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Film Review – Avengers: Age of Ultron

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015; Directed by Joss Whedon)

Three years ago, in considering the first Avengers film, I found myself stymied by the crushing, impossible grandiosity of this humongous force of cultural and commercial inertia that we chose to call a “movie”. Frustrated by its resistance to conventional criticism, I went for a sort of semantic fluidity of vague metaphorical description. In short, I used a lot of big words to say a lot of big things but not too many specific ones. The conclusion I danced around before mildly inclining my head towards is one that the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, brings into clearer focus: these films are discursive thrown-down gauntlets of a sense of American exceptionalism that is now seemingly ever-poised on a knife’s-edge tipping-point towards an alarming new authoritarian order.

I’m not talking about Donald Trump’s self-aggrandizing brand of xenophobic, palingenetic ultranationalist, corporatized authoritarianism (“Is he a fascist?” Well, if you have to ask…). But this brand of authoritarianism might well reside in the same cookie-cutter gated-community suburb as that one. It’s fair to assume that they both attend the same neighbourhood watch meetings, and might have even been to each other’s man-caves to shared a craft brew along with their opinions on Islam, Obamacare, and a flat tax. What I’m driving at with this dubious, involved analogy is that American authoritarianism, when it finally arrives, will not necessarily resemble the Old World authoritarianism that claimed millions of lives in the next century and continues to haunt the new one. What will it look like? Increasingly, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, especially in its flagship Avengers entries.

Bullshit, I hear you muttering. What do expertly-crafted epic entertainments about imaginary heroes in silly costumes with impossible super-powers have to do with brutish, oppressive dictatorships headed by charismatic, cult-of-personality leaders? More by the day, it seems, if the Avengers are any indication. Alan Moore grasped the authoritarian dimension of the superhero comic genre, the deep danger lurking in heroic tales about conflicted but ultimately virtuous übermensches saving the world from existential threats as examples of might and greatness for the unwashed rabble to gaze upon like the distant, blinding sun. Moore conveyed his deep political discomfort with this dimension in his seminal comic Watchmen, which Zack Snyder adapted into a strong and faithful film without ever really understanding what it was Moore was saying (Snyder’s Man of Steel and, from early glimpses, also its sequel Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, make that failure of comprehension painfully evident).

The Avengers film cycle, encompassing the editions of that title as well as those focused on its key figures Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth), are broadly about the nature, the limits, and the dangers of American global hegemony. As a superpower without super-powers, a dominant authority in a world that cannot simply be dominated, contemporary America is forever cracking its swelled head against a solid wall. Its lofty, idealist expectations meet with intractable realities at home and abroad, and it struggles with the limits that circumstances impose upon its power, as well as with the limits that its ideological heritage requires that it impose upon that power. Contemporary American discourse is always agonizing over whether its grand, unachievable mission can be better achieved by observing those limits or by divesting itself of them entirely.

This unresolved dilemma has played out in the Captain America and Iron Man films in particular, with The Winter Soldier most recently tackling the national security state while the former arms dealer Tony Stark experiences pangs of conscience through his bluff, sarcastic facade about his role as a chief player in the military-industrial complex. These anxieties burst to the surface in Age of Ultron, which features the titular peacekeeping artificial intelligence program (played by James Spader), adapted by Stark from experiments performed by crypto-Nazi evil cabal Hydra (represented here by Thomas Kretschmann’s monocled Baron Strucker). Ultron inherits a measure of Stark’s sense of ironic detachment, but applies it towards the entire human race with a psychopathic fondness for the concept of mass extinction. Stark’s desire for “peace in our time”, like the similar desire of CIA-like super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D., is perverted for ill and the tremendous power meant to ensure humanity’s salvation threatens to hasten its destruction. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, the fit reply to such malevolent might is not disavowal of equivalent might but rather the strenuous application of slightly less malevolent might. Avengers assemble!

As a director but especially as a writer, Joss Whedon is a strong match for this material and its hegemonic themes (and themes of hegemony). His relentlessly witty dialogue, which I have dubbed Whedonspeak, completely conquers every character and sequence like a phage of smug drollness. Whedon is constantly, demonstratively clever, whether or not the specific moment demands it or if the character speaking would benefit from it. His cleverness is his super-power, and like that of his godlike superhero Avenger characters, it separates him from us, elevates him above us mere mortals, glad to make a good joke once or twice a day rather than in every waking minute of the day. Whedonspeak, thus his super-power and his greatest weakness, has its delights in the breach but it’s not always the best choice for given characters at given times, especially when it’s so outside the norm when compared to the words they say in their own movies (penned by mere mortal crafters of dialogue as they are).

Whedon’s rep as a master scripter surely took a hit with Age of Ultron, however, especially in terms of writing good roles for women (his Buffy the Vampire Slayer show being a key genre trailblazer in that regard). In an age in which Hollywood blockbusters, even in the male-gaze-dominated superhero comics genre, are gradually embracing more progressive and nuanced roles for women (as in Marvel’s own Jessica Jones television series, which included a jibe at the world-saving posturing of the Avengers), the role of Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Age of Ultron comes across as distinctly backwards. This hard-boiled assassin/spy badass is suddenly a nurturing matronly figure to Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) monstrous green incarnation, Hulk-whispering him back to human form. They also become a romantic item, leading Romanoff to reveal a more tragic (but still uncharacteristic) aspect of her traditional-gender-role motherly instinct: she cannot have children, having been sterilized as part of her assassin training. As if this wasn’t enough, Romanoff also assumes the damsel-in-distress role as Ultron’s captive in the film’s pre-climax and even serves drinks in evening wear at a Stark Tower party early in the movie.

Otherwise, Age of Ultron is too busy introducing new characters and plot lines while advancing others and setting up still more for future movies to focus too closely on its own story or any potential meanings therein. Whatever each Marvel Studios effort labours to be of its own accord, it is inevitable partially consumed by its role as a cog in the Cinematic Universe machine. This might be the most fascist thing about Marvel films: their slavish, selfless renunciation of individual agency in favour of the interest of a larger collective identity. This is also the strived-for ideal of the Avengers team itself, and Whedon spends much of Age of Ultron embedding conflict between the Avengers before providing the predicted coming together for the common good in the embattled city of Sokovia in the film’s climax.

This is a closing vision of a specifically American authoritarianism: reluctant, back-against-the-wall collective efforts in response to existential threats; arrogant, self-involved, ego-driven factional individualism governing decisions the rest of the time; and all meaningful agency held in the hands of privileged elites and security-state government agencies. Whedon is certainly not a non-intellectual filmmaker, and Age of Ultron invokes broad philosophical themes concerning the godlike abilities wielded by the Avengers and Ultron alike and how it should be correctly utilized. But the terrible danger that the world-threatening power both held and inadvertently unleashed by the Avengers poses is dimly understood as being governable by the moral prudence and good intentions of paramilitaristic cabals with no checks or balances applicable to their actions whatsoever. The solution to the problems irresistibly caused by American power is, as always, more American power. Ought we to expect a sharp critique of this crippling feedback loop of global hegemony from a missive from the cultural hegemony like Avengers: Age of Ultron? Perhaps not. But we ought to withhold praise from a missive that seems hyper-aware of its every implication besides this one.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. February 11, 2016 at 12:32 pm
  2. March 6, 2016 at 12:05 pm
  3. March 11, 2016 at 6:10 pm
  4. May 17, 2016 at 3:44 pm

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