It’s been almost five years since The Avengers came out and—in this writer’s estimations at least—in that time there still hasn’t been another entry in the broad genre that is the superhero movie that could lay claim to matching it. Joss Whedon’s multi-hero bonanza has it all: a gallery of perfectly cast heroes; a tone equally effervescent and playful and with enough dramatic stakes to anchor it; well-staged and coherently filmed action sequences; and, crucially, a script to die for.
Because, that script. Man, that script. I know Whedon’s skill and flair with the pen is not exactly a state secret, but damn do I go nuts for that script. In its economy and humor and rhythm I love it almost as much as the Serenity script. Almost.
But it’s a close contender. Mostly on account of those adjectives just listed, but also because it finds space in its already formidable scope to include a small, intimate moment. It’s a moment that coexists alongside giant green rage monsters and the rapid-fire verbiage of Tony Stark, and yet despite that it stands as perhaps the most memorable moment of all.
It’s a hero-centred moment. But this hero, though he appears in a movie notable for assembling of some of the biggest names in the world of heroes, is nameless.
He is nameless in the movie and he remains nameless to this day. He gets precisely two lines in The Avengers. You know the scene I’m talking about.
It’s Loki’s big ‘tyrant moment’ in Stuttgart about a third of the way in. He does his magic alien sceptre thing, whips the people into a terrified frenzy, and as the harried crowds run outside he corrals them and with some trickery and a whole lot of intimidation commands them to kneel.
They kneel. What else to do in the face of scarcely believable horrors straight out of science fiction? Loki, drunk on power and fear, savors the moment. He gloats. ‘In the end, you will always kneel.’
The camera then does a funny thing. As it pans across the kneeling crowd with their meek, understandably downcast faces, it lingers on an old man (Kenneth Tigar), straight-necked, staring off to the right.
It lingers only for a second, so though the composition is glaringly deliberate it could still by chance be missed. That is, until the the view tightens, the focus becomes clear, and the old man, previously one among hundreds, now begins to rise, and so suddenly stands alone.
He speaks. In the face of unimaginable fear, he speaks. He responds. He will not kneel. ‘Not to men like you.’
Loki, a demigod, stares at the old man who refused to kneel, and replies with utmost confidence and hubris: ‘There are no men like me.’
And then, the stars align, as the old man who refused to kneel volleys back with nary a second’s pause: ‘There are always men like you.’
That line and that sentiment echoes in eternity.
His ego bruised, Loki intends to make an example out of the old man who refused to kneel. Blasting a bolt of death-magic directly at the man’s frail frame, he seeks to end it there—this impudence, this refusal to bow before overwhelming force. Might is right, and an example must be made. How dare an old man with nothing but a backbone that refuses to bend defy it?
You know the rest. To the strains of AC/DC the heroes of might and magic come out of the woodwork to save the day and fight superpower with superpower.
Captain America is the first in. He takes the hit intended for the old man who refused to kneel. His vibranium shield absorbs it and negates it as he dives in to save a life. But it’s possible to pause the action on the split second before he does—and it really is just in the knick of time—to see how the old man who refused to kneel prepared to face his imminent death. Did he avert his eyes? Did he turn his back towards the blast meant to kill him in an atavistic instinct of self-preservation?
Did he fuck.
This is the moment:
As certain death flew out to meet him the old man who refused to kneel never once flinched. No, he faced it, unblinking, with fear in his eyes but accepting of the consequences of doing the right thing. Emiliano Zapata, that great Mexican revolutionary leader, said it was better to die on your feet than to live on your knees. Whether the old man who refused to kneel had this slogan in mind or not in that crucial moment of life or death, he nevertheless embodied it completely. A would-be tyrant appeared out of nowhere and sought to rule. Fear and power were to be his weapons. To obey and kneel would be much easier.
But the old man refused to kneel.
The glut of superhero movies that we have seen since the dawn of the millennium have brought to our screens fantastical heroes like Spider-Man, The X-Men, Iron Man, Wonder Woman, Captain America, The Fantastic Four, Thor, The Hulk, The Scarlet Witch, and many more. And yet, despite all the wonder and fury and displays of superpowered heroism we have seen in that time, there remains to this day no greater hero, no greater act of heroism, no more relevant a gesture of defiance, than the old man who refused to kneel.