Macbeth vs. the Avengers

We just finished working our way through Rupert Goold’s 2010 film adaptation of Macbeth in my English 11 class. It’s a powerful, emotionally draining experience viewing Macbeth, and Rupert Goold, by setting his film in a 1950s era that deliberately evokes Stalin’s Russia, has created a version of the play that weighs perhaps even more heavily on the viewer than a more traditional medieval-themed production.

The question I kept asking myself this week, as the film grew bloodier and bloodier and the atmosphere darker and darker (and Macbeth and his wife more and more tormented) was a simple why? Not “why did Macbeth do what he did” but on a meta-viewing level, “Why watch this in the first place?” It’s not exactly an uplifting, feel-good story. I found it ironic that we began Macbeth the day after the opening of The Avengers, Joss Whedon’s sugary blockbuster action movie.

The emotional contrast couldn’t be more stark (little inside joke there for Avengers fans). The Avengers is a fun, uplifting, exciting thrill ride, escapism in its purest and most shameless form, whereas Goold’s Macbeth is an ominous meditation on the human soul. 

Superhero stories like The Avengers are hardly a recent phenomenon. Thoughout all of human history there have been legends and folktales of supermen: Beowulf, Hercules, Gilgamesh, Samson, to name but a few. Even Thor and Loki from the The Avengers are characters taken almost verbatim from Norse mythology (a point made explicitly in the movie itself).

There is a reason people are drawn to these exciting stories about superhumans. They promise us a kind of transcendence, a vicarious fantasy in which we can imagine ourselves to be greater and nobler than what we really are. Yet the promise is an empty one. When I sat watching The Avengers with my nine-year-old daughter I found myself thinking of the words of the media analyst and social philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Decades before the summer of 2012 he anticipated The Avengers and movies like it when he made the following observation:

The electric surround of information that has tended to make man a superman at the same time reduces him into a pretty pitiable nobody by merging him with everybody. It has extended man in a colossal superhuman way, but it has not made individuals feel important.

That’s when it hit me: although I thoroughly enjoyed The Avengers as escapist entertainment, the experience of viewing it (and other films like it) left me feeling strangely empty. McLuhan was right: a movie like The Avengers makes the actors into supermen, but it sure doesn’t make the members of the audience into anything special. Instead, it reminds us that we are pitiable nobodies, that we are not superheroes, and that, perhaps even worse, no one truly is.

I suppose that’s the underlying problem with stories like The Avengers, and all the stories from humanity’s past that it borrows from. These stories may be entertaining, exciting, even thrilling in the moment, but in the end they have nothing to offer us. There is nothing to say when they end, other than, “There are no superheroes in real life.” And perhaps, “Are you going to finish that popcorn?”

Which brings me back to Macbeth. Unlike The Avengers, Macbeth has something to offer us. It has something to say that it worth hearing and thinking about. Whereas The Avengers shows us empty pictures of magnificent heroes who serve little function other than to remind us of how small we are, Macbeth shows us a rich picture of the human soul, a soul that dwells inside each one of us.

Look into a mirror and you will not see Iron Man or Captain America. But you will see Macbeth. Because Shakespeare knows that we all harbour secret desires and ambitions, that we have all known envy and resentment, and that we all would find temptation at a forbidden glance into the future.

The problem is that looking into the human soul isn’t a particularly pleasant experience. Escapism–even if it leaves us feeling empty when we return to reality–is much easier than education. And Shakespeare wants to educate us. Macbeth is entertainment but it isn’t escapist. It is didactic. Shakespeare, as befits one of the greatest writers in human history, has much to tell us about ourselves. He wants us to think about life and death, good and evil, ambition and contentment, honour, justice, conscience, and the very meaning and purpose of life itself.

Watching a well-made film adaptation of Macbeth is a genuinely exhausting experience. But it’s exhausting in the way one is exhausted after exercise. It takes a lot out of you, but you are left with the awareness that something good has taken place, something necessary.

I think in the end, the play’s intentions are perhaps embodied in these haunting lines spoken by Malcolm to both encourage as well as caution the grieving Macduff: “Receive what cheer you may; / The night is long that never finds the day.” In other words, life is a serious business.  It contains suffering, pain, and death.  But be of good cheer, for we can overcome the odds.  We do not need to go the way of Macbeth and his wife; we can learn from them instead.

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