The Superheroes

Inside the mind of Batman and other larger-than-life heroes.

Assembling the Avengers

A psychologist's film review

The idea of an Avengers film was daring: to put together A-list actors who have played Marvel superheroes recently, give them a good plot, script, and director (Joss Whedon). As opening weekend box office sales indicate, the risk paid off and the film was a success.

What about the psychological aspects of the film? (After all, I’m a psychologist, so that’s what I look for in films.) I anticipated that the film would focus on team-building: taking superheroes who are, for the most part, alpha males and female who are used to acting autonomously, and who comes from diverse backgrounds and have diverse experiences. They are:

  • one rich incredibly smart industrialist (Tony Stark/Iron Man),
  • one Norse God (Thor),
  • one supersoldier out of his era, and who grew up a small weakling (Steve Rogers/Captain America); he probably still has at least a partial view of himself as a weakling (just was someone who was “fat” as a kid but slim as an adult still feels “fat,” and someone who grew up poor but becomes rich never quite feels he or she has enough wealth),
  • one emotionally scarred spy who can lie flawlessly and take down multiple guys simultaneously (Natasha Romanov/Black Widow),
  • one humble scientist who prefers to be alone and who has been working to master anger management techniques (Bruce Banner/The Hulk), and
  • one guy who’s a fantastic archer (Clint Barton/Hawkeye).

(Plus a one-eyed “leader,” Nick Fury, who sets the goals and parameters for the team—or who tries to do so.)

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The task laid out for these heroes (aside for saving the planet from the bad guys) is to figure out how to function as a team. To cooperate. To subordinate their own ideas to a designated leader. To be part of an ensemble.

In other words, the film is an origin story—about the origins of the Avengers. How they collectively came to be. With this many A-list superheroes, each superhero doesn’t get that much screen time, unfortunately. (Unless a longer director’s cut is in the works for a DVD.) So the film doesn’t have time to delve into a lot of character development for an individual character. It’s about group process. 

Psychologically, the origin story wasn’t as rich as I’d hoped it would be because a significant chunk of time was spent on the requisite action scenes and the who-can-piss-higher-up-the-tree scenes in the first half of the film: Iron Man versus Thor, Tony Stark versus Bruce Banner, Hulk versus Thor. Black Widow versus Hawkeye. And the who-is-more-of-a-real-hero scenes (which Captain America wins hands down). I was hoping more time would be spent focusing on a topic to which most of us can relate from our work experiences: How do people from disparate backgrounds and experiences come together to work as a team?

The film did address this point, though I would have liked to see more depth to it. Like all origin stories, there is a transformational moment in which their dynamic shifts for the better. [spoiler alert] That moment occurs after a “sidekick” dies (Agent Coulson), they have gotten creamed by the bad guy (Loki, Thor’s adoptive brother), and Nick Fury gives them a talking to about being a team. In fact, it becomes clear that more of the same bickering while fighting Loki and his minions will be ineffective. They need one leader, and the rest of them need to be willing to be led. It works. [end of spoiler alert] Instead of trying to piss higher, they cooperate, they support each other, they praise each other’s efforts. They become more than the sum of their parts. They become a team and figure out how to each member’s strength’s to their collective advantage.

The transformational moment rests on a staple used in science fiction: a common enemy or threat brings people together to work as a team. (In some science fiction stories, for instance, Earth’s nations put aside their differences and join forces to protect Earth from a hostile alien force.) This dynamic is explored in a classic psychological study by Muzafer Sherif, in which 11-year-old boys in an overnight camp were initially divided into two groups and the groups competed in various contests for prizes. Tensions between the two groups ran high, with name-calling and vandalism. As part of the study, the boys were then told that the camp’s water supply was cut off, and all boys needed to cooperate as a group to help restore the water supply. After uniting and working together against the threat (lack of water), their previous opposing-team tension decreased. This is what happened to the superheroes in the Avengers: They had to cooperate to defeat Loki and his enemy army, and their previous in-fighting and tensions dissolved as they focused on the common and important task at hand. Good job, Avengers!

Reference:

Sherif, M., Harvey, O. J., White, B. J., Hood, W. R., & Sherif, C. W. (1961). Intergroup conflict and cooperation: The robber’s cave experiment. Norman, OK: The University Book Exchange.

Robin S. Rosenberg, Ph.D., has taught psychology at Lesley University and Harvard University. She is the editor of the anthology The Psychology of Superheroes. more...

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