When I went to a screening of Thor: The Dark World on Wednesday night, I expected the golden-locked Norse god to be moving the Avengers franchise along through so many John Henry-like swings of his giant hammer. And somehow, halfway through the movie, I realized what I was really seeing was a an inadvertent, canny allegory on the intern economy, and the perfect movie for a frustrated intern to watch (if they can even afford to see a movie) to see themselves onscreen playing hero but never getting the credit, or the payment, they so richly deserve.
Of course, the existence of paid interns could very well have been too outlandish for even the Marvel universe. I was talking about this as I left the theatre, and someone turned and said “Norse gods, OK, nine different realms existing at the same time, sure. But I wouldn’t believe paid interns.” Here is how this unworldly intern metaphor disguised as a blockbuster movie breaks down:
While Norse god/superhero Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has his four sidekicks (it’s good to be a god), his love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), has her own loyal and sarcastic
sidekick intern, carried over from the first movie, in Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis.
In The Dark World, Portman picks up yet another intern, Ian Boothby (Jonathan Howard). Portman’s interns provide extremely important work in the background of the movie, committing criminal fraud and putting themselves in harm’s way, while Portman runs around space with Hemsworth, all so the Universe isn’t cast into eternal darkness. They’re heroes, unheralded heroes, doing more work than anyone should have to do for free and doing it well. And yet despite Dennings’ years (years!) of loyal service as an intern and Howard’s ability to quickly adapt to the lunacy surrounding him, neither intern gets paid one red cent or even a job offer for an entry-level position that they’ve proven themselves more than capable of handling. This is all done with just a single, solitary complaint about compensation, but Dennings’ line, “I don’t get paid enough for this … actually I don’t get paid at all” is played as a laugh line, which it will undoubtedly be seen as by moviegoers across America.
Portman’s scientist, who again, is constantly putting her intern’s lives at stake, is a successful astrophysicist who can afford fancy science equipment and a sweet London flat, but can’t seem to cut her interns a check. And she has that money, we know, seeing as how she’s on S.H.I.E.L.D’s radar, a secret organization who builds fleets of giant battleships that can fly. It’s like your boss riding past you in an adamantium-plated Hummer as you bike to work in the snow on your half-rusted fixie.
So you’d think with all of that sweet sweet government money to go around, Dennings wouldn’t have to that she isn’t getting paid halfway through movie. You’re telling me neither Portman nor S.H.I.E.L.D can kick in to at least give Dennings a stipend or pay her a goddamn salary? Sound familiar, interns of America?
Oh frustrated job-seekers in your mid-20s, and even older, who can’t land anything more than uncompensated office work disguised as “experience?” You campaign interns who logged 60 hours per week for candidates in the mayor’s race, for bupkiss. You “social media interns” manning Twitter accounts for people too busy or incompetent to do it themselves, and getting nothing but scorn in return. You provide the backbone of America’s few remaining industries, unknown and in the shadows, and instead of money or even an eventual offer of a job, you’re told things are too tight for compensation. Then you learn you aren’t even covered by workplace sexual harassment laws.
Dennings’, and then Howard’s, jobs are ill-defined, and they’re hardly taken seriously. But the two still take care of business, tracking down a linchpin in the plan to ensure the survival of the human race and playing a major role (while being exposed to major harm) in a battle against soldiers of an ageless race from beyond the stars who fire energy weapons and toss grenades that suck you into a mini-black hole.
The people laughing at Dennings and Booth nod along as the media tars you as “entitled,” as if wanting something so simple as “a job that pays me money” is something that’s absurd to ask for. You need a federal judge to determine you deserve compensation, and even then, that guarantees nothing beyond the people who wrong you being granted an appeal (and maybe your “employers” getting spooked and canceling even your one pitiable shot for joining the industry you so desperately want to break in to).
Dennings and Howard would have every right to complain even if they weren’t being put in life-threatening danger, only to have their heroism reduced to comic relief. Those two are well out of college, so they aren’t working for class credit, they’re working for “experience” at best. And yet they’re indispensable to Portman, to Hemsworth and to every inhabitant of The Nine Realms.
Go see Thor, and you’ll see yourselves up there on that screen, interns. You’ll recognize the unheralded, and more importantly, unpaid work that allows your
exploiters employers to hum along smoothly. The internship struggle is given a Hollywood sheen (Dennings and Howard get to live with Portman in the sweet apartment), but that just drives the point home harder: the job market sucks so badly that the best you can do is get dragged halfway around the world by your boss, who ditches you to traipse around space. Then after you excel at working on the fly in difficult circumstances, you still don’t get to shake your training wheels title and get a paycheck.
All Dennings and Howard get are the chances to suck face with each other (which also turns into a joke) and to eat an awkward breakfast of low-rent cereal with Portman. A ticket to the bone zone with the person you were sitting next to as you filled out Excel spreadsheets isn’t compensation, not even close. Even less so when you’ve just played a pivotal role in preventing all human life from being ruled by a lunatic looking to literally extinguish light from the Universe.
Hemsworth and Portman get to share their passionate kiss at the end, and the Nine Realms return to peace. Where’s Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury to pop up and offer the interns a job with S.H.I.E.L.D., or at least a spot in their super soldier program? That would be a real happy ending.
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