Cultural Case Study: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Theatrical release poster

Two things up front: first, this is going to be a messy post. Second, I’m hoping that a good discussion in the comments will enhance the post and perhaps even make the entire thing  — post and comments together — somewhat less messy.

Let’s begin.

As stated in recent posts and as implied in the subtitle of this blog (“Exploring the Intersection of Christianity and Culture”), one of my central purposes for Cruciform is to consider how we can engage culture in two ways: by evaluating the culture in which we find ourselves, and by creating new culture. Or to use a metaphor: to be a “movie critic” or a “movie maker”.

In this post I’d like to engage in the first form of cultural engagement (“movie critic”) in a more literal sense by looking at the last Marvel Studio’s blockbuster movie Avengers: Age of Ultron.

If you haven’t yet seen Avengers but are planning to, you’d better stop reading now, as this post will require revealing some of the plot details of the movie. If you haven’t seen it — or don’t mind reading spoilers beforehand and want to have a better idea of what I’m talking about — you can find a plot summary of the movie at its Wikipedia entry.

Now… how do we play “movie critic”?

First, the quotation marks around “movie critic” are a reminder that the sort of cultural engagement I’m after here isn’t about attempting to be a movie critic in the Siskel & Ebert sense; I’m not a trained movie critic, nor do I play one on tv. When it comes to formal movie criticism, there are plenty of great options out there (my favorite is Steven Greydanus, because he’s both a movie critic and a “movie critic”; you can find his review of Avengers here).

The sort of “criticism” that I’m after here doesn’t require having taking a course in film studies, let alone cinematography… I’m talking about looking more deeply at a piece of culture (a cultural artifact)… at what it’s telling us, both deliberately and accidentally… at what its creator presumes and assumes about our world… at the questions it wants us to ask… at what is true, good & beautiful about it, as well as what is wrong, evil & ugly about it. Rest assured, every cultural artifact — every movie, every song, every painting, every piece of writing — does all of these things, well or poorly, and regardless of whether or not its creator intends it.

This sort of criticism, then, requires “only” that we think deeply about the artifact in question (in this case, the second Avengers movie). I put “only” in quotes because while this sort of thought isn’t complicated in principle, it takes practice to perfect, and hence time as well. But it doesn’t require any specialized knowledge about movie making, painting or poetry… it only requires reflection and thought.

One of my favorite “movie critics” in this sense is Fr. Robert Barron, a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago, and rector of the seminary for the Archdiocese (a seminary rector is the priest appointed by the bishop of that diocese to run the seminary on his behalf). Fr. Barron is a terrific theologian who has been writing great books for many years, but he first popped onto the radar of many Catholics several years ago when he started posting videos on YouTube in which he’d offer his thoughts on popular movies and books along the lines I’ve sketched here… you can find those videos on his YouTube channel here or collected in written form in his recent book, Seeds of the Word, and you can find his “movie critic” take on Avengers here.

Now that I’ve explained what it means to be a “movie critic”, let’s test it out by looking a bit more closely at this summer blockbuster. But note: I’m only going to introduce this here… I’m hoping that we can play “movie critic” together in the comments. So, let’s dip our feet in…

One of the things that struck me about the movie the amount of “God talk”, as Greydanus describes it, and the implicit Catholic references. This isn’t shocking, given that director Joss Whedon has been noted for raising spiritual questions, for Catholic allusions, and for subtle advances of his atheism in his previous works. But it did surprise me because similar references and themes were mostly absent from the first Avengers movie, also directed by Whedon.

So what do we make of that? Fr. Barron is fairly critical, seeing in the movie a promotion of a decidedly anti-biblical view of life, one more in line with the thought of the 19th century german atheistic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

Nietzsche is famous for — among other things — his assertion that “God is dead”. Popularized in the 1960’s — decades after Nietzsche’s death — for Nietzsche the slogan had far more significance than merely a defiant assertion of atheism; he knew that without God, nothing has meaning or value, and hence he was far more consistent than the “New Atheists” of our day. And Fr. Barron is on solid ground for seeing Nietzschean undertones in the film, given that in the movie Ultron himself utters Nietzsche’s other famous line: “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”.

But one might argue that the film itself is not actually promoting Nietzsche’s philosophy, but merely portraying it. After all, as Fr. Barron notes in the final paragraph of his analysis, we see clearly in Avengers that the Nietzschean approach of Ultron — and perhaps even of our heroes — doesn’t actually work, but it only makes things worse. Ultron himself — the villian of the film, in case that wasn’t clear — was the creation of Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), who sought to take into his own hands the protection of the planet. Stark sought — to quote him from the movie, alluding to Neville Chamberlain’s famous line — to secure “peace in our time”. And yet Stark’s Nietzschean overreach — trying to achieve by sheer force of will something which we simply cannot achieve on our own — almost resulted in the very opposite: the destruction of humanity. So one might say that Avengers is in fact anti-Nietzschean at its heart.

This strikes me as typical of highly effective storytellers like Whedon: while he himself is an atheist and that atheism does make its way into his stories, those stories — because they are in many ways so well crafted — end up making points that are contrary to his atheism. That is, despite himself, Whedon’s movies include themes opposed to his own principles. (I find the same thing to be true about Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, but that’s for another time.)

Again, those are just a few thoughts that come to mind as I try to play “movie critic” with Avengers: Age of Ultron. You’ll note that I haven’t yet rendered any judgments about the message of the movie… I don’t want to tip my hand at this point. So…

What about you? What do you see as the message, premises and assumptions present in Avengers: Age of Ultron?

2 thoughts on “Cultural Case Study: Avengers: Age of Ultron”

  1. Chris, I find your insights absolutely fascinating and informative. I love reading your thoughts on culture and religion!


    1. Thanks Jim! My intent is really to make that a central focus of Cruciform (hence the subtitle)… they take a little more thought & effort, but hopefully those posts will be worth it. 🙂


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