I’m working on an essay for school this weekend (seriously, when aren’t I?), and once again I find myself needing to practice analysis and stuff. And because this is me, I’m doing it about something fun.
Manipulation and control of people play big roles in The Avengers. Loki’s staff gives him the ability to outright control minds, the bloodied Captain America cards are Nick Fury’s subtler means to get the Avengers to team up. A lot of the film’s runtime has characters competing to be the one in charge, to be able to control the others.
This is probably most visible in the characters and dynamic of Natasha Romanov and Bruce Banner (or, y’know, Black Widow and the Hulk). When we first meet Natasha she seems powerless: she’s tied up and being interrogated by some Russian mobsters. We quickly find out that this is exactly where she wants to be as she reveals that she’s been using this to get information out of them before effortlessly beating them up. Natasha is used to being in control and around those she can manipulate or overpower, often by seeming like the one who isn’t in control at all.
However, the next time we see her she’s recruiting Bruce Banner to the team. She’s in a position where losing control of a situation could mean Banner hulking out and plastering the room with her. Her wariness of Bruce, which becomes more evident as the story progresses, stems from her inability to control him. Finding out it’s her job to get Bruce on their side is enough to make her stop in her tracks, when confronting Tony Stark — who isn’t a huge fan of hers after the events of Iron Man 2 — hardly elicits a reaction. She can even get Loki to reveal his plans to her — even if he does get under her skin — but she can’t talk down a Hulk.
Bruce Banner’s own arc similarly deals with the question of control. Central to his character is the ability to keep the Hulk in check. If he loses control of his emotions he hulks out and risks being an uncontrollable rage monster, which, as Natasha points out, he’s “…been more than a year without an incident. [She doesn’t] think [he wants to] break that streak.” Bruce is a man who by necessity must always be in control. Not only his internal conflict, but his interactions with others too is colored by this theme. Aboard the Helicarrier is a chamber designed to contain him should he suddenly pose a risk to the safety of those aboard. Even those who want him around want to keep him check, want to stay in power over him.
All this comes to a head at the midpoint. The team has fallen out, Loki’s people attack, and everything goes sideways. Banner is a victim of this chaos and the monster he’s been hiding is released in a fit of blind rage. Natasha is the one who first faces the Hulk and there the the Avenger who’s power is founded on being in control is suddenly powerless to the one who is uncontrollable. For Natasha this is terrifying; she has no angle to control the Hulk. Banner, meanwhile, has been rendered helpless. The team’s low point sees both of them bereft of control.
By the time of the climax, however, things have been reversed. Natasha, after a heart-to-heart with Clint Barton, is coming to terms with not always having the upper hand. Bruce, meanwhile, has been assured of his latent heroism (the security guard tells him lack of hurting anyone was due to “good aim”), and returned to the team. As they face down what looks to be certain doom, Cap looks to Bruce and says:
And then we know that Bruce has control over his Hulk and this time, when he transforms, it’s far less painful and far less wild than before. It’s not so much a curse as it is a blessing.
Steve Rogers: Doctor Banner, now might be a good time for you to get angry.
Bruce Banner: That's my secret, Captain: I'm always angry.
Now, control plays a role for the other Avengers too. Tony Stark and Steve Rogers both play opposite sides of a coin, first is impulsive, the other disciplined. Clint spends most of the movie under Loki’s thrall. Thor, perhaps, might be the one with little personal investment in control (though an argument could be made about his relationship with his brother being one that Loki uses to manipulate him). All this to say, control is obviously a major theme in The Avengers, but it’s in Natasha and Bruce that the conflict takes its clearest form.