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Avengers: Great! But is great good enough?

One could write a whole thesis on 'Avengers Assemble', if only one did not have whole other theses to write. It was so rich in wit and thoughtful content that halfway through found me rummaging in my handbag for a scrap of paper on which to scribble some hasty notes (my unique chirographic style being such that legibility was barely impacted by the dark).

Part of the success was down to great casting. Ruffalo was superb as the fragile, ever-conflicted Banner, Downey Jr. swaggered his way through with perfectly-pitched comic arrogance, Johansson pouted and kicked butt and looked amazing in a catsuit [1]. They even managed to persuade a young Richard E. Grant [2] to travel forward in time especially to play the wonderfully sinister but deluded Loki.

Consumed with lust for power, the disgraced Loki has left his home of Asgard -- a dimension whose inhabitants appear as demi-gods by comparison with humans -- and embarked on a quest for Earth-domination. His strategy is simple: elicit worship and honour by way of demand and terrorisation, wielding his superior strength and preaching a philosophy of 'freedom through subjugation'.

You'd have to be tone-deaf not to pick up on the not-so-subtle dig at religion here, but I couldn't help but think of the contrast it drew with Jesus rather than the comparison: he who made massive, shocking claims -- essentially putting himself at the centre of the Kingdom message he proclaimed -- and yet lived a perfectly selfless, sacrificial and servant-hearted life.[3] Paul, in his letters, describes him as one who was entitled to all honour and the worship of men and yet relinquished that right for our sake; the 'Servant King':
"…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." (Philippians 2:6-11)
The theme of 'greatness' recurs throughout The Avengers -- unsurprising in a film about superheroes! There was one particularly powerful scene where they all begin to argue -- in the presence of Loki's sceptre (cue 'Fellowhip of the Ring' comparisons) -- each asserting their better knowledge and competing for precedence. This is all part of Loki's villainous scheme to divide and conquer -- similar, I think, to what Paul is warning about when he exhorts the believers in Ephesus not to 'give the devil a foothold' by allowing lies and anger to cloud their dealings with one another (see Ephesians 4:25-27).

Even 'The Twelve' -- Jesus' closes disciples -- were guilty of arguing and power-grabbing:
"A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  And he said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves…' " (Luke 22:24-27)

Another radical, worldly-value-subverting response… Wow. Shines a painful spotlight on much that has happened globally and historically in the life of the church -- power plays and manipulation which do not seem at all in keeping with a message we find at the heart of the gospel and in the heart and example of Jesus himself. I fear the same things happen today, not just in large scale but in the one-to-one relationships of Christians (I speak for myself, at least) who are still determined to compete with and dominate one another sooner than "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). I am not without hope, because I believe that God's forgiveness and mercy extends to such folly…we do, though, need to begin by recognising -- with sorrowful repentance -- that we need it.

We are to be people of humility and submission, then. But hang on -- it seems this is not the whole story: "Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, 'Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.' " (Romans 12:19). Do we recoil at the notion of a vengeful God? Perhaps we suddenly feel like we're back in the 'Loki' scenario. Or perhaps we begin to acknowledge that the sheer weight of the darkness, brokenness and injustice in the world -- of which Loki becomes a signifier in the film -- is beyond what we can resolve in our own faltering wisdom and strength. We simply do not have the power -- and it is a mercy that we do not because, as the film posits so elegantly (and as a cursory glance at history confirms immediately), power in the hands of fallen humanity breeds corruption.[4]

The world is crying out for a power which is incorruptible; anger in the hands of one righteous enough to to wield it for true justice; a ruler who loves us (and values our created individuality) enough to give us freedom to reject His rule. Of course, we cannot choose reality, and yearning does not make it so. But neither does it make it not so, and we have to consider that this desire for justice is certainly consistent with the conjecture that we are created beings with something of the priorities and 'image' of our Creator. Moreover, there is the evidence to which I continually return -- that of a documented, historically evaluatable interaction of such a One with mankind, reaching a climax in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, continuing today in the lives and experiences of his followers, and holding promise of hope for the future. (I confess that I find the fulfilment of this hope hard to visualise, but that which I do have evidence for compels me to trust for that which I have not yet seen).

[1] Given the multitude of well-toned bodies in tight-fitting garments I felt the film did rather a good job of not being leery, especially when compared with the likes of the notorious Transformers. The costumes were flattering rather than gratuitous, and, besides, the characters were all so well-rounded and sensitively portrayed that the overall impression was of affirmation and value -- about as far away from objectivisation of either sex as a film of that nature could be.

[2] OK, so the actor's name is Tom Hiddleston, but really, the resemblance is uncanny. Reminds me of that recent incident where people became so convinced they'd seen a mobile phone in an old Chaplin film from the 20s that they started conjecturing time travel as an explanation…

[3] John Stott in this talk has some great stuff to say about the unique -- and radically contrasting! -- claims and example of Jesus.

[4] This is not at all to say we shouldn't engage with social action and combating injustice...our role in that is surely a massive topic in itself!