Avengers Age of Ultron Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit the first 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Avengers: Age of Ultron digs in to the superhero’s religious subtext)

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a big ol’ action beat-’em-up between superheroes and robots. It also uses genre trappings to dramatize the creation of God and the Devil, in order to tell a story about why we create, and why our stories matter.

By 2015, our entertainment landscape had become dominated by violent Übermensch in visages of childhood fantasy. DC’s Man of Steel, which attempted to reframe one of pop culture’s premier icons two years prior, caused widespread debate about civilian casualty and the role of the superhero. As if in response to that conversation, Avengers: Age of Ultron placed similar debates in its crosshairs; first, by making its characters re-establish their objectives — the protection of individuals — and second, by challenging their methods.

This narrative not only helped set up future installments, it also forced the Avengers to contend with their in-world legacies as a means to explore the series’ legacy on-screen. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is the most successful franchise in history, and so a $300 million blockbuster that acts as genre self-critique (to varying degrees of success) is noteworthy.

Would You Sacrifice Millions to Save Billions?

Through most of the series, our heroes have responded to this question with a resounding “No.” In The Avengers, they stopped a nuclear attack on New York City meant to prevent global invasion. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they opposed H.Y.D.R.A.’s plan to use mass murder as a shortcut to peace. Even on a personal scale, the Avengers have always leaned toward altruism; in Thor, Captain America: The First Avenger and Guardians of the Galaxy, heroes sacrificed themselves rather than letting a single person die.

When villains decide to trade lives, the heroes’ decisions are clear. But what if the Avengers were forced to choose between atrocities of their own? In the aforementioned films, the heroes were only ever tasked with stopping someone else’s weapons. In Avengers: Age of Ultron (and Avengers: Infinity War, for that matter), they’re forced to confront a superhero Trolley Problem, a conundrum designed for the express purpose of bringing their violent natures to the surface and proving their futility.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), a futurist who repeats his past mistakes in newer, greater iterations, creates the Artificial Intelligence Ultron (James Spader). Ultron’s mission, logistically speaking, is peace. But it’s peace without conscience — not unlike H.Y.D.R.A.’s “Project Insight,” or Thanos’ snap — a utilitarian peace, divorced from empathy. Ultron has the tools to build and destroy, but he’s a reflection of the Avengers without their protective instinct (Their humanism is eventually granted to J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark’s personal A.I., reborn as Ultron’s foil).

Ultron’s idea of harmony is a world where humans can no longer do harm. Like the Mad Titan Thanos in Infinity War, his answer is genocide.

As if in response to criticisms of the genre, Tony Stark now uses non-lethal means to incapacitate soldiers; he even scans a building for civilians before tossing a rampaging Hulk into its structure. However, this more cautious M.O. doesn’t ignore what came before. Ultron still deems the Avengers unworthy of heroism, since they’ve all killed at some point. A simple course-correction isn’t enough; there needs to be reckoning.

To prove the futility of human heroes, Ultron raises the country of Sokovia miles in the air and plans to drop it like a meteor. The result would be human extinction, but the Avengers destroying Sokovia before rescuing every one of its citizens would be catastrophic too.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is the O.M.A.C. Project film we may never get from DC, a story of global security A.I. run amok, calling into question the responsibility of superheroes and their use of lethal force. It’s also the closest thing to a big-screen adaptation of Warren Ellis and Garrie Gastonny’s Supergod, in which humanity creates superheroes as weapons of war, but fashions them in the image of religious deities — as if our need to create, and our need to believe that we were created, are intrinsically bound.

The seeds for the film’s massive third act are planted throughout, with each Avenger having to contend with the nature of their past, and how their actions might dictate their future. As much as Age of Ultron is about holding on to the idea of humanity in the face of a soulless being, it’s about why these specific heroes must re-establish their own humanity if they’re to be worthy of heroism, and their stories worthy of telling.

Avengers Disassembled 

The film opens with a single, unbroken take following the Avengers through the forests of Sokovia as they dismantle H.Y.D.R.A.’s remnants. The visual language evokes the sprawling long-take between skyscrapers in The Avengers, which arrived soon after the team first learned to work together — video essayist Patrick Willems compares this to the use of splash-pages in comics. Three years on, the Avengers are introduced in their sequel as a well-oiled machine, before being scattered by the rest of the narrative.

Loki’s scepter from their previous film — revealed to be an Infinity Stone — is being used for human experiments, and the Avengers believe it’s their job to intervene. The citizens of Sokovia, however, aren’t pleased by this largely American outfit launching attacks on their soil. Sokovian graffiti portrays The Iron Man as a war profiteer, clutching guns and money in the background while his drones dictate terms of safety. The Avengers function as a singular unit, but do they function within the world at large?

The team is brought together by a desire to do good, but they’re torn apart when Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) unearths their deepest fears. Her scepter-derived abilities fill our heroes’ heads with nightmares; Tony Stark sees his friends dead at his feet, after Earth is left vulnerable to 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 (Chris Evans) finds himself at an end-of-war party in 1945 — the kind of peaceful day he’s never seen — forcing him to question his place in a world without war. Even if he can return 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? Spilled wine turns to blood, and a celebration turns to violent disagreement. Rogers’ experiences have left him too paranoid for a peaceful world, and too afraid of a sense of normalcy.

Iron Man has seen what happens he isn’t prepared. Captain America knows how even peacekeeping forces can be used for harm. While Tony Stark accelerates the path to peace, Steve Rogers begins to question it at every turn.

Once our heroes inadvertently wreak havoc in Johannesburg, they’re forced to lay low at Hawkeye’s farmhouse. This detour was almost cut from the film, but director Joss Whedon was right to fight for it. Given the dire circumstances, the Avengers spending quiet, contemplative moments together helps focus the story at hand.

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