Thus far, we've seen director Joss Whedon leverage the history of comics fandom and of Hollywood film in a grand and postmodern experiment. Here's why.
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It's called the trolley problem and you'd have heard about it by now.
If you're the kind of person who's scouring the internet to cull every little bit of detail about the movie before it even opens, if you're the kind of person who needs to, needs to know everything about the movie before it captures the popular imagination (we'll get back to that later) then you'd have absolutely heard about the trolley problem. We live in an age of Google, and you're the true inheritor of that age. Welcome.
The trolley problem, however, hasn't happened yet. It's from a future so tantalizingly close you can almost taste it. The trolley problem is from Google (not really though) and from driverless cars. Imagine in the distance a trolley with five people careens out of control. Imagine the AI algorithms in your driverless car's software fails to respond in time, and in the final moments needs to make a choice, where all possible alternatives are horrendous. Either crash into the oncoming trolley, with a guaranteed 0.88 chance of death for all six of the people involved. Or swerve out of the way and cause the death of only the passenger. Lose six lives, or sacrifice one life for five. The mathematics is abhorrent. And is there any truth the rumor that Google is engineering a preference for saving the more lives on the trolley?
Lose six lives, or sacrifice one life for five. Is it the life of the person who legally purchased a piece of technology that will now, under certain predetermined conditions, actively attempt to kill you? The decision is something that lies in our collective future, but the problem is, that future is so close that it needs to be dealt with now, immediately, many top-tier AI researchers like Nick Bostrom have argued.
Driverless cars are cars that will kill you, maybe. But today's regular, garden variety cars can kill you, too.
On "The Most Dangerous Machine", an episode of the Freakonomics Radio podcast, host Stephen J. Dubner explains, "So there's the dilemma. We are so dependent on our cars, at least for the foreseeable future—but, when driving them, we are our own worst enemy. It's nice to know that driving has gotten relatively safer—but remember, there are still 1.2 million traffic deaths a year worldwide! Not to mention 20 to 50 million injuries and a financial cost of roughly half a trillion dollars a year."
This is what futurist-alarmists (of which Nick Bostrom, his TED talk cited earlier, certainly is not one) often elide or simply fail to grasp—that the dangers of the Coming Singularity (the convergence between biological and technological evolutions) are not new dangers, they are threats we already face. And threats we have already navigated with current social systems. The only difference with threats of the Singularity is that of the origin, not of the nature, of the threats themselves.
But this is a point that Joss Whedon grasps, and makes easily accessible in Avengers: Age of Ultron. Really, in many senses, this is what Whedon makes the centerpiece in his creative vision for The Avengers.
Major Spoilers Ahead
The real power in Whedon's vision of Ultron doesn't lie in the prowess of James Spader's performance (even though Spader is formidable). It doesn't lie in Ultron's inhuman capacity to "telescope the future on a digital timescale" (to borrow a quote from Nick Bostrom), rather it lies in the paucity of Ultron's ambition.
Weaponize an entire city to cause an extinction-level event? That's small potatoes, to quote Donald Trump. Why not calculate what it would take to launch impacter satellites, land on a pair of comets and bring those close enough into Near-Earth orbit to effectively pull the planet away from the sun's warmth? Sephiroth from Final Fantasy Children was way more badass a villain. And he had mommy issues.
No, Scott Foundas from Variety you're on the wrong side of this. Ultron is not a villain at his peak (OK, Foundas didn't use those exact words, he said, "Unlike its title character, Age of Ultron most definitely has soul", but my point is clear. And also, I'm just messing with you Scott Foundas, out of all the criticism I've read on Age of Ultron, yours is the only piece to have that "in the room feel"). Ultron's been deliberately written to be pedestrian in both his ambition and the execution of his plans.
Chi McBride posed more of a threat to Hugh Laurie as the first season of House crescendoed to its finalé. But I doubt that that's because Kevin Feige couldn't find good enough writers. It seems clear that Ultron is a limp-wristed pushover version of SIML (Super Intelligent Machine Learning) by design. You don't rise to the level of your expectations, my sensei reminded us, even in those months he knew he was dying, you sink to the level of your training. There's something of an almost genetic predisposition to failure when it comes to Ultron. Technological genetics, not biological.
And there needs to be. Because the entire movie conspires around Robert Downey Jr. being able to say, "If. The whole job is if." Or, "This isn't 'again,' this is the end of the path. The path I put us on." Or, Downey Jr. looking steely-eyed and brimming with exuberance at Mark Ruffalo and saying, "We're mad scientists, Bruce. So let's be mad scientists."
Or the entire movie conspires around Chris Evans's Captain America displaying supreme tactical and situational awareness and in a single moment enlisting enemies as allies ("The innocents in the path," he says, almost pleadingly, "you've got to save them." It's one of the most poignant moments in a movie about global peacekeeping, that Cap can transition beyond simple cessation of hostilities and begin to command as allies those who were enemies just a moment before. And command to do what? Cap leverages that Must-Stop-Ultron impulse to create a sense of needing to save lives. And, as an aside, that's hashtag my America. Not an America debating whether or not to engage in hostilities, but the kind of America that exports rock 'n' roll as easily as it does Levi's jeans).
Or the entire movie conspires around Chris Hemsworth's Thor literally bringing the hammer down after his investigation (no kidding, Thor! Investigates!) and breaking up an Avengers fight before it begins and siding with Downey Jr.'s Tony Stark. Around Thor ensuring artificial lifeform, Paul Bettany's The Vision, be birthed, and become the keeper of the powerful Infinity Gem, the Mind Stone.
All these moments, Downey Jr.'s, Evans's and Hemsworth's have one clear theme in common: to thine own self be true. Your inner nature will eventually out, anyway. For Ultron, for Iron Man, for Cap and for Thor and for Thor trusting in The Vision.
Respectfully then, I must disagree with Todd McCarthy writing in The Hollywood Reporter when he states, "Avengers: Age of Ultron succeeds in the top priority of creating a worthy opponent for its superheroes and giving the latter a few new things to do, but this time the action scenes don't always measure up."
I disagree on all counts save one, really. Ultron isn't a worthy opponent, Ultron is largely irrelevant. Or at least, only as relevant as he occupies the same space as the Hulk in the first movie—a threat born of Tony Stark's unique mix of brio and charisma and hubris. In the first movie, the minute we touched on truly dangerous ground—Earth's Mightiest Mortals (like it says on the can) nearly tearing each other apart aboard the Hellicarrier—Whedon shied away, by having Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye mount a sneak attack. The tension shifted from internal vying for dominance (and survival of personal egos) to external threats needing to be neutralized. The elephant in the room of course, almost literally, was the Hulk. A threat that simply couldn't be tamed and Sam Jackson's Nick Fury's way of dealing with that threat was to hold back and see how things might harmonize themselves. And Tony Stark's solution was to integrate "the threat" i.e., the Hulk, into the Avengers, seducing even the Hulk's greatest adversary, Bruce Banner, to that point of view.
So no, I don't believe that there are "new things for the superheroes to do". The entirety of Avengers: Age of Ultron is dedicated to working out themes that were only glimpsed at in the first movie; integrating threats, true nature eventually coming out, "…to think great thoughts you must heroes as well as idealists", to put it in the same way Oliver Wendell Holmes did.
On all counts save one, I'll agree that "the action scenes don't always measure up". But, again I believe that's by design. Because fights are absolutely the one part of the movie that must feel like tedium. Why? Because it's "This Again!" This feeling of again and again without end, that mimics how Whedon must feel trying to scry what parts of Avengers publication history (a publication history now in its 53rd year) make it into the movie, and which parts do not. This is what it must feel like to try and discern Hollywood's rich legacy, and for Whedon to attempt to write himself into it. And because this is what fans themselves feel like, every day they read issues of the entire slew of Avengers comics.
In part one of this criticism triptych, I explored why Avengers: Age of Ultron works as maybe the best superhero movie ever—because it gives mainstream audiences a more or less immersive sense of the experience of being a fan; that there's a fuller, deeper history that's hinted at rather than fully explained. In part two, I explored how Whedon plays the same game with the History of Hollywood, and the History of Film, that he does with the publication history of the Avengers—that he hints at a fuller, more immersive history and allows casual observers to experience the weight of that without acknowledging their incapacity to familiarize themselves with it. But all of that is setup. Knowing that is just where you begin, it's just knowing the playbook.
Because what comes next is understanding how those plays are executed, and basking in the wonder of how Whedon was able to achieve that. Because what comes next is the beginning. It's the party scene where the Avengers get so drunk off their faces that they begin to think it might be a good idea to try and lift Thor's hammer (the Mjolnir) to find out if "Whosoever holds this hammer if he be worthy…" Compare that with the scene where The Vision is birthed, just moments after Thor brings Mjolnir crashing down on what looks like a coffin but turns out to be The Vision's cradle.
Listen to Lorde's "Team", off of her Pure Heroine album and you'll get it. You'll get it when Lorde croons, "I'm kind of over getting told to throw my hands up in the air/I'm kinda older than I was when I reveled without a care". And you'll get it when she drags you kicking and screaming through the chorus, "We live in cities you'll never see on screen/Not very pretty, but we sure know how to run things/Living in ruins of a palace within my dreams/And you know, we're on each other's team". Because that's what Avengers: Age of Ultron is really about. Not horrifying threats of immense power or super cool superhero high-kicks.
Now, about Prince Valiant being given a vision of Camelot's destruction even before he's certain it exists. About becoming "the first to feel the cold," as Mike Mignola so beautifully put it. Avengers: Age of Ultron is about knowing there's a darkness coming, but holding to this moment where it hasn't arrived yet, really, holding to this moment by relying on team building. And what's more, building a team from the aberrant who'd be cast as outsiders in mainstream society. Hence, the postmodern reflection on what it means to be a comic book fan or a Hollywood or film geek.
Because geeks are the opposite of those old Universal monsters. Not hated or feared, not hunted to their deaths. There are no mobs that appear with pitchforks and torches. Geeks refuse to be marginalized, and they do this by living in the middle of the world's greatest cities, by drawing attention to themselves and appearing in outlandish gear and by calling themselves by names that no balanced person would. Making those choices is the opposite of damaged. It is our love-letter to 75-plus years of perpetual fiction. And Avengers: Age of Ultron is Whedon's love-letter to us.
Splash image from Marvel.comAll interior images, stills from Avengers: Age of Ultron (Marvel Studios, 2015).