Before you head to the multiplex to witness what many expect to be the summer’s biggest blockbuster—“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” which comes out on May 1—you may want to ask yourself one question: what, exactly, are Marvel’s “Avengers” avenging?
The answer: nothing. They’re not avenging anything or anyone.
Nothing about the Avengers’ formation or behavior stems from a retaliatory impulse. They’re not defined by any particular quest for retribution. They’re here to save us from harm, not to avenge an injury that has already been inflicted: they’re defenders, not avengers.
The first “Avengers” movie offers no real explanation for the supergroup’s name, though writer-director Joss Whedon shoehorns a single vengeance-related line into the script to serve as flimsy justification. As Tony Stark declares to Loki, “If we can’t protect the earth, you can be damn well sure we’ll avenge it!”
But they do successfully protect the earth: the vengeance remains totally hypothetical. The Avengers would be avengers if necessary, if it came to that, but they’d rather preempt the whole situation. To redress a wrong is not as heroic, after all, as getting things right to begin with.
Within the Marvel film universe, the name “Avengers” goes back to 2008’s “Iron Man,” when Nick Fury asks Tony Stark to join his entirely enigmatic “Avenger Initiative.” By the time Tony Stark makes his defiant proclamation to Loki in 2012, he seems to know that the name makes no sense; he is trying desperately—more for his own sake than for Loki’s—to manufacture some basis for an identity imposed arbitrarily upon him and his colleagues by the higher-ups at S.H.I.E.L.D.
You might expect Marvel’s original comics to provide a better explanation for the name than the films do, but such is not the case. The team makes its first official appearance in a 1963 publication, in which the supervillain Loki uses his magic to convince the Hulk to embark upon one of his trademark rampages. Loki’s intention is to lure valiant Thor to the scene, where he might fight the Hulk and, ideally, lose. But several other superheroes additionally respond to a radio call for help. Once they identify the true perpetrator of the chaos, they band together with the Hulk and send Loki packing.
After a successful battle, the Hulk says to the group, “I’d rather be with you than against you! So, whether you like it or not, I’m joinin’ the . . . the . . . hey! What are you callin’ yourselves?” And the Wasp responds, “That’s right! We need a name! It should be something colorful and dramatic, like . . . the Avengers, or . . .”
Ant-Man settles it: “Or nothing! That’s it! The Avengers!!”
The group’s first endeavor is not to take vengeance but to prevent Loki from carrying out a revenge plot against Thor. The sole reason they’re the “Avengers” is that it sounds “colorful and dramatic.” You have to admire Stan Lee for being up-front about the grounds upon which he makes his creative decisions.
To be fair, other superhero teams have similarly employed misnomers: for instance, there are several women within the X-Men—who really should be the “X-People.”
To complain of this is clearly pedantic, like pointing out that Iron Man’s armored suit is not made of iron. But the problem of the Avengers’ name speaks to the problem of their movies, the first of which was, in my extremely unpopular opinion, the dullest film of 2012.
To seek vengeance is a personal act, a response to an assault upon oneself or a loved one. What could six people with utterly unrelated histories—no shared pain, no shared passion—possibly want, collectively, to avenge? Logically, the Avengers can exist only to respond to generalized planetary threats. A more intimate problem would be unlikely to concern more than one of these superheroes. The film’s climactic battle, therefore, can’t embody any character’s internal, emotional conflict—it is experienced purely as an epic, depersonalized spectacle, with individuated dramatic trajectories playing out as TV-level subplots somewhere in the useless preceding space.
The Avengers are the opposite of what they say they are. They have nothing at all to feel aggrieved about; they triumphantly saved the world and grossed $1.5 billion theatrically while doing so. This summer, millions of people will line up to watch them again, seduced by the effortlessness of a viewing experience in which nothing is at stake. They know that no truly vengeance-worthy horror will ever occur within the safe space of Marvel’s flagship franchise.
Obviously, Iron Man and company will defeat Ultron—the studio has already greenlit two more sequels. There’s plenty more nonexistent vengeance to come.