Quite often, our favorite television shows, novels and movies have much more depth than is visible on a superficial level. By taking the time to explore the deeper or hidden meanings, we can actually find that our pop culture holds the keys to understand the tenants originally proposed by ancient deep thinks like Socrates, Aristotle, and Lao Tzu. What’s wonderful about the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series of books is that they take all of those shows and movies and dissect, searching for the philosophical core, explaining things in layman’s terms.
But movies and novels aren’t the only aspects of pop culture with themes that are more than they appear. The series has looked at many comic book topics such as Green Lantern, Batman, and the X-Men. Most recently the series took a look at the Avengers, realizing just how much of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes harkens back to the golden age of thought.
Subtitled Earth’s Mightiest Thinkers, The Avengers and Philosophy takes a simplistic approach at the Avengers, generally looking at individual team members or events. One of the recurring themes of the book is redemption as many of the essays it contains are about characters who have walked the less than virtuous path, such as Hawkeye, Scarlet Witch, or Hank Pym. Even recent events like Civil War and Iron Man’s control of S.H.I.E.L.D. are compared with doctrines put forth by Thomas Aquinas, and how many of Tony Stark’s actions would be viewed by today’s standards.
The book opens simply, easing into things gently, helping readers to get an idea of what to expect before jumping into more complex themes. The opening essay dissects the ethical systems of the Big Three Avengers: Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. Once readers have an idea of what to expect from the presentation of the book, it careful moves on into more progressive, more complicated ideals, such as the concept of identity in a world of people whose “identity” often changes, to the wartime ethics of the Kree/Skrull War. Even the idea of meta-physics is explored, using She-Hulk’s self-awareness as a focus.
Most of the information presented in the book is a homerun, drawing comparisons that make long-time comic book readers wonder how they’d never made the connection themselves, such as the how rehabilitation works for some characters but not for others. Quite a few find a way to explain complex, meta-physical ideas in such a simple manner, and still can equate them to the events of Avengers history. Explaining time travel as it relates to Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity is no easy task by itself. But by taking certain examples, the pieces fall into place easily. (But somehow, when talking about the paradox of time travel, you’ll always end up with a few spinning heads.)
The book is not perfect; however, or more to the point, I should say a few of the books examples are not perfect. I found the essay titled “No Other Gods Before Me” to be the throw-away chapter of the book. Though the examples were air-tight and inarguable, I felt a lot of the comparisons were over-reaching and the final conclusion unsatisfactory. Also, the essay “Shining A Light On The Dark Avengers” I felt could have used a much simpler focus without using Norman Osborn’s entire team of Avenger doppelgangers. The purpose of this essay was to explain the difference between being just and appearing just, and how few heroes would allow their reputations to become tarnished while they consistently strive to do what they consider “the right thing”. The entire time I was reading this essay, the only hero I considered was Spider-Man.
Editor Mark D. White made some great choices in the material he presented in the book. The collection of writers and the different ideas they explore are enough to whet most philosophy student’s appetites, or to satisfy a comic book reader’s curiosity. Somehow, though, the book had me wanting more, though not because something was missing from the collection. Given the Avengers’ 50 year history, there is easily enough material to fill out a second book, an idea which I hope White decides to explore at some point in the future.