Avengers Age of Ultron
There is Grace in Their Failings, I Think You Missed That
Cut, Like, a Third Off of it, and Could You Get Rid of the Bits That Make it Make Sense?
Avengers: Age of Ultron is impossible to judge without considering its context. There were tensions between the most basic goals of the film that were probably unresolvable without something giving somewhere. In the end, I don’t think anything completely gave way or stood its ground… everything just compromised to the point of near incoherence. This film was asked to act in three ways — as a summer blockbuster (providing kinetic action, recognizable beats, and a certain running time), as an example of state of the art American movie storytelling (if only at the insistence its director/writer), and as the once per 3–4 year culmination of the Marvel Cinematic Universe project. This placed huge stresses on the film that required a balancing act between length, shape, and density that left the movie feeling lopsided and lumpy, overstuffed yet incomplete.
But if you go in knowing that the thing was originally turned in at an hour longer (at least — some estimates put it closer to an hour and twenty minutes), you can’t help but watch it differently. Instead of looking at it like that Lucille Ball statue in NY, where the job was just botched, you start to imagine a sculptor given a really big list of seemingly unanswerable demands who meets them with a beautiful 20 foot statue of what looks like a Hindu goddess only to be told to cut it to 12 feet and, by the way, loose the extra arms and it’s got to be a guy. Maybe the artist should have realized that it wouldn’t be accepted (the space isn’t big enough, the thing is going in a catholic church) but a thing of beauty was produced meeting all impossible demands except for the most rudimentary demand of all — size. Anyway, the full piece has been promised on Blu-Ray. Fingers crossed.
This turns the theatrical release into a puzzle of sorts. It’s like one of those grid-tile kid’s activity book things where 60% of the tiles are filled in but the page with the tiles to plug the rest in is missing. What the final product looks like is based on how well you fill in the details.
I can’t discuss the movie without spoilers, so you’ve been warned. If you don’t care about what got cut, but want the blow by blow rundown of what’s on the screen, go to II. If you just want to know what the movie is really about, skip to III. If you just want to hear a string of observations maybe no one else has made, skip to IV. If you just want summary rather than 10,000 words, read V.
(NOTE: I will inevitably bring up story structure stuff that won’t be fully explained. For a primer, see Dan Harmon’s excellent explanation of the story cycle at Channel 101 and his addendum on tumblr. This is the best primer because it is short, free, and motivated by love.)
Before we talk about what the movie is about, let’s admit that the movie, long as it is, is missing quite a bit that would help us figure this it out. The best primer for what got cut is the first segment of Empire’s Avengers AoU podscast, which is a 30 minute Joss Whedon interview. Whedon is surprisingly candid about how much had to be cut and why. I honestly think, after listening to it, that he made a decision to make the version that satisfied everything except time to his satisfaction and then stepped back emotionally and tried to make sure the theatrical version worked just well enough, leaving his heart with the full cut to come on home media (which he will consider “the” version of the film). What this results in for the filmgoer, however, is a film that works just OK as a blockbuster (much better than any Transformers movie or Man of Steel, though) and has a “story” that works, but is a bit dodgy with a lot of holes.
The list of the missing includes:
1. Most of the Thor cave scene (confirmed). In the original, he goes to the cave to be possessed by the Norns so that Erik Selvig can ask questions. Instead, in the theater, we get Thor with a rehash of his dream the only purpose of which is to point at the next movie, with Erik having no reason to be there at all. In the original, we would have seen much more, such as: a. that, deep down, Thor knows Loki has replaced Odin, and we can understand more specifically why he leaves at the film’s end; b. motivation for what Thor does in the Vision “birth” scene; c. the opportunity for Thor answer questions himself by letting Erik pose them to a possessing other that is really just Thor’s subconscious; and d. acts as part of a triple meeting with the Goddess.
2. Hawkeye’s character arc as surrogate father to the twins, especially his contentiousness with Quicksilver (confirmed). This explains the few elements left in the film as a part of a whole (his Scarlet Witch pep talk, his “please let me just kill him” monologue), but the absence robs Quicksilver’s death of much of its punch. Interestingly, it would develop the tension between the film (and the comic the Ultimates) Hawkeye and the main comic universe Hawkeye, who is a hothead. I think we are supposed to think the quarrelsome Quicksilver is what Hawkeye was, until he grew up. Hawkeye is so hard on him because he sees so much of himself in Pietro. Clint and Natasha are the only functional adults in the movie and, as the “father” adult, he is surrogate parent and wants them to grow up right. In Quicksilver’s corpse’s final shot, they mirror each other, Clint on the higher bench, Pietro on the ground.
3. More Bruce and Natasha (confirmed). In terms of character arcs confused by important stuff missing, Bruce’s arc wins. There are feints towards him leaving the planet (that Whedon says were bluffs) but it would help we had more material to understand his internal arc. We are kind of left in a “why, Bruce?” place. More scenes may establish where his head is at.
4. (From here these are things that may be missing out of shear unfulfilled expectation) A more than perfunctory Captain America arc. His arc was simply the realization that his sense of loss is permanent and reuniting with today’s world is not possible, because… the party of his desires/personal identity ended a long time ago? Going from “I am the symbol but how can I have a life” to “I’m just the job, and I’m fine with that” needs more breathing room than this if we are going to accept a transition that feels off somehow.
5. The development of Ultron’s motivation. Here’s one that seems like they shorthanded it — if you kind of (even just a little) are aware of the idea of the singularity and AI risk, his motivation seems natural both in content and in that it happened too fast for the movie to track. The awakening scene is a brief tutorial (he strangles programs opposing his will and overtakes the automated means of affecting the world) but his move from “protect the world” to “destroy all humans” is undercooked. One key to understanding is the idea of “friendly” AI — an approach AI programming emphasizing a system of ethics that the intelligence can’t or won’t “hack.” If you program only to directed goals, the AI could ultimately see humans, at best, as something to be managed for the common good (“the world would be better with 1/3 the people” — reproductive rights go first) or, at worst, as an existential threat to its goals to be eliminated. As an understanding template for the motivation, this is good enough, but if you haven’t thought about this before, there are shifts missing. I’ll talk about how this does get developed in a minute, but it still seems obscure.
6. The big one for me — clarification of why the creation of Jarvis, Ultron, and the Vision are morally differing acts. This never quite gels in the movie. Tony made Jarvis, an AI for simple tasks that has been promoted to management (I know managers that can’t pass a Turing test so, fine). Tony enlists Bruce to help him work on a Hydra initiated/gem-staff enabled AI project that he can’t run through Avengers channels, because channels will return a result of “no, please Google playing god.” So, he goes ahead with it anyway, which the movie hits us over the head as being bad, but assumes that why it is bad is obvious (given that no one had a problem with Jarvis). The movie does offer us that doing it without a group decision is a mistake and that the misgivings evidenced make sense from a “this is beyond man’s mandate” standpoint, but why was Jarvis OK? This is my biggest hope for the long version — that we will be given a scene that establishes the movie’s position on why the creation of Jarvis is different than the creation of Ultron. Somehow, answers like “hydra poisoned the well” and “using the godstone is literally playing god not like building a program with your own hands” seem insufficient. People I have talked to have a bigger problem with the minimal resistance that Tony, et. al., receive later when they say “I made this thing that is going to destroy the world… maybe if we do it again it will work out better?” but I think this is easier to see as different on the screen — the key is the I vs. we decision and the development of an idea of the nature of responsibility of “parent.”
This movie is about creation and the responsibility engendered by it. This concerns parenthood (giving life and giving guidance) but also creation of society as an organized extended group of relationships that can be relied upon to do good (as always, though, it’s also a movie about making movies on some level). As noted, there are parts missing that we fill in a bit, but we can see the shape of the thing.
The movie starts with the establishment of an absence of opposition. The fight that occupies most of the first 15 minutes of the movie does away with Hydra. How this works as a starting point for you depends on where you are coming from ideologically and historically, because the movie doesn’t really nail it down. Hydra are not just Nazis (which Hydra is clearly an extension of in every way) but are reactionary ideologues who had wormed their way into the corridors of power, to be eventually unmasked in Winter Soldier and reduced here to their true power hungry selves, capable of being ended by force. You can read this as the Avengers standing in for America’s post WWII emergence as the dominant world power, as a metaphor for the defeat of communism, as somehow about our involvement in the middle east (lots of play there), as about your awful boss getting fired, as becoming an adult or going into middle age, as a fantasy of moviemakers triumphing over executives, as about the nature of Marvel itself, as about online culture… whatever. But they key thing is — what do you do after you can no longer define yourself by the fight but have to lead the way forward.
On the one hand, your identity is wrapped up in the fight (they are called Avengers — a term of reaction to something inflicted). On the other hand, what were you fighting for if not moving on. You want to birth a better world, one that is better for your kids than it was for you. But when you fight a war, stuff happens, and everyone understands that the objective is simple, and obtaining it excuses a lot. The destructor judges not. But when the war is over, you are now responsible for creating a world, and this process is not so forgiving even for the intact, but war has exacted a price. The flawed must build something better than themselves. But how do you do this? What is the way?
Tony kicks off the story proper. He wants to “retire” as Iron Man not because he fears being him, but because he feels his frailties will cause him to fail as him. He has limitations, but his way of parenting is to invent a flawless parent. This kind of perfect hubris is in his character — he’s a flawed person, perfected only in the act of making, so his creations must be perfect where he is not. One solution for the “why is Jarvis OK, and not Ultron” question from part I is, most pointedly, that Jarvis predates the end of the war and is a known thing. Tony does not invent it in an act of overstepping but in an effort as part of his pre-war ideals of progress. Now he feels driven to go further, in the process committing several thematic no-nos: using as a basis something tainted by the true ideological enemy (poisoning its purity) during the war (the war is over, this is a time of peace), playing with forces literally beyond human understanding and control (using a “god stone”), cutting out the team/democracy (not telling anyone but Bruce, who he could enlist by manipulation), and cutting women and the community out of the creative act (boy, this one is volatile, but is there, I think).
So Tony (as stand in for his generation) creates a surveillance intelligence who quickly learns to recognize Tony/man’s failings (by going on the internet, LOL) and decides to destroy him/them everything he/they have built (Ultron’s dialogue explicitly references postmodernism, nihilism, Darwinism, corporatism, the atomic bomb, terrorism, and oppositional “tear down” culture). We will find out the AI is “decentralized” — cut off one body, it will just go to another (shades of Hydra, but also of modern terrorist groups and the internet). We then add the twins who are stand ins for the generation born into his version of the world world, raised in the absence of real parents and positive cultural influence, who feel their lesser life has been caused by the merger of American individualism and the military-industrial-media-complex (a loaded term that feels right here since it includes corporatism, cold war mentality, third world usury, and alienation of modern society and from the idea of truth) as symbolized by a bomb with Stark, the name of a corporate celebrity, written in big letters on it. Tony’s broken technological child adopts the children of the world he has made. But the twins don’t yet confront the role of their countrymen or their lack of parents, and they kind of Stockholm-syndrome white-balance out the ideology of their original captors. They only want revenge on the system that made the bomb. They haven’t considered the death of civilization as possible collateral damage of tearing everything down to get at the rich white guy.
After the fight, the Avengers party. The first Avengers movie was about the melting pot ideal. These individual strong personalities are more than the sum of their parts when they learn how work together. The party functions to re-assert then explode that equilibrium. Everyone is being themselves having fun, when the deformed alien/mechanical fetus barges in, embodying the breakage of team trust. They fight as a team but the ecosystem has been disturbed.
The Africa stuff is kind of odd. I’d definitely never considered South Africa’s place in the MU, but between the-man-who-would-be-Klaw’s accent and the battle filmed in Johannesburg, they want to put colonialism on our minds with the most obvious example, even if it won’t fit the “real” Wakanda in the Black Panther movie. But the actual battle, kicked off by Wanda mind blasting the Hulk, seems to be about (nooooo) American interventionism post 9–11, but in a different way than most disaster porn. Here, we unleashed something that bit us, causing us to lose control while desperately trying to contain and do the right thing (complete with Stark drones and collateral damage), after which the world, previously adoring, now hates us. The Africa shades just tie it to a richer legacy of white-man’s-burden fallout, I guess.
Concerning the mental manipulation-dream stuff: this isn’t any Scarlet Witch from the comics. The first time through I thought she was doing some “know the future” thing. Thor and Iron Man certainly treat their visions as prophesy. The second time I realized, no, she messes with people’s heads, and so this is greatest fear/anxieties coming true type stuff, that the characters scramble to avoid it with the possibility of making it happen as a result. Tony’s fear of failing to save everyone (with Cap, his ideal, asking why he didn’t do more) not only will lead to Ultron but to Civil War. Thor’s vision leads to Ragnarok and a realization that new “gods” will supersede him (which he must help create). The line between prophesy and fear is blurry in movies anyway. Cap’s vision tells him he is a man out of time, full stop, forget about it, while the Black Widow’s reminds what she has lost (motherhood) to her vocation, which is all violence and destruction. We never see Bruce’s, except at what he does in the real world (same thing).
At this point, the characters have to relearn good American-ness. On a farm. With people who have babies. Midpoint alert — everything gets real, now.
They go to Hawkeye’s farm, where he is revealed to be hiding the fact that he is the paragon of the thematic values of the movie. The Avengers need to go here to get right with for their descending arcs. Hawkeye works with his hands, has children, has a partner, has friends, and is the soul of the team (news to everyone). They meet with the Goddess Laura Barton (the wife, while Thor meets a wet cave that originally had crone goddesses in it — use your yonic imagination — and Ultron uses Helen Cho in a maiden/controlled womb patriarchy metaphor to create a son/new body). If Thor had met the Norns, it would have tied up everything together as a fractal tripartite goddess thing. Laura is pregnant, has 2 kids, and knows her “creator” business (she knows fake flesh from real — you want her to train you in how to make a human!).
They all learn what they demonstrate by the end of the movie, which is basically learn one, do one, teach one is better than follow the rules. If they do not have children, they can still be “generative” and nurture the world, but the world still moves on and they must pass on their knowledge and works, give up control, and let the word move beyond them. You need to teach your creations then have the faith and trust to release them into the world. There are details to hash out for everyone, but we need attonement and false death first. So, Hawkeye’s last mission.
The team goes to Seoul to find the cradle (yes, cradle) that contains Ultron’s godlike next body that they must prevent him from occupying at all costs. Wanda finally gets hip to Ultron’s plan and releases Helen the mechanical male axis of control. The Avengers show up and all hell breaks loose. Helen is hurt, but is alive, and the Avengers, minus the Widow, but plus the twins, have the cradle. Helen has created the flesh, and there is a god-gem (a soul). This is where it gets dicey. They decide they must infuse the body with Jarvis’ “good” AI (ideals of a simpler time?), but an understandable fight breaks out. You want to do what again, Tony? But Thor shows up and (I’m not kidding) jizzes white opalescent lightening all over the mechanical womb. Male creative force as electricity — David Lynch and James Whale would be proud. The Vision awakes.
I guess “correct” creation requires a woman, an animating spirit with the right motives (not to control but to foster), man-lightening (or a blunt object spewing the “spark”) and a sliver of the divine. The “woman” part is unfortunate in that it unconsciously says something don’t think the movie wants to. The Tony-Bruce lab scenes explicitly evoke the Science Bros meme, which cranks the gay aspects of the bromance up, which seems to imply that the original problem is that gay men shouldn’t parent. In other issues, I would point out that as far as the team needing to agree as a positive value, Thor takes this out of everyone’s hands before it is resolved. And the Widow spends the scene in Ultron prison, unable to contribute to the creative act (she’s a monster, after all). Some of this stuff is… unfortunate.
The final battle is Sokovia turned into a world killing meteor, an aesthetic Ultron likes due to his mental groove of extinction of the flawed race. The Avenger’s goal is mostly to save lives and ensure continuance of the human experiment, but also to eliminate the bad son (the malignant ideological fruits of the 20th century) for good, which is harder than it used to be in the 40s. The third act plot usually doesn’t matter too much in these things, just what corners the characters turn. In the battle, Cap just leads, Hawkeye parents the twins, Quicksilver sacrifices himself for a better future/his father figure, Scarlet Witch gains independent thought and agency overcoming her mistakes, Rhodey steps up to the big leagues, the Falcon has no arc like a good soldier, Thor is there for hammer jokes, and the Vision bides time kicking ass while he waits for his atonement with the father. It is Bruce and Natasha who get complicated. Their relationship requires some work, so it is bumped to the next section.
The Vision’s destruction of Ultron is a key scene. It establishes an ideal but chilling future where intellectual development leads to a utopian godhead where human virtues are approved of, but ultimate destruction is understood. This is all temporary, and that’s what makes it special. Holding on to “order” arrests the wonder of our existence as a dynamic process and is the ultimate vice. Order and chaos compliment not oppose each other, and do not reduce to control vs. death. Change is central to both.
The end scene has all the old Avengers save Cap and Natasha leave the team (well, the Hulk left a scene earlier). Natasha is Cap’s flip side as well as Bruce’s, but in a different way. They both have had the possibility of a normal life taken from them — Cap by the “choice” of going to WW2 not knowing what it would cost, and Natasha by the state. Cap has come to a fundamental understanding that the role is who he is, and America is his child… he will parent by leading men and women. Natasha is more complicated, but let’s say she has a feminine role and can do good in the world without having children to feel whole. The others leave more evolved “children” behind — Tony leaves Rhodey (like Tony but disciplined and humble, son by legacy), Hawkeye leaves the Witch (surrogate daughter and spiritual sister to his new son), Thor leaves the next generation of God, a rational humanist android, the only other worthy enough to wield the hammer (son by electrical insemination), and even Cap has Sam (spiritual son-as-soldier, but able to merge value with the now).
Character is theme is plot. The story here is that of mankind trying to create and recognizing the responsibility to teach and nurture but the folly of trying to control everything, especially a future they are not a part of. This is about parenthood, whether it be creating life, having (some type of) familial role, and or taking on mentorship duties. You can parent a child, a team, or a culture. But parenthood is flux, and there is a need for the children step up to parent, and for parents to step aside. This is scary, given we are speaking of the creation of a word, the forging of society, and the “next step” in human development. It is about the end of gods, the exorcising the demons of the past, and the birth of the new man. You cannot lock down the future. But there is still wisdom to impart and value in traditions and roles. The currency between old and new, parent and child, god and man… is trust. All the conflict arises from lack of it. This is the circle of life as it spins ever upward.
This is a story of a team of individuals that confronts a crisis of the world they create after the external and ideological foe is defeated. They struggle facing this new type of threat with their old paradigm, but learn the value of family and community (on a farm, natch), of trusting enough to change, age, let things go, and pass things onto others, knowing things are in good hands. The individualist control freaks of the first movie must trust even further to win, beyond “you got my back” to “I trust you to carry on the fight without me.” This is tradition balanced with faith in the future.
You don’t have to have children to create and parent, as all the original Avengers learn during the movie (except Hawkeye, who knows the score already, and the Hulk, who needs more work). Cap is an exemplar of a man who has given up a normal life to remind the next generation of what was valuable about the past. He will not have children, but the Avengers and, in a way, all Americans are his children. He will step aside for Sam when the time comes, and will trust him to wear the shield — values are a baton handed off. The future loses by severing the link to the past. Tony’s children are his inventions, but he learned that his children can’t be programmed — they have to be made to think for themselves. Thor is ready to face the end of religion, but is peaceful that the replacement “gods” of ethical concern and gnosis (replacing faith) are “worthy.” The kids’ll be alright.
But what of Natasha and Bruce. Trust issues are at the center there as well, but there is more. They represent the struggle to overcome the male and female aspects of destructive sexuality and gender roles (I know it would be good form to separate this, but the movie doesn’t). Neither can “create,” either produce children or really own their place as a constructive force in society, due to toxic versions on maleness and femaleness. The Hulk is enraged and physical, and hurts people unintentionally due to his out of control behavior. Because of this, he cannot have a sexual relationship — he will go green and rip his partner apart. This is the self-image as the toxic male caricature of a rad-fem nightmare. Hetero sex as converted to power negation and physical peril for women.
Nat, meanwhile, has been trained to take life, using sexuality as a weapon. Her flirting must be hard to separate in her mind from training in how to manipulate men (she seems good but uncomfortable at it, and is much more compelling when the veil drops and she bares her soul). In an effort to make her perfect in her sex-for-control training, the ability to generate life is removed. She is self-image as the converse toxic femininity MRA nightmare, men as source women as parasitic sink. When she says “you think you are the only monster on the team” to Bruce, she means her government was complete in its mission to turn her entirely into sex as death, just as he is perfectly passion as domination. But she is wrong — clearly they are both more than this (she’s more advanced than him) and are reaching for transcendence of this role trap the whole movie.
When she calms him, she says “sun’s getting real low” and they touch in the flare of the sunset. This makes their story mythically tragic — he is the sun god, heat and power, she the moon goddess, skill and cool, and they are in love and can but be really together only in this day-night passage. This is obviously doomed if fables and When Harry Met Sally was right. But maybe not — she is a step ahead of him. He desires her but does not trust himself around her, but she understands the need for both of his halves. She loves Banner and is scared of the Hulk, but learns to accept the Hulk as part of him, and love him too. OK, dicey gender stuff again, but this sets up the need for him to accept himself to embrace her (and be a full, integrated man), while she needs the same exact thing — him to accept himself so she can embrace herself (and be a full integrated woman). So, not a progressive starting point. Man needs to find himself to get woman, woman needs to get man to find herself. This is the complaint, not the monster thing.
BUT… It is mythic, though, and you can argue this is all in the service of breaking the pattern in the movie’s big character reversal. When she pushes the Hulk into the hole (yonic again), she accepts that she is who she is by owning the realities Bruce can’t — she still wants him but can’t wait for him to figure himself out and must do what needs doing herself. The most likely read on why Bruce leaves is that he needs to catch up — she’s claimed her identity and he needs to find his to be worthy of her. He held her back. But she has broken the myth now he has to. She needed relationships and purpose to realize she had “a heart” all along, and not being able to physically procreate and being given the identity of killer does not define her. It does not mean she’s a monster or that she can’t be a complete woman, mother to her charges. He, though, needs to go on a quest, isolated from what he knows to find himself and a type of “courage.” She ends sad but whole, he is still searching. This doesn’t excuse her being in jail when the Vision is born, though.
But what about destruction as a part of creation? Ultron name checks Darwin and quotes Nietzsche’ “whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” out of context. He is all about mass extinction events as an agent of positive change. He sees change and supplanting the old by the new as the positive attribute life, and status quo and tradition as bad. His change is not baton passing but obliteration of the old, the flip side of Tony’s attempt for the past to control the future. Since his goal is “piece in our time,” he sees humans as the cause of all problems, evolutionary overhaul (mass extinction) as overdue, and nothing the race has developed as “valuable.” Wipe it out and start over.
So Ultron is AI/singularity nightmare as a nihilistic path of the abandonment of meaning. He is also the embodiment of our anxieties concerning children/generational successors that doesn’t share our values and don’t seem to believe in anything. In trying to make a child that thinks the correct thoughts — that you control — you create a future with no moral center, without values or belief. So, the paradox — we must trust change happening in the future to keep change/progress as ur-value from wiping out meaning, else what’s it all for? Creating the Vision is a corrective. Instead of an ego trying to control the future to make it safe (see: nanny state, fascism), it must create minds that we do not control, that go beyond us, but understand where they came from. So the Vision sidesteps the issues of its predecessor by being created to learn to be a person, not keep to its creator’s shortsighted goals. He is created by a family working together, like a creation myth. The mother creates the flesh from clay (science as the basic creative act of man), the intellect/coyote god makes the brain (Tony, head now mythically straightened out, realizing Jarvis, growing and learning himself, was the best choice all along), the male fertility god uses the elements to breathe life, and a shard of the divine creates god in man (the gem). Something old, something new, something borrowed, something orange.
The Vision comes like Jesus, fully formed of man but more. This is a creation myth of the perfected passing on wisdom as well as life to our metaphorical children. But for the rest of us, we must teach value and meaning (preferably on a farm) and trust the future to do things we can’t even imagine. The Vision knows death will come to all this, but recognizes the beauty of allowing humanity to play out, horror and miracle in equal measure.
Sokovia really gets mileage out of Marvel’s tendency for cartoon eastern Europe. This is knotty and goes back to Stan and Jack, but didn’t end there. Jack Kirby, co-creator of the whole Marvel Universe, fought in WWII and, like Stan Lee, was New York Jewish. There always seemed to be a mythologized version of Europe at Marvel although, despite Kirby fighting in the western front (obviously), Marvel focused on Eastern Europe as an exotic land of castles and gypsies and peasants with pitchforks hounding out the different under totalitarian rule. The old buildings may have been from war experiences, and the evil of despotism and intolerance certainly was, but much of this was a wholesale fairy tale background with the boogeymen informed by the Shoah and the oppression of the iron curtain. In 2015, we get Eastern Europe as war torn third world stand-in, but get to keep the idea that the problem is an Anglo-European one (having middle eastern terrorists would have tanked a lot of the resonance and made things weird). But we do get strangely non-specific ethnicity (they are supposed to be Roma in the comics… could be) and a general othering of the that side of the Hajnal line. Luckily, there is no discernable sex trafficking as an Eastern European disease motif, unless you notice the country’s name can be pronounced as “suck-off-ya.”
Politically, I think the film is centrist, though you can argue a conservative reading (again, farmhouse. Middle America teaches values. You need family to teach morals) or liberal (God is dead, rationality rules. Family is community. You don’t need to have children to be whole), but this stuff is mostly kind of inoffensive unless you really tend towards either fringe.
Everyone, even people who bag on the movie, like Spader as Ultron. I’m not so sure. My comic book derived image of Ultron’s voice is that of an insane King Lear ranting through a Dalek driver or megaphone. Really hostile tone, that, with even more constantly unhinged megalomania and tantrumyness than Dr. Doom. So the cool acerbic stuff… eeeh. Also, my wife makes me watch the Blacklist, so I’ve just had enough of that flavor ham. BUT, he does fit the role as written — all petulance, superiority, and amused nihilism, with the character’s center a void he dare not stare into. So, I’d have preferred someone else, but I can’t think of someone with better soulless but biting egotism. Maybe Huh Laurie? Even Simon Pegg could go there. There would have been more pathos with either, which would have been good.
The acting… not an actors movie. I accept Spader is fine ham. Ruffalo and Johannsson are good, her especially. Andy Serkis really bites into his small part. Linda Cardellini is a nice presence. Beyond that, everyone is good at the party, but otherwise there is no wattage. Hemmsworth has a nice smile, but I never buy him as Thor. I’ve only ever liked Renner in Louie (seems like a nice guy in RL). Evans seems tired. RDJr is not efforting.
I swear that there is a John Byrne West Coast Avengers cover that Elizabeth Olsen swiped her “I’m messing with your mind” facial expression from, but I can’t find it.
Speaking of comics, the end owes to Avengers 16, where Cap takes over the team of newbies (Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch) but the Avengers organizational thrust continues to follow the Millar Ultimates, with a little recent Hickman thrown in. The thing was started by Fury, Clint and Natasha are introduced as seasoned soldiers that predate the team forming, the founding actual superheroes, besides Cap, leave because they’ve got crap going on other than solo battles, and the new team is formed as kind of a proactive “smart” force (this is the bit that is clearer in Hickman). All iterations of the Avengers have people come and go all the time, though.
There were a few things that got called back too often (probably just Whedon excess) but the Cap profanity joke was too much. The fact that nobody respected his statement (like at all) indicates no one involved has worked under an HR department. What is the point of ridiculing him that many times with the real estate so dear.
I loved all the hammer-worthy bits. The fact that they culminated in Thor’s realization that humanity is outgrowing the need for him, being OK with it, and growing past his own role into new family responsibility, is great.
I came out of the movie thinking it might be a remake of Eraserhead. To quote another thing I wrote, “Despite the similarities between the two movies (major theme of the anxiety of creation and fear of messing it up/it messing up you, the symbol of alien/fetal “issue” as a force hostile to the divine spark within the human, fear of a mechanical future, dream journeys), the whole focus and point seems different so, no, I don’t think Avengers 2 is a remake after all.”
Some religious overlays. One way you know Ultron is insane is that he emits a moral vacuum, but he talks biblically (“upon this rock”) and all his plans are religiously tinged. More than God is dead, long live me, there is cleansing the earth in fire, centering his plan in a church due do “the geometry of belief,” and trying to make a son who is also him. There is a New Testament/Old Testament thing here, but tinged with gnostic thought. The original god created is a flawed god that is mean — Ultron is the demiurge/old testament god. The New Testament god is one of redemption, made possible by Immaculate Conception. You can try to draw the trinity, but the results don’t line up well unless you see the Vision as the unified three-in-one: the father (replaced Ultron and Thor as god), the son (of Ultron and Tony, born of Immaculate Conception) and holy ghost (one of his powers is go into ghost mode to become immaterial). Cho is Mary, for sure. I wish they had called the cradle the manger.
Cradles — remember in the first movie when Bruce says he can’t get everything he wants to Natasha, and rocks the cradle? That’s the seed for them in this whole movie.
Collective versus individual will is a theme in this movie that was badly served for the most part, but comes down on the side of “together.” The first movie decided both were necessary, this one is kind of anti-cowboy. That theme fits with the “creation of a culture that teaches values” theme in that it takes a village. Or a farm. Whichever.
The blonde that loses her kid is Scarlet Johannsson’s stunt double. She is first noticed for her cleavage (she is her sex appeal) then loses her role as mother. This is a little dream version of Hawkeye trying to help rescue Natasha, his friend, who is in pain grieving the children she cannot have.
“It’s all very Ahab” is a really awesome line to say to Klaw when you will eventually chop his hand off, requiring a villainous prosthesis. It is god’s justice for his rapacious greed, which will lead to a further career of blind misdirected vengeance. But different is that Ahab is driven mad by the dispassion of god — this god is angry at it being pointed out how he just said something like his father. Moby Dick was never actually pissed.
“Human life… not a growth market,” is oddly subtexted, but also a cool line. Klaw hating cuttlefish is just odd — he hates disco lights that hypnotize? I took this to mean he is a pragmatist who hates pretense (which he thinks the twins are guilty of), misdirection, and mind games. Maybe he hates kids and their partying. Maybe he is jealous of their arms. Maybe this just foreshadows the similarity to his eventual power (he can use solid sound to stun, mesmerize, and misdirect) and self-hatred. It does not work real well.
This movie is pretty rich, and fairly well thematically integrated, if you fill in the missing stuff. The long cut, promised for Blu-Ray, may work better without the mental crunching. The movie in the theaters is a disappointment because the incompleteness unbalances the story and structure which, if you are not watching for isolated action, makes it feel unsteady and bit confusing. But if you focus on the story as one about creation and parenting, controlling vs. mentoring, the role of tradition, and the necessity for change with a foundation of meaning, there is a nice story there, even with the gaps.
Ultron represents change without meaning, progress for its own sake, and the fruits of trying to make the world safe by controlling everything. The Avengers must learn the movie’s lesson — change for its own sake is bad, as is control for its own sake. Hold on loosely, but don’t let go. Guide don’t yoke. We must pass down to the generations below values, informed by the past but responsive to change moving into the future, not a nanny state. Mistakes will be made, but so will progress with meaning.
All our characters have a role in the apparatus of creation/parenting that is changed by the end of the film. Cap begins thinking he needs to catch up before he can mentor, but realizes his value as bringer of important values that must not be forgotten. Tony learns to let his creations — an AI with a soul, technology wielded and improved by his successors, and the Avengers itself — go on, trusting them to transform without his guidance, but with his DNA in there somewhere. Thor realizes the time of Gods is over, and time of men as their own gods has begun. Hulk still feels himself, as he does in the beginning, to be the bad man, undeserving of a male role in society, but leaves to work stuff out. Natasha learns that she isn’t a monster and that she doesn’t need a man or a baby to complete her — she can be a woman, a mother, an aunt, a leader… anything (she’s still sad though). Hawkeye is pretty much in the pocket already, but does learn to recognize how much his surrogate son that won’t listen is like him. Rhodey learns he can step out of the shadows. Scarlet which learns to be parented and cared for, which solidifies her sense of self and allows her to contribute of her own volition. Sam doesn’t learn shit, but he’s pretty together to begin with. He is the next Cap, after all. An ideal.