“Avengers: Age of Ultron”: A Melodramatic Myth for the Anthropocene

Warning:  Full spoilers for the film follow.

I’ll be the first to admit a fair amount of skepticism going into Avengers:  Age of Ultron.  While I am, as a rule, a fan of superhero films, and while I believe that Marvel films in particular are often far more complex and nuanced in their address than might appear obvious at first blush, I am also not a particular fan of Joss Whedon, who I find something of a pretentious (if talented) bore.  Further, I found the first Avengers film to be compelling but not groundbreaking in any meaningful way (though it was highly entertaining).

Fortunately for me, this film managed to trump its predecessor in almost every way imaginable.

Of course, per the usual, it has all of the explosions and titanic battle scenes that have become a staple of the Marvel films, lightly leavened with snappy dialogue and witty repartee between the various characters (Black Widow particularly excels at this).  And, there’s even a little bit of a love plot thrown in, as Black Widow and Bruce Banner/The Hulk continue to develop their (perhaps ultimately doomed) relationship.  Each of the characters remains haunted by their pasts and their futures, and it is precisely the fear of future failure that leads everyone’s favourite playboy/philanthropist/bad boy Tony Stark/Iron Man to set in motion the process that ultimately creates Ultron, an AI whose daddy issues ultimately lead him to attempt to destroy humanity.

What struck me as I watched this film was how intensely melodramatic it was.  Of course, melodrama is, it seems, built into the very DNA of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but in this film it seemed to take on mythic dimension, as the film articulates a remarkably (and troublingly) reflective take on the brink of destruction.  As Ultron (played with a memorable and menacing growl by the inimitable James Spader) remarks, humans excel at creating the very thing that will ultimately destroy and supplant them.  Just as human parents beget the children that will eventually take over their role on this mortal coil, so Ultron has decided to take it upon himself to rid the earth of the meddlesome, murky, and ultimately destructive presence of humanity.  The fact that he doesn’t succeed in doing so doesn’t really lessen the bite of his caustic remark, which is troubling precisely because it is true; the nature of organic life is, indeed, predicated precisely on change, on a constant sense that our own individual lives on this planet are finite, that our descendants are biologically intended to replace us.  To me, this was one of the most frightening moments on the film, precisely because it cuts through all of the bombast and hyperbole typically associated with this genre to hit at a point that we, as a species, constantly try to forget.

Further, a profound sense of melodramatic melancholy haunts this film, as each of the key characters struggles to find that space of innocence that scholar Linda Williams is key to the ways in which melodrama functions as an affective mode of storytelling.  So much of this film remains predicated on the “too late” moments; it’s too late for Bruce and Black Widow, Iron Man remains haunted by the possibility that he will be too late to save his companions, that he will in fact be to blame for the death of everyone and everything he has come to care about.  These moments are, of course, coupled with “on time” moments:  Hawkeye’s family and his bucolic house in the countryside are saved; Black Widow is saved from Ultron (don’t get me started on the way in which she is basically reduced to a damsel in distress); and, of course, humanity is ultimately saved from absolute extinction.

And yet, for all that the film strenuously wants us to believe that saving the world is the ultimately goal, the most terrifying thing about the vision articulated by Ultron is that, unfortunately, he’s right.  We as a species have pretty much brought the world as we know it to the brink of ecological, environmental, and biological catastrophe (we are living in the anthropocene, after all), and one can’t help but feel that maybe, just maybe, the dropping of the city of Sokovia onto Earth (thus triggering a mass extinction of humanity) wouldn’t be such a bad thing, after all.  Of course, the film does everything in its formidable power to disavow this possibility, in the process suggesting that it is not, indeed, too late for the collective us in the audience to do something to save our world from its own doom.  As a species and as a culture, we desperately, one might say hysterically, desire to return to some world of pre-lapsarian grace, when we still had a sense of control over own destiny, when we were not faced so imminently, and perhaps inevitably, with our own destruction (one could even say that the anthropocene is one big “too late” moment).

What emerges from this film, finally, is a stirring melodrama that actually manages to perfect that sensibility into something approaching the emotional heights of Greek myth.  Unlike the Greeks, however, who set their myths in their remote past so as to make sense of their own present, the Marvel films present us with the uncomfortable knowledge that the world onscreen is very much like our own; the possibility of our own imminent destruction, no matter how much we try to disavow it, always intrudes on the affective bounds of the film.

Indeed, the final credits unfold against a backdrop of titanic figures doing battle, a potent reminder of the stakes involved in the film that we have just seen.  And yet, like any great myth, Avengers:  Age of Ultron confronts us with some of the most unpleasant truths and facts about our own culture.  Rather than dismissing it as just another blockbuster piece of junk, I find it valuable to think through what the film can do when thought about as a complex piece of filmmaking with something important to say.  What say you, readers?  Do films like this have something important to say about our present world?  Sound off in the comments below.

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