Leaders and Tricksters

I’ve watched all the movies in the “Avengers” series so far. I never read the comics, so I’m coming to this ‘verse without any idea of what the canon is, and I can’t judge the films on that basis. I also had some trouble with most of the films devoted to establishing each individual character–precisely because most of the screen time went to that goal, and the final climactic fight was the same in each one: they all almost died fighting a bigger, stronger version of themselves that lacked their moral sense or ability to love. Okay, I get it, the hero fights out of love, and love always trumps ego or the urge to power.

But now that I’ve seen the first film where they are all together, I see why they did it. Each Avenger has now been established in our minds as a true hero (still would like to see Black Widow’s backstory as I’m betting the heroine’s journey was very different), and so Whedon got to move on and play with other themes.

The one that spoke to me on my first viewing was the process by which the team comes together and gets in line behind the Captain as their natural leader, and I’ve written about that in “Son of Cool,” below. But on my second viewing, I was struck by the contrast between Stark and Loki.

They are both classic Trickster figures. (Captain Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is another). You never know where they stand or where you stand with them. Sometimes they seem noble and loving–and they’re very attractive when they are–and then the switch flips and they’re ruthless and self-serving. They’re master manipulators, because they get people, especially all the shadow stuff we like to think we’ve hidden so well no one knows about it.

(Casting Robert Downey Jr. as Stark was sheer genuis. RDj lived for a long time in the shadow world of addiction, but he made it back out. He plays the irresponsible, thoughtless side of Stark and the hero-Stark with equal conviction.)

Whenever you have a “double” character in a story, Marie-Louise von Franz says, one of two things is going on. The first is that an out-of-date image of an archetype is being contrasted with the new image that’s trying to come into being. I think of the groundbreaking TV series “Will and Grace” which featured several gay characters. One of the recurring characters was the old idea of the flaming, limp-wristed, lisping, sardonic gay man. But the main gay character behaved pretty much like a straight guy; he was just attracted to men, not women. This show expressed the emerging idea in our culture that the old stereotype is wrong, that gays are not that different.

The other possibility is that the doubled characters represent the dark and the light side of the archetype; the shadow or unconscious side vs. the conscious, rational side. That’s what Loki and Stark are. Loki is so unconscious of his own motivations that he’s insane; as Dr. Banner observes, “the guy’s mind is like a bag of cats.” But Stark is super-aware. He picks up on everything around him, even the subtlest, most peripheral things like what’s on the screens in front of all the people in the control room (“That guy’s playing Galaga. Thought we wouldn’t notice. We did.”).

Throughout most of the film, he uses his Trickster skills to manipulate those who need a nudge towards accepting and taking on their proper role in the team. He suggests to Banner that instead of running from his own shadow side (the Hulk), Banner should embrace it as a positive thing and learn how to use it. Carl Jung would applaud. He constantly challenges Captain America, forcing that hero to snap out of his funk over waking up in a world 70 years past the one he knew and get with the program. He stops Thor from taking his own approach to solving the problem and brings him in line with the rest of the team. And when the team is ready, he almost formally turns over leadership to the Captain, telling him “Call it, Cap.” And the Cap does. 

Stark knows that he’s not a leader. He’s a loner who “doesn’t play well with others.” A leader is someone people instinctively look to for guidance and obey. But he’s perfect as the power behind the throne. The Captain relies not only on his superstrength but his moral strength to get others to obey him; in a telling scene, when a pilot protests as the Avengers commandeer his plane, the Cap says “son . . . just don’t” and the pilot gives way. But sometimes that’s not enough; sometimes people need to be brought to the right point first, and that’s the role Stark happily takes on.

This is where Loki goes wrong. He thinks he can be the leader, but he doesn’t have the moral center for the job. He’s insanely jealous of how much others love Thor, the heir to the throne back on their own world; he doesn’t get it that the love is mutual, that Thor loves the people just as much. He doesn’t get that in the end, it’s love that makes people follow someone, and he refuses to accept that his own proper role would be as Thor’s Prime Minister, the power behind the throne. So he tries to make the people of Earth bow to him through fear instead. Coulson warns him that it won’t work; Stark spells out to him exactly why he will fail; but Loki will not listen and cannot understand. He has to have it literally beaten into him; when he shouts at the Hulk “I am a god!”, the Hulk grabs him and beats him into the ground, then mutters “puny god.”

The Hulk represents the instinctive self. Our instinct isn’t to follow the person who despises and threatens us; we follow the person who respects us and who we can respect. When Bruce Banner first meets Captain America, the Captain treats him with respect and makes it clear that he does not fear the Hulk; when he later orders the Hulk to do something, the Hulk obeys. Stark also makes it clear from the start that he actually likes the “rage monster” Banner can become, so it is no surprise when the Hulk saves his life later on.

Like all archetypes, the Trickster in its essence is a neutral energy with a positive and a negative aspect. In The Avengers, we see both aspects at work.


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