Vacuums of Ultron, and Commodity Fetishism too!

Avengers: Age of Ultron!  It is a moving picture thing that happened in theaters this weekend in the States!

I wish I had time for a full breakdown of the film; I don’t, really.  Oh, and I’m flipping on the Spoiler Warning for this post, beyond this paragraph, so I can do some Actual Analysis without having to hide behind the usual movie review rhetorical fancy footwork (“when one pivotal event happens, certain main characters were sad!”).  That said, you may well have seen the film already, and have probably read a bunch of other breakdowns of it on your various lunchbreaks, so perhaps my top-level thoughts will be of interest.  Spoiler free version: AoU was a fun couple of hours of watching superfolks, some of whom were robots, punch other robots until they (the robots who were at least nominally not superfolks) could not robot any more.  Then, surprise Castle in the Sky reference!  Overall, though, AoU left me a little cold.  Some of that cold-leaving was probably the fault of a not-great 3-D conversion that felt dim and flickery to this viewer.  Some, though…

Spoilers on.

For my money, The Avengers, the first film, worked despite its enormous cast by hanging a dog-simple plot (BAD GUY SPEAR ALIENS AAAAAAAH) on a construction grade steel frame of character.  The characters don’t arc per se—there’s not enough room for people to do much Growing or Changing—but each player has a white hot emotional core running through the entire film.  Tony has a Problem with Authority.  Cap is a Man out of Time.  Bruce has Bruce Problems.  Thor has My Brother, God What Am I Supposed to Do with my Goddamn Brother Problems.  Natasha has La Femme Nikita Problems.  Hawkeye is a Plot Device.  Basically everyone has PTSD of some sort, except for Thor, who’s too awesome for PTSD.  All these people have developed strengths in conversation with and response to their problems.  The Avengers told the story of all this motley crew directing their weird strengths toward a common challenge in spite of their various issues.

(Side point: this storytelling technique interests me because it flies in the face of the received vision of “character growth” storytelling, where, you know, Broseph or Damemageddon [is bad at thing] in Act I, then [develops as character] and [succeeds at thing] by the end of Act V.  Many myths don’t work this way at all—mythic characters tend to be revealed as the right man, woman, etc. for the job over the course of their adventure.  The Hero Twins in the Popul Voh don’t need an Act I to establish them as nitwits so they can be awesome later; they’re awesome from appearance one.  Arthur isn’t some schmuck who pulls his act together to be king.  He’s king all along!  The sword just, you know, points it out to everyone else.   Odysseus doesn’t go through an arc where he learns that he really needs to be the man of twists and turns—he *is*.  Many and myriad are the movies that show us a character who’s not in her proper place, or whose inner qualities aren’t appreciated by society until she uses them to save that society.  This is Jackie Chan in Project A.  This is the Joan of Arc story.  This is Aerin in The Hero and the Crown.  This is Chris Pratt in basically everything, but specifically Guardians of the Galaxy and The LEGO Movie.  This is most of the Disney Princesses.  This is everyone in Oceans 11.)

(Continuing side point: it’s actually really hard for me to think of a movie that’s not a comedy that doesn’t handle heroism this way.  I’m not saying that characters don’t grow, or shouldn’t—just that there’s this other thing happening too in great myth, and if you spend all your time trying to make characters grow, you can fail into characters who seem flat and uninteresting at the beginning of your story, which is all sorts of squiggly strangley reader death.)

Age of Ultron, by contrast… doesn’t do that thing, at least not nearly so well, in my opinion.  Natasha is Interested in Bruce Banner, Bruce Banner is Interested back—that’s the best of it.  Captain America is… American?  Captain-y?  Hawkeye is… hm.  Thor is, once again, fine—but in being fine he doesn’t quite stand out so much in this slightly more well-adjusted team.  Tony wants “a suit of armor to protect the world,” which would be compelling if this wasn’t the same psychological baggage he wrestled with to much better effect in Iron Man 3.  We buy that these people all work together quite well!  That’s great!  But where are the cracks?

The conflict in this team should come from fundamental differences of approach, but unfortunately, it ends up coming from Scarlet Witch’s mind-control.

Tony gets mind-controlled into creating Ultron—there’s some dialogue handwaving in Act IV to the effect that no, Tony wasn’t actually mind controlled, he would have built Ultron anyway because he was afraid, but he didn’t seem afraid before we saw Scarlet Witch wave her hands, give Tony a Pieta vision in which he kneels mournfully and manfully over Steve (audience: “NOW KEEESS!”), followed by Tony going all “yep, evil robots, that’s what we need, army of ’em.”  I’d be really surprised if the audience walked away thinking Tony would have built Ultron without the Scarlet Witch’s intervention.

So, Tony didn’t make a bad decision really.  He’s not actually responsible for destroying the world, or close enough.  He doesn’t need absolution for anything.  But of course that Act IV exculpatory dialogue also tries to establish that Scarlet Witch didn’t know screwing with Tony’s mind would cause Tony to create Ultron.  She just Witched at his head for… reasons?  So Ultron isn’t her fault either.  He’s no one’s fault!  He’s just the weather!

And now we have Superheroes vs. the Weather, my least favorite superhero plot.  Will Superman stop the tidal wave?  Thrilling!  Tune in next week!

Mind control rears its ugly head again in Act III, where Natasha, Thor, and Cap all face visions of their darkest fears.  Hooray!  Except, see, those visions?  They’re artificial.  Scarlet Witch causes them to help Her Team win a fight.  When that happens, I expect to see My Heroes fight off the manipulation of their minds—that’s the typical old school Marvel “get out of my head” thing, in which My Heroes demonstrate their inner wisdom and self-therapy their way out of mind control—but they never do.

Instead, Act Four seems to treat mind control hallucinations like just another form of character development.  Natasha, Thor, and Cap reel from traumatic pasts that did not seem to be bother them in this movie before they got Witched!  These emotional beats lack any cause beyond “magic.”  Nor do any of Our Heroes, or their script, seem to understand that they’re emotionally shaken because they were mentally violated, rather than due to past traumas they all seem to have made their peace with to various degrees.  Natasha never says, “Well, yes, in fact I did have a deeply screwed up childhood, I’m in therapy, I take meds sometimes to sleep, but my usual coping mechanisms JUST AREN’T WORKING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE SOMEONE FUCKED WITH MY HEAD,” which would then give Bruce, you know, for example, an opening to go “Look, um, I’ve got some experience with coping mechanisms not working, maybe we can work through this together?”  That would be cause-and-effect storytelling!  Natasha’s “I’m a monster” moment feels so weird IMO because we know, but the script never admits, that her feelings of monstrosity are baseless so far as this movie is concerned—the same reason Tony’s anxiety in this film seems so shallow, in spite of working so well in Iron Man 3.

And Bruce Banner.  God.  Talk about Mind Control problems.  So, Bruce seems to have a decent handle on the Hulk for the first two acts of this film.  He drinks, he flirts, he jokes, he’s a normal geeky supergenius.  Even when the Hulk Hulks out in Act I, he doesn’t seem particularly bestial.  He only becomes a threat when he gets, again, Witched, in Act III, and rampages through Jo-Berg, miraculously never killing anyone so far as we see on-screen, even though there’s no way that rampage is actually Body Count Zero.  At which point Bruce spends the last chunk of the film in full on Incredible Hulk TV Show mode: I can’t be around anyone, I’m a threat to the world, etc.  Except he wasn’t a threat, not until he was, say it with me now, mind controlled.  Oy.

(Also sidebar, it felt weird watching a skyscraper collapse in Jo-berg on an IMAX in New York City as part of a Giant Action Setpiece, knowing the whole time that the previous Avengers film, which was set in NYC, didn’t dare do anything like collapse a skyscraper, especially not with that particularly, um, realistic and characteristic dust bloom special effect.  This may be my inner conspiracy theorist coming out.  I can get sensitive about weird stuff sometimes.)

So, basically every conflict in this film can be traced, directly or indirectly, to a vaguely-defined mind control power, yet the mind controller is never held responsible for anything.  No one goes up to Wanda Maximoff, Scarlet Witch extraordinaire, to say, “Hmmmm, maybe this thing you do with the screwing around with people’s minds to make them annihilate cities, maybe this is not so great?  Maybe you have something to atone for here?  Maybe you should feel a little bad about this whole Ultron situation?  Perhaps you should face the consequences of your actions in a direct way, not via karmic scapegoat sacrifice?  Doesn’t it feel a little weird for you to join the Avengers at this juncture, given everything you’re responsible for, without even a second’s soul-searching?”  As a result, most of the moral reasoning and character conflict in the film felt, to me, like it took place in a vacuum.  Of course Tony makes the same decision in Act IV with the Vision that he made in Act I with proto-Ultron; nothing has happened to him as a character in the meantime.

Having said all that, I enjoyed a lot of this movie.  The actors clearly live in their characters.  The party scene at Tony’s at the beginning of Act II, that’s fantastic cinema.  The Avengers hanging out, joshing each other, trying to lift Thor’s hammer—brilliant.  The movie reaches for a beautiful argument about monstrosity, though it doesn’t quite land in my opinion in part due to the film’s reluctance to engage with Mind Control Problems.  I’d vote Paul Bettany for President.  James Spader was fantastic; I couldn’t place his voice at first until a friend pointed out that he was the male lead in Secretary, which made the whole movie more interesting in retrospect!  (Wish they could have sprung for a Maggie Gyllenhall cameo.)  The script’s intuition that the Avengers movies (as opposed to the other MCU entries) should focus their character development on Avengers-specific characters (The Hulk, Natasha, and Hawkeye) is spot-on IMO, and I love the idea, not-quite-sold either in my opinion, that Hawkeye is supposed to step up as father figure for a troubled team.  (The Hawkeye stuff never quite landed for me because it was so disconnected from the rest of the moral universe of the film—a storyteller trying to hide the story, a dangerous move if you’re not Gene Wolfe and even then.)

And the fights!  I mean, yes, faceless interchangeable robots, fine.  But I love how the formal logic of Avengers fights progresses through the films.  I wrote back when Winter Soldier hit theaters about Captain America and Commodity Fetishism in the MCU, basically about how the Marvel core characters are beings who project their individuality into totems, and become encapsulated by those totems.  Thor’s the most literal—Whosoever holds this hammer, if he be worthy, shall posses the power of Thor—but Cap is the Shield in a very real way.  The Hulk might seem not to fit this rubric, but actually he’s its apotheosis, Banner commodified: being as pure kinetic energy, all work with the worker submerged or flensed away.  The Avengers revolved around claiming tools and names (the Tesseract, the spear, the shield, that great scene of Thor trying to grab his hammer as he falls).  Each character owned his or her own style to such an extent I proposed an operatic adaptation, complete with voice casting.  The Phase 2 Marvel movies, by contrast, tended to show characters renegotiating their relationships with totems, trying to re-establish their identities as breathing humans outside of their superheroic tools.  (This is especially true of Captain America: Winter Soldier, with its action scenes spinning around the capture, loss, and recovery of the Shield, not to mention of SHIELD itself, and of IM3, where Tony has to reclaim his Iron Man self from the suit of armor.  Even Thor 2 contained an awful lot of Thor being deprived of his hammer—by teleporter, by literal disarmament, by his own will.)

AoU completes & expands on this process of divestiture and identity reclamation.  Characters regard and use one another’s totems without fear or jealousy—and this totem-play becomes a signal of intimacy and even love.  In one early action sequence Thor strikes Cap’s shield with his hammer because he wants to cause a shockwave—an echo of the climactic conflict between their characters in the first film, reclaimed and restated here as a weapon two friends use against a common foe.  Seconds later, Cap throws his (mighty) shield so Thor can strike it with his hammer baseball style (America’s pasttime!) to knock out Hydra goons.  Natasha touches the Hulk, and rides him—the only non-violent physical contact to which the Hulk’s ever exposed.  The scene where everyone tries to lift Thor’s hammer exemplifies this theme; Thor’s arrogance is part of the joke (“I have a simpler explanation: you’re not worthy”) but this hammer is, in some very real sense, him—he’s trusting his friends with his identity.  After the wrenching moments of shield-loss and divestiture in Winter Soldier, it’s a joy to see those same beats re-capitulated for laughs when Natasha grabs the shield off the road in Seoul.  (“Always picking up after you boys.”)  I know there are other moments; I’ll catch more on rewatch.  And, of course, the point’s made most profoundly by the Vision’s close-paren on the Thor joke from Act II, first for dramatic effect and then for laughs.

There’s a lot more to say about Age of Ultron.  Lots of folk are saying it.  I had a good time in the theater; it’s an impressive achievement in terms of its place in the larger system of Marvel movies.  The team managed to make a fantastic filler episode that’s set to clear $2 billion in box office and queues up a bunch of movies about which I’m very excited.  Go read what other smarter people are writing elsewhere.  For now, I may not be out of thoughts, but I am out of fingers, and time.

OH! And: I’m on Anton Strout’s Once and Future Podcast this week.  Check it out!

7 Responses to “Vacuums of Ultron, and Commodity Fetishism too!”

  1. BSD

    I think calling Wanda’s Whammy mind control a bit strong, and certainly i don’t think it actually causes or forces the characters to take any particular actions. Wanda’s Whammy, like the rest of the movie, runs entirely on guilt: Tony’s guilt that he’s still a feckless playboy superheroing for fun, who’s introduced a new era of monsters to the world; Natasha’s guilt about the people she’s killed, Cap’s survivor’s guilt, and Bruce’s guilt for being the Hulk. The extent to which every member of the team runs on self-loathing (with the exception of Thor, who I’ll get to in a second) cannot be overstated, and it’s mirrored in the Twins (who hate themselves and Stark so much they’ll risk death to hurt him) and Ultron (who literally does nothing but hate, and repeatedly calls out Pinocchio by singing a song that’s about throwing off the bonds of conscience and morality), but specifically countered by Vision.

    In Thor, the conflict is explicitly whether or not he should hate himself — he seems to have a good idea that he’s a terrible ruler and sort of a fuckup at everything but hitting shit with his hammer, but he accepts that. Basically, he’s the Avenger who’s completely fucking everything up and totally OK with that, whereas everyone else is doing OK (on their particular scales of coping with/atoning for red in their ledgers/decades of feckless war profiteering (specifically called out!)/outliving everyone they loved/Being Bruce) and hating themselves for what’s wrong, he’s been blind to what a mess he’s made, and Wanda makes him confront the voice in the back of his head telling him Asgard’s going to fall.

    It was a great movie, I loved it, it could have been 30 minutes longer or shorter (present length as good as neither), but damn, everyone hates themselves so much, all the time.

    • max

      My problem is that the characters don’t seem to feel any of that guilt you mention before they suffer Wanda’s Whammy. They probably *should*—but where the movie might establish that guilt, it instead shows the Avengers enjoying life in ways that suggest they’ve come to terms with their pasts and flaws. Cap hosts World War Two vets at Tony’s party, indicating that he’s made peace with his survivor’s guilt (and is probably hanging around the VA with The Falcon!); Thor jokes about the strength of Asgardian liquor *and* shares the stuff around; Bruce laughs about Hulking out when he tries to lift up Thor’s hammer; Natasha plays up the femme fatale angle to hit on Bruce.

      Now, a scene like that could set up the Avengers being kicked out of their safe zone by dramatic action that forces them to confront their buried secrets—but nothing forces them to confront those secrets other than the Whammy. Pushing a button that says “NOW CONFRONT YOUR BURIED PAST” is not as emotionally compelling as dramatizing that confrontation—and here the movie suffers even more by comparison with the interstitial films, which dramatized the Avengers confronting and making peace with their guilt one by one. In AoU, that drama’s replaced by button-mashing. Wanda and Quicksilver never even confront Tony directly about killing their parents, if I’m remembering correctly!

      All that said, I had a good time at the theater and I’m certainly headed back. The film has its weaknesses, is all.

      • thenarrativejunkie

        I completely agree that the film has its weaknesses – I’m not arguing that the film is perfect. Also your discourse above about heroes discovering their heroism when they are placed in the right context is an observation I really needed to have read, so thankyou :).

        However I would contest the idea that the film needed to establish that the Avengers are still carrying around massive emotional baggage. Partly because for Iron Man and Cap at least, that establishing has been done by three movies already and doing it again would have used up fighting time. We already know Bruce blames himself for whatever the Hulk does, even though he is never technically responsible for the Hulk’s actions, through popular culture osmosis before he even emerged in the movies. Where I agree with you is that we did need more establishing information for Black Widow. We knew she was an assassin and felt bad for assassinating from Cap2. We did not know however that she had been brainwashed by a cult and was living with some Martha Marcy May Marlene-style mindwarping. Her horror at herself does come out of nowhere.

        But beyond this, I contest the notion that seeing the Avengers all happy at the beginning of the movie would lead us away from assuming that they’re still damaged. I contest this because I feel that the bedrock assumption when engaging with a superhero text is that our characters are dealing with permanent damage. No matter what happens or what he does or how he behaves, Batman is never going to get over his parents’ death, Spiderman is never going to stop feeling guilty for Ben & Gwens’ deaths, Bruce Banner is never going to be completely OK with turning into a big green rage monster. Their status quo is damaged. Their damage is as much an identifying totem as their costumes, weapons and powers. For the same reason we can assume those details will remain unchanged, I feel we can assume that their damage will always lie beneath the surface no matter how Whedony their parties.

      • Annesofie Stisen

        This is the tangientest of comments –

        There also an argument hidden there about how people perform when they are watched, by us the voyeristic viewer, but also when inhabiting what they temselves might think of as archetypes.

        In the Thorfilms, we see Thor wrestle with godhood and expectations of performance.

        Tony to mention another, is stuck between his former identity as a playboy and his current track of redemption-of-his-father/himself. Lets not forget that a lot of the base storyline travels along that long line drawn from WWII over the eastern european devastation and the corruption of national symbolism through Hydra.

        As someone whos always viewing american culture from afar/through a lens, its hard not to see the parallels in the Avengers and their stories to the way american media often seems to selfdigest internal cultural baggage without engaging it directly.

        This is coming off harshly i think, but i mean it more that theres certain storytelling devices that can seem, i dunno, more related to culture than might be initially apparent.
        The heroes arch in scandinavian comics, for instance, is often very different.

  2. Rose Fox

    (Also sidebar, it felt weird watching a skyscraper collapse in Jo-berg on an IMAX in New York City as part of a Giant Action Setpiece, knowing the whole time that the previous Avengers film, which was set in NYC, didn’t dare do anything like collapse a skyscraper, especially not with that particularly, um, realistic and characteristic dust bloom special effect. This may be my inner conspiracy theorist coming out. I can get sensitive about weird stuff sometimes.)

    There were some very specific nods to 9/11 in The Avengers, particularly the post-battle newscast showing people putting up signs for their missing loved ones, but I don’t know how obvious that was to anyone who wasn’t in New York in late 2001. (I want to say there were also some clear parallels in how Tony’s trauma was handled in IM3, but I haven’t seen it since it came out, so I don’t remember.) But you’re absolutely correct that they didn’t, and probably will never, show a skyscraper collapsing in New York City. I didn’t watch Winter Soldier with this in mind but I bet they also avoided doing anything that looked like an aerial attack on the Pentagon.

    I suspect those particular taboos are going to remain in Hollywood for at least another 15 years, maybe longer. I suppose they’re seen as not applicable to other cities because people in other cities haven’t been directly traumatized by events that included a collapsing skyscraper. For as long as New Yorkers felt invulnerable, we were perfectly happy to watch the Empire State Building get knocked over, blown up, etc. Now we know we’re vulnerable, and being reminded of it is terrifying. But that’s a fairly specific trigger, and I don’t fault filmmakers for assuming that people in the rest of the world are pretty comfortable seeing disaster N happen in place Q as long as place Q is a place where disaster N has not actually happened.

  3. victoriajanssen

    Thanks for this post – I really loved your discussion of the totems, and heroes in myth. I’ll be thinking of that when I see it again.


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