Adam Smith Goes to the Movies: The Avengers

essay sarah skwire superheroes wonder admiration history of astronomy avengers marvel imitative arts aeon skoble

by Sarah E. Skwire and Aeon J. Skoble for AdamSmithWorks

If Adam Smith were alive today, he’d be just as excited as the rest of us about the release of Avengers: Endgame

April 24, 2019
We may not instinctively think of the great 18th century philosopher and father of modern economics as a big fan of superhero movies, but that’s probably because we don’t read his essay “The History of Astronomy”[1] often enough. It is here that Smith’s thoughts on superheroes are most in evidence. At least, the essay begins by discussing the words “Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration” and outlining the differences among them.
All three of the words tell us how humans respond to various stimuli. Wonder is a response caused by “the new and singular.” Surprise is called forth by the “unexpected.” Admiration is a reaction to the “great or beautiful.”
More specifically, Smith tells us that wonder is our reaction to “all extraordinary and uncommon objects…all the rarer phaenomena of nature.” What better description could there be of our reaction to Spider-Man, Black Panther, or Captain Marvel, whose entire beings have been transformed into something new and different by their mutations? For Spider-Man and Captain Marvel, in particular, their own wonder in the moments when they realize the true extent of their new abilities is a mirror for our own as we watch those abilities unfold.
One might think that Hulk would fit into this Smithian category as well. He is, after all, decidedly extraordinary and uncommon. And no one could argue that he’s anything but a rare phenomenon. But, given that Hulk is contained within the mind and body of the mild-mannered scientist, Bruce Banner, perhaps a better category for Hulk is that of “surprise.” His emergence remains unexpected—in both good and bad ways—and often uncontrollable. And the contrast between Hulk’s moral character and physical appearance and Bruce Banner’s constantly awakens a feeling of surprise in those who encounter him.
Black Widow, whose super-spy capabilities put paid to her somewhat fragile exterior, also fits nicely into the category of surprise. Who can forget her first big fight scene in the Avengers, when she efficiently dispatches a crew of Russian toughs while tied to a chair and wearing a cocktail dress and heels? Black Widow’s ability to take others by surprise may be her most important skill, and in the first moment we see her do it, we experience that surprise, too.
Our response of admiration, called forth by the great and the beautiful, neatly fits all the Marvel superheroes—none of whom are exactly unattractive nobodies. But perhaps the strongest representative of that category is Thor. Thor’s literally otherworldly attractiveness and strength, coupled with his ability to wield his hammer Mjolnir, incite admiration even from other superheroes. While technically not a superpower, Captain America’s ability to lead is largely a function of the response others have to his admirability. They sense his virtue and sincerity and respond to it. He is not the strongest of the group and all Avengers exhibit courage, so the team’s deference to his leadership can’t be based on those characteristics. Rather, it’s based on a very Smithian response to what they perceive as his virtues.

But Smith’s “History of Astronomy” doesn’t just connect us to the characters of the Marvel movie universe. It connects us to the events of the movies as well.
Smith’s consideration of surprise includes a discussion of “Those panic terrors which sometimes seize armies in the field, or great cities, when an enemy is in the neighbourhood, and which deprive for a time the most determined of all deliberate judgments.” Watching the scenes of the Chitauri attack on New York or the battle of Sokovia, one finds perfect examples of the kind of panic incited by the “sudden apprehension of unexpected danger” that Smith argues is a part of surprise.
Smith’s discussion of surprise can also help explain why some of the deaths at the end of Avengers: Infinity War were particularly hard to take. Vision and Scarlet Witch had just found their way to a deep and romantic relationship when they died. Peter Parker had just come into his own as Spider-Man and experienced his first battle in the superhero major leagues alongside the Avengers when he died. The audience was crushed by these deaths in particular, and Smith knows why. “When a load of sorrow comes down upon the heart that is expanded and elated with gaiety and joy, it seems not only to damp and oppress it, but almost to crush and bruise it, as a real weight would crush and bruise the body.”[2] The joys that these characters have experienced, and that we have sympathized with so strongly, make their suffering and loss all the harder to bear.

Smith does seem to be wrong, though, in one of his observations on this point. He argues that while the move from joy to sadness heightens our emotions, moving from sadness to sadness deadens us. “A parent who has lost several children immediately after one another, will be less affected with the death of the last than with that of the first” because we are incapable of scaling new heights of grief. Had Smith seen Infinity War, he might have changed his mind about this particular point.

Surprise isn’t just a way to heighten tragedy, though. Sometimes surprise gets a laugh. At the climax of Guardians of the Galaxy, where we might expect a final battle, Starlord starts dancing and challenges Ronan to compete with his 70s moves. In The Avengers, when Loki tricks Thor into tackling a mirage, it comes off as humorous; the audience chuckles along with Loki’s ribbing Thor over it. (“Will you ever not fall for that?”) But the contrast between different sorts of surprises can also elicit sympathies with high emotional payoff: Loki uses the same mirage trick to kill Phil Coulson, and while the details of the surprise are the same, in this case it produces a “load of sorrow.”

Wonder, Smith tells us, is inspired by an object or event that “stands alone and by itself in the imagination,” and that defies our previous understanding of how the world works. We feel wonder when Groot saves his companions from a spaceship crash by growing his limbs all around them, sacrificing his body. We feel wonder when, after having seen that a single person cannot wield the Power Stone, friends united in common purpose can.  

Other events clearly fall into Smith’s “admiration” category, where “we cannot avoid conceiving a considerable degree of esteem and admiration for one who appears capable of exerting so much self-command over one of the most ungovernable passions of his nature.” Self-preservation is among the most natural of all inclinations, and while risking harm is part and parcel of superheroing generally, we are moved to even greater admiration when they face death for the sake of their cause. Captain America chooses to crash the Hydra plane into the ice rather than risk hitting a populated area, even though he has no reason to guess that he would survive the crash (albeit to be frozen for 70 years). Iron Man (a model of “ungovernable passions”) overcomes his insufferable narcissism and stops a nuclear missile from destroying New York by flying it into an interdimensional gateway. When Thor, stripped of his powers and his enchanted hammer, chooses to face down the Destroyer in an attempt to stop its murderous rampage, this next-level heroism elicits the admiration not only of the audience, but of Odin himself.

No movie is perfect, of course, and no movie-goer is happy unless there’s at least something to complain about. If Smith were seeing Endgame this weekend he’d have a glorious time with all the wonder, surprise, and admiration that are sure to be in the film. He’d probably have nearly as much fun complaining about the special effects, though.

In his essay “Of the Imitative Arts”[4] Smith argues against the use of extensive special effects. In his opinion they have been “much abused; and in the common, as well as in the musical drama, may imitations have been attempted, which, after the first and second time we have seen them, necessarily appear ridiculous; such are, the Thunder rumbling from the Mustard-bowl, and the Snow of Paper and thick Hail of Pease, so finely exposed by Mr. Pope.”[3] Smith’s contempt for special effects is clear, and he continues, arguing that effects are “simple and easy tricks... fit only for the amusement of children and their nursemaids at a puppet-show.” In an argument that mirrors current debates over the aesthetic quality of CGI versus practical effects, Smith says that necessary effects of sound and scene should be produced by music and by painting, which are art forms that merit “some degree of esteem and admiration.”

Indeed, Smith is so irritated by the state of special effects in his time that he can only express the fullness of his contempt by noting how much they are “admired and applauded” by the French in their attempts to represent “all the metamorphoses of Mythology, all the wonders of Witchcraft and Magic, every thing that is most unfit to be represented upon the stage.” 

But maybe today’s more sophisticated visual effects would please Smith more than the ones he experienced. Though he is highly critical of imitative arts that are exact replicas of already existing objects, arguing that they display a “miserable barrenness of genius and invention,” he might have appreciated the ways in which today’s technical sophistication might help us have greater empathy for fictional situations. The more we feel removed from a spectacle, the less we empathize. CGI effects put us inside the many worlds inhabited by the Avengers, and maybe that helps us travel through space and time with them.

The space battles, time travel, superpowers, and general visual excesses that (we hope) await us as Endgame opens this weekend seem likely to have aggravated Smith. But they would not have overwhelmed the pleasurable experience created by the amount of wonder, surprise, and admiration offered by the entire Marvel movie universe. 

Nor could anything prevent Smith—or any of us, as we settle into our seats with our popcorn and Junior Mints—from fully engaging as sympathetic fellow travellers with the struggles of Marvel’s superheroes. Smith, after all, reminds us that, “Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness.”

So for one last time, Avengers...Assemble! And leave a little room for Adam Smith in the front row.

[1] "The History of Astronomy" appears in Essays on Philosophical Subjects.

[2]  It is perhaps worth noting that Smith’s reputation as a philosopher who has little to say about love may be the result of the fact that his most extended considerations of emotional attachments appear in The History of Astronomy rather than in Theory of Moral Sentiments where they might seem like a more natural fit.

[3] Smith is referring to Alexander Pope’s epic The Dunciad, part ii, line 226, where an aspiring poet is told not to hope that he will be able: 
To move, to raise, to ravish ev’ry heart,
With Shakespeare’s nature, or with Jonson’s art,
Let others aim; ’t is yours to shake the soul
With thunder rumbling from the mustard bowl...

[4] "Of the Imitative Arts also appears in Essays on Philosophical Subjects.