Mimetic Rivalry

Hulk vs. the Thingthor vs. lokiWhy are comics obsessed with rivalry? It’s difficult to imagine Batman without the Joker, Thor without Loki, X without Magneto. Without these iconic clashes, superhero comics would probably disappear — so many of their story arcs are driven by what literary theorist René Girard terms MIMETIC RIVALRY.

Stories thrive on conflict between characters. By reading the great writers against the grain of conventional wisdom, Girard realized that people don’t fight over their differences. They fight because they are the same, and they want the same things. Not because they need the same things (food, sex, scarce material goods), but because they want what will earn others’ envy…. People can desire anything, as long as other people seem to desire it, too: that is the meaning of Girard’s concept of “mimetic desire.” Since people tend toward the same objects of desire, jealousy and rivalry are inevitable sources of social tension — and perfect themes for the great novelists. [A Very Brief Introduction]

wolverine-sabretoothAnd comics too! Not to mention the comic book movies. In The Avengers the MIMETIC RIVALRY between Loki and Thor drives the primary plot. As Thor says, “When I first came to Earth, Loki’s rage followed me here, your people paid the price. Now again.”

Shazam vs. SupermanBut even more interesting are the rivalries that keep popping up amongst the Avengers themselves… As writer, director Joss Whedon explains: “The sort of glory of the Avengers is the dissonance you get between the Hulk, and Thor, and Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and Hawkeye.” In scene 11, “Tensions Rise,” Cap and Tony Stark argue over who’s the real hero. Nick Fury and Thor argue about who’s the real threat: humans with their weapons, or the Asgardians with theirs? They are fighting, not over differences, but because they are too alike.

Rivalry does not arise because of the fortuitous convergence of two desires on a single object; rather, the subject desires the object because the rival desires it. In desiring an object the rival alerts the subject to the desirability of the object. The rival, then, serves as a model for the subject, not only in regard to such secondary matters as style and opinions but also, and more essentially, in regard to desires. (René Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 145)

This is especially true with those closest to us, who are most like us. As desire ricochets back and forth, the rivals resemble each other more and more, to the extent that they appear as mirror images. Admiration between friends can turn to hatred, good will amongst equals turns to insult. Before you know it the best of friends are exchanging punches.

Cap and TonyBruce Banner: “What are we a team? No, we’re a chemical mixture that makes chaos, We’re a time bomb.”

Steve Rogers:  “Big name in a suit of armor, take that off what are you?”

Tony Stark: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

age-of-ultron-posterSteve Rogers: “I know guys with none of that worth ten of you… you better stop pretending to be a hero.”

Tony Stark: “A hero? Like you? You’re a lab rat, Rogers. Everything special about you came out of a bottle!”

Steve Rogers: “Put on the suit. Let’s go a few rounds.”

Thor: “You people are so petty, and tiny.”

Cap vs. Iron ManIn a smart cinematic moment, which is signature Joss Whedon, the cameras tilt and the room reels, ready to spin out of control. The mimetic rivalry, in a fit of MIMETIC CONTAGION, escalates, as Girard explains it often does, into an ALL AGAINST ALL. All the Avengers are mimetically drawn into the heat of the moment. Even Banner is about to lose control and turn into the Hulk. But worse, consumed with each other, the Avengers have lost sight of the real threat: Loki. Lucky for them, Loki chooses to launch an attack. The team is immediately transfigured as they reunite by redirecting the inner Civil Warconflict outward against a common enemy. The threat of MIMIETIC CONTAGION is quelled, but only temporarily. Being Superheroes, who consider themselves above any rule of an law, their egos tend to get out of hand. Unchecked by any authority but their own, you can be sure the tensions will build again. Banner is right: MIMETIC RIVALRY is a time bomb!

After being criticized for his unconventional script, I wonder, will Joss Whedon let the internecine rivalries loose in the next Avengers: Age of Ulton? I hope so! It may determine whether the sequel will be as interesting as the first Avengers movie. Either way, you can bet the rivalries will heat up again for the Civil Wars in Captain America 3.  ~ Sue Wright






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