Deconstructing the Avengers: Good and Bad Language

From the very outset Age of Ultron was weighed down by a lot of artistic, cultural, and commercial expectations: You don't take care of this particular problem by adding more weight.

The first words spoken by the Avengers in Age of Ultron are also their most memorable: “Shit!” exclaims Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as he’s unable to breach the energy barriers of the castle his team is assaulting. “Language!” responds Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans). This sets up a recurring in-joke, and in the same stroke also the tension that will inform the entirety of the film. For Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in essence, a film about exploring the themes of “shit” and “language” and the margins, relations, differences and connections between the two.

I mean this in the broadest sense possible, as the film is about much more than the relationship between profanity and good manners (which is what makes the line work as a joke). Consider the meaning of the S-word, which among swear-words in English is second in prominence only to the F-word. On top of being a coarse synonym for “bad” (and any other pejorative adjective), the dictionary defines one of its unique slang uses as “pretense, lies, exaggeration, or nonsense”, while as a verb it means “to exaggerate or lie to”.

If the S-word is seen as a strong connotative of (mostly linguistic) excess, then there seems to be a remarkably wide consensus that Age of Ultron indulges in it with gusto. A cursory overlook of the reviews brings the point home. Scott Foundas moans “about all the whirring and smashing and booming and crashing“. Sady Doyle says the first of many problems she saw was “too many characters.” Deborah Ross feels of the Avengers that “they all seem much of a muchness“, while Erik Kain worries because “so much stuff is going on all the time”. Kain’s particular choice of vocabulary (“stuff”) feels somewhat stifled, but Sam Clark, whose editor is obviously more permissive with his Language!, finally nails it: “It has too much shit to do to get bogged down in actually letting its story breathe.”

This may have been the inevitable outcome when making a film of this import. From the very outset Age of Ultron was weighed down by a lot, in terms of the textual and filmic mythologies that informed it, as well as the enormous artistic, cultural, and commercial expectations that came with it. Ultron’s vibranium shoulders creak visibly, and news that mastermind Joss Whedon’s original cut extends to more than three hours and has an alternate ending adds to the load rather than helps relieve it. You don’t take care of this particular problem by adding more “shit”.

The film’s sequence immediately preceding the title prefigures the anxiety of being crushed under all this textuality (meta-, extra-, para-, inter-, proto-textuality) as a nightmare, specifically Tony Stark’s. The character, walking into the dark bowels of the castle, finds a dead Leviathan, one of those gigantic, floating aliens he battled at the end of the first Avengers movie. When the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) enters his mind, he sees it coming back to life and descending alongside a host of other aliens of its kind through a round portal onto the earth.

The visual metaphor articulated as these gigantic turds fall through a space-anus to drown out the earth is probably coincidental. Even so, it serves the film incredibly well. The Leviathan, in the terms that we have been discussing so far, is indeed a massive load of (filmic) shit. It has so much coming with it, is so textually “heavy”, that audiences and critics alike will struggle to process it all in one go. The alien comes from a previous film, as part of an army called the Chitauri who come from the comics; the comics in turn took them from another universe of the same comics in which they were called the Skrull. The Leviathan is a visual humdinger of special effects and design that exceeds the limits of the frame along with the budget of most normal film-makers. It’s a hybrid textual object that stands somewhere between science-fiction, fantasy, and pop culture. In the film, it means death and apocalypse, but also extra-terrestrials and other universes. Even the name “Leviathan” seems somewhat excessive – was a reference to a myth from the Old Testament really necessary? Is it throwing back to Thomas Hobbes too?

Aptly, Stark’s nightmare in which the earth is overrun by shit includes a vision of Captain America’s shield lying down cracked, in this case a symbol of the perfect integrity of Language! being broken. Iron Man’s hallucination is a case in which the “shit/language” scales fall completely in favour of the former.

Prim and proper Captain America, whose first line in the film serves to promote Language!, stands of course at the other side of this dichotomy, to such a degree that he even becomes the subject of everyone’s recurring joke. As Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) points out, his taboo is “bad language”, which again has much broader connotations than just “profanity”.

Captain Steve Rogers is, like all the other Avengers, very self-aware; this means he has no trouble seeing the humour in his role as the film’s linguistic legislator. That, however, doesn’t make him any less rigorous. As a character, Captain America has always been employed as a moral paragon, and in Age of Ultron this function is specialised from defining what can and cannot be done, to what can and cannot be said. He is naturally and by a distance the character heard most often when the Avengers are communicating through their earpiece, making his Language! literally omnipresent wherever the heroes go. Sometimes this elevates him to a near-narrator role, as it does for his speech before the battle in Segovia, which pans over urban scenes with Captain America’s voice talking in the background.

Cap commands language, not just symbolically but on behalf of the audience too. When Maria Hill starts rattling scientific jargon at him, all he needs is a glance to make her change her lines into vernacular (“He’s fast and she’s weird”). When he fights against his enemies, he usually cuts them off as they speak: Ultron’s robot leaps onto him saying “You’ll never…” and the star-spangled soldier throws him off the city’s rim and yells after him: “You’ll never what? You didn’t finish!” Earlier, Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) barely has the time to utter “You’ll have to be quicker…” before Captain America knocks him out in a flash.

The characters’ own lines, like those of a Homeric divinity who has to narrate everything s/he does before doing it, border on linguistic narcissism. When he steps in to keep Tony Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) from powering up the Vision (Paul Bettany), he opens with the line: “I’m going to say this once!” When he reprimands the Scarlet Witch, he tells her: “You don’t know what you’re talking about”. When Tony Stark accuses him of not having a dark side, he responds: “Let’s just say you haven’t seen it yet.” And when things aren’t going his way, he complains that he doesn’t have access to the language of others: “Sometimes my teammates don’t tell me things,” he sighs, after Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has departed for his own journey of discovery.

At this point it may seem like Age of Ultron is really the story of Captain America and Iron Man, and the opposing values that they embody. Not so. Like its predecessor, this film is an ensemble piece, and it would be more accurate to say that every Avenger represents variations of “shit” and “language” in their own manner. Tony Stark is not, in fact, the most exact representative of the “shit” side – Bruce Banner/the Hulk is, and we will return to his own polarity with Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in the next article.

Likewise, Captain America is not the only champion of Language!. As the film struggles with the landslide of unstable signifiers that compose it (all the “shit”), it naturally falls back on the more stable symbols to represent the opposite side. The Captain’s indestructible, inviolable shield is a perfect example of such a symbol, but it is not the only one. The other is Mjölnir, the hammer of Thor.

What we’re seeing here is not the “original” meaning of the shield or the hammer in the comics, or even in the other films. This is simply Joss Whedon gathering all of the film’s symbols into the thematic antagonism that worried him when making Age of Ultron. Much as the Captain’s shield is a synecdoche for the Captain’s inviolable linguistic integrity, so does Mjölnir serve as a very literal symbol of linguistic authority.

The famous scene in which all of the Avengers attempt to lift the hammer is axiomatic. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) opens the scene by performing in language what he later tries to do physically: “Whosoever wieldeth if he be worthy shall haveth the power… whatever man, it’s a trick.” Let’s break this down: first Hawkeye tries to parrot archaic English, which is the “stable” linguistic style of texts like the King James Bible or Shakespeare, and right after that he reverts to a very casual street argot. In other words, he fails to assume the authority of Language! in exactly the same way and immediately after that, he fails to lift the hammer.

This manner of speaking is shared by the other Avengers (“it’s rigged! You bet your ass!”), and this also rules them all out. Tony Stark’s quip “I will be reinstituting prima nocta” shows another attempt at mastering classical language, in this case Latin, but excludes the character on account of its use of irony and double entendre, which grate with the formalism of Latin.

The only two characters who are able to budge the hammer, Thor aside, are Captain America—for obvious reasons—and the Vision, who has life near-literally injected into him by Mjölnir.

The Vision is also a champion of Language!, and the scene in which he picks up Mjölnir makes the hammer’s symbolic role explicit. Right after lifting it, all of the Avengers are shown with the hammer at the bottom of the frame. For the first and only time in the film they are speechless, not (only) because the Vision lifted the hammer, but because at that moment the authority of Language! does not reside with them, not even with Captain America. When the camera pans back, the same identical frame is repeated, but this time with no hammer providing a “foundation” for the Avengers, reinforcing the point: Language! is no longer theirs.

It is these shifts in textual authority and symbolic affiliation that make Age of Ultron so much harder to unpack than it may superficially appear. The film is at heart about Joss Whedon’s attempts at dealing with all the “shit” that is overwhelming him, and his search for a Language! that may set it in order. The film and Whedon alike end up failing in their aspirations, but it’s one of the most fascinating and revealing failures we’ve seen in quite some time. As the Vision recognises, “There is grace in their failings.”

Explaining the “grace” of the Avengers is a task that goes beyond the space of this first article, but we are not done exploring; not yet. We’ve only scraped the surface of the city that Whedon was so deliberately lifting. In part two, we shall look into the way he drops it down and watches his masterwork crashing into the ground.