It is less than a week until the release of Avengers: Infinity War and people are pumped!! Ten years…that’s right, ten years of storytelling culminating in round one of the climactic battle with Thanos. Yes!!
This post, however, will not focus on speculation regarding who has what Infinity Stone or who will die. This is not because I don’t feel interested in those intriguing matters because I do! Rather, plenty of sources exist online and offline where those conversations are being held. Rather, as we approach April 27 I wish to pay respects to these characters who meant so much to me as a kid and, thank you Marvel Comics Universe, have been brought to life in my adult years.
Marvel Characters and the Call to Character
When discussing the concept of role models Professor Mark D. White wrote, “Good role models provide not just inspiration to achieve our goals, but also an example of the right way to achieve them” (1). He argued that, despite what some might think, fictional characters can be role models because they model “positive character traits such as honesty, courage, and wisdom – which means more if actions resulting from these virtues have consequences, even if only in their fictional worlds” (2). The beauty of a movie like Captain America: Civil War was the fact that my kids, while captivated by the action, weren’t entirely sure why The Avengers were fighting each other. Are they still friends, dad? They were so interested in the “why” of the fight that we were able to have a real discussion about choices, consequences, and standing up for beliefs. Fiction, be it super heroes or classic literature, can open channels of conversation allowing opportunity to discuss what truly matters most. For those moment with my kids I say, again, thanks Marvel.
A Little help from Confucius (yes, you read that correctly)
As the Marvel Universe expands it can be easy to lose one’s footing. I must admit, Iron Man 3 was far from my favorite Marvel movies. Far. Like, Asgard far. But there was a concept in it I loved. Of all the Avengers Tony Stark, despite his OUTRAGEOUS confidence, should have had the most difficult time adjusting to this new life. This was never the life he envisioned. Even the other human characters (Cap, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) were far more prepared to face such horrors than Tony. Struggling with anxiety and PTSD made perfect sense. To be honest I wish this issue was explored in a better executed movie, but the whole of the Marvel ride is greater than the sum of its parts.
Looking at the concept of character can feel a bit overwhelming. Where to start and where do we go? How to write it so my ten readers don’t lose interest? Like Tony, I need a little grounding. For my purposes I am turning to the great philosopher Confucius. There are three key concepts from Confucian thought that will prove useful in our look at the Avengers.
Jen – This virtue focuses on the ideal relationship that should exist between people. This astounding commitment to relationships was both beautiful and exceptionally difficult to obtain. A person exhibiting Jen displays a feeling of humanity towards others, respect for oneself, and a deep sense of dignity for human life everywhere. Just a moment of reflection should allow you to see how much time in the Marvel Comic Universe is spent on both relationships between the characters and the needs of the larger community. If you are reading this I doubt you need my help to generate a list.
Chun Tzu – The individual exhibiting Jen would be said to be an example of Chun Tzu, often translated as the Superior or Higher man. This superiority is not from wealth or title; it is about one’s character. The Chun Tzu is at great ease with themselves and, by extension, brings ease to others. The more people who can become chun tzu who exist the greater the possibility of achieving social harmony and enduring peace. The world can never have enough people who are chun tzu. Sadly, I would say we’ve also never had enough of them in the world…but there’s always Captain America!
Li – This complex concept can be presented as the way things ought to be done. Confucius felt that people would not be able to discern Li from other paths completely on their own and therefore tried to provide models for them to emulate. He used maxims (short sayings), anecdotes, and his own life to create these examples. Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. (3). The world The Avengers envision.
Following the correct path, while maintaining a deep regard for humanity and relationship, help create life as a sacred dance with seamless patterns, awe-inspiring fluidity, and transcendent beauty. That sounds like a very tall order, perhaps well beyond our grasp. Perhaps it is too daunting or fanciful. A view Abraham Lincoln proposed when looking at the ideals of the Declaration of Independence proves helpful in such times. Lincoln stated the ideals of the Declaration could be, “constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated…,” (4). This approach to ideal is exceptionally helpful. It is so easy to look at the idea of becoming chun-tzu and feel disheartened by my shortcomings and weaknesses. Yet, armed with the wisdom of Abraham Lincoln, I need not focus on my fragilities so much as the inspirational role models before me. I like to think Confucius would approve of this as he stressed the need to not allow a negative mindset to stop someone found following the difficult path he endorsed (5).
The Big Three
As we are stressing character strengths in this post we will focus on three original members of The Avengers (Thor, Ironman, and Captain America), utilizing each as an exemplar of a single character trait. To be sure each one of these heroes could be used to exemplify any number of character traits but those are conversations for another day!
The willingness to set aside one’s personal interests for the good of the community does no come naturally to most. It can be hard not to fall into the mindset of wondering what’s in it for me. I find Thor to be the best example of the willingness to make sacrifices. That may strike the reader as slightly surprising but consider this list.
Thor (in depowered human form) allowed himself to be killed by the Destroyer (Thor)
Thor shattered the rainbow bridge, choosing protection of others over his heart as he effectively cut himself off from Jane Foster (Thor)
Thor risked damaging his relationship with Odin to seek victory against Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Thor risked his death (almost crushed by falling ship) in his final effort to defeat Malekith (Thor: The Dark World)
Thor turns down the throne of Asgard (Thor: The Dark World)
Thor is told by Tony he may not survive the explosion his blow wold cause as he sought to destroy the falling landmass in Avengers: Age of Ultron
Thor sacrifices Asgard itself to ensure the defeat of Hela (Thor: Ragnarok)
Confucius noted that by looking at a person’s intentions, examining their motives, and scrutinizing what brings someone contentment then you can see who a person truly is. In fact actions make it all but impossible to hide what you truly are (6). In that case, Thor is someone driven to do all he can to guarantee victory for his comrades, even if he should ultimately fall. One wonders how far he will go in the upcoming war with Thanos?
Not that kind of growth, sorry Ant-Man. We’re talking about personal growth. The desire to becoming a better person tomorrow than you are today. Tony Stark, despite your unrelenting ego, that’s you. Tony’s run through the Marvel Cinematic Universe started as a misogynistic arms dealer who saw war as the perfect way to make HUGE profits! Damn. There was almost nowhere to go but up! And while it is true Tony’s ego is still a bit much to take. His relationship with women (Pepper Potts in particular), willingness to admit a mistake (his truce with Captain America when tracking down Zemo in Civil War), and capacity to offer guidance to young Peter Parker all are actions that would have been far beyond his ability a decade ago. Confucius informed his students, “Those of the loftiest wisdom and those of the basest ignorance: they alone never change” (7). Living things grow. Stagnation is the death knell of life. Tony has grown as much as any Marvel character over the years and, quite frankly, still has work to do. Maybe some humble pie served up by Shuri will help? Yeah, probably not.
Or perseverance. Or maturity. Or commitment. Or…you get the point. There are so many virtues I could place at feet of Steve Rogers that it was hard to pick just one. I rather doubt that I have. Loyalty, however, seems to be a good place to start. Captain America’s loyalty to friends (I’m thinking Peggy Carter’s deathbed scene from Winter Soldier), the Avengers (recall his “together” speech from Age of Ultron), his ideals, and to people is inspiring. In many ways he has become the moral backbone and inspirational foundation of the MCU. It hasn’t been easy but it has been done with a determined grace that is quite noble. Whether willing to stand by Bucky (Winter Soldier and Civil War), to stand up for his ideals in numerous debates with Tony and Nick Fury, to stand by people in trouble as when he refused to get off the landmass ripped from Sokovia when Ultron was preparing to drop it, heading to New York in The Avengers without any of the “big guns” because, well, someone had to, or his commitment to tear down S.H.I.E.L.D as well as Hydra because both violated the grandeur purpose (Winter Soldier) Captain America remains loyal to his unyielding conviction to follow the right path even if it is difficult.
I would like to take a moment, however, to focus on a simple but powerful act of loyalty Cap performed at the end of Civil War. In a simple but heartfelt note he reached out to his estranged friend Tony Stark promising to be there for him should the moment arise. What a small but wonderful gesture. In that movie Cap stated he stood by Bucky because, “He’s my friend.” Tony’s response was, “So was I.” Wrong tense, Tony. Captain America, more than any other Avenger, doesn’t live in an either/or world. He strives, with great loyalty, to find both/and solutions when possible. Even when dealing with the most difficult of battles…navigating the murky world of human relationships and friendship. That letter…combined with his friendship with James “Bucky” Barnes allows us a cinematic vision of something quite rare, an adult male who not only takes his male friendships quite seriously but his willing to let that be known in no uncertain terms. Confucius once lamented to his student Lu, “Those who understand integrity are rare indeed” (8). The great sage is probably correct, which is why we all could use a little Captain America in each of us.
Never the End
As we close out this post it is so easy to see where it could go. Every member of the Avengers deserved a place in this discussion. The focus on Bruce Banner, the integrity of James Rhodes, the dedication of Black Widow, and the honor of T’Challa. It could go on and on, but I like to think the point is made. Role models are everywhere…even in the MCU. So sit back. Take a moment to appreciate what we can learn from our heroes and the great ride they’ve taken us on. And, if you need to, tremble a little for Thanos is coming and all the character strengths in the world won’t be enough for all of them to see the final victory. Who else, however, would you want fighting such an overpowering and malevolent foe? Yes, Thanos is coming so…Avengers Assemble!
(1) White, Mark D. The Virtues of Captain America. Wiley Blackwell. 2014. p 27.
(2) ibid. p 27.
(3) Smith, Huston. The World’s Religions. Harper San Francisco. 1991. p 172-177. In summarizing the first of the five key elements of Confucian thinking I condescend professor Smith’s writing to fit the length of this post. Whatever elegance or poetry you found in those three sections work of the great Huston Smith.
(4) From a speech delivered by President Lincoln on June 26, 1857. It was Lincoln’s public refutation of the Dred Scott decision.
(5) Hinton, David (translator). The Analects of Confucius. CounterPoint. 1998. Chapter 6.11.
(6) Ibid. 2.10
(7) Ibid. 17.3
(8) Ibid. 15.4