Monday, May 7, 2012

Avengers: Why Comic Books Aren't Just for Kids

Like most of my geek-minded sisters and brothers, I went to see "The Avengers" this past weekend. It was big and loud and tons of fun, as only a big-budget movie written by Joss Whedon can be. Among fans, it's clear that the folks doing these Marvel movies have gotten it right. It's a Golden Age of Geekdom.

But there is a sense among non-geek/non-comic book fans that those of us who indulge in this stuff are a little Peter Pan-ish - holding on to a last bit of childhood, refusing to quite grow up. This is the air that hangs over a great many geekish things, from comic book movies to game conventions to computer games to sci fi books. For those not of the tribe all of this can seem a little childish, which often feeds a sense of confusion when something like "Avengers" comes along that is wildly popular. I mean, haven't we outgrown all of this yet?

I know plenty of very intelligent adults, of course, who would disagree. Two of my friends have posted excellent articles recently - one that draws lessons from the Avengers story about managing groups, the other that points out all of the excellent illustrations in the movie of Principal-Agent Theory. Clearly there's something more here than explosions, attractive actors, and witty dialogue.

And while I admire my friend Steve's ability to use popular culture to illustrate political science theories, I think his observations about principals and agents actually tap into something deeper. There is a common thread among movies, books, video games, and other stories about "big conflicts" - a fundamental narrative that we tell over and over and over. Sometimes it involves superheroes, sometimes cowboys, sometimes aliens, sometimes soldiers. But the root narrative is always there, because it reflects one of the fundamental questions of the human condition.

What is this fundamental story? To call it "good guys and bad guys" is too simple, although it is that. What separates the good from the bad nearly always includes command structure - the principal-agent problem. The "bad guys" are always led by a single leader, an overlord who has absolute control over his minions. In "The Avengers" this is made obvious from the very beginning, in which the bad guy demonstrates the power to magically turn people to his side - a form of mental domination that erases all free will. This is one of those fundamental hallmarks of the bad guys - they seek (and usually obtain, to some degree) domination over the will of others.

The good guys, on the other hand, don't work this way. Among the Avengers, the group argue with each other. Their personalities clash, they disagree, they get in each other's way, they even fight. They talk back to authority figures (Nick Fury) and distrust them (with good reason). Up and down the chain of command, there are breakdowns and disagreements (think Nick Fury with a rocket-launcher). They're messy and chaotic.

And that's the whole point. The reason we tell stories like this is not that the good guys win out over the bad guys. With precious few exceptions we ALL think we're the good guys, and unless you have a deeply-rooted martyr complex we all want to win out over our enemies.

We tell these stories because we want reassurance that the oldest way of solving the problem of social order - to impose it from above with ruthless power that crushes freedom and individuality with cruelty, oppression and fear - is not the only way. Stories like the Avengers help us work through one of the thorniest problems of human existence: how do individual freedom and social order co-exist? Nearly all of the grand narratives and deep thought systems, from philosophy to theology to literature, grapple with this question.

So to those who think that comic books are just for kids, and adults who read them should just grow up: this really is serious literature. Underneath all the explosions and cool superpowers, these are stories about the fundamental questions of humanity. And if we're lucky, some of the many people who go see this movie will come out thinking a little bit harder about teamwork and order and freedom.

Of course, the snappy dialogue and cool special effects don't hurt. If we're going to think deep thoughts about philosophy, why not have fun at the same time?

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