheroic exertion, we the audience did not much care what was happening.

Just as monetary hyperinflation precedes economic collapse, so does the hyperinflation of sounds, images, and threat levels portend a crisis in blockbuster cinema. Its tools, however intensified, are not working anymore. The campy asides in Avengers are an admission by the filmmakers of their incapacity to create an absorbing dramatic reality. The characters’ quips and jests amid dire circumstances signal, “We don’t actually believe this is happening.” We the audience don’t believe it either, so we join them in their remove, holding a cynical distance from the scenes.

Perhaps there are people out there who were emotionally devastated by the death of Ironman or touched and inspired by Black Widow’s noble sacrifice. I hypothesize, though, that most people observe the cues of what they are supposed to feel, and narrate themselves as having felt it, without really feeling it. There just isn’t a compelling story or characters within which we can lose ourselves.

On the political scene a parallel situation prevails: watching the talking heads on TV, one gets the impression that they too do not actually feel what they narrate themselves as feeling. So immersed are they in world of spin, PR, optics, and “messaging” – in another word, lying – that they have lost their mooring to any underlying real convictions. It is all a game now, the game of power. They are not actually afraid of Russia (not like we were of the Soviet Union in my youth). They are not really outraged about the suffering of the Venezuelan people. And they are most certainly not actually indignant when they pillory one of their number for some ethical transgression.

The indifference of the children (and even the actors and screenwriters) to the characters and events of Avengers: Endgame stirred within me an irrational hope. Perhaps the American public too is growing inured to the spectacle we are offered. Perhaps it too has become so conditioned to image masquerading as reality, that it automatically discounts all images as unreal. Maybe the gaping plot holes in today’s dominant political storylines are endowing us with a prophylactic resistance to all such storylines. Maybe years of threat inflation has deafened us to those who are crying wolf. Perhaps the fundamental trope of good versus evil that drives war narratives is losing its grip, even as its narrators expand it, as in Avengers, to cosmic, apocalyptic proportions.

Recently we have seen several failures of the manufacture of consent: to a ground war in Syria, armed intervention in Venezuela, and the bombing of Iran. It isn’t that the general public overtly disbelieves the narratives or could cogently rebut them. It is simply that they no longer pay much attention. The stories have lost their hypnotic effect. In tandem with rising distrust in mainstream media, the authorities’ declarations of reality are losing traction. Whatever techniques of VR (virtual reality) and AR (augmented reality) they apply – in fact, all the more as we see the capabilities of these technologies – we come to doubt reality as it has been presented us. In days gone by we accepted the photograph and the video recording as proof of what was real, oblivious to how their selection and framing could powerfully manipulate the viewer. One would think that photoshop and deep fake videos would magnify this manipulative power, but it is perhaps becoming the opposite as we learn to distrust these key instruments of the spectacle.

The public’s distrust of official portraits of reality will spread even as the means to produce them become more powerful. Until recently, most people trusted the portrait of reality called Google search results, assuming it to be an unbiased catalog of what was actually on the Web. Then, as Google and the major social media platforms suppressed first hate speech sites, and then conspiracy sites, and now more and more sites that diverge from official narratives (the aforementioned anti-war, anti-vaccine, and holistic health sites, to name a few), people are starting to distrust the dominant Internet players; hence the move by the technological avant garde toward alternative search engines like duckduckgo and, more fundamentally, toward decentralized and distributed internet architecture. This is not to say that internet censorship and narrative management is not working. It still is, to a degree, although the recent failures to manufacture consent for war are significant. Rather, as people recognize that it is happening, it works less well even as the techniques advance, in the same way as CGI images, despite their verisimilitude, make the overall film, the show, the spectacle, less believable.

As we lose faith in the show, where are we to turn for truth? Without a commonly agreed source of truth, society breaks up into mutual exclusive realities: red and blue, left and right, pro and anti, each with their own disjoint “meanings and facts.” It is as if each lives in its own universe, its own spectacle that apes the dominant one in its methods and mindsets even if it rejects some of its meanings and facts. Whichever side prevails, it too wanders into delusion, unmoored from the reality that it ultimately must draw from to exist. So it is that the spectacle is killing the planet: when the abstraction called money or GDP becomes more real to us than the earth, water, and life from which it springs, our pretense that we can actually declare reality into existence dissolves into humiliation. So it is, inevitably, with every castle of lies.

In the context of theater or fiction, the audience must collude with the storyteller in order to uphold the story. The same is true with the Spectacle put on by the dominant powers of civilization today: the public has an interest in suspending its disbelief. In particular, the affluent classes in affluent societies do not want to know what their affluence is built upon. They have a vested interest in a narrative that obscures the real workings of the world: the exploitation and ruin of people, places, cultures, and ecosystems, even the planet itself. The world we live in today is tolerable only because so much of it is hidden from view. In the political realm as in the personal, the dupe gains temporary benefit from the liar’s lies. The parent unconsciously agrees to believe that the teenager is indeed studying with her friends. Liar and dupe collude in maintaining the lie.

Do we really want to know the truth?

It is understandable why many people would not. Newly revealed truth is certain to bring discomfort, the shattering of familiar certainties, and the disruption of existing social arrangements. Fearing all that, the public and the elites join in a vast game of let’s pretend. The elites tell the lies, the public pretends to believe them, and everyone pretends the pretense isn’t happening. That is how we get lost in the spectacle.

To transcend this matrix of image, representation, hype, spin, and narrative, we have to want the truth more than we want to maintain a comfortable, familiar story-of-the-world. That story is already becoming less comfortable, both because of social and ecological breakdown and because of an evolution of consciousness from separation, competition, and scarcity toward cooperation, compassion, and empathy. Yet still, fear of the unknown keeps us there, as a society and, more than many of us would like to admit, as individuals.

Avengers: Endgame clings to familiar storylines, resisting that step into the borderlands of a new story. I imagined an entirely different endgame. The Avengers find Thanos on his retirement planet and find him in his vegetable garden. Thoughts of vengeance flee them as they realize both its futility and, more important, that Thanos the cosmic criminal is undergoing a change of heart. The Avengers decide to nourish that change of heart by showing Thanos that his plan to improve the universe through total dominating power has produced the opposite result. And it dawns then on the Avengers themselves that maybe they are not so different from Thanos, sharing with him what Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence” – the improving of the world through force. Their violent superpowers rendered useless with the retirement of their arch-nemesis, they put them aside so that they may discover other kinds of gifts.

Wouldn’t that be a better formula for our future?

To move into that new story, we would have to cease our collusion with the old one. We have to release the grip of nostalgia for an imaginary time when superior force could solve our problems by destroying our enemies. We have to be dissatisfied with the contrived, cartoonish plotlines and dehumanized actors of the political narrative we are offered. We have to doubt the spectacle presented to us as reality, and understand that faked photographs and staged events are just the most overt level of a grand deception and self-deception that encompasses not only politics, but psychology too. Most of the political observations in this essay could equally apply to me and maybe to you. Do you have a personal narrative in which you are the good guy? Do you weave flimsy storylines (called rationalizations and justifications) that maintain a certain meaning to your life? Do you project images onto other people and the world that are every bit as fake as movie CGI?

This is not to suggest that we put an end to the human drama. We are story-making animals. Stories and symbols, that say who we are and what is real, are a fundamental way that human beings create the world together. Today though, we are stuck collectively in a story that does not serve us and does not serve life. For many this is true on the personal level too. At such times as today, we are repelled by inauthenticity, posturing, and pretense, and we want to come back to the real.

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One thought on “Making the Universe Great Again

  1. I wrote this comment on Charles’s website, but thought I’d leave it here too, because I felt quite disturbed by this read:

    Charles, I’ve been reading and appreciating your work for a long time. I cited both your books and Michael Lerner’s work in my college thesis. But this time around, I’ve got to say, I’m with your teenaged son. The Marvel franchise and the Avengers movies are by no means perfect (I had much to rant about after Infinity War came out), but as a fan who has been following the story arcs for years, most of these stories are deeply archetypal in significant, empowering ways. Endgame was the finale that marked a redemptive evolutionary point for this entire cast of characters – Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, etc. – who through each of their stories faced impossible odds over and over, each time triumphing in ways relatable for many of us. Sure, they’re all played by white male actors, and my biggest issue with Marvel is race (though Black Panther is the single best movie I’ve ever seen, but that’s another topic). But even as a femme person of color, I resonate deeply with the difficult emotional decisions these characters have to make, and the powerful message of hope that comes with each of their triumphs over greed, pride, false refuge, and hate.

    Yes, stories are deeply symbolic. But that’s exactly the issue with your critique. You critique the hero archetype as unnecessary while you dismiss the “evil” archetype as made-up. But what you ignore is that there is indeed evil in the world, evil in the form of neoliberalism and Trumpism, nationalism and white supremacy, capitalism and the deprivation of meaning – which is at the heart of Tikkun’s work. This evil is literally what I see the Avengers movies smashing, over and over. You clearly don’t understand, through no fault of your own since you haven’t seen any of the other movies, what “Hydra” actually stands for. But just so you know, the Captain America movies are literally fighting fascism, over and over, in its many forms.

    Your article reminds me of a criticism a friend once made of superhero movies- “One guy saves the day, while the masses are need to be saved over and over. How is that empowering?” But what we audience members identify with are not the masses; we identify with the Being who is able to draw from inner strength and power to fight demons. Marvel has also evolved the whole “superhero genre” by creating complex heroes with many flaws, and showing them at the center of a web of relationships. This is no black and white storytelling. Anyone who has seen at least a few Marvel movies could tell you that.

    I think the issue here is that you jumped into the fandom right at the very end, and tried to make sense of it by simplifying what is actually the cumulation of an enormously complex & evolving universe through a pluralist lens, and through the issues that understandably, are at the forefront of your mind. But stories like the Avengers are hugely popular for a reason, and the reason isn’t that people are shallow or unthinking. It’s because people resonate in their hearts, even if they don’t know why, and that spark of meaning that is so often stamped out by oppressive systems flares to life, even if just for a few hours. Yes, we have a lot of work to do insofar as challenging problematic storytelling, and Hollywood’s profit-obsessed dream machine. But in conflating a powerful redemptive story with advancing this country’s problematic agendas, this article is missing the whole point.

    Signed, a Millenial changemaker whose life’s work is all about evolving consciousness through storytelling & media

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