Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

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Our Revels Now Are Ended

— I was resolutely planning on never seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, having suffered through the three-hour mess that was the first installment, about a flying aircraft carrier that is attacked by aliens and defended by superheroes for some reason. However, one of my astute students knew exactly how to manipulate me: Daren Baldwin observed that there’s a shot in the new film that echoes The Searchers. Being able to resist neither John Ford nor intertextuality, I reluctantly trudged to the multiplex to fight the hoards of comic book fans packing my local movie theater auditorium, where mere weeks before the Oscar shorts played only to me and the lonely usher.

Indeed, Baldwin’s observation is a terrific way of processing Age of Ultron. Weary of fighting both themselves and the never-ending string of aliens, robots, and creatures that constantly besiege the Earth, the Avengers are forced into exile when Ultron, a peace-keeping computer program runs amuck and decides to destroy the planet instead. Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) flies the team to his secret farmhouse, where it is revealed both to us and to his colleagues that he is married and raising small children, in between his jaunts as the explosive arrow-firing Hawkeye.

Age of Ultron is a tricksy reworking of The Searchers. Rather than adventurous westward settlers, as in Ford’s Western, the homesteaders in 2015 are fleeing the violence of the cities where people make and watch movies. Ultron, unlike Scar, an angry Indian played by a white guy, does not need to kidnap white girls to punish their parents for colonialism. The Searchers is the 20th century’s most powerful captivity narrative, about the threat to organized civilization of people who live, by choice or otherwise, in the untamed wilderness. A massive computer brain, Ultron scans all of this human history and decides it would be best to purge the Earth of both civilization and wilderness. It’s an intriguing end game for the American Western.

The playful intertextuality in Age of Ultron does not end with John Ford. A comics fan, Whedon translates the simplistic moral frames from his cartoon books into the allegorical structure of his films. When that giant aircraft carrier arrives in an Eastern European country being decimated by Ultron’s scheme, its military strength is used to save fleeing refugees. Trying to redeem a United States that has lost its way, Tony Stark ‘s Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) argues this is “why we fight,” invoking Frank Capra’s propagandistic cinematic presentation of World War II to understand simultaneously the United States rescue operation in Bosnia that tragically never materialized, and the misguided and failed attempts to rescue Iraq and Afghanistan.

For a film that seems so loud and explosive, it is not in the big brush strokes that the film finds its voice, but instead in its tranquil moments. Hawkeye’s homestead is one such place of quietude, but the one I find most compelling takes place at the film’s beginning. After an absurdly violent pre-credits sequence in which the Avengers attack Baron von Strucker’s Hydra fortress in Eastern Europe, Tony Stark hosts a party which he describes as their “revels.” There, the film’s most human subplot—the impossible romance between abused Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, and the rage-filled Bruce Banner, The Hulk—takes a glorious turn. At the bar, the two would-be lovers share a quiet conversation. The music playing is Bunny Berigan’s 1937 big band number, “I Can’t Get Started.” This is, of course, the entire soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s rightfully celebrated student film, The Big Shave. In that short, a man stands shaving at a mirror, eventually cutting himself so badly that blood fills the screen. In the final credits, Scorsese inscribes the theme, “Viet ’67.” The film thus becomes an allegory for the violence of the Vietnam War, represented not in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but in the seemingly antiseptic space of an American bathroom. Whedon’s mise-en-scene at the revels in Age of Ultron works similarly: Natasha and Bruce sit at a bar in front of a glistening mirror, recovering from their day’s violence by lamenting their inability to overcome the shackles that their violent powers place on their femininity and masculinity.

Do you scoff at my argument that a blockbuster with a budget of a quarter of a billion dollars invokes a student film from 48 years ago? In Life of Pi, the storyteller asks the author whether he’d rather believe an uplifting allegorical story about animals, or the brutal reality of human cannibalism. The answer is as clear as it is for the same question about Age of Ultron. Like it or not, Hollywood has been taken over by Marvel Comics, and Joss Whedon is their Orson Welles at RKO. Which do you choose, that Whedon is an intertextual wizard, swirling Ford, Capra, and Scorsese in a cinematic cauldron, or only what’s obviously before our eyes, an orgy of hollow explosions and pretty people in capes flitting around the screen? There’s no chance that Marvel is going to butcher Whedon’s Magnificent Ambersons and force him into exile in Spain, so I submit to you that your decision has already been made.

– Walter Metz