I went to see “The Avengers” again recently. Don’t ask how many times I’ve seen it–I’m not an addict, I can quit any time. Really.
The film got me thinking about the role of vulnerability in heroes. Any time you have a sufficiently powerful protagonist, you have a couple of problems, relating to one of the overarching issues of fiction (or film): how to show and raise the stakes.
In your average thriller or suspense plot, one or more lives are at stake. You show the stakes by having someone get hurt or killed, you raise the stakes by placing people at increasingly close distance to the reader at risk also: named characters, the protagonist and his or her family and friends. For big books, you threaten a place people already know of and thus have reason to care about.
The threat makes the reader worry about what will happen to your protagonist and his world. Higher threat = greater worry until, ideally, you have the reader on the edge of her seat.
But what happens when your protagonist is literally a superhero? We already know these guys are better, stronger, faster. Nearly invulnerable. And that “nearly” is critical. One of the things that Joss Whedon excelled at in the Avengers film is showing the vulnerabilities of his cast of supers. Thor still cares about his brother. Hulk fears the violence he might cause against others. Ironman worries about the legacy of the company that bears his (and his father’s) name. We can see each of these characters striving not only to prevent bodily harm, but to defend his personal stakes, the damage that might be done to values beyond the physical: to love, to reputation, to self-respect.
Whedon and his collaborators display these vulnerabilities in part by playing them off of each other. The scenes of supers attacking one another are not only fulfilling the Smackdown urge to see who’d win if Ironman took on Thor, they are allowing the supers to reveal and test each other’s vulnerabilities, to probe the wounds that each hopes the others won’t notice. The existence of these wounds makes the superhero characters accessible to the viewer, and, more to the point, gives us reasons to be sympathetic–and to be worried. Can Hulk get hurt or killed? Apparently not–but how would he live with himself if he caused such harm to others? Ah–now, it gets interesting!
Guess in a PG-13 film, they can’t rag on the fact that Captain America is still a virgin, though. . .