Avengers: Age of Ultron is what action movies should aspire to be. Far from a special effect vehicle with action sequences meant solely to rake in cash, the film offers a constructive exploration of the culture of violence that stems from foreign policy rooted in a hero complex through engaging and entertaining metaphors. The pre-emptive strikes and defensive policies, as manifest in the ‘Ultron program’, are analogous with America’s foreign policy as it pertains to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; just as the Ultron program leads to the creation of a militant group of robots hell-bent on the eradication of an entire people, so too did America’s policy in Afghanistan in the 80’s and Iraq over the last thirteen years lead to the formation of groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, respectively. The parallels between the Ultron program and America’s drone program are equally starling, while the subplots of characters like Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver offer insight into how terrorist groups are able to recruit such large numbers of people. Writer and director Joss Whedon has done more than offer audiences a series of explosions and robots; he’s managed to create a textbook allegory that lures audiences into the theatre with the promise of action, but weaves in insightful social commentary about the culture of fear and violence that has been holding America hostage for decades.
The Tony Stark/Iron Man character, played by Robert Downey Jr., is likely the biggest draw for the film, so it is fitting that his narrative serves to be most analogous with the folly of America’s defensive culture. In one scene, Stark says that he “tried to create a suit of armour around the world”, aligning his intent behind the Ultron program with the pre-emptive strikes against Afghanistan and Iraq, which were done to protect the world. Instead of fostering peace, however, Stark goes on to state that he “created something terrible” (though this line seems to appear in the trailer only, and not the film). Just as the American military efforts in Afghanistan in the 1980’s facilitated the rise of Al Qaeda, and the war in Iraq gave birth to ISIS, Stark’s attempt to keep the world safe actually created a new threat that was more dangerous than the perceived threat that he was attempting to abate. Considering the contrariety of his intent and the result of his actions, it seems that ‘Iron Man’ is not nearly as suitable a name for him as ‘Irony Man’ would be. This ironic turn is heightened by the fact that he must create a ‘Hulk buster’ suit to combat the Hulk, who was recruited into the Avengers to help them protect others, but whose unchecked power proves to be a threat to civilians. Stark comes to realize the error of his approach and of the perpetual violence when he poses a question to Captain America: “Isn’t why we fight so we can end the fight and go home?” Indeed, the American government seems to suggest that violence is the answer to ending violence, and often gets support from the media in this respect (unless of course the violence is committed by people protesting the abuses of its own police forces), but the approach has proven futile given that America has been in a perpetual state of war for literally centuries (in 222 out of 239 years since its existence, America has been at war). Indeed, their ‘pre-emptive’ strikes have given rise to the anti-American sentiment that allows groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS to recruit terrorists and has inspired attacks like the one that occurred on 9/11. As Stark points out, if the fighting does not end the fighting, then it is not serving its purpose. Later in the film, Stark tries to create a second piece of artificial intelligence but is warned that he is going in a loop, alluding to the cyclical nature of violence and escalation. The parallels between American foreign policy and the mentality adopted by the film’s protagonists serve to give the film and engaging political flavour that enhances the action on the screen and gives it purpose, rather than turning it into a series of gratuitous explosions one might expect in a Michael Bay film.
If Stark is representative of America’s defensive mindset, then Ultron, voiced by James Spader, serves as the manifestation of both its military might, and the resulting antagonism. Ultron, who is an unmanned military weapon, serves to be an overt metaphor for America’s drone program. He notes that he “was designed to save the world”, and goes on to say that in the past, “People would look to the sky and see hope”, before stating that they’ll see horror instead. This idea of being able to look at the sky and feel terror, rather than hope, is a sentiment expressed by many in Middle Eastern countries who have seen innocent people killed by drones that they could not even see in the sky. In these regions, some have reported that rather than looking to clear skies and seeing a beautiful day, the see terror, and hope for grey skies, as drones cannot see the ground on such days. These people have come to associate clear skies with death so much that children include military planes in drawings of the sky. Ultron’s words seem to be a paraphrasing of this sentiment, aligning his despotic agenda with the results of America’s drone program. When speaking of those who oppose him, Ultron also states that “There’s only one path to peace: their extinction”, demonstrating the extent of violence that is implied by any military action, and mirroring the language of militant groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS. The complete decimation of one’s enemies is the only way to ensure peace, but ironically requires unprecedented violence to be secured. Ultron also argues that he “can tear [his opponents] apart from the inside”, a metaphor for how the culture of fear that is adopted by the ‘war on terror’. America, as a country, has been polarized by the perpetual wars waged by its government. This leads to domestic surveillance and violence, and ultimately places citizens and governments in opposition with themselves and each other. By fostering fear, terrorists tear their targets ‘apart from the inside’. Ultron’s army of androids is further linked with groups like Al Qaeda, as the building in which he builds his army was actually run by SHIELD, a covert American military agency, or rather a rogue member of that agency, Struker. SHIELD bears a striking resemblance to the CIA, and just as the CIA funded and supported Al Qaeda, so too does SHIELD essentially support the construction of Ultron and his army. Despite being the antagonist, Ultron remains insightful. In one passage he notes that the Avengers want to ‘save’ the world, but do not want it to ‘change’. By maintaining and protecting systems that foster oppression and lead to conflict, the colonial attitude adopted by countries like America seeks to maintain the source of the conflict and treat only symptoms. Ultron, then, is not simply some operatic villain: he is a metaphor for America’s military policies and the antagonists that are birthed through such violence.
Joining Ultron in his battle against the Avengers are Scarlet Witch, played by Elizabeth Olsen, and Quicksilver, played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The two serve as examples of how terrorist groups are able to recruit members, and also how the culture of fear shapes domestic policy. The two characters, who are brother and sister, are civilian casualties in an attacked where weapons manufactured by Tony Stark are used. Because their parents are killed and they themselves are trapped in the ruins of a decimated building, they see American forces as a source of violence, not as people fighting for freedom. They then volunteer to join Striker as he develops the technology that would later be used to create Ultron. It is noted that he has had many such recruits, and that most have died, demonstrating how terrorist organizations are willing to sacrifice youth, but also driving home that it is aggressive military action perpetuated by America, rather than provision of aid, that makes it so easy to recruit youths into terrorist organizations. Scarlet Witch drives home how the culture of fear creates unreasoned responses when she is able to enter the minds of the Avengers and instill them with fear, causing them to behave in erratic and self-destructive ways, and leading them to turn on each other. That mirrors the way in which the culture of fear leads the American government to pass legislation like the PATRIOT Act, that allows them to infringe on the rights of their own citizens and treats them as potential enemy combatants, rather than protecting their rights.
If Iron Man is representative of the ideology behind America’s foreign policy, and Ultron is emblematic of the manifestation of those ideologies, then Captain America, played by Chris Evans, serves as a metaphor for America’s identity crisis. As a solider, Captain America has always been defined by his military might, just as America has been defined by its perpetual military conflict. America is defined in the international community by its military might, so when there is no conflict to be had, America has nothing to define itself by. Captain America likewise struggles to define himself outside of military context. He also expresses a disgust for his past actions, when he asserts that he is “sick of watching people pay for [the] mistakes” made by him and his colleagues. This cost amounts to casualties and the destruction of infrastructure in the film, which mirrors the events in the real world, given that acts of aggression, like the events of 9/11, are often responses to past acts of aggression made by the American government through its military. It is not the government officials who ordered the past attacks that pay for this, however, but rather civilians. Likewise, civilian casualties in other countries often have to pay the price for America’s mistakes, as demonstrated by hundreds of thousands of civilians killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam. Given that none of these countries ever attacked America, the cost of these ‘defensive’ measures, or ‘pre-emptive strikes’, is likely to give anyone pause to reflect on the validity of past military activity. Captain America’s assertion that he’s tired of other people paying for his mistakes seems to encapsulate that line of thinking. Captain America’s existential crisis and regrets about the past parallel the attitudes of Americans who have come to question past military efforts in the face of so many civilian casualties.
Military politics aside, it is important to note the efforts Whedon makes make the film gender friendly. Though it is true that Black Widow, played by Scarlet Johansson, dons an outfit that is hypersexual and featuring a plunging neckline, there is more to the women’s portrayal than Johansson’s cleavage. When Stark and Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, are discussing relationships, Stark notes that his significant other is running one of the largest technology companies in the world, whilst Thor mentions that his partner is in line for a Nobel Peace Prize (not that you have to do much to get one of those). Likewise, though Bruce Banner, played by Mark Ruffalo, is regarded as an expert biologist, it is Dr. Helen Cho, played by Claudia Kim, that makes ground-breaking discoveries in the field, suggesting that each of the women in the film are at the top of their respective fields. As for the sexualization of women, though there are unnecessary cleavage shots, both with Johansson, as well as with a random civilian mother whose child is in danger, Whedon plays it both ways. Hemsworth, for instance, is pictured sleeveless throughout the film, so that his massively huge triceps and biceps are on display for all to admire (his triceps are so big, they have their own triceps), while Evans wears form fitting shirts that show off his beefy chest and shoulders and sculpted abs. Though equal opportunity sexualization is not what one might call ideal gender equality, it is an equality nonetheless. Though the film certainly won’t be making it onto the syllabus of any women’s studies classes in the near future, it at the very least seeks to frame women in superhero movies as something more than large-chested creatures wearing lycra body suits.
This film is not without its flaws. The action scenes can be a bit repetitive and often have too much going on. With scores of robots swarming onto the Avengers in several scenes, it is easy to get lost, and you can only watch Captain America decapitate a robot with his shield so many times. There is also an overreliance on plot points that happened in other films. Attempts at humour are sometimes too frequent as well, though they often pay off, most notably with clever Banksy and Eugene O’Neill references. These flaws are minute, however, and easily overcome by the film’s more engaging features. The film’s quick wit makes it engaging, and the political undertones give substance to the action sequence and a real-world application to the concepts being handled by the otherwise fantastical protagonists. The final scene, where the Avengers put an emphasis on protecting civilians rather than treating them as collateral damage, was refreshing, especially given the climate of current foreign policy that allows hundreds of thousands of civilians die in response to an attack that killed less than a 1/100th of the current death tolls in Iraq and Afghanistan. The film manages to differentiate itself from other films in the genre. The characters’ abilities are more than just ‘cool super powers’; they are metaphors. The characters’ dialogue is more than just stylized one-liners meant to add a laugh or flare to the action sequences; they give those scenes purpose. Though I would not put this on a par with a book like Johnny Got His Gun when comparing it to socially conscious works that question the validity military action, I do find it refreshing to see an action film that is about more than a retired assassin shooting a bunch of people for killing a puppy, or a collection of homogenous robots that transform into vehicles having an indiscernible metallic orgy for three hours. This is the kind of engagement actions movies should aim for.