(Welcome to Road to Infinity War, a new series where we revisit the first 18 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask “How did we get here?” In this edition: Avengers: Age of Ultron takes a long, hard look at gods, monsters, and the humans in-between.)
How often do we ask ourselves why we created God and the Devil? We’ve been questioning our own existence for thousands of years – where we came from and what we’ll leave behind – so to have those ideas pumped into a $300 million superhero sequel, albeit to varying degrees of success, is something of note.
We’re well into Marvel being the biggest thing in popular culture with Avengers: Infinity War, but the questions asked by Joss Whedon’s medial crossover are of particular interest when it comes to the Avengers’ iconography. By 2015, our entertainment landscape had become dominated by the violent Übermensch in a visage of childlike fantasy, and it warranted artistic introspection.
Avengers: Age of Ultron is not some Watchmen-esque deconstruction; then again, neither was the 2009 Watchmen movie, which took straight from the pages of the 1986 comic series rather than drawing from the culture around it. Age of Ultron on the other hand came out a mere two years after the destruction debate post-Man of Steel, which focused largely on civilian causalities. Whether as response to the new tenor of superhero conversation or as a means to set up Captain America: Civil War (or both; the intent isn’t mutually exclusive), Age of Ultron places similar debates in its crosshairs, first by making its characters’ top priority the protection of civilians, and then by exploring the ways in which they ought to go about it. The film forces the Avengers to contend with their in-world legacy as a means to explore their fictional legacy on-screen.
It’s a narrative nexus, building on what came before while setting up Marvel’s future, as it attempts to define that very nexus for each of its characters. A mirror to our modern pantheon.
Would You Sacrifice Millions to Save Billions?
Our heroes have thus far been the resounding answer to this question in the form of a negative. In The Avengers, they stopped a nuke launched at New York City as a means of preventing global invasion. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they opposed HYDRA’s plan to take lethal preventative steps in order to achieve peace. When the decision wasn’t theirs to make, and when they opposed the extreme measures taken by shadowy governments, their heroism was clear. It’s an ugly idea that villains seem to answer all too easily (see also: Watchmen’s Ozymandias) but what of a situation in which our heroes themselves are forced to confront this question?
Tony Stark, the futurist who has trouble learning from the past, creates the Artificial Intelligence Ultron (voiced by James Spader). Ultron’s mission, logistically speaking, is peace. But it’s peace without conscience, not unlike HYDRA’s Project Insight, and peace with no care for people. Ultron has the tools to build and to destroy, but he’s a reflection of the Avengers without protective instinct. That protective instinct is granted to Jarvis, Stark’s A.I. who eventually becomes the answer to Ultron, but Ultron’s idea of harmony is a world where humanity is no longer around to muck things up.
To prove his point about the futility of human heroes – people he believes unworthy since they’ve all been killers at some point – Ultron raises the entire city of Sokovia miles in the air before planning to drop it like a meteor. The result would be human extinction, but the Avengers destroying this meteor before rescuing every Sokovian citizen on it would be a catastrophe too.
It’s the O.M.A.C. Project film we may never get from DC, a story of Global Security A.I. run amok that calls into question the responsibility of the superhero – only DC’s penchant for characters embodying abstract concepts is replaced by Marvel’s feet of clay. The seeds for this massive third act are planted throughout the film, with each Avenger having to contend with the nature of their past and how their actions could dictate their future. As much as Age of Ultron is about humans establishing humanity in the face of a soulless being, it’s about why those humans must establish their humanity if they’re to keep on being heroes, and characters with stories worth telling.
The Avengers Disassembled
The film’s opening scene involves a glorious long-take, not dissimilar from the sprawling action in The Avengers’ New York climax. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Hulk function as a single unit, as they partake in what they hope is their final mission against HYDRA. Loki’s scepter from their first film has been used for human experiments, and the Avengers believe it’s their
The Avengers are brought together by their desire to do good. However, they’re torn apart by the exacerbation of their fears a la Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), whose scepter-derived abilities fill our heroes’ heads with terrifying visions. Tony Stark sees his friends dead at his feet, as Earth is again left vulnerable to alien invasion. He’s unable to shake the idea that he should be doing more to prevent future catastrophe, so he proceeds to create Ultron without consulting the team.
Steve Rogers/Captain America, transported to a time shortly after World War II, is forced to question his place in a world without war. Even if he can go back to wanting love, a home and a family, things that were lost to him decades ago, would he be able to stop seeing evil and conflict at every turn? Spilt wine turns to blood. A celebration turns to violent disagreement. Maybe his experiences have left him too paranoid for a peaceful world. Maybe war is what he craves in the first place, and maybe the scars of war have left both Tony and Steve too vulnerable to trust one another.
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