A universe of its own

May 21, 2015

John McDonald reviews the newest Avengers film The Age of Ultron.

TO ARGUE that Hollywood's endless succession of summer blockbusters follow a mind-numbingly predictable formula would be neither profound nor original. It should comes as little surprise that the modern culture industry, which is in the business of making money, avoids risk-taking and prefers to spoon-feed us the nostalgia-infused fruits of past successes.

Sequels, reboots and franchise spinoffs have long been the stock and trade of the season's big-budget cinematic offerings. The superhero movie is one of the only things even close to innovation to emanate from the swirling pool of clichés that dominate the thinking of today's studio executives.

News that Marvel Studio's 11th theatrical release, Avengers: The Age of Ultron, grossed over a billion dollars in less than a month is an indication that the formula is still going strong. The popularity is so great that it's safe to bet it won't be long before even the most marginal and absurd characters, like, say M.O.D.O.K., grace the silver screen.

Superheroes at work in Avengers: Age of Ultron
Superheroes at work in Avengers: Age of Ultron

How should this runaway success be understood by Socialist Worker's readers? And what should we think about the movie itself? Adopting the correct "line" on Age of Ultron is probably not the most important paving stone on the revolutionary socialist road to power, but if our hopes for building a better society are to be realized, then we will eventually need to confront how to approach the cultural commodities that capitalism produces. Why not use one of the summer's first major blockbusters as an opportunity to do just that?

Geeks and radicals have both long excelled at showing how not to deal with this question. There are those like comic book legend Alan Moore, who, having failed to convince the world that superheroes stopped having any cultural value after the last issue of Watchmen went to press, now snarl contemptuously at the escapist impulses of the "unwashed masses."

There are the dueling hordes of fanboys who lob breathless screeds and impassioned defenses at each other from behind their keyboards--all of which reduce themselves to "err mah gerd [insert reference to obscure factoid either included or omitted from the film] that was the best/worst ever."

And there is Jase Short's review published at Red Wedge that manages to fuse the worst defects of both the radical and geek sets.

Despite popular opinion and the myriad of readily available negative examples, political reviews of pop culture need not be humorlessly dismissive or uncritically facile. It's the opinion of this reviewer that our superheroes have plenty to tell us about capitalist society, and that we should be diligent about drawing up balance sheets of their political successes and failings.

We are, after all, in favor of culture that at least tries to avoid reproducing the more backward aspects of our society. But the tendency to fixate on social commentary (or lack there of) without appraising a movie on its own terms is exactly the sort of error committed by so many radicals that we should aim to avoid.

SO WHAT about the movie? To be clear from the outset (SPOILER ALERT), Age of Ultron isn't about the struggle for human liberation. Not even a little bit. It is, in fact, a big budget-action flick and not a piece of leftist agitational literature. And thank Odin for that. That the film features more evil sentient robots being smashed in the face with magical hammers than it does revolutionary soliloquies is one among a number of its virtues.

Blockbusters ultimately live and die on their ability to cram in as many frenetic action sequences as runtimes (and budgets) allow. For better or worse, massive explosions and jaw-dropping special effects are often more important than inspired character development, or even passable acting. One of Marvel Studio's great achievements has been its rejection of the worst aspects of this formula, though Age of Ultron should make fans worry that they may have now forged a new mold with all of its own problems.

The issue certainly isn't a lack of fight scenes or technical flourishes--the Hulkbuster battle and the costume/makeup design for the Vision are examples of ways Ultron does these things as well or better than the rest of its competition. The problem is that the movie falls to pieces at exactly that point where the first Avengers film, and other entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), had previously distinguished themselves: its characters.

One could argue, as do fans who have cheered on each expansion of Marvel Studio's massive interwoven "universe" (and I am unashamed to be counted among this crowd of true believers), that writer/director Joss Whedon's decision to skip over all of the complicated motivations and struggles of individual characters--choosing instead to, at best, make oblique reference to previous developments from earlier Marvel films--could be considered a strength. Unfortunately, it's quite difficult to get this varnish to stick, and, as has rightly been pointed out by a number of commentators, there's no escaping the fact that Age of Ultron noticeably strains under the weight of its world-building project.

Whereas in earlier films the numerous interconnected asides served primarily to lend a sense of scale to the uninitiated, in Age of Ultron, the dozens of underdeveloped plot threads and lines of dialogue about off-screen action feel more like soulless commercials for the next six or 12 MCU films than they do knowing winks to diehard fans. The Easter eggs hidden in Avengers 2--like the appearance of Helen Cho (mother of Amedeus Cho, the seventh-smartest person on earth)--still have a certain charm, but things like the trite "flashback/nightmare" sequence, or the much ballyhooed "Thor cave scene" should serve as cautionary reminders of the dangers that come with letting corporate committees write movies.

On its own, this drive to stoke audiences to fork over $20 at least three times a year for the foreseeable future could be forgiven, but Age of Ultron falters in letting this get in the way of its storytelling.

Whedon commendably resists the temptation to turn this into yet another origin story, opting to use most of his exposition to focus our attention on those members of the team who are either new in this film (like James Spader's delightfully snarky Ultron) or without movies of their own. But all of these character-based subplots feel rushed, if not incoherent, and are wedged between a dizzying number of cameos.

Up to this point Marvel Studio's movies have built upon their comic book source material's longstanding penchant for writing remarkably relatable characters--most of whom are essentially regular folks who happen to have powers and wear capes--and this goes a long way toward explaining their enduring popularity. That the Avengers are all flawed, scarred and motivated by deeply human desires makes it that much easier to identify with them, despite their ability to run at the speed of sound, or to be dropped from the stratosphere and be completely unfazed when they crash into a skyscraper.

The few attempts in Age of Ultron to humanize characters--through Hawkeye's backstory and the budding romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner/the Hulk--fall some distance short of the standard set by earlier releases, and if this problem isn't corrected, the MCU runs the risk of degenerating into a hideous monument to corporate largess.

While, in the end, the film's inability to create a single compelling character arc doesn't stop it from being an extremely entertaining though somewhat substance-less summer blockbuster, it does point directly to some of those themes and implications that are of particular interest to the politically minded.

IT BEARS saying outright that whatever political lessons can be pulled from Ultron are all of the negative kind. Those studying this movie for meaningful insights into the most expedient route toward global revolution would probably glean more from listening to Nickelback's recent single.

As is the case with most of Joss Whedon's work, what political themes can be found in this movie are liberal at best, and quite reactionary at worst. The Maximoff twins initially join up with Ultron to fight the Avengers because their entire family was killed by bombs built by Tony Stark/Iron Man. Then, after the robot reveals its plans for global annihilation, they decide to switch sides. The message, presumably, is that the problem isn't militarism, but using militarism for the wrong ends.

The politics involved in the resolution of the main conflict with Ultron are similarly confused. Stark originally creates the artificial intelligence that becomes the film's antagonist out of a desire to build a weapon of such power that it could stand against all future cosmic threats.

When it decides to kill everyone instead of protecting them, Stark's solution is to...cross his fingers and build another, more powerful A.I. After this plan works, viewers are left to puzzle over whether or not the filmmakers want us to think the drive to create weapons of a world-ending magnitude is really such a bad idea after all.

Whether these examples of muddled messaging are the result of bad politics or bad writing remains an open question, but Whedon's treatment of the Black Widow's character is much more straightforward and reflective of his own pattern. Whedon has long been heralded in the left geekosphere as one of the most prominent male feminists, in large part due to his role in creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In a world where human garbage containers routinely threaten to rape or murder, and in some cases actually murder, women for demanding that they be treated like more than just body parts to be ogled and fondled, it's perfectly understandable why so many uncritically defend the rare Hollywood types like Whedon who aren't raging misogynists.

But that doesn't mean radical geeks should settle for the best that tinsel town has to offer. Whedon's insistence on treating female characters like human beings should be considered the norm and not a laudable triumph. Criticism is absolutely necessary, especially if, as Mark Ruffalo argued on Reddit, Whedon cares deeply about the struggle for women's rights. If this is true, then Whedon's portrayal of the Black Widow in The Age of Ultron is an example of good intentions going horribly astray.

As is brilliantly argued at io9 by Meredith Woerner and Katharine Trendacosta, (SPOILER ALERT--for real this time) there have been a number of indications that Marvel Studios has difficulty taking the only female Avenger seriously--for instance, the repeated slut-shaming from several of the male leads--but the character's arc in Age of Ultron itself is possibly its most egregious to date.

The Black Widow is one of two members of the superhero team without powers, but what she lacks in terms of hurling bolts of lightning she makes up for with her battle-hardened super-spy skills. From her first appearance in Iron Man 2 teasers about her blood-stained past as an assassin, and her unstated but obvious attempts to earn absolution, have abounded.

Age of Ultron finally gives us the great reveal: Natasha Romanoff was made into a self-described "monster" when she lost her ability to have children. The implication is that the worst possible thing that could happen to a woman is to deny her the opportunity to become a mother. So remember, girls, if you ever find out you can't spawn future generations, you will be afflicted by such a deep sadness that you should probably channel it into becoming a cold-blooded killer.

EVEN IF one finds this a compelling bit of character motivation, it most certainly isn't feminist. Frankly, it looks startlingly similar to the views held by right-wing culture warriors in their defense of "family values." Given Marvel Studio's well-documented reluctance to develop any of their numerous female characters on the big screen, it is not surprising that this treatment of the Black Widow produced a backlash.

Between Gamergate, Sad Puppies and other horrible examples of the growth of "men's rights" activism, geek culture can sometimes feel like a barren wasteland, which makes the desire to label Whedon a feminist and defend him against his right-wing detractors completely understandable.

However, those truly concerned with fighting for women's liberation shouldn't give him a pass just because there aren't enough people in Hollywood actually providing examples of how respect for women would go a long way toward making better movies, to say nothing of its political impact. Should he be crucified in digital effigy for his transgressions? Of course not. But if our politics are to mean anything, they should be applied with rigor, and not on the basis of our affinity for a particular director.

Like it or not, spandex-clad vigilantes have very much been integrated into the cultural vernacular, and they aren't going away anytime soon. If the financial success of Age of Ultron is any indicator (and, living in a capitalist world, it most certainly is), their drive toward complete ubiquity is only going to pick up steam from here.

Given the heaps of saccharine trash (most of which, in the interest of full disclosure, I enjoy to no end) peddled by the major studios every summer, Age of Ultron is unlikely to be either the most reactionary or even the worst written film released this season.

It works quite well as a popcorn-flavored, action-packed piece of escapist spectacle. But it does disappoint when considered in relation to the always fun, often thoughtful, and usually well-developed superhero stories upon which Marvel Studios has built its reputation. Geeks, radicals and summer movie aficionados should all hope that Marvel's future releases have more in common with last year's Guardians of the Galaxy, or the recently released Netflix original series Daredevil, than with Age of Ultron.

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