Avengers Assemblage: Fidelity in the Marvel Universe
Southern Utah University
“You think you’re the only superhero in the world Mr. Stark? You’ve become part of a bigger universe…you just don’t know it yet.” –Nick Fury
Avengers Assemblage: Fidelity in the Marvel Universe
In 2012 a variety of people dressed up in different costumes or street clothes, lined up at theaters across the globe. A movie was showing that had been alluded to in five previous movies, including Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger in scenes that followed the ending credits. The Avengers changed the way cinema is made and consumed, and has many movie makers trying to imitate or latch onto this new model. After the best all time record for an opening weekend it went on to break another record as the highest grossing film of all time with 1.5 billion dollars worldwide (Lee, 2015). Since people tend to vote for a movie’s popularity with their money, this movie fully imbedded into the popular culture through its own democratic economy, making it one of the leading artifacts today as a narrative of mass appeal.
The idea is simple enough, and has been going on for some time now, just not in movies. It’s the idea of an expanded universe of characters sharing story arcs in a fictional setting, yet still holding on to the capability of acting as autonomous characters in self-sustaining narratives. This happens many times with young adult books or comic books as a continuation of a serial narrative. Authors can create and take away characters without too much gravitas, testing them out on audiences before giving them a solo series. From the standpoint of a business model, it works well economically, taking away the risk from a potential flop by allowing the character to gain traction through already proven characters and stories. It seems an obvious trope to transition into movies, but often they are left to a linear structure of sequels or prequels with not much in the way of branches.
Since comic books were ideal model, it makes sense that the structure follows suit through superhero adaptations. The company Marvel was bought by Disney in 2009, which has proven to be a strategic and beneficial move by both companies, leading into one of the most successful franchises ever (Goldman, 2009). With Disney pushing the newly purchased superheroes into international theaters, the narratives needed a broader appeal. In the mid-20th Century, superheroes like Superman and Captain America acted as patriotic and moral ideals. Although still true in some aspects, Wanzo (2009) states that some of the more modern “superhero narratives explicitly challenge what counts as good citizenship by addressing the regulatory discourses informing virtuousness in the United States” (p. 93). The moral dilemmas and exaggerated nature of superheroes as characters make for interesting artifacts in and of themselves, but it is within the narrative structure built around comic book characters that seems to have brought the fresh sense of popularity. The Avengers use this unique narrative structure through an interdependency and assembling of multiple characters weaving in and out of timelines and story arcs, along with a reliance on adaptation and a committed audiences.
Gérard Genette (1983) began his seminal work on narratology with his book Narrative Discourse, and began a commentary within academia on the merits of studying narrative through a theoretical perspective. Todorov (1977) built off of Genette’s work, and proposed a systematic scholarly method or “grammar” for studying narratives. Genette did not ever intend for his work to be applied in criticism, moreover, he desired his work to act as a springboard for discussing narrative, but with too many assumptions for it to ever act as a systematic approach (Stock, 2013). Ricoeur (1988) attempted to broaden the theory of narratology: “What is ultimately at stake in the case of the structural identity of the narrative function as well as in that of the truth claim of every narrative work, is the temporal character of human experience” (p. 3). His open approach to narrative leaves the subject open for a more focused application. Stock (2013) posits that a traditional approach to narrative, seeing it only as a subject of literary studies, is too constricting. Bal and Van Boheemen (2009) explain how such a narrow view may disrupt the future of the field, that narrative analyses are need in history, cultural analysis, and film studies more than ever. Browning and Morris (2012) argue that although there are many camps in narratology, the field may still have room to grow, but it requires scholars to define narrative differently, still allowing ambiguity to reign over the field of narratology.
Walter Fisher (1984) has expanded the work on narrative analysis further, bringing a rhetorical perspective to his studies. He believes we are all inherently, “homo-narrans” or storytellers by nature. He speculated that we all view our lives in lieu of narrative form and function; that everything from identity to death is understood through a “narrative paradigm.” This paradigm comes in contrast to the pervading idea of a rational paradigm brought about by Aristotle. According to Fisher, “rationality is determined by narrative probability and narrative fidelity,” or in other words, a story must be coherent and must be relevant to an audience (Littlejohn & Foss, 2011, p. 145).
In determining what a narrative is, he then lays out what a narrative does. In his later works, Fisher (1989) rationalizes that each decision and action are within the context of ongoing stories, a way to assess and interpret human communication. Fisher (1985) also states that “any construct is only as good as it can be applied and provide convincing and useful understanding of actual texts, of real experience” (p. 347). Although he wished for this application, he never provided a systematic method which could be applied directly to an artifact. He did provide a foundation for narrative analysis to be built from.
Several authors have attempted to create their own applied methods, including Vanderford, Smith, and Harris (1992). They state that although Fisher has written how narratives transmit values, there is no clear cut way of identifying those values. They go further and create what they call a VIND model (Value Identification in Narrative Discourse), in order to identify what values a narrative employs in order to improve fidelity. This model also builds off of Burke’s (1969) version of fidelity called ‘consubstantiality’ where audiences “identify with” the narrative they are partaking in. This shared identity has been proven to make narratives compelling, and offer thematic evidence as to why values are also shared within narratives (Hollihan & Riley, 1987).
Robert Rowland (2009) has also offered alternative methods of analyzing narrative. Rowland wanted to create a systematic approach to narrative analysis which focused on form identification, functional analysis, and linking the two together. These still are based on characters, setting, plot, and theme, but they offer a more flexible way of analyzing and criticizing the persuasive nature of narrative. This allows for an evaluation of how well the narrative acts rhetorically. Along with his colleague Robert Strain (1994), Rowland has stated that narrative acts in a way that resolves social conflict and is by its very nature persuasive.
Rowland’s (2009) model provides a systematic and flexible approach. He says the best way to reach these ends “is to apply a critical approach that moves in a three-step process from the form of the narrative to the functions fulfilled by the particular story, and finally to an evaluation of how effectively the narrative functions persuasively with a given audience” (p. 126). Still, with the disagreement between those who study narrative, it seems there is no clear form of analyzing an artifact. This leaves the subject of narrative theory open to extension and interpretation. One way to do this is through the inclusion of film theory, as it offers an approach to one of the most prevalent forms of narrative for the future.
Fidelity in film theory often means something different than the relevance of a narrative to an audience, but rather its dedication to source text when adapted. Kate Newell (2010) states:
Often fidelity discourse is used to demonstrate the method by which an adaptation prioritizes aspects of a source text that may be downplayed by the source text itself. It is not uncommon for adaptations studies to demonstrate that an adaptation is unfaithful in order to make the case that the infidelities enable the adaptation to articulate aspects of a text better than strict fidelity would (p. 91).
Both definitions of fidelity are closer than the differing disciplines may argue. An adaptation may be “faithful” to its source text in the same way a narrative may be “faithful” to the human experience. The rhetorical function of movies is in its fidelity to life and to previous narratives in audience’s memories.
This argument draws from the question of mimesis, but with new structure: Does art imitate other art to imitate life with a new twist? The experience of narratives cannot be pinned down to direct adaptations of one source text, in the same way that life is not built from the influence of a single person. So, narratives are “an assortment of antecedents and combining ideas, images, plot points, characters, motifs, and tropes from multiple books, stories, plays, poems, films, other works of art, and historical events” (Bishop, 2010, p. 269). The Avengers is a great example of this type of narrative, with many different source texts while still acting as a narrative of its own. This essay argues the rhetorical functions of adaptation narratives like The Avengers, come from the multiple source texts used to build the narrative.
The rhetorical perspective of narrative analysis is not sufficient to assess such a complex structure without the aid of film theory. Kyle Bishop (2010) sets up the adaptation theory of “assemblage” as a way of seeing multiple sources feeding a narrative artifact. He states:
In practice, all movies fall somewhere within a complex system of texts, a virtual web of narratives, characters, genres, and plots that intersect at key nodal points. These points of intersection produce fundamentally intertextual movies; in other words, filmmakers draw upon multiple antecedents simultaneously to produce both “original” and “adapted” films (p. 263).
Although it is applied to movies both in the original film theory and in this essay, this process may be applied to all narratives in the future. Assemblage narrative shows how popular culture artifacts are combined into new ways, which are manipulated into new creative functions.
(Knobel & Lankshear, 2008). This combination of narratives into a new form brings enthymematic arguments through the intimation of its source material. Narratives work well as a rhetorical showcase of moral, or behavioral examples rather than direct observations on human behavior (Chatman, 1990). The Avengers act as an example of how these source materials work within the assemblage narrative structure to combine persuasive appeals from various texts and exhibit narrative enthymemes and mimesis.
One of the ways The Avengers maintains continuity throughout the expanded Marvel Universe is through two homodiagetic narrators: Nick Fury and Phil Coulson. By partaking in the story, they also act as characters, but their commentary on the superheroes pulls each of the stories and characters together. They are featured as two of the first main characters shown in the film, and they are threaded throughout the Marvel Universe, appearing in many post-credit scenes and sometimes functioning as part of the plot in movies like Iron Man or Thor. Phelan (1996) argues that part of the rhetorical value of narrative is in the repetition of tropes. These two characters exemplify that uniting thread.
A reliance on tropes only begins with the narrators, for the source texts continue as the narrative style relies on the audience’s previous participation in the contributing narratives (e.g. Captain America, Iron Man, Thor), but more than only the obvious feeding-movies. The rhetorical exchange may happen where each of these narratives intersect, bringing together each narrative as an individual, and assembling it into one great whole, with all of its narrative baggage intact. The movie acts as an intersection to each film, but also an intersection to each of their predecessors. Each character is based on their self-evident comic book counterpart, but those are varied and change through time, and within the comic book origins are found deeper source texts still.
Captain America: The First Avenger has the beginnings of The Avengers in the name of his own movie. In the Marvel Universe, Captain America is considered one of the first super heroes, gaining his super power through science and technology, through his super soldier serum. This is one unifying trope of the narratives, but differs with each character’s response to it. Captain America embodies the World War II era patriotism and home grown morality of the 50’s. He fought a Hitler figure in his own film known as the Red Skull. This is mirrored in The Avengers when Loki goes to Germany to retrieve a meteorite to complete his plans to dominate and rule over earth. Captain America says: “You know, the last time I was in Germany and saw a man standing above everybody else, we ended up disagreeing” (Whedon, 2012). He represents America’s involvement in war, American soldiers, the American flag, and a savior figure, among other things. His shield even represents a metaphor of protection and stories of fighting for freedom.
Thor is a unique character in the team as his main power source comes from what is called “Asgardian Magic.” Thor is the brother to Loki, and their relationship and narrative extend from his movie into The Avengers. Even Odin is represented subtly by two Ravens flying in the scene where Thor takes Loki from the possession of Iron Man and Captain America. This symbolism is noted in the comic books, but also in Norse mythology. The blending of Norse myth and the comic sources, along with those new adaptations made in the movie as to make even the most dedicated fan lost in convolution. Thor and Loki both speak in modernized old English causing Iron Man to call it “Shakespeare in the park,” showing yet another multi-faceted message within the larger narrative.
Another character with multiple antecedent texts providing weight to his narrative is the Hulk. The mention of the Hulk by that name is not mentioned in the film until approximately halfway through the movie. He is always referred to as “the other guy” or “the monster.” Yet, every fan of the character knew exactly who he was from the way he is treated in the movie, how they refer to his anger issues, and the possibility of mass destruction following him. Ashley (2009) says the way a film uses language can change the meaning of the narrative, and give new meaning to terms in popular culture.
The Hulk is an obvious take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but more than that he derives from the older myth of the werewolf. The morality message of anger bringing out the monster is distinct, but becomes blurred in The Avengers as controlled anger becomes not only productive but preferred by the other characters. The Hulk is also based in Captain America’s character where Black Widow explains that Bruce Banner was attempting to create another super-soldier serum like Captain America’s with gamma radiation, but the experiment went wrong. Such pseudo-scientific reasons for backstory keep the trope alive.
Iron Man is an interesting character all around, but especially for his representation of the relationship between humanity and technology. He is easily one of the best representations of a modern superhero, even though his origins are in the 60’s. Iron Man is a superhero because of his ability to innovate, engineer, utilize technology, and keep up with technology. This is manifest in the hundreds of different suits he has been shown wearing in different comics and with over forty versions in Iron Man 1, 2, and 3. The suit of armor may be derived from medieval times and classic tales of King Arthur and his knights, but Hogan (2009) says the union of the suit and technology is what really make his character so special. The technology in his chest is keeping him alive, holding many shrapnel pieces from entering his heart (Whedon, 2012). His origin narrative illustrates how that came to be, but also leads to the other sense of duality that comes from his relationship to technology. Tony Stark, the true identity of Iron Man, made his fortune as a billionaire by selling weapons. In his live action movies, he is seen attempting to take back his technology from foreigners and terrorists, and use it only for the sake of good. This narrative trope extends into The Avengers as Loki uses his newly renovated Stark Tower as a gathering point for the culmination of the Chitauri (the alien army under Loki’s control) attacking New York by supplementing the tower with the Tesseract (an unlimited energy source and major plot point for The Avengers; also another fabled item with multiple source texts explaining its existence).
The culminating fight of The Avengers begins and ends at Stark Tower. Being in New York City, with burning buildings, and tower on fire, and citizens looking to policeman, fireman, and heroes for help, the antecedent narrative of 9/11 is easily seen. The invasion of an alien army recalls George Orwell’s War of the Worlds and the way the Hulk jumps from building to building fighting flying attackers alludes to old King Kong films. The weaving of these narratives pulls together already-made rhetorically potent narratives. The Avengers doesn’t spell out the logical connections, but rather acts as a constantly working enthymeme, allowing the audience to draw conclusions about each source as it continues forward. Its use of assemblage narrative allows for a way of experiencing both fidelity to its source texts and fidelity to the human experience in a unique way.
Audiences are carriers of multiple narratives. Those stories in popular culture act as a teacher for behavior, and can guide toward whatever argument the author or artist wants to portray. In The Avengers, the arguments are far too complex to unpack here, because they are loaded with not only what Director and Writer Joss Whedon wanted to say, but also all those rhetorical artifacts packed into the source texts, those narratives that went before. Assemblage narrative structure is worth studying in the future as an applied method for narrative analysis. As scholars begin to analyze the multiple antecedents found in narratives, the rhetorical function of these artifacts will broaden and their value will be in their fidelity.
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