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Love, Honor, and Sacrifice

by Sean Curry

What makes a hero? In the world of comic books, it seems like anyone with a barrel of radioactive goop and a set of tights gets a shot. But plenty of residents of that paneled universe get a fancy name and a flashy logo but never truly earn the “hero” title. Are some people just inherently “good” while others are “bad”, and their superpowered actions naturally follow that? Or does the way a superpowered individual use said powers determine their moral standing? What came first: the healing factor and adamantium skeleton, or the insatiable lust for blood?

Marvel’s cinematic adventures in the shared Avengers’ universe ask this question of Iron Man, the Hulk, Captain America, and Thor. Each is asked to make a sacrifice, a choice regarding love and honor. While each must choose, the choice they are to make is appropriately scaled to their capabilities: Tony Stark isn’t being asked to use his battle armor to defeat magical, immortal frost giants from another dimension, and Captain America isn’t being asked to use his increased agility and combat training to take down a raging 20-foot-tall science monster. While much is asked from those have been given much, more tends to be asked from those who have more to give. It may help to delve a bit into the story leading up to each of these characters’ decisions.

[SPOILERS HERE ON OUT, Y’ALL]

In Iron Man II, Tony Stark is being attacked on all fronts. The government is making an attempt to pilfer his personal property and, in their confiscation of the Iron Man armor, rival Hammer Industries attempts to best Stark Industries’ current domination of the weapons market, as Ivan Vanko makes a very real attempt to end Stark’s life and legacy in retribution for what he believes Stark’s father did to his own father. Government interference in a civilian’s private life, corporate takeovers, and decades-old family vendettas: another day in the life of Tony Stark. Throughout all this, Tony finds himself drawn more and more to his former personal assistant, Pepper Potts. By movie’s end, he has not only raised her in status to his business equal by making her CEO of Stark Industries, but has fallen for her romantically, as well.

The film’s climax has Vanko and Hammer teaming up to disgrace Tony Stark, Iron Man, and Stark Industries at the Stark Expo. Hammer provides an army of extremely powerful combat-ready robots at Vanko’s command, who attempts to disrupt the Expo and defeat Iron Man. In the end, Tony’s sacrifice doesn’t require him to choose between  love and honor at all, as they are one and the same: to protect the love of his life, the lives of hundreds of innocents, and his family’s legacy, he must don the Iron Man armor and stop Vanko and Hammer’s scheme. Which he does, saving innocent lives and getting the girl.

The Incredible Hulk, on the other hand, has Bruce Banner making a much harder choice. After months hiding in South America, a simple factory accident alerts the US Army to his presence, and Bruce finds himself on the run again. He makes his way back to America, and the woman he loves: Betty Ross, daughter of General Thunderbolt Ross, his driven pursuer. After more skirmishes with the military, Bruce realizes they’ll never stop chasing him, willing to use anything around him as collateral to bring him in, including the people he loves. As long as Betty is with him, she’ll never be safe. His is a much harder choice to make than Tony Stark’s - doom his soulmate to a life on the run from the most powerful military in the world, practically assuring her death, or never be with her again. It’s really no choice at all: he sacrifices a life with her whether he stays with her or not. At least she survives if he leaves.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, Steve Rogers is also presented with this choice, but in the end, his sacrifice is a necessary one, and the only outcome he could have chosen. Steve spends the entire movie becoming the hero he needs to be in order to eventually defeat the insidious Red Skull and his Hydra legions. The movie ends with Cap and the Skull’s final showdown in a Hydra nuclear hovercraft above the Arctic Circle. The Red Skull’s own insatiable ego and lust for power eventually leads to his undoing, but there’s still the question of the nuclear bomb Captain America is still careening through the atmosphere in.

To protect innocent lives from the bombs on board, Cap must bring the plane down in the Arctic, ensuring his own demise with it. It is the only action he can take in the short time frame allowed him, and his sense of honor compels him to do it. Had the plane been allowed to fly its course, massive destruction would befall countless American cities, severely crippling the American war effort and allowing the Nazis to grow across the world unchecked, consuming every innocent life in its wake, including the girl of his dreams, Peggy Carter. Once again, his sacrifice was one he had to make. Either way he eventually loses the girl, but if he sacrifices himself, she at least gets to live a long, free life. So it goes.

Finally, there’s Thor. Thor is the only character to truly be asked to choose between love and honor. In his final showdown with Loki, Thor has to destroy the Bifrost Bridge in order to keep its full power from being unleashed upon Jotunheim, utterly destroying it and committing genocide. However, the Bifrost Bridge is the only way the Asgardians are able to travel to and from the nine realms, including Midgard (“Earth”, for those of you somehow not educated in ancient Norse vocabulary), where the object of his affections, Jane Foster, lives. Loki tries to destroy Jotunheim only to please his and Thor’s father, Odin; there is no reason to think that upon destroying Jotunheim, Loki would turn his sights to Earth. Earth has made no attempts on the throne, as most of its residents have no idea Asgard even exists. Loki stood to gain nothing by destroying Earth, yet even with his love’s continued existence all but assured, Thor still chose to spare Jotunheim, an enemy realm that had declared war on Asgard, at the expense of seeing Jane ever again. By the time the credits roll, Thor is the only character who has truly been asked to make a clear, distinct choice between love and honor. His sacrifice asks the most of him.

[RECAPS AND HARD SPOILERS END HERE. THEMATIC SPOILER-ISH REFLECTIONS CONTINUE FORTH... Y’ALL.]

So while every hero is asked to sacrifice, the sacrifices’ ramifications vary from character to character, depending on their ability to actually give something up.

Iron Man, the closest of the four to being a regular human (his power is essentially nothing more than wearing a gun), is asked to sacrifice the least. All he must do is put his physical safety on the line to defeat the bad guys. He still gets the girl in the end and a return to the life he had before his life-threatening incident.

The Hulk and Captain America are the middle ground between Iron Man, a human with weapons, and Thor, a space-god. Both are mankind's attempts at human physical perfection, but one utilizes self-control, the other enables the id to run absolutely wild; the dark and the light in the pursuit of the ultimate soldier. As such, their sacrifices are scaled to their situations. Captain America, the embodiment of the ultimate good fighting against the ultimate evil, is asked to ultimately sacrifice his life to save his girl and the world in general. The Hulk, the ultimate release of human desire, is his own worst enemy. He must sacrifice a future with those he loves in order to protect them.

In the story of Captain America, ultimate good and ultimate evil exist in two different entities: Steve Rogers and the Red Skull. In the story of the Hulk, "good" and "evil" exist in the same being: the sane mind of Bruce Banner desperately trying to keep his own empowered, out-of-control id in check. Captain America must give up himself, the ultimate sacrifice, to keep this villainy at bay, while the sane mind of Bruce Banner must continue on to keep the threat of the Hulk at bay - even if he died, the Army could just scoop up the Hulk's body, dissect it, and learn its secrets. Captain America is asked to sacrifice by dying, the Hulk is asked to sacrifice by keeping himself alive, but away from the people he loves and the life he wants.

Finally, there's Thor, the furthest of these four from human beings as he is literally an immortal, extra-dimensional, alien techno-god. He seemingly has powers and abilities millenia beyond human understanding and capabilities. As such, the sacrifice asked of him is far greater than the other heroes. Iron Man doesn't have to sacrifice Pepper to save the day. The Hulk must never allow himself to be near Betty, but it's possible that someday he'll be cured and be able to be with her. Captain America has to crash his plane into an iceberg, but there's a chance that he'll somehow survive and get to see Peggy again. As far as Thor knows, destroying the Bifrost to save Jotunheim will effectively make it permanently impossible to see Jane ever again, but he does it anyway. In his mind, this choice is final; there is no chance that he will be able to live the life he desires after this action. But, should he fail to act, mass genocide of innocents will occur.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” Originally uttered by Ben Parker to a young Peter, this phrase has become so ubiquitous that it has entered the common lexicon with little reference to its origin. My mother has used this phrase before, and my mother couldn’t name ONE of Spider-Man’s enemies (I love you, Mom). The phrase has become so popular because it so perfectly captures the idea behind what makes a hero. Another common way of expressing this idea is, “To whom much is given, much is asked.” Sacrifice makes a person noble, and a hero. But, for those who can give more, more is demanded for them. If you don’t have something real to lose on the line, then what makes you heroic?

Sean Curry is a writer, funny guy, and terrific dancer. He is 26 and a quarter and next year he gets to walk all the way to the store by himself. He resides in New York City with his wife and eleven dogs, and he even has a website: www.sean-curry.com