The Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Ethos of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (PG-13)

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INTRO: Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Joss Whedon, and Myself

I consider myself a casual Marvel fan. I could probably count the number of superhero comics I’ve read on one hand, but I’ve seen every film in the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” (the web of interconnected superhero films that started with Iron Man) since Iron Man 2 (2010) in theaters and, in 2012, awaited the first Avengers movie with bated breath. After that, though, I became weary of the franchise – partly because the subsequent films (Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World) weren’t very good, and partly because I moved away to college and was eager to put childish things behind me. However, Captain America: The Winter Soldier surprised me and revived my interest, and so around this time last year, I found myself anticipating Joss Whedon’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron with rather mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Marvel films were not deep. They were shallow but unpretentious, and fun in that “turn your brain off” way film critics like to describe when dismissing popular movies. Revisiting the first Avengers helped me prime myself for what I expected to be a dumb and pleasant (and perhaps slightly tedious) two and a half hours. I had a fondness for the characters, but knew that I’d have to lower my ever-so-discerning standards in order to enjoy the film. Many cinephiles, myself included, rebelled against the studio’s cookie-cutter methods and the way they squeezed out the visions of cinematic auteurs (see: Edgar Wright’s much-lamented departure from Ant-Man). However, as much as one might like to see a Marvel Cinematic Universe in which directors are given more free reign to display their own styles, the fact remains that, for all the homogeneity of the parts, Marvel’s shared sandbox as a whole is a unique and exciting project, unlike anything attempted in cinema before. The auteur here is not a director, but a brand. (This need not be a bad thing; the artistic visions and identities of Pixar’s stable of directors have typically been subsumed into the vision and identity of the studio itself.) Over the course of twelve films, with many more on the way, Marvel has amassed a body of work that, for all its faults, displays a consistent, coherent vision. With all this in mind, on opening night, I approached the newest product off the assembly line with a mix of skepticism and excitement.

At the same time, in the back of my mind, I was preoccupied by something very different. For a class project, I was knee-deep in the process of writing a short fictional piece exploring the ideas of Friedrich Nietzsche and Søren Kierkegaard – in particular, Nietzsche’s spiritual progression of the camel, the lion, and the child, along with his notion of the eternal recurrence: the belief that events repeat themselves infinitely. As he puts it in his autobiography, Ecce Homo, “My formula for human greatness is amor fati [“love of fate”]: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity.” In other words, to defeat nihilism and be truly life-affirming, one must embrace this neverending return.

Imagine my surprise when I found these two spheres of my life colliding in unexpected ways. Nietzsche’s philosophy was just about the last thing I expected to find in a giant pop culture event about a bunch of people in colorful suits fighting a malevolent robot, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be interrogated so thoroughly and thoughtfully. To my immense surprise and gratification, Age of Ultron turned out to be – if not their most polished (that award goes to The Winter Soldier in my book) – Marvel’s deepest film yet. It’s a big, loud blockbuster, yes, but one with real ideas on its mind and real emotional ramifications, one that digs deep into characters who had, for the most part, been affable cardboard cutouts. For better and for worse, it is a sweeping encapsulation of the Marvel brand.

Critical response to Age of Ultron has been mixed. Matt Zoller Seitz, in a review that frankly acknowledged the film’s strengths and drawbacks, wrote that it had more personality than “any other film in the now-seven-year-old franchise… in its growing pains you can see a future in which these corporate movies might indeed be art, or at least unique expressions.” Anthony Lane, on the other hand, lamented that the film was either impossible to understand or not worth the effort – or both, though it seems difficult to judge the former possibility if one subscribes to the latter. Audiences were similarly conflicted about the film; it has defenders and detractors, but in many ways, was greeted by a big, collective shrug. It certainly hasn’t taken the same cherished place in the public consciousness as its predecessor.

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It’s not hard to account for this. The first Avengers was a giant crowd-pleaser, buoyed by the novelty and fun of seeing these superheroes share the screen for the first time. Three years later, in a time when the internet was awash with thinkpieces about how audiences are tired of superhero movies (it still is), Age of Ultron had more to live up to. However, it let audiences know right off the bat that it wouldn’t be the same as its predecessor. Instead of building to the cathartic tracking shot that follows the Avengers into actions, Age of Ultron opens with it, getting the superpowered antics out of the way first. In interviews leading up to the film’s release, Whedon described it as the Godfather Part II of superhero movies. Many wrote this off as just the latest in a long line of blockbuster filmmakers trying to imbue their efforts with legitimacy by name-dropping classics (how many “darker” sequels have been described as “like The Empire Strikes Back”?), but the comparison is earned. Just as The Godfather Part II is a sadder, emptier variation on The Godfather, Ultron intentionally plays similar beats to the first film but drains them of enthusiasm to convey the cost and weight of heroism. Instead of opting to try and outdo its predecessor in the “fun” department, it had loftier ambitions, offering up a melancholy, thoughtful exploration of the cost of heroism and a summative thesis on Marvel’s cinema as a whole – while also trying to have more characters, bigger battles, and more impressive special effects. It didn’t always work – but when it did, it sure was fascinating.

PART I: “On the Side of Life”

Marvel’s key strength has always been the humanity of its characters. From the company’s beginning, its genius (popularly attributed to Stan Lee) has been to make the superhuman human – to give superheroes flaws and problems that were relatable and commonplace. This philosophy of storytelling and character has permeated the approach of Marvel Studios under Kevin Feige. In 2008, Iron Man revolutionized the genre with its simple redemption narrative, focusing in on the flawed, all-too-human Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr., but surely you knew that). The studio’s films haven’t always been so successful at imbuing their characters with humanity – subsequent Iron Man films fumbled by turning Stark into more of a caricature than a human being, while Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has never been convincingly fleshed out – but key to Marvel’s success is the fact that it loves its characters, and the audience loves them too. The affection with which the filmmakers treat the characters is evident; surprising gambles like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man have succeeded largely because audiences connected with the likes of Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and Scott Lang (Paul Rudd).

In comparison, the Distinguished Competition over at Detective Comics has badly fumbled their attempts at a similar shared-universe project by failing to capture their characters with the same amount of respect. DC’s heroes have historically been more grandiose and larger-than-life than Marvel’s, and Warner Bros. has opted for stuffy mythmaking done by filmmakers intent on deconstructing their grim, gritty heroes. Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy did this successfully, while the self-important Man of Steel tried to legitimize Superman by losing many of the character’s core traits. Moreover, Zack Snyder’s follow-up, Batman v. Superman, has been roundly criticized by comic fans. Devin Faraci writes, “it isn’t that Zack Snyder misunderstands Superman, it’s that he actually hates the character.” To be clear, I don’t oppose deconstructive takes on classic characters in principle; my well-documented love of a certain controversial blockbuster should prove this.

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If Marvel’s characters can be a bit homogenous (and they can be), at least it’s a pleasant homogenous. Everyone’s a bit too decent and noble and witty. Compare this to the murky, tedious homogeneity of DC’s cinematic universe, in which Batman and Superman are nearly indistinguishable in their brooding glumness. If, as many have argued, superhero comic books are the modern equivalent to classical mythology, DC raises its heroes to the level of gods, while Marvel lowers its gods to the level of humans.

In another point of contrast between the two brands, the climax of Age of Ultron struck many critics (myself included) as a direct response to the climax of Man of Steel. In the latter, the requisite third-act battle royale levels a city and Superman doesn’t bat an eye. In Ultron, the climactic battle is less a matter of beating the final boss and more a matter of saving as many lives as possible; as Captain America (Chris Evans) puts it, “We can do our best to protect them… Ultron thinks we’re monsters, that we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” For Marvel, it’s not about saving the world; it’s about saving the people in it. This is the ethos that permeates their films: the value of human life trumps every ideology.

The titular robot antagonist in Age of Ultron and the villainous quasi-Nazi organization HYDRA both argue that their misdeeds make the world a better place. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) argues with unnerving conviction that “to build a better world sometimes means tearing the old one down.” In a remarkably similar speech, Ultron (James Spader) chides the Avengers, “You didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. How is humanity saved if it’s not allowed to evolve?” Both villains strive for control, to impose order on a chaotic world – ostensibly for safety’s sake. “I don’t care about one boat,” Pierce intones at one point, “I care about the fleet.” This mindset, Marvel argues, devalues individual life and positions destruction as a prerequisite to reconstruction. Focus on the “bigger picture” too often results in the loss of the little details where humanity resides.

PART II: “It’s Been A Long Day”

I wrote above that Marvel’s genius is to make its heroes human. At the same time, though, they’re separate from humanity; with two key exceptions, they’re not normal, everyday people like Peter Parker in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man trilogy. (And Marvel has yet to reach the same level as Spider-Man 2, the best and most humane superhero movie of all.) The first exception to the rule is Paul Rudd’s utterly down-to-earth turn as Scott Lang/Ant-Man. Focusing its dramatic stakes primarily on the restoration of frayed familial bonds, Ant-Man is a fittingly downscaled conclusion to “Phase 2,” ending this portion of the great Marvel experiment not on a bombastic show of sound and fury but on a humble, human note.

Before it, though, was The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which is the most thorough encapsulation of Marvel’s values the studio has produced. It’s also their most emotionally involving film, because it underlines its characters’ humanity by emphasizing their distance from the rest of mankind. It’s a deeply poignant film about a group of people realizing they can never have normal lives. Like Spider-Man 2 before it, it taps into one of the core questions of the superhero genre: the tension between heroism and normalcy.

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The anchor of this theme, and the second exception to the rule, is Jeremy Renner’s Clint Barton, or Hawkeye. Midway through Age of Ultron, Barton takes the other Avengers – reeling from a psychic attack by Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who, in a reliably comic-booky way to weave character exploration into the plot, has used her powers to stir up the heroes’ past traumas and deepest fears – to an idyllic farmhouse, where he has a traditional family comprised of a loving wife (Linda Cardellini) and two children. The scenes at the farmhouse are a striking, sweet contrast to the theatrics of the rest of the film, and are thematically crucial; they position Hawkeye as the team’s everyman, the one who anchors them and holds them together, as a sharp contrast to what every other Avenger longs for but can never have.

Over the course of the film, Hawkeye develops a quasi-familial bond with the Maximoff twins, Wanda and Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). The twins are initially Ultron’s allies, seeking revenge on Tony Stark for a past trauma that cost them their parents – they are evil because their familial context has been lost. Ultron takes the twins in and assumes a sort of father-figure role, promising that they will “make things right.” However, when the twins realize the true nature of Ultron’s plans, they switch sides, and it is Hawkeye who steps into a paternal role and restores the two “punks,” ultimately giving a crucial speech that convinces Wanda to join the Avengers. Describing the situation with classic self-deprecating wit, he says, “The city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense… But I’m going back out there because this is my job.” Hawkeye is the only Avenger able to reconcile heroism and normalcy, and he does so by translating his superheroic antics into mundane terms. In the end, while the rest of the Avengers return to their lives of heroism, Hawkeye returns home, to his family, as if he’s come to the end of a long day of work.

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In addition to convincing Wanda to use her powers for good, Hawkeye inspires Pietro to self-sacrificial heroism. As Barton shields a young boy from a hail of gunfire with his body, Pietro runs in front of the bullets, saving both lives. The film’s thesis on the cost of heroism comes in the quiet moment that follows, as Barton lays exhausted next to Pietro’s lifeless body and simply groans, “It’s been a long day.”

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As Steve Rogers/Captain America, Chris Evans has emerged as the relatively static moral center of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and the most compellingly nuanced one of the lot. His straight-arrow antics are endearingly earnest in his debut film, Captain America: The First Avenger – a pulpy WWII-set good vs. evil period piece. Such a character could easily become trite and boring, a dull goody-two-shoes. This, apparently, was Snyder’s fear when making Man of Steel, a movie about the goodiest two-shoes of them all, Superman. However, following Captain America’s emergence into a much greyer modern-day world, subsequent films have crafted compelling drama around him not by subverting his goodness but by repeatedly testing it in a world where it seems increasingly anachronistic and unfeasible. Throughout, in his singular drive to do the right thing and help others, Rogers has consistently refused the option of normalcy – he shuts down Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) dating advice with a terse “Too busy!” in The Winter Soldier. As noble as Captain America may be, there’s something not quite purely altruistic about his dedication to protecting others; we get the sense that he doesn’t know what else to do with himself.

In Age of Ultron, this lifestyle finally takes its toll, and Rogers finds himself adrift. Amidst the film’s many moving parts and plot threads, writer-director Joss Whedon clearly tracks Captain America’s arc through strategic use of one word: “home.” The idea first arises in an early scene at Stark’s Avengers Tower, in which the Falcon (Anthony Mackie) queries Rogers about whether or not he’s found an apartment in Brooklyn yet. Rogers is evasive, uncomfortable, but the Falcon insists, “Home is home, you know?” Later, when the Scarlet Witch uses her powers on him, Rogers finds himself in a surreal, hallucinatory 1940s ballroom. “The war’s over, Steve,” says a vision of his long-dead love interest, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). “We can go home. Imagine it!” And then the dance hall is empty, leaving Steve alone. Subsequent scenes at Hawkeye’s farmhouse frame Steve hovering outside the doorway, an homage to the ending of The Searchers – positioning Captain America as the anachronistic cowboy, doomed to wander alone in a time that has moved on without him.

By the end of the film, Steve has accepted his place in the world: as the leader of the Avengers. There will never be a normal life for Captain America. “I don’t know,” he says. “Family, stability… the guy who wanted all that went in the ice seventy-five years ago.” As he looks at the Avengers’ new facility and hears the sound of soldiers training, he remarks, “I’m home.”

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Tony Stark, on the other hand, desperately wants to build himself a home, retiring from the Avengers in favor of the “simple life.” In the first Iron Man, he flippantly remarked that “We live in an imperfect world, but it’s the only one we’ve got.” Since then, he’s come to feel the full burden of the world’s imperfection, and in Age of Ultron, he is striving to fix it. In doing so, he veers dangerously close to HYDRA’s philosophy of safety through control. A throwaway line in The Winter Soldier credits Stark with contributions to the creation of the deadly Insight Helicarriers that form a crucial part of HYDRA’s master plan. More directly still, Ultron comes from the combined efforts of Tony Stark and HYDRA: Stark takes an artificial intelligence program created by evil scientist Baron Von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) and attempts to repurpose it for his own altruistic (but hubristic) reasons. In the end, Ultron is an uneasy marriage of Stark’s and HYDRA’s philosophies.

While Captain America is stuck looking backwards, Stark is paralyzed by looking forwards. In the opening scenes of the film, Wanda shows him a vision of the other Avengers dead as aliens invade Earth. “You could have saved us,” says the vision of Captain America. “Why didn’t you do more?” Stark feels a crushing burden of crushing responsibility, and while he’s ultimately largely culpable for the film’s chaos, it’s to Whedon’s credit that he never lets the audience forget that Stark is coming from a sympathetic, understandable place. Who wouldn’t want “peace in our time?” When questioned about his motivations, Stark says that Ultron – a peacekeeping program designed to protect the world from alien invaders – would make the Avengers obsolete. “Isn’t that why we fight?” he demands. “So we can end the fight, so we get to go home?”

Yet Tony still makes it all about him; “It wasn’t a nightmare,” he tells Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), “It was my legacy.” Ever since a dying mentor told him not to waste his life in the first Iron Man, Tony Stark has been preoccupied with questions of legacy and identity – questions of what will make his life worth living, how he will be remembered. Elsewhere, a character tells Stark, “I thought Ultron was a fantasy.” The robot – Tony’s metaphorical child, his bid for a legacy – is the personification of his failed dreams, his desperate wish for normalcy. In the end, though, he returns to the core ethos of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. “You’re stalling to protect the people,” Ultron taunts during a climactic confrontation. “Well, that is the mission,” Stark responds. “Did you forget?”

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The questions of progeny and legacy also pervade one of the film’s most controversial and misunderstood elements – the romance between Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow. Some have claimed that pairing the two characters is a mistake, but it makes perfect sense: both are wracked with guilt and self-doubt over the deaths they’ve caused, Romanoff over her time as a KGB assassin, Banner over his inability to control “the other guy.” Whedon plays with the iconography of classic stories like King Kong and Beauty and the Beast in the scenes where Black Widow soothes the Hulk, helping him to revert to his human form.

In one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, the two discuss their relationship while staying at Barton’s farmhouse in one of the children’s bedrooms. “I can’t ever have this,” Banner says, gesturing to the artifacts of a normal family life that surround him. He is physically unable to have children, but so is she; she was sterilized as part of the initiation process. Family is what grounds Barton, but it is not an option for Banner or Romanoff. They consider running away together, but Romanoff realizes that their responsibility to save the world precludes this and makes the choice to turn Banner into the Hulk – a reversal of all the times she has tried to return him to normalcy throughout the film.

As the climactic battle concludes, Romanoff prepares to soothe the Hulk again, turning him back into Banner. Crucially, Whedon sets this moment, like the earlier bedroom scene, amidst the iconography of children; the Hulk is rampaging through an abandoned playground when Black Widow approaches. For a moment, it seems as if they could have happiness together – but the moment is disrupted when Ultron attacks, and the Hulk takes Romanoff to safety before flying away alone. This beat is placed side by side with Ultron’s killing of Quicksilver, positioning him as a destroyer of families, a severer of the Avengers’ relational bonds. The Hulk’s final scene is an echo of Captain America’s climactic sacrifice in The First Avenger, drawing a parallel between the two as men doomed to wander alone.

PART III: “I’m Caught In A Time Loop”

In my class project about Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, I pit a Kierkegaardian character called the “Wanderer” against a Nietzschean character called the “Superman.” I used the project to explore Nietzsche’s spiritual progression (the camel, the lion, the child) through a story, and also to place his idea of the eternal recurrence in dialogue with Christian faith. One of Nietzsche’s main critiques of Christianity is its mortification of the body, which he scoffs at as “otherworldliness” – a foolish and harmful insistence on life beyond this world, to the neglect of the present moment. The Nietzschean Übermensch accepts the eternal recurrence in its entirety, without reservation, because it is all there is. Kierkegaard, on the other hand, insists on a paradoxical embrace of the moment that exists simultaneously with complete surrender of it. Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity does not quite get at the core of what the faith actually teaches. Christianity promises a life beyond this one, but this should not be a reason to shrink from engaging with the present world.

Although few critics have noted it, I believe that Whedon situates the thematic arcs of Age of Ultron in an explicitly Nietzschean context. (Ironically, two critics who have written extensively about the film’s Nietzschean themes are Christians: articles by Bishop Robert Barron and Steven D. Greydanus are both worth reading.) Within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the desire for “peace” or “a better world” is constantly used as a justification for illicit actions. As villains, HYDRA and Ultron are motivated by the desire for perfection by illicit means. Age of Ultron takes this to a different extreme; it is a call for the acceptance of the imperfection intrinsic to the human race.

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Ultron is, at least in part, what Nietzsche derides, one who uses a vision of a world beyond this one as justification for misdeeds. Much like his metaphorical “father,” Tony Stark, he sees the Avengers as being caught in a futile circle and wants to end it. He is obsessed with attaining something more, something else – and he is willing to destroy everything to get it. It’s a natural extension of Stark’s obsession with legacy; in his own way, Tony wants to attain something beyond death by leaving Ultron as his progeny.

As the film goes on, Ultron, like Tony, tries to create a way to evolve beyond his current form and become something more. Through a series of pseudo-scientific developments, he creates a synthetic, invulnerable body – which the Avengers proceed to steal, and into which they insert the consciousness of Jarvis (Paul Bettany), the A.I. that controlled Stark’s suits. This third generation in the conflict of Tony Stark’s legacy, the Vision, brings the film’s Nietzschean themes full circle.

In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche presents a progression of the spirit: from camel to lion to child. The camel takes on as much responsibility as he can, but without understanding the purpose behind his work, wearies of it and finds life meaningless and futile. Tony Stark is the camel; he willingly takes on crushing responsibilities and, by the time the film begins, is weary of the Avengers’ seemingly neverending mission. He then creates a lion – Ultron – who, rebelling against false values, creates his own, striving for freedom. Ultron even directly quotes Nietzsche (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”) and speaks constantly of his own freedom. His frequent singing of the refrain “I’ve got no strings on me” brings the point home. After the lion, though, comes the child, who is “innocence and forgetting, a new beginning.” This is the role the Vision fills.

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“I’m caught in a time loop,” Banner laments when Tony Stark proposes bringing the Vision to life, just as they previously brought Ultron to life. Stark, on the other hand, insists that they embrace their imperfections: “We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters… You gotta own it.” The Vision, then, is born from an acceptance of the loop – in Nietzschean terms, the eternal recurrence. Furthermore, he accepts the loop himself. When Captain America asks which side he’s on, he positions himself as being “on the side of life” – eschewing good and evil categories, as Nietzsche would. The Vision, one might say, is beyond good and evil. Yet he is also, strangely a Christ figure. “Jarvis, take the wheel,” Tony says early in the film as a winking pop culture reference, while the camera lingers on a sticker that reads, “Jarvis is my co-pilot.” When brought to life, he describes himself as “I am.” Ultron’s contemptuous description carries striking Christological echoes: “Stark asked for a savior and settled for a slave.” The Vision is a benevolent and contemplative, unwilling to remove any part of the world; when brought to life, in a striking bit of imagery, he first sees his own face reflected in a window, transposed over the lights of New York City. (It’s also worth noting that where Ultron was a product of Tony’s narcissism run amok, Vision’s creation is a team effort.)

In the end, Age of Ultron posits that conflict is inherent in humanity. “Nothing lasts forever,” Romanoff says in one of the closing scenes, but Nick Fury corrects her in a neat encapsulation of Nietzsche’s doctrine of the eternal recurrence: “Trouble always comes ‘round.” In Age of Ultron, to attain a true and lasting peace is to destroy humanity. A peace without humanity is not worth having; true humanity is located in negotiating the inevitability of conflict.

CONCLUSION: “Grace In Their Failings”

The film is life-affirming in a Nietzschean sense, but it does not square with all of Nietzsche’s philosophy; it affirms some tenets and critiques others. Most gratifyingly, it does away with Nietzsche’s contempt for the weak. The climax hinges on the Avengers’ determination to save as many lives as they can, while Ultron is the one who bloviates about how the process of evolution leaves “no room for the weak.” This ties everything back to the ethos of the Marvel Cinematic Universe: humane heroes against inhuman institutions.

In a scene that defines the film, Vision and Ultron have a final, quiet conversation, philosophizing in that comic-booky, on-the-nose way about the ultimate fate of mankind. “Humans are odd,” Vision says. “They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.” “They’re doomed,” Ultron snarls, and Vision responds with a nod and a quiet “Yes.” But he goes on: “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.” It’s a surprisingly mature, deeply melancholy stance for a superhero movie to take. But is it a good one?

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C.S. Lewis writes, “The settled happiness and security which we all desire, God withholds from us by the very nature of the world: but joy, pleasure, and merriment, He has scattered broadcast. We are never safe, but we have plenty of fun, and some ecstasy. It is not hard to see why. The security we crave would teach us to rest our hearts in this world and oppose an obstacles to our return to God: a few moments of happy love, a landscape, a symphony, a merry meeting with our friends, a bathe or a football match, have no such tendency. Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.”

Some may find Age of Ultron’s ultimate view to be pessimistic or unduly melancholy – unfitting, perhaps, for a colorful film about superheroes. In my view, though, films in which superheroes actually save the world are more problematic. They present a false hope, rather than wrestling with the real dilemma. Age of Ultron is surprisingly mature, although it is incomplete, limited – it presents the difficulty of the world without presenting the transcendent beyond it. This is the weakness of Marvel’s storytelling philosophy; by making everything human, it robs the world of the divine. If this is unsatisfying, perhaps it should be; perhaps it is better to feel the absence of transcendence than to wrongly locate it where it is not.

Marvel’s films may not be perfect, but there is much to be learned from them. As the Vision says, “There is grace in their failings.”

Timothy Lawrence

Timothy Lawrence is studying screenwriting at Biola University, where he also attends the Torrey Honors Institute. He writes unceasingly, and enjoys reading books, watching films, and discussing both. He is especially fond of the works of the Coen Brothers.

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