November 5, 2012 by Devin
This particular post needs a disclaimer. I will be arguing for an interpretation of The Avengers that I know many people will not like. In many ways, it goes against beliefs that people hold near and dear. So, I want to make this clear: it is possible to like a piece of art and also disagree with it. I hope this interpretation will not hamper anyone’s enjoyment of it.
In both The Avengers and The Dark Knight, the filmmakers chose to implement a villain that uses primarily deceit and trickery rather than brute force. The appeals of such a character are obvious. After having already made their characters powerful enough to defeat nearly any physical threat, the only other way to combat them is through their mind. Beyond practical reasons, attacking the mind allows the villain to serve as an excellent foil for the hero, a way to test the hero’s resolve and their convictions.
The Joker is that dramatic foil to Batman. In many ways, the Joker shows exactly what Batman is and exactly what Batman isn’t. They both have values that they follow religiously, though they are incredibly different values, and they both are incredibly clairvoyant and possibly insane. Loki is not quite a direct foil in that sense, given that The Avengers is focused on so many characters, but he does contrast the team in many distinct ways. He brings out the worst in the team, drawing out Banner’s rage, Black Widow’s history, and even Hawkeye’s propensity to follow orders. Loki finds the sin in people and draws that out.
The Use of Deception
Both villains operate under the role of trickster, and at a basic level, they are incredibly similar. They are fascinating because the audience is never sure whether or not they have the upper hand or not (chances are, they have it), which makes them threatening as well as intriguing. The appeal of them lies in their mystery. In fact, a prominent reason Loki is not as strong of a villain is because the audience and the Avengers figure out his plans quick enough to beat them (though there are some fan theories that would dispute this), whereas with the Joker, the audience is continually mesmerized with his ability to not only have the upper hand, but follow through and actually beat the hero.
However, digging deeper, both villains have different methods and different goals for their actions. To illustrate this difference, one only has to look at the people working for them. When the Joker turns Harvey Dent, he does not do so by forcing Dent to work against his own nature. In fact, whether or not he “uses” Dent could be debated, because the Joker actually only had a 50-50 chance of surviving his encounter with Dent. The Joker turns Dent by appealing to a specific part of Dent, the part that wants revenge and justice even if it means chaos, and exploiting that. Dent is not a tool for Joker’s own benefit, but rather he is an agent of chaos and anarchy that the Joker has programmed.
Loki has a different mindset. Loki’s deception and treatment of his henchmen is much more straightforward and dominating. The people Loki controls lose themselves and their identity when they become his henchmen. They are there for Loki’s benefit; they do not choose this road, no matter how much they can justify it while controlled. These two views of deception play an integral part of the two villains’ end goals.
Chaos vs. Order (and vice-versa)
The fundamental purpose of each villain are actually polar opposites. For the Joker, his ultimate goal is not to control the world, but rather to show how the world is uncontrollable. He exploits and he tricks, but he does so to show a fundamental truth he believes: that everyone else is just as crazy as he is. That is why he does not just blow up the two ships near the end of The Dark Knight. He wants to illustrate just how crazy a world this is by showing how people will turn their backs on each other at the first chance they get. His victory in Harvey Dent is not that he was able to turn a good man bad, but rather that he was able to turn the good man bad, that no one is that far away from insanity. He wants to show how the image of an orderly world is false and that everyone is chaotic.
With Loki, he has a completely different telos in mind. The Joker wants to bring out human nature while Loki wants to suppress it. For him, order is the ultimate goal, not chaos. Lines like, “You were made to be ruled,” make Loki seem like he believes that humanity needs to give up its own ambitions and desires and submit to a higher power, a deity. When they do so, they claim enlightenment when in reality they are being deceived. Humanity was made to worship and serve a higher being according to Loki.
It is here that I believe that Joss Whedon, writer and director of The Avengers,decided to air out his frustrations with the modern idea of God by creating a character he imagined God would be like. He has said that he does not like the idea of a “sky bully” god,* which is probably one of his main frustrations with Christianity, and Loki embodies this concept. Loki wants to rule people, suppress their personalities, and make them believe they have reached enlightenment. The Joker wanted to bring people’s personalities out to prove that they were all like him, but Loki wanted to bring people down to prove that he was better than all of them.
Order vs. Chaos (and vice-versa)
The final element in comparing these villains is comparing their adversaries and how they were beaten. For the Joker, Batman is the ultimate symbol of order in the midst of chaos. In Batman Begins, when Rhaz Al Ghul implored Bruce Wayne to kill the murderer without a trial or prosecution, Wayne rebelled, mainly because he knew that responding to injustice with injustice meant chaos. His actions as Batman reflect the commitment to order. In The Dark Knight, he relied on the judicial system to lock up the criminals and believed that would be his ultimate salvation. His sacrifice at the end, of giving himself up so Dent’s reputation would not be tarnished, was a reflection of his commitment. Dent was the representation of order, and not even his turn would make Batman go against it.
However, the act of chaos, of rebellion, is what allowed The Avengers to beat Loki. The Avengers were brought together by S.H.I.E.L.D., but their ability to not listen to S.H.I.E.L.D. and think for themselves saved New York from being nuked. The most striking image of defiance for me was when Captain America defended the old man standing up to Loki. It reflected both how the order Loki was pushing was reminiscent of other orders like Hitler and how America should defend the ability to think freely without an imposed viewpoint.
Overall, both villains reflect viewpoints of chaos and order through their deception. They seek to bring out and suppress the heroes in ways that keep the heroes and the audience on their toes and unable to tell what is what.
So what do you think? Do you agree? Think my interpretation of Loki is a bunch of hogwash? Let me know in the comments below.
*From the commentary of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode, “The Body”. It should be noted that Whedon’s view of faith is a lot more nuanced than I am going into here.