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The Avengers' Nuclear Villain

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The Avengers puts a new twist on Hollywood's view of nuclear weapons. The nuke in this blockbuster film is both a villain and a hero. This may be very post-modern, but it's an ambivalence the film industry should finally shed.

The Avengers is a hugely entertaining film, and has already grossed over $1 billion in ticket sales. Only in Marvel's universe could it be fun to watch superheroes battle aliens in New York City -- causing an estimated $160 billion in damage. But the nuclear plot is a critical flaw (spoilers ahead).

To recap, in the film, aliens open a space portal, threaten to invade Earth, subjugate its people, and take its resources. Special Agent Nick Fury -- played by Samuel L. Jackson -- assembles an elite group of superheroes: Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and the Hulk. They team up to save the world from alien takeover in an epic battle that destroys much of New York City.

When the battle looks nearly lost, Nick Fury's superiors -- on the World Security Council -- order a nuclear strike on New York to kill the aliens. A fighter-bomber swoops in, aims at Midtown, and launches a single missile. Iron Man grabs the inbound missile and flies it through the space portal, where it blows up the alien mothership. The world is saved.

Apparently, Hollywood likes to nuke extraterrestrials. Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum knocked out the alien mothership in Independence Day. Drones attempted to in Skyline. Bruce Willis also nuked an asteroid in Armageddon. Now Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man brings Earth's nuclear batting average to 3-1.

In other films, nukes have clearly been depicted as the problem, not the solution. The evil Ernst Blofeld blackmailed the world with two stolen NATO nuclear weapons until thwarted by James Bond in Thunderball. John Travolta's mad Major Vic Deakins tried to do the same with two hijacked U.S. nukes until defeated by Christian Slater's heroics in Broken Arrow. In one of the oldest and still best depictions of the global threat nuclear weapons present every minute, Peter Sellers had to respond to imminent nuclear apocalypse caused by a paranoid Brig. Gen. Jack D. Ripper in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

The Avengers joins this fine cinematic tradition by first showing an essential truth: the nuclear weapon was a much bigger threat to New York than the aliens.

A Fate Worse than Alien Domination

If the nuclear missile launched in the movie was similar to ones in the U.S. stockpile, it likely had a maximum explosive yield of 150 to 340 thousand tons of TNT. Fired at Midtown Manhattan, the air blast would have collapsed most buildings from City Hall to the Upper East Side, and killed most of Manhattan's 1.6 million residents.

The initial blast would create a circle of death about 5 miles in diameter. Nearly 100 percent of the people within this circle would die instantly, or about half a million people in downtown New York. Mega-firestorms would kill perhaps a million more. The explosion would also produce a cloud of radioactive dust that would drift downwind from the bomb's detonation point. If the bomb exploded at a low altitude, there would be a 6-37 miles long and 2-3 miles wide swath of deadly radiation that would kill all exposed and unprotected people within six hours of exposure. It would have been an unimaginable human catastrophe.

The aliens, if successful, could have taken over New York. That's not good, but the bomb would have been worse.

As in The Avengers, the United States really does have plans for other countries to use its nuclear bombs. In the film, the World Security Council orders the nuclear strike. In the real world, NATO has a similar arrangement governing the U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. In war or extreme crisis, the president can shift command of the nuclear bombs to NATO commanders, along with the nuclear operating codes. Host nation pilots in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Belgium can then deliver the nuclear bombs to their targets.

For a period in the late 1950s, under a "use it or lose it" rationale, some military commanders in the field even had authority to use these weapons without Washington's approval. The U.S. at that point had between 1,000 and 4,000 nuclear warheads in Europe. Only 200 U.S. nuclear weapons remain in Europe today, and they are widely regarded as having no military utility. Their use by NATO in the 21st century seems as unlikely as a space portal opening up in Manhattan.

Are Nuclear Weapons Ever Heroes?

The blockbuster problem in The Avengers is the writers' desire to turn a nuclear weapon into a golden bullet that can save the day -- even if this bomb is more likely to ruin it.

Agent Fury understood this truth. That's why he tries to take out the bombers with a bazooka before they took off. When Iron Man flew the nuclear warhead through the space portal, it was more to prevent disaster than to win the fight.

Perhaps the film's writers understood this -- making a nuclear weapon into a threat on par with alien invasion. But they also wanted to end the movie with a bang, having Iron Man shove the nuke down the alien's throat in a satisfying final explosion. With the portal closing, the destruction of the mothership is really secondary, but it means moviegoers are more likely to go home believing that nuclear weapons, at least under some circumstances, can be their ultimate savior.

That perception needs to stop. Hollywood can have a huge influence over public views. While entertaining us, it can help bring the public more in line with current military and strategic thinking -- nuclear weapons are more of a security liability than an asset. As a new study chaired by the recent commander of the U.S. Strategic Command and the former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, retired General James Cartwright, concludes:

The actual existing threats to our two countries [America and Russia] (and the globe) cannot be resolved by using our nuclear arsenals. No sensible argument has been put forward for using nuclear weapons to solve any of the major 21st century problems we face -- threats posed by rogue states, failed states, proliferation, regional conflicts, terrorism, cyber warfare, organized crime, drug trafficking, conflict-driven mass migration of refuges, epidemics, or climate change.

Or alien invasion.

If Earth is to have heroes, they need to be in suits and capes. Not in bombers and silos.

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