United We Stand: The Power of Togetherness in ‘The Avengers’

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Joss Whedon’s new movie, The Avengers, tells the story of how several superheroes became a team. The message behind their success is that individualism leaves us weak, while unity can make us strong.

I think you can legitimately call me a Joss Whedon fangirl. Joss Whedon is a hugely talented writer, director and filmmaker. He first captured my attention with his television series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and I’ve followed along with many of his other adventures, including the television series, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse; his internet sensation, Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog; and the feature film, Serenity. If Joss Whedon is attached to a project, I’m definitely going to at least give it a shot.

Clearly, I am a huge admirer of his work and have even written a book chapter on how he is a writer/director who can actually portray powerful and complex women accurately. He does not disappoint in his latest film, The Avengers. His depiction of the Black Widow turned conventions upside down and gave several of the film’s most unexpected and funny moments. He also provided an authoritative and capable female second-in-command to Nick Fury (who is in charge of all the superheroes), and gave Pepper Potts, Tony Stark’s CEO and girlfriend, just the right balance of competence and warmth. So, I like the fact that he is unafraid of strong women, and even seems to delight in them (more of that please).

Another aspect to his work that I enjoy is that, with Joss, there is always a hidden agenda. Unlike other directors, who are just interested in fight scenes and how to blow things up (à la Michael Bay’s Transformer series), Joss constantly has something to say. Thus, I was interested in what message he would bring to The Avengers. After seeing it, I think the underlying idea of the movie was that we all need one another. While each superhero is powerful, none of them could defeat Loki, the film’s villain, alone. It took all of them working as a team to succeed. And in the hands of a less skilled writer and director, a team is all they would ever be. However, because it is Joss, and he understands the intricacies of human behavior — what is needed to rise above and become something more than yourself — the Avengers functioned not only as a team, but as a unit. This is an essential distinction.

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From a business perspective, the definition of a team is a group of people with a full set of complementary skills required to complete a task, job, or project. In other words, anyone with the requisite skills could be a member. However, in order for Loki to be defeated, the Avengers needed to connect with one another. As is true for any unit, the whole is larger than the sum of its parts. The Avengers had to learn to get along, appreciate the skills of the other members, and commiserate with their experiences. Thankfully, instead of just focusing on how they were going to trounce their opponent (the usual bells and whistles of a summer action adventure movie), Joss allowed us to see how they transformed themselves into a unit.

We watched as Dr Bruce Banner (the Hulk) and Tony Stark (Iron Man) appreciated the other’s genius and empathized with the isolation that their intelligence and their alter egos brought them. We got to see Natasha Romanoff (Black Widow) and Clint Barton (Hawkeye) show each other loyalty, and acknowledge the guilt that is felt with unpaid debts. We watched as Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Thor (he’s just the demigod Thor) recognized the call of duty, and identified with the other’s feeling of being lost in a world not your own. We also got to see that all of the Avengers share feelings of responsibility for helping those less fortunate than themselves, as well as sharing the loneliness that comes with such a burden. That is why a scene in the lab where they were all arguing quickly led them to almost fall apart, while a scene during the fight where they displayed caring and respect for each other led to success. In short, they went from a contentious team to a cohesive unit, and therein lies the difference.

One might legitimately ask why the message of being a unit is such a big deal. Isn’t that the whole point of the Avengers, that they work together? Well, yes, but Joss’ message is more than simple togetherness. In his movie, the Avengers not only work well together but they come to admire, depend upon and honor the skills and humanity of the other members. They want to be helpful to one another because they’ve learned that they cannot save the world alone. They need each other. And in these difficult times, when everyone seems to be advocating solely for their own interests, when individual accomplishment is akin to a badge of courage, unity is a radical message.

We are a nation built upon the idea (some might say myth) of individuality. We believe that the hero’s journey is usually a solo one. Our politicians love to promote The American Dream — the belief that one person can become a success all by themselves — as a blueprint for achievement (and often as blame for failure). Even our heroes, like the Lone Ranger or Batman, tend to be individuals. Indeed, in the lead-up to The Avengers, several of the superheroes got their own films. We saw Thor, Captain America, the Hulk, and Iron Man conquer their foes, yet the endings were strangely bereft. Thor left Earth, Captain America was stranded in a time that was unfamiliar, Bruce Banner went into hiding again, and Tony Stark was turned down for the Avenger’s project. All of them were alone. At the end of The Avengers, they left together.

And that is what I think Joss Whedon was trying to tell us. No one person does well being an island unto themselves. We are social animals and we need each other. Family psychologist Mary Pipher (of Reviving Ophelia fame) once said, “Radical individuality is a pathology,” and research has borne out that statement. People who isolate themselves do worse both physically and emotionally. They get sick more often, die earlier, and report less happiness than people who surround themselves with others. That is one reason I continually encourage my patients to seek friends. Moreover, groups often accomplish more in a short amount of time than individuals achieve in a lifetime of trying. In fact, there is an Ethiopian proverb which says, “When spiders unite, they can tie down a lion.”

I could list more research findings, historical examples, and memorable quotations, but the crux of the matter is that it is time we let go of our belief in the power of individualism, and start looking for units. Being helped by others is not a weakness; it is a strength. Other people offer empathy when we need understanding, financial assistance when we are without riches, companionship when we are lonely, skills that we may lack, a shoulder when we need to cry, education when we are ignorant, and a helping hand when we need a lift. In essence: united we stand, divided we fall. Sounds like a good motto. My personal one is similar, in that I say, “Connection is the key.” The Avengers figured that out. So should we.

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