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Righteous Fury: Nick Fury, The Avengers & Moral Ambiguity…

I had the pleasure of seeing The Avengers for the second time last week, to try to make sense of my opinion on it. I still think that it’s an impressive action movie, even if it is a fundamentally flawed one. Strangely enough, though, I confess to finding the character of Nick Fury completely and utter fascinating, arguably the most complex character in the script. The problem, however, is that his complex moral ambiguity is very clearly contrasted with the idealism of his team of superheroes. However, I’m not convinced that they win the argument.

How does he patch things up with the team?

If Joss Whedon’s superhero epic has a point, it’s that old-fashioned heroics are never out of fashion, no matter how jaded we might be. If The Dark Knight was the superhero film for the Bush era, Whedon’s Avengers triumphantly offers a superhero story for the Obama age. We’re presented with a team composed of monsters, soldiers, assassins, secret agents, billionaires and gods that are unambiguously and completely heroic. Sure, they might have some friendly (or in the case of Thor and the Hulk, not-so-friendly) disagreements in the first half, but they pull together at the end to serve as beacons of virtue.

Indeed, it’s amazing how much carnage the film features in New York, as our heroes single-handedly hold back an alien invasion of Earth. Images of survivors building impromptu memorials and skyscrapers crashing down evoke the terrorist attacks of 11th September. As on that terrible day, there are heroes ready to do their best to preserve lives in the face of senseless violence. While The Dark Knight explored the aftermath of the attacks, and the dichotomy between liberty and security, The Avengers reflects on the events themselves.

The all-seeing eye…

And it’s remarkable how straight-forward our heroes are. Whenever our heroes clash with one another, it’s either because of miscommunication or mind control. Thor clashes with Iron Man and Captain America over the custody of his brother, but gives in fairly easily. When Hawkeye fights Black Widow, it’s because Loki has him under mind control. When the Hulk takes on Thor, Bruce Banner isn’t thinking straight. Once the group are all in their right minds, they are perfectly attuned, working together like a well-oiled machine.

In contrast to all this, however, is Nick Fury. Brought to life by Samuel L. Jackson, the character has served as a plot device in the earlier films, serving as a thread to connect the characters in order to bring them all into one cohesive super-film. He was barely there, so it’s no surprise he had no character. However, in The Avengers, he’s gloriously ambiguous figure, and one who serves as a contrast for the rest of the team. He runs S.H.I.E.L.D., a nebulous international organisation that reports to an anonymous “Council”, probably intended to reflect the U.N. Security Council. (Let’s ignore, for a moment, the political juggling that would be necessary to allow an organisation like that to operate on U.S. soil, let alone attempt to nuke an American city as they do at the climax.)

Can’t quite square it…

While Batman hesitated to operate a wire-tap in Gotham, Nick Fury shows no moral difficulties with eavesdropping on every phone on the planet in an attempt to catch Loki. He isn’t even called on any of this by the team. When his superiors decide to deploy a nuclear weapon, Fury takes it on himself to refuse to follow their orders. “I recognize the council has made a decision, but given that it’s a stupid-ass decision, I’ve elected to ignore it.” Given that he is still in his job at the end of the movie, it suggests that Fury is pretty much completely unaccountable, even to a committee of anonymous world leaders.

He is even in a position, at the end of the movie, to make the decision to send the cosmic cube and Loki back to Asgard. That sounds like the kind of thing that the American government might have liked to have had some say in. He then allows the Avengers to disappear from any sort of official radar. (Although, given his manipulations in these films, I find it hard to believe he lets the team off his radar.) That suggests that Fury doesn’t answer to anybody on anything, which creates a decidedly sinister atmosphere around the character.

Hammer and S.H.I.E.L.D…

In fairness, the movie does call him on his clear manipulation the superheroes, exploiting Agent Coulson’s death to give them the “push” they needed to head to New York. Similarly, the discovery that Fury is constructing weapons of mass destruction using technology confiscated from the Nazis causes a miniature crisis in the middle of the second act.

Our morally upright heroes are outraged at this development, shocked at the idea that the international spymaster (the guy who brought them all together) might be involved in some shady dealings. Whedon’s point seems relatively clear: Fury is morally ambiguous, while the heroes are morally straight-forward. It feels more than a little bit awkward, as Marvel heroes have traditionally positioned themselves as somewhat flawed individuals. Captain America is, of course, a morally upstanding character, and Thor gave its character a solid arc that ended with him a bona fides hero rather than a spoiled manchild, but that doesn’t account for the other members of the team.

Steve’s thawed a bit on Nick…

Iron Man and Iron Man II are stories about Tony Stark growing into a hero and dealing with the consequences of his decisions, including his decision not to share his technology with the government. It seems quite strange to see that Stark has cleaned himself up perfectly by the time that The Avengers comes around, to the point where he’s even in a stable relationship with Pepper Potts. I know this is character development, but it feels strange to have it happen off-screen and to present Tony as an almost perfectly rounded individual in The Avengers. (He’s a little arrogant, but justifiably so.) And Bruce Banner went from a guy who developed a super-soldier substitute he then tested on himself to a zen pacifist between films.

However, the biggest problem with the way the movie deals with the ideological conflict between Nick Fury and the Avengers is the simple fact that it doesn’t prove Fury wrong. During the heated argument, several of the team make viable counter-arguments about the development of the super-powered weapons of mass destruction, but none of them really hold up. Thor suggests that the presence of the cosmic cube might suggest to the cosmos that Earth is “ready for a higher form of warfare.” Logically, since the Nazis used the weapons in the first place, that signal has been sent. Banner suggests that weapons of mass destruction inevitably lead to escalation, and that’s true – but it discounts the idea that Fury is facing adversaries who already have more advanced weaponry.

Super spy?

Indeed, the presence of superheroes themselves seems to be a paradox thatcreates these threats. Loki is only really screwing with Earth because Thor vanquished him from Asgard. The Destroyer only attacked that small village because Loki wanted to kill his brother. Tony Stark’s Iron Man has led to the creation of two other supervillains, one of whom launched a direct attack on supervillain targets. In something of the opposite of the conventional pattern, Captain America himself was created using stolen plans for a Nazi super-soldier.

As a result, despite the obvious and undeniable heroism of the team, The Avengers feels like more of a victory for Fury himself, and his none-to-subtle manipulations of the world around him. After all, for all their integrity and virtue, it was Fury who spurred the team to eventual action. Despite the fact that the movie treats Fury’s decision to develop super-powered weapons of mass destruction, it’s hard not to argue that it isn’t the prudent and pragmatic course of action.

In good Nick…

Fury is an interesting and intriguing character, for precisely the same reason that Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark was an interesting and intriguing character – he’s very far from the conventional mode of superheroism. However, he’s also very much in clear opposition to the simplistic heroic ideal the film seems to revel in. It feels strange, then, that Fury hasn’t really changed that much over the course of the movie. Maybe he has suspended developing weapons of mass destruction (given he has a team of them on hand), but he’s still completely unaccountable and following his own pragmatic moral code.

I think this is what bothered me about the film on my first watch – the notion that the film espoused this very straightforward idea of heroism, while featuring a very morally ambiguous figure hovering over the team in the background. It wouldn’t be a problem were it addressed, but it’s never really handled. There’s a false compromise, where Fury gets a bunch of weapons of mass destruction while continuing to operate according to his own rules and never answering to anybody – even his chain of command. I would love to see this thread followed up in the sequel, because it has been really bothering me.

6 Responses

  1. Always insightful, Darren. I don’t think it’s unreasonable that the sequel might explore this a little. He is, after his many appearances thus far, a character that many take for granted, and therefore ripe for rug pulling.

    • Hopefully. I found it a bit strange that such a big deal was made of Fury’s ambiguity (and yet it was never resolved) despite the fact that the whole point of the film was “look! heroes! umabiguously so!”

  2. I had a bit of a problem with the “Old fashioned superheroic values” theme in the movie. It felt too shoehorned in rather than an organic part of the story. Fury mentions it once or twice and there’s the final scene with ordinary citizens praising the Avengers but that’s mostly it. It just seems like an easy way to explain why no Avenger seems to question Fury’s authority in a big way or why they all seem so willing to fight for his cause (with the exception of Banner, I guess).

    It may be a self-conscious attempt to eliminate the “refusal of the call” aspect of the hero’s journey but it’s not really replaced with anything. If the movie explained and developed the theme and explained why each Avenger agreed with it, it would have made the movie stronger. It seems like Captain America should have been given the job of convincing the Avengers of these values.

    • Very well observed, Justin. I think the first two thirds of the film were remarkably weak, structurally, and I suspect that was down to an attempt to divy up screentime fairly between the characters. It feels strange that the biggest character arcs in the film belong to Tony and Banner, if only because they have the least to do with the main plot. Thor’s brother is making war using a weapon from Odin’s armoury. You’d imagine Thor would be more than the team’s heavy muscle. Similarly, Captain America is making sense of the modern world, serving as team leader and dealing with the ambiguity of his employers, but his character arc sort of fizzles outside the first twenty minutes.

      In contrast, Banner and Stark get these two massive shifts in characterisation (Banner is a zen master and Tony is willing to make a sacrifice play and is a team player) that don’t have enough room to really grow inside this two-and-a-half-hour film, so it seems quite jarring. (Stark was still a massive arrogant selfish screw-up by the end of Iron Man 2 and making slow but steady progress to being a hero, character flaws not withstanding – here he makes several dynamic leaps that don’t seem properly set up. In contrast, Thor positions its lead character at the end of his arc, ready to feed into this film – which is one of the reasons I’d argue Thor is the strongest Marvel film to date.)

  3. I, too, found Fury to be not only interesting but also, and ultimately, a bit disturbing. Even on first viewing his demeanor made me uncomfortable. What made me even more uncomfortable was attempting to come to terms with what Joss was trying say through Fury, while being simultaneously distracted by a constant barrage of jokes and action poses.

    • Yep. I can’t quite figure out what Joss’ point is with with Fury. “It’s okay to have true and umabiguous heroes so long as they’re directed by a man who has no problems getting his hands dirty”? “As long as our heroes act like heroes in public, it doesn’t matter the manipulations taking place in the background”? There was a conflict there, and I didn’t see it really resolved.

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