The Avengers: A Modern ‘Seven Samurai’
First and foremost – no, The Avengers is not as good a movie as Seven Samurai. The Avengers is awesome. Damn awesome. It took a whole bunch of awesome things and put them together to create a whole new level of awesome. This is a level of awesome we may not see surpassed until…well…The Dark Knight Rises gets released. Seven Samurai (or Shichinin no Samurai if you want to be hipster about it [or Japanese I guess]) is a work of art. It’s influence was a tidal wave across Eastern and Western cinema, becoming the very blueprint for a new type of movie. Kurosawa had a notion that every single frame of a movie should be so carefully constructed that they could be printed, framed and hung of the wall and it shows in his movies.
The Avengers is one of many modern movies that takes its cues from the classic of Japanese cinema, but unlike the movies for which Seven Samurai was a mere influence The Avengers could almost be a modern retelling of the tale (without being as blunt as a remake).
Few directors seem able to put together a real ensemble cast where each character feels fleshed out and developed instead of a group of people who each have a gimmick (see the Ocean’s # films). Seven Samurai created the notion of an ensemble coming together to pull of a big mission, in this case defending a village from bandits.
The Avengers is remarkably similar in both concept and character archetypes. Like the samurai the superheroes must band together to hold off an attack from an invading race. The enemy can’t be reasoned with, greatly out-numbers the heroes and are on a count-down clock before they attack. Now let’s look at how the characters measure up against each other…
Kambei Shimada = Nick Fury
Kambei is the leader of the group. He’s older and weary with a life fighting in wars. His role is to bring together the heroes and convince them to take on a dangerous mission with little reward for the sake of doing the right thing. Kambei doesn’t have the most important role in the fight to come (although he still kicks some ass), rather he co-ordinates and inspires. Filling this role of the Avengers is obviously Nick Fury.
Shichirōji = Captain America
A skilled warrior who once acted as lieutenant to Kambei. Only through a chance meeting in the village at the beginning of the film does he join the group and take on his previous role out of a sense of duty. Like Shichiroki, Steve Rogers was the front line for the American Military, charging into the action head first. Through a series of chance events – namely getting frozen and rediscovered – he rejoins with Fury who appeals to his sense of duty to take on his previous role.
Heihachi Hayashida = Iron Man
Heihachi is keen to join with Kambei’s team, seemingly very keen for the recognition. He’s not as skilled a warrior as the other samurai but his quick wit and sometimes sarcastic humour keep everyone else amused. Meet Tony Stark – the self made superhero who wants to prove his worth with the big boys and regardless of the dire situation at hand always has a quip. Stark isn’t the natural fighter some of the other heroes are, relying on his armour to participate in battle.
Kyūzō = Thor
This samurai didn’t want to join Kambei, seeing his attempts as folly and his group as somewhat beneath him. He does come around later, but retains his proud, stone-faced attitude. The guy could be as Asgardian God. On first meeting with the other Avengers Thor is unimpressed, seeing them as obstacles rather than potential allies. Later he accepts them as a team and fights alongside them.
Gorōbei Katayama = Hawkeye
Cool, good-natured, tough and adept with archery. Yeah, they’re the same person.
Katsushirō Okamoto = Black Widow
Out of the seven this is the biggest stretch to make the connection in terms of character, yet they do fulfill similar roles within the film. Like Black Widow, Katsushiro goes through more character development than the other characters. He always develops a bond with one of the girls of the village that drives his motivation, not unlike the bond Widow has with Hawkeye.
Kikuchiyo = The Hulk
Kikuchiyo is the wild card of the seven. Not being of noble birth he nonetheless emulates the samurai way of life, seeking to earn the status and respect they have. Bruce Banner is not a superhero, but it’s his drive to reproduce the Super Soldier experiment that turns him into the Hulk. Like Kikuchiyo Banner’s ambition becomes his folly, and he is often treated disrespectfully by the rest of the team. Not to mention that their defining attribute is their terrible temper.
Although set in two very different worlds the innovative narrative structure of Seven Samurai is used in The Avengers. Although it has become quite common for a narrative Samurai created the plot element of a group of heroes being recruited against a common foe. The enemy is a faceless army – bandits in the former and an alien race in the latter, who are mostly dehumanized and beyond reason. Initially in both films the groups are reluctant to get involved in what is essentially a suicide mission with no gain to themselves other than doing the right thing. After they are convinced to join the team they are then given a common reason to fight. For the samurai this is the death of one of their own during a raid on the enemy headquarters, for the Avengers it is the death of Agent Coulson after standing up to Loki. During the final battle it’s up to the team to play of each others strengths to defend a village or New York.
Seven Samurai has long been regarded as one of the most influential films of all times for combining these plot elements together. There are dozens of blockbuster movies that take their cues from Kurosawa but few have used that influence as effectively as Joss Whedon did in The Avengers. Those who claimed that Whedon’s lack of cinema experience will work against him in this film must be eating their words right now.
Social and Cultural Relevance
Obviously the cultural setting and background of Seven Samurai is pretty far removed from The Avengers. ‘Samurai’ is a period piece set in Japan and strongly represents Japanese values of honour and nobility, class restrictions and good vs evil. The Avengers carries across the same basic themes, those that are globally understood. Concepts such as good vs evil can be understood in any language, but honour and nobility aren’t as commonly used as a character motivation in the Western World.
The Avengers instead uses themes and motivations more in tune with the modern American viewer. Although it is implied that SHIELD and The Avengers are a global task force, made to defend the world from threat. It’s no coincidence that the alien invasion occurs in New York City. The images that became part of the social consciousness following the terrorist attack of New York on 9/11 has made the idea of the USA being invaded by a hostile force became a reality for the first time for many people, and Whedon uses that notion to increase the tension for the viewer.
Likewise the characters are given modern, Western values. Honour and friendship are swapped out for duty, friendship and patriotism. For many years now the USA has been involved in military action leading to increased support for military culture. Friendship is one of the most commonly used motivations for characters in Western cinema, being used to excuse any number of sacrifices. When a friend of The Avengers dies it becomes the last straw for the characters to band together against their foes.
Whilst they have their thematic differences the concepts that drive both films are those that connect with the viewer regardless of their cultural background. Seeing a group of underdogs stand up to a plainly evil opponent is something that we can all get involved with. As both stories develop the characters well enough for the viewers to become invested in their plight it’s easy for the audience to get caught up in the spectacle and get behind their heroes regardless of whether they are samurai or superhero.
In conclusion – I’m calling it. The Avengers is the modern day Seven Samurai.