Gods and Monsters 

After three film appearances, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thunder, is finally faced with the consequences of his warmongering. During his hallucination, he sees his countrymen cast to Hel, the Asgardian underworld, as his full destructive potential comes to the fore. Even once he snaps out of his trance, he’s rattled after treading on a child’s toy house, while its owner, Hawkeye’s daughter, looks up at him. His legacy is ruination.

While Thor’s removal from the narrative is inelegant, the questions posed by prior films — both directly and through omission — still remain. Can Thor use his hammer to protect? Can this destroyer be compelled to create? He does, bringing to life The Vision (Paul Bettany) and choosing to trust in him, but is this leap of faith enough?

Thor’s compatriots Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) however, don’t have the luxury of creating in order to atone for their pasts. Their first encounter in The Avengers took place beside an empty cradle. In Age of Ultron, their most vulnerable exchange occurs in the room of one of Hawkeye’s children — with Hawkeye’s pregnant wife just doors away — as they wonder if parenthood, or peace of mind, is something their destined for, or something they deserve.

At times, the actors’ romantic dynamic feels forced and awkward. Their chemistry doesn’t quite work; then again, nor should it. Both in their initial flirtations (“And here comes this guy, spends his life avoiding the fight”) and in their private confessions (“Where can I go? Where in the world am I not a threat?”), the characters are brought together not so much by mutual interest, but by a shared desire to escape — both the larger conflict, as well as their own legacies.

Romanoff, having had her world turned upside down in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, has trouble seeing herself as a hero. The Hulk regularly endangers civilians, and rather than a dream or vision, we see his fears manifest in the form of a rampage. Having taken and endangered countless lives, both characters see themselves as monsters.

They’re also both unable to procreate. Banner might endanger a sexual partner, or pass down his irradiated blood. Romanoff was sterilized by the K.G.B., since fewer attachments meant easier killing. They believe this gives them one less chance at bringing something good into the world. Like Thor, all they leave behind is destruction.

And finally, there’s Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), the most stable of the bunch, and the only Avenger whose legacy is clear. Clint Barton remains unbroken by Wanda. He’s forced to take on a paternal role and keep the team together, despite their awareness (and his) that he’s the most expendable Avengers. Unlike the others, we don’t ever see him experience his greatest fears first-hand. But we know what he fights for: the wife and two children (soon to be three) whom he’s carefully hidden from the world.

Barton is the film’s most grounded character. He provides the story with a human perspective, but just a few scenes in, he has part of his torso synthetically replaced. He claims to feel the same, but his wife can tell the difference. He is, in microcosm, an embodiment of the Theseus Paradox the Avengers now face. In creating Ultron, another artificial being, Tony Stark re-assembles puzzle pieces of humanity and heroism in a form resembling a protector. The result, however, is something uncanny: a reflection of the Avengers’ physical selves without the presence of a human soul.

The End of the Line

Each Avenger is tested in the film’s final battle. No amount of preparation or scientific process can help Stark out-think the problem. In The Avengers, saving the day came down to his singular decision, when he flew a missile through a wormhole. Here, for once, the self-proclaimed leader has to rely on the rest of his team, hoping they’ll ferry everyone to safety before he’s forced to destroy Sokovia.

Steve Rogers is placed in a seemingly impossible position: letting the world end, or killing a few thousand civilians in order to save it. Yet he doesn’t abandon his post, choosing instead to go down with the ship, because he would rather die than compromise. Romanoff, the only Avenger who refuses to try and lift Thor’s hammer, stays by Rogers’ side, finally choosing to stand her ground rather than running from the question of her worth.

While the resolution to Rogers and Romanoff’s last stand feels too narratively convenient — the remnants of S.H.I.E.L.D. show up in Helicarriers to rescue civilians, preventing the duo’s decision from being dramatized through action — the moment remains impactful, because it’s where both their stories culminate. Captain America remains uncompromising in this grey new world, even in the face of extinction. Black Widow finally stops being defined by her past, and rather than running away from the killer she once was, she decides to pay her dues and wipe the red from her ledger.

Upon appearing to the Avengers for the first time, Ultron questions how the group could be “worthy” if they’ve been killers. Romanoff’s stand is the answer, as is S.H.I.E.L.D.’s heroic re-emergence after being twisted into a killing machine in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

“This is S.H.I.E.L.D.?” asks speedster Peitro Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), whose only context for American power thus far has been the bombs dropped on his family. Steve Rogers responds: “This is what S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be.”

The United States of S.H.I.E.L.D.

After the series bungled its American military metaphors on numerous occasions, including and especially military-funded entries like Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain Marvel, Avengers: Age of Ultron’s employment of metaphor feels less like shifting the blame for American war crimes, and more like a logical narrative extension.

The Avengers are no longer a band of rogues. They’re a fully-equipped, billionaire-funded paramilitary unit, self-appointed saviours carrying out foreign operations with relative impunity. When the film kicks off, they seem to have enough support (or lack enough government opposition) to operate independently.

The graffiti of Iron Man clutching cash and rifles was as much Sokovia’s criticism of the Avengers as it was the series beginning to introspect. This is both how a fictional European nation sees Iron Man, and how most nations around the world (especially those under U.S. military occupation) view American power. The camera never points to the actual American military as a superior in-world alternative, the way several other Marvel films have done. Granted, the film doesn’t frame the Avengers as having foreign political interests either, so the metaphor is imperfect, though it’s a significant improvement over the majority of the series (especially the entries that happen to be literal government propaganda).

Captain America, in his stars and stripes, looks up at warships whose guns have been replaced by lifeboats; a reflection of his own ideals, as man whose only weapon is a shield. “This is what S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be” is as much a winking line about the Avengers as it is about the United States; the metaphor is framed to be aspirational, rather than to deflect real-world blame.

While the re-appearance of S.H.I.E.L.D. dissolves much of the tension for characters like Rogers and Romanoff, its metaphorical function speaks to the larger idea of trading lives; for instance, in a historical context. To this day, the United States justifies killing hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians to save millions of Americans — the dropping of A-Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 — a position the Avengers are now forced into. However here, the remnants of an American military outfit show up to help circumvent that dilemma; if this is what America is supposed to be, then the idea of trading lives on this scale ought not to even be entertained.

“This is what S.H.I.E.L.D. is supposed to be” is also a statement rooted in character. Captain America’s trust in authority structures has all but been eroded — with good reason, given the events of The Avengers and Captain: America The Winter Soldier thus setting up the conflict in Captain America: Civil War. As the grounding point for the series’ overarching morality, Steve Rogers acts as an apologetic mouthpiece for the Marvel Cinematic Universe here, expressing something the Avengers have thus far failed to: a desire to improve the status quo.

While the heroes constantly fend off external threats, they rarely seek to better the equilibrium. This wishful throwaway line from Steve Rogers is the rare exception. Even though the rest of the series is yet to follow up on it — Black Panther aside — Rogers hints at the kind of better world he might someday hope to create. This makes him not only a beacon of heroism, but a human grounding point for the film’s own views on creation.

Continue Reading Road to Endgame >>

Cool Posts From Around the Web: