05/01/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

All-American Avengers Take on Aliens, Alienation

I saw The Avengers (British title Avengers Assemble) last week with a multi-ethnic audience in Edgeware Road, London. They went gaga over it, as have critics (it is one of the best-reviewed films of the past year, with a 95 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 97 percent audience approval rating), but I remember thinking that as great as the writing is, as fun to watch as the superhero action is, as universal as some of the themes are, at its heart, this Avengers is a quintessentially American film.

Richard Corliss argued in TIME last week that The Avengers, like all great pop culture epics, is about nothing, or maybe more properly, about itself as an engine of entertainment: "The movie guarantees fast-paced fun without forcing anyone to think about what it all means, which is nothing."

As much as I like reading Mr. Corliss, I could not disagree more. A good piece of popular art is always about something. It touches a nerve in the larger culture, if you will.

So I agree with British actor Tom Hiddleston (chewing the scenery appealingly in his return-appearance as the villain Loki, introduced in last summer's Thor) who suggests in The Guardian that superhero films can be secular myths that audiences can share across religious, political, racial, and cultural differences. It was certainly that way for us in London Sunday night as (minor spoiler) we watched the Avengers fight, settle their differences, come together, and save the world.

Beyond what Mr. Hiddleston opined, I'd add that superhero films, one of our culture's most popular effusions over the last decade, also sometimes wrestle with questions that are spiritual and even sacred. What is more important in most religious and wisdom traditions than the big questions of who we are, how we relate to each other, and what we should be doing?

It may be an enormous popcorn entertainment, but like Crash, like Magnolia, like lots of other ensemble films bringing together people filled with American angst and ennui, The Avengers takes on the very contemporary American problem of gated communities, gated psyches, and the loneliness that comes out of what we have long considered an essential American good -- self-reliance.

These heroes, gods, and monsters are all misfit toys who don't play well with others. In Entertainment Weekly's cover interview on the film, interviewer Anthony Breznican said to the assembled actors, "When we talked on set last summer, almost every one of you said the defining thing about your character is that he or she is desperately lonely. Joss talked a lot about that as well."

And surely that's true -- Hawkeye's (Jeremy Renner) history as a sniper means he's seen and done some horrific things. Loki gets under the skin of The Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) by talking about the rivers of blood for which she's been responsible. Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) is responsible for deaths and property damage every time he hulks out, so he hides out. And so on.

It's a litany of loneliness very familiar in our culture just now, from Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone to the recent Atlantic cover story on how Facebook can, paradoxically, make us even more lonely and certainly more self-contained. Yet as damaging as we admit it to be, loneliness may be an All-American value. As the Atlantic article suggests,

...loneliness is one of the first things ordinary Americans spend their money achieving. With money, you flee the cramped city to a house in the suburbs or, if you can afford it, a McMansion in the exurbs, inevitably spending more time in your car. Loneliness is at the American core, a by-product of a long-standing national appetite for independence: The Pilgrims who left Europe willingly abandoned the bonds and strictures of a society that could not accept their right to be different. They did not seek out loneliness, but they accepted it as the price of their autonomy. The cowboys who set off to explore a seemingly endless frontier likewise traded away personal ties in favor of pride and self-respect. The ultimate American icon is the astronaut: Who is more heroic, or more alone? The price of self-determination and self-reliance has often been loneliness.

We have taken autonomy to some ridiculous lengths, and the conflicts -- internal and external -- played out in The Avengers suggest that. Director and writer Joss Whedon notes in The Telegraph:"'Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor and Captain America didn't seem like they could co-exist and ultimately that's what intrigued me and made me take it on,' said Whedon. 'These people don't belong together and wouldn't get along, and as soon as that dynamic came into focus, I realized that I actually had something to say about them.'"

Moreover, Mr. Whedon told Entertainment Weekly:

[The Avengers] is very much about people who are alone -- because I'm writing it," jokes Whedon, who has assembled groups of outcasts before in TV's Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly -- but also, remember, in his script for the original Toy Story. "[Captain America] is kind of the ultimate loner in that way. There is an anachronism to him, and Chris [Evans] and I have always tried to, without making it goofy or too obvious, make him that same grounded '40s Steve Rogers he was in the other movie.

The use of Captain America as a focus -- and later in the film, as an inspiring leader -- suggests some possibilities for pulling people out of self-absorption with their own problems, needs, and desires, the essential American problem just now: How do we take an ever-more divided people and draw them into service together?

This unlikely meeting between very different American archetypes -- the Patriot (Captain America [Evans]), the Aristocrat/Tycoon (Tony Stark/Iron Man[Robert Downey Jr.]), the Alien (Thor [Chris Hemsworth]), the Femme Fatale (Black Widow), the Lone Gunman (Hawkeye), and the Savage (The Hulk) -- is about getting each of them to put aside their individual agendas, egos, and fears, and come together around something larger than themselves.

It's an old-fashioned idea, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) admits in the film. But maybe old-fashioned, he says, is what we need right now.

Traditionally what brings us together is a common foe, something from outside we can agree that we fear more than each other, or ourselves. The Nazis. The Communists. For the past decade, lamentably, Islam.

The Avengers doesn't solve this problem of what to confront for us. Art rarely gives us definitive answers; it more often asks questions than answers them. But by bringing this current to the service, it could at least remind us of the possibilities open to us. Mr. Whedon said as much in the Entertainment Weekly interview: "It's about the idea -- which is very old-fashioned -- of community, of people working for each other. That's gone away. The Avengers, for me, is about bringing that back."