Tag Archives: anthropocene films

“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.

Thinking Through Extinction

In case you missed it, there has been a lot of discussion lately about the possibility of bringing the passenger pigeon back through cloning.  If we leave aside for the moment the pros and cons of such a move, we can more clearly see the ways in which extinction as a phenomenon continues to haunt our collective human imagination, reminding us of just how precarious our own existence as a species remains, especially as the consequences of our rapid march toward modernity become increasingly obvious to even the most casual observer.  We have, in essence, left behind us an enormous trail of vanished creatures of all stripes and, if current trends continue, we might be on the very brink of another mass extinction.  That being the case, it is worth spending time thinking about the function that extinction serves, and how it can be not only a warning of things to come, but also a potent tool for considering how we engage with our present place in the world.

I have always been particularly drawn to and enthralled by those creatures that have been brought to extinction by the actions and influence of humans.  The great auk, the Stellar’sea cow, the passenger pigeon, the Chinese river dolphin, the Tasmanian tiger, the quagga, the Carolina parakeet…the list goes on, each of these mysterious and intangible creatures haunting my imagination, a perpetual reminder of the fragility of life on this planet.  Paired with this is also the fact that their presence in the cultural imagination is so powerful precisely because they cannot be seen again.  This also goes a long way toward explaining why there continue to be sightings of some of these creatures, as well as debates about the feasibility of resurrecting some of them via genetic technology (the passenger pigeon is but one example; there have been similar discussions about the Tasmanian tiger and, perhaps most famously, the woolly mammoth).  We as a species are so guilt-ridden over what we have wrought that we will do almost anything to undo the damage that we have caused, even while a part of us also recognizes that it is too late for such measures.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that our media is so glutted with images of the devastation wrought by nature.  I am speaking here not just of how much the 24-hour news cycle revels in the joys of chaos delivered by natural disasters (though that is certainly the case.  Nothing drives ratings like a forest fire, a hurricane, or an earthquake).  I am also referring to films such as Godzilla, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and so many more that serve as expressions of our collective guilt over the damage that we have perpetrated against entire species, though in this case we get to to be the ones that face utter annihilation, at the mercy of a force or forces that we cannot control nor effectively combat.  Whether that be a pair of giant creatures that feed on radioactivity or a virus that spreads and decimates the human population, these forces are the spectres that continue to haunt or collective human imaginary.  These media texts are also a recognition that extinction is, ultimately, the fate that has awaited almost every distinct species that has ever emerged.  There is clearly something cathartic about seeing our destruction writ large,  about embracing the oblivion that is the ontological root of extinction, even if only for two hours in a movie theater.

Extinction is a potent and troubling reminder of how tenuous and sometimes unsustainable this idea we have of progress truly is.  We want to believe, we are constantly encouraged to believe, that the world is headed toward a better place, that a brighter future is always on the horizon, just waiting to be grasped, if we but continue to believe in it.  There is much in our world, both in the present and in the past, that hauntingly reminds us of the essential fallacy that lies at the heart of this notion of progress, as well as the terrible price it exacts.  We who inhabit the conceptual and temporal space of modernity must constantly remind ourselves of the price that has been paid by numerous species as we continue our march into the future.  There is both a pleasure and a pain to the contemplation of extinction, and we as a species would do well to spend more time reflecting on both.

“Godzilla” and the Film Culture of the Anthropocene

Upon recently watching the film Godzilla, I was struck by the ways in which the film seems to articulate and refract the ethos of the anthropocene.  In an era in which it is now recognized that the human race has become a force of nature in and of itself, a film like Godzilla seems to refute and undergird such claims, a common trait of films and television series that engage with the problems posed by the advent of the anthropocene.

This film, the most recent entry in a decades-old film franchise, sees the rise of two radiation-consuming MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Objects) that wreak havoc and chaos across the Pacific and the western United States.  As several (largely forgettable) human characters feverishly attempt to destroy the creatures, the prehistoric giant Godzilla emerges to do battle with both creatures and, though he succeeds in destroying them, the city of San Francisco is also laid to waste.

Again and again, the film highlights both the futility of humankind’s attempts to overcome the creatures that it so feverishly attempts to control and the sheer enormity of the power these prehistoric creatures wield.  The sense of human futility that pervades the film appears repeatedly, taking into its scope the atomic bomb tests of the 1940s and 1950s and the practice of storing radioactive material in the deserts of Nevada.  Significantly, both instances are the result of humans believing that technology has the power to control forces exceed the bounds of humankind’s understanding and being proven completely and unequivocally wrong in their assumptions.  The fact that the cost of such presumption is the destruction of both large segments of Las Vegas as well as San Francisco underscores the film’s essential argument that, for all that humans have become a force of nature, there is still a larger series of natural processes that continue to control and exceed the actions of humanity.  Just as importantly, the film suggests that this futility, far from just being ineffective, actually makes the situation much worse (after all, who attacks creatures that feed on radiation with a radioactive bomb?)

The twinned voices of Bryan Cranston’s Joe Brody and Ken Watanabe’s Dr. Serizawa consistently articulate and underline one of the film’s many positions regarding mankind’s hubris in believing that it has the ability to control the natural world.  Brody’s anguished cry that the MUTOs will send humankind back to the Stone Age and Serizawa’s belief that Gozilla is nothing less than a god (as well as his quote, “The arrogance of men is thinking nature is in their control and not the other way around), bespeak an acknowledgement of the limitations of humankind’s understanding.  Thus, although Godzilla does ultimately come to the aid of the beleaguered human cities, the fact that so much of the city is destroyed as a result of his battles with the MUTOs and that he seems to care little for the humans he is ostensibly helping, suggest that nature (in the person of Godzilla) has its own order and its own set of behaviors that exist beyond the ability of humans to understand.

Thus, Godzilla engages with the epistemological problems and questions posed by our culture’s growing consciousness of the anthropocene.  The film suggests that human culture, for all of its vaunted power and inviolability, is as vulnerable to the vicissitudes of nature as any other component of the natural world.  In doing so, the film displaces the anxiety of humanity’s collective responsibility for the changing climate conditions on the planet onto forces beyond humanity’s control.  After all, what better way to cope with overwhelming culpability than by continuing to assert that there are indeed forces of nature that remain greater than humanity and can indeed overcome humans?  Far from being a force that is slowly destroying the world, these types of films suggest that we are instead the victims of an uncaring (or at least completely noncommittal) nature.

Nor is this phenomenon limited to the most recent iteration of the king of the monsters.  In countless apocalyptic and postapocalyptic films (including the forthcoming Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), there is something at work that humbles humankind and reminds us of how limited we are and how little power we have to truly impact/change the world around us.  It remains to be seen, however, whether films produced in the era of the anthropocene can truly engage with the vast epistemological and conceptual challenges posed by mankind’s increasing influence upon the very structures of of the world in/on which we live.