Monsters And Murderbots: More Thoughts On Age Of UltronPosted: May 5, 2015
I really liked Age of Ultron right out of the gate, and the more I think about it the more I like it. I think that Joss Whedon truly accomplished something impressive here, upping the ante for the Marvel Cinematic Universe in many ways, and not just with bigger action scenes. Unfortunately, many people seem much less enthusiastic about the film overall, and that’s a damn shame. Much like Iron Man 3, a subversion of expectations has led to a negative/disappointed/nitpicky response amongst a good portion of the fanbase, obscuring some amazing narrative accomplishments in the process. I wasn’t fully satisfied with my initial review, because I felt like I was only scratching the surface of what makes Age of Ultron tick. In light of all that, I’ve decided (for the first time ever) to write a review part 2 so I can hopefully explore the themes and arcs of the film in greater detail and maybe illuminate for others what makes this movie so awesome.
The Trinity: In the way Whedon and company have depicted Marvel’s Big Three (Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor), we can see not only an evolution for these characters but also the battle lines for the internecine conflicts to come. Each of these heroes is growing from their initial personal differences into much greater and more important philosophical differences, and in some very strong ways. On the surface, Steve remains the perfect soldier, but deep down (as only the audience really knows) he’s beginning to realize that there might not be a comfortable quiet life waiting for him the way that he once hoped. Now he is committed more than ever to the cause, knowing that there will always be new threats coming and prepared to stand strong and face whatever they may be. On the other hand, Tony is defiant to the idea of the neverending fight. He seems more convinced than ever that there is not only a solution to the idea of permanent peace, but that only he can find that solution, and the Iron Legion and Ultron are his attempts to end the fight in a way that might not be possible but that is wholly understandable. And finally, there’s Thor, who despite his own flaws is actually more worldly and knowledgeable than either of his compatriots (hence his worthiness of Mjolnir). While Steve will stand firm and wait for whatever is coming, and Tony will tinker and scheme to try and avert whatever is coming, Thor knows there are too many powerful things in the universe, and that the best thing to have on their side is knowledge. To that end he sets out to find what evil lurks in the shadows, knowing that evil is the true endgame. All of this can be traced back to the initial scenes amongst the three in Avengers: the initial fight and the argument over the scepter are built on these same differences, but now they have taken on greater meaning as the threats grow deeper… as does the friendship between them. I realized that throughout the film, there are random little moments where Cap, Thor and Iron Man come together to strategize and commiserate. While no real attention is paid to it, but there does seem to be a natural unity between the three, even as their different views on their mission threaten to eventually tear them apart.
The Beast and the Other Beast: Apparently the Natasha/Bruce relationship is one of the more contentious aspects of the film for a lot of people, which is terribly disappointing to me because I see this as one of the most human and heartbreaking sides of the story. While the Big Three are driven by their fears about outside threats, Natasha and Bruce are torn by their fears about themselves. They are frightened more by Black Widow and Hulk than any alien or killer robot. The irony is that being Avengers, where those “monstrous” sides of themselves can be used for good, only makes them feel more like monsters. It just drives home for both of them how dangerous and un-heroic they feel about themselves. And yet, abandoning the Avengers and running away from the fight is painful too, because they both know that what they are and what’s happened to them (Natasha’s infertility, everything about the Hulk) will pollute any attempt to live a quiet life instead. It’s this pain that is beating at the heart of both of them, and it’s what brings the two of them together. They see that same pain in each other, and that shared experience leads to something more. The difference comes from their personalities: while Natasha is scared as much as Bruce, she’s headstrong and confident enough to want to pursue things anyway, while Bruce is so frightened of causing pain to others that he retreats from it. It’s a lovely and tragic relationship, and I don’t see how anyone could find it forced or disrespectful to either character. It shows some real human consequences to being such extraordinary beings, and captures how two people can help each other through their pain.
The Widow’s Empty Web: Another major bone being picked here is Natasha’s infertility and her bitterness about it, as many are seeing this as anti-feminist. People seem to think it’s reductive to her character to act as if the worst thing that could happen to her is losing her chance at motherhood. But that’s missing the point. As Nat explains in that scene (and as we were shown in her hallucination), she was conditioned to be detached from the rest of mankind. She was torn apart and put back together to be a remorseless killer and nothing else, and she has spent years rejecting that design. And in this particular moment, she is trying to connect to another human being, in the home of a family that she cares for deeply, with her teammates that she would die for, trying to save a world full of people that she was programmed to feel nothing for. She has undone everything that was done to her in the Red Room… except her graduation ceremony. In moments like this, her infertility is a reminder of what she was meant to be, of what they tried to make her. And so yes, she feels remorse, not necessarily for the children she can never have but for the assassin she fears she truly is in her bones. Her infertility is a symbol of the past that she worries she can never escape, even though she already has in so many other ways
Family Man: After getting shafted for most of Avengers as Loki’s flying monkey (I get that reference!), Hawkeye gets some much-needed depth with the reveal of his family. Besides using the sudden revelation as a fake-out towards Clint’s death, Whedon also takes full advantage of his Everyman status to help him stand out among all these super-beings. Furthermore Hawkeye becomes a symbol to the rest of the Avengers, for the quiet life they might all want but cannot really have. Clint is able to walk the line between the grounded normal world and the world of flying cities and killer robots. He fights with the Avengers because it’s his job, not because his abilities or ego demand it or because there’s nothing else in the world for him. Hawkeye’s life is the life that they all fight to preserve, and that is why they need him: to remind them of that.
The Vengeful Orphans: In the Maximoff twins, Whedon broaches the idea that heroism is really a matter of perspective, that the people we recognize as heroes might look like villains to others, and how are their actions less heroic in that case? Though created by Hydra and commanded by Ultron, Wanda and Pietro never really feel villainous at all. They have a legitimate beef with Tony (and by association the rest of the Avengers) and see it as their duty to their home to resist and fight his efforts. Their arc in the film is recognizing that, regardless of their personal antagonisms, there is a greater threat that is more important. Theirs is the classic arc of vigilante-to-hero, accomplished beautifully and punctuated by Quicksilver’s sacrifice. They also serve as a cautionary tale of the repercussions of the Avengers’ mission, the possibility that their efforts could easily be creating more potential threats than they are stopping without even realizing it, especially if they follow Tony’s path.
Order vs Life: Speaking of Tony’s path, it is personified in horrible fashion by Ultron, who is Tony’s worst tendencies given a life of their own. But this isn’t a case of a machine lacking empathy for people. Indeed, Ultron is very human for a robot, and is driven by the same desperate desire to fix the world as Tony is. And yet Ultron is far more dangerous and extreme than Tony, because he thinks that life is not worth preserving if it isn’t perfectly controlled, and that humans are flawed and broken and so they should be extinguished. This is contrasted by the Vision, in all his glorious weirdness. As he tells Ultron in the end, the inherent dichotomy in humanity and their constant fight against the inevitable is what makes us beautiful and admirable, and there is no reason to condemn the species for it. Ultron sees himself as the next stage of evolution after humanity: a machine organism operating in perfect harmony with itself. But really it is the Vision, who holds immense power and possibility but also recognizes the sanctity of life, in all its uncertain, flawed glory.
Evolution: You’ll notice that pretty much every category mentioned above invokes some sort of comment about change, growth, or evolution, which I believe is the central theme of Age of Ultron. In fact the film lives in the conflicted space between the absolute need for growth and change in the world, and humanity’s fear of the unknown and undefined. The Avengers fight dangers that are perceived to be threats to the status quo, even though that status quo is often fucked up and only breeds more dangers anyway. But ultimately the concept of a status quo is only an illusion, because the world is constantly shifting and changing. The world is always in chaos, whether we realize it or not, and ultimately that chaos is good because that is what breeds change. There are times, however, where that chaos turns dangerous and leads to change of the negative sort. This is what the Avengers are for: they contain the chaos and keep it moving forward. Ultimately this is where Ultron (and Tony) are wrong in trying to find one final solution to the chaos of humanity, because chaos is essential to humanity. The key is to know when that chaos is beneficial, and to have people standing guard when it isn’t.
It’s actually ironic that evolution is such an essential element to Age of Ultron, because that is also what Age of Ultron represents in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And of course, just as the Avengers are caught between the necessity of change and the fear of what that change could be, fanboy audiences are similarly caught between wanting to see a “new” Avengers story and being upset if that story takes more chances than they are comfortable with. People don’t like the different pace and tone, people don’t like Nat and Bruce being together, people don’t like Quicksilver being killed. Age of Ultron is a major step in the evolution of the franchise, and yet people are rejecting this change as something inherently negative in exactly the way Ultron thinks the Avengers do. But this sort of change is an absolute necessity for the MCU. Considering the epic, long-term arc of the series we can’t just rehash the same beats over and over again. There needs to be twists and turns and subversions, and new ideas and opportunities need to be embraced and pursued. In the end, Age of Ultron opens some amazing thematic and emotional doors for the story and characters, and leaves us with a new status quo that I am incredibly excited to see more of. But of course, that status quo will be as temporary as this last one, but as the Vision says, “Something isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”