Continuing my MCU commentary…
The first two Avengers movies offer an interesting dichotomy in success and, well, not failure, but perhaps lackluster achievement.
Both are penned and directed by nerd-culture aristocrat Joss Whedon. Whedon has great skill as a writer, able to craft great characters and deploy them in fireworks of dialogue. He’s created some of my favorite media in Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-along-blog. However, he’s also devoted to a set of principles and values which are, by-and-large, anathema to me – atheism, moral relativism, gender flattening.
This dichotomy is on wide display in his MCU outings. The first has a razor-focus on the story, dealing with simple yet deep themes of working together and self-sacrifice. The second is a thematic mess, watchable only by dent of Whedon’s craft and the dynamite performances of the cast.
The Avengers — Unity Forged in Sacrifice
While I can’t say Avengers reaches transcendent heights like Winter Soldier, it does what it does with consummate perfection. The first two sequences, The Other outlining the invasion plan and Loki’s assault on SHIELD, sets up the challenge perfectly. From there it’s a series of scenes bringing together the team, Loki offering a near catastrophic obstacle, and the final coming together moment to defeat the bad guy.
The whole movie is about this team of misfits learning to work together. Each has their own obstacle from Rogers’ unfamiliarity with this new world, Banner’s fear of his own power, Thor’s disdain of mere mortals, Fury and Romanov’s “don’t trust anyone” flippancy, and Stark’s all consuming selfishness and pride. They are a microcosm of Loki’s whole plan, of proving to humanity they are worthless and leaving them in their own individual pits of despair. The 2nd act attack on the Helicarrier succeeds in aggravating the team’s dysfunction and physically separating many of the members.
Let’s be sure to recognize what ultimately brings the team together and forges them into the defenders of the planet – the recognition of the Common Good and sacrifice for it.
The death of Agent Phil Coulson is the catalyst. The scene between Stark and Rogers after his death is incredibly poignant. Rogers recognizes a soldier’s sacrifice, the offering of one’s life for the sake of the Common Good. Stark is terrified of doing so, even belittling the man’s act and declaring “we aren’t soldiers.” For all his words, though, the act shakes Stark to his core, and as soon as he’s uncovered Loki’s plan, he’s prepared to follow in Agent Coulson’s footsteps, even to the point of death. It inspires the whole team.
I’m oversimplifying, but it’s the simplicity of Whedon’s film that’s it’s genius. He’s not exploring a lot of deep or controversial themes. The real meat of the movie is the way sacrifice can bind people together, even, perhaps especially, heroes. Everything is about this and the streamlining makes the movie absolutely perfect.
Age of Ultron — Palatable Nihilism
Let me state: I like Age of Ultron. James Spader, even with a questionable script, is always fun. The action set pieces are great. I like the redemptive arc of the Maximoff twins. I adore Banner and Romanov’s troubled and frustrated romance. The sequence in Clint “Hawkeye” Barton’s hidden farm home is all sorts of humanizing awesomeness. There’s so many great pieces, that I watch it fondly every time. Those who consider it a complete mess and a wreck are only half-right.
The thing is, all these pieces never contribute to some higher theme. There’s no symphony of character and action towards which all the parts are leading. It’s just a bunch of really awesome characters doing astounding things that end up stopping a megalomaniacal robot from destroying the world.
While a number of contributing factors could have brought this about — corporate meddling and an overly large cast being the most obvious examples — I think a lot of the blame can be laid at Whedon’s feet. There’s clear signs he was grasping for a high concept to unite everything together, but if that concept is nothing but smoke, it fails.
And palatable nihilism is nothing but smoke.
The relation of two characters really highlight this. The megalomaniacal Ultron is an agent of repulsive nietzscheanism, one who has found humanity to be lacking in meaning and purpose and thus will become, in his own pridefully violent fashion, the agent of meaning and purpose. They will either survive and evolve his extinction level event, or not.
Vision, created from parts of Ultron and parts of Stark’s helpful AI-butler Jarvis, stands in a kind of opposed agreement to Ultron. His own creation leaves him without any substantive answers to life’s questions and he seems to embrace this. In the final dialogue with Ultron, he says humans are weird for looking for order, and perhaps they absurdly short existence, but that’s the beauty of them. It’s a privilege to be among them, he says.
“You are hopelessly naive,” responds Ultron. I can’t say I disagree.
These themes are just kind of floating there. Ultron is spouting them left and right, peppering them with biblically apocalyptic language, but everyone seems to just ignore him and focus on the problem at hand — defeating the murder-bot. The only one who actually engages him agrees with him, but gives it a nice, comforting veneer.
Unifying themes are all about meaning. You can’t have nihilism, the denial of meaning, be that unifying theme. At least not in a film you want to be fulfilling. Those works which try to deny meaning do so by either embracing absurdity or refusing to reach a fulfilling ending – Watchmen doesn’t end well and the story knows it and smiles at your discomfort. Whedon doesn’t want to leave you uncomfortable, though, so he can’t push it more than he does. But that leaves the other parts of the film without a core to forge themselves around.
But like I said, the film’s not a complete failure. The other parts are great and I always enjoy watching the movie, but this lack of unity ultimately keeps it from being more than a simplistic, if enjoyable, action film.