Last weekend saw the release of the much-anticipated Avengers: Age of Utron. The film, which brought in nearly 200 million in its opening weekend, is already a financial success for Marvel Studios with the second largest weekend release in history (loosing only too the first Avengers movie). Many of the reviews seem to focus on the relationship between Black Widow and Hulk, the overwhelming special effects, and the clown car amount of superheroes forced into the story. While these are all really interesting aspects of the film, especially for folks reviewing the quality of a movie, I want to focus a bit on the political and cultural aspects of the film.
The theoretical starting point for this blog post is the academic article “Fighting the Battles we Never Could: The Avengers and Post-September 11 American Political Identity” by Annika Hagley and Michael Harrison. This piece, which is one article of many in a phenomenal special issues of PS: Political Science, argues that the first Avengers film needs to be viewed in the context of a post 9/11 America. As such the Avengers is primarily about what is needed to protect the American homeland from a second terrorist attack (there is a symbolic reason that Loki attacks New York). In their analysis all the characters in the movie—Iron man, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye, Thor, the Hulk, Shield, and Loki—symbolically represent certain aspects of society and their final analysis claims that the Avengers movie is a meditation on how the different aspects of American politics need to come together under the guidance of the security state (Shield) in order to stop global terror (Loki) from destroying the American way of life (i.e., New York City). In conducting their analysis they deconstruct all the main characters from the movie to highlight what they symbolize. For time sake I am going to focus only on a few of the characters—ones that I think are important for understanding Age of Ultron.
The two most important characters in the new Avengers, when it comes to symbolic value, are Iron Man and Captain America. Iron Man can easily be viewed as a stand in for the US military-industrial-complex as Tony Stark is a billionaire who made his fortune from selling advanced military weaponry around the world (he took over the business which his dad started), while Captain America stands in for American values (hard working, honesty, dedication, wholesomeness, etc). In addition to the big two, you have Black Widow and Hawkeye representing the intelligence/spy community and you have Bruce Banner/The Hulk (according to Hagley and Harrison) representing the American populace (like able and shy but dangerous and unpredictable when enraged).
Viewing the characters through these symbolic lenses provides for a unique and interesting cultural reading of the new Avengers film. First off, and most importantly, if the first Avengers movie is a stand in for America dealing with, and fearing, a second terrorist attack on New York City (with Loki standing in for global terrorism) then the second film is largely about current American anxieties around the empowerment of Putin’s Russia and the threat of a new cold war. The Age of Ultron largely takes place in the made up former soviet country of Sokovia. Sokovia is shown as a small eastern European country ravaged by internal conflict, civil war, and American and Soviet intervention. The opening scene, in which the Avengers attack a Hydra strong hold (a stand in for fascism) nestled in the mountains of the made up country, shows the people of Sokovia resisting attempts by Iron Man to provide “humanitarian protection” through his “global defense” program (in which computer run iron men nonviolently protect civilians from harm and “social” disturbance). Later we are told, by the twins Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, that they had grown to hate Iron Man because during the civil war their house was bombed by weapons made by stark industries, killing their parents and forcing them to live for days in the rubble. The war torn eastern European country is shown as a victim of the cold war—a country impacted by Soviet power and US imperialism. The chaotic and dangerous place becomes a safe haven for fascism and a threat to liberal political order in the rest of the world.
It is from the base of Sokovia that Ultron hatches his plan to destroy the world. Utron decides to turn the country into a massive asteroid that will extinguish all life on the planet after impact. The final battle shows the Avengers, with the help of a newly resurgent SHIELD, saving the civilians while defeating the army of Borg like robots (connecting to the long standing symbolic use of hive minded enemies to represent American fears of Russia). In this final battle, the US (Iron Man, Captain America, et all) is once again at war with a Soviet style threat (a borg like enemy) in Eastern Europe. The battle, which echoes the media coverage of the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, shows the fear the American zeitgeist has of an Russian imperial power pushing its power further into eastern Europe—Sokovia, like Ukraine, could be the asteroid that extinguishes all life. Also, much like the narratives of the cold war, the US has to respond to the potential dangerous threat posed in Eastern Europe through force—in effect, it is a narrative that asserts that the crisis in the Ukraine and Eastern Europe with Russia cannot be solved by diplomacy and that Putin (maybe Ultron?) can only be stopped by force.
Secondly, the film also highlights the shifting nature of spy/civilian relationships in the US by its expanded narrative around Hawkeyes life and the budding relationship between the Black Widow and Bruce Banner/Hulk. In both instance, the film takes the symbolic intelligence agents and humanizes them by tying them with stand in for the “American people” and American history. Both narratives show the increasingly regularity of internal spying in the US. Hawkeye is shown being a quintessential American—living in the country side with a wife, kids, and dog; primarily concerned with home repairs and fixing his tractor; and having sweet tea in a living room that seems lifted from a cracker barrel. His connection with rural America seems to root spying deep into the American historical consciousness, reaching back to the yeomen farmer of Jefferson’s democratic dream. Thus, unlike the historical narrative in which federal level domestic and foreign surveillance developed during the rise of industrialism in the US (with the red squads and Palmer raids of the late 1800s and early 1900s) spying is given a pre-industrial foundation. As such intelligence gathering is naturalized in the American unconscious making it as American as apple pie and wood chopping. Almost in direct response to Captain America 2, where the NSA was criticized for going against American values, Hawkeye shows that surveillance is foundational to the American experience.
In addition, Black Widow and her relationship with Hulk/Banner represent the growing intimacy between the US public (Banner) and foreign surveillance (Black Widow). The relationship is shown to be a tool for controlling the dangerous anger of the American people (she develops a technique to calm the Hulk down) allowing for the US to use the Hulk for its own gain without as much of a danger of it getting out of control (though this might be a losing cause, as the Hulk does go out of control in South Africa and can only be stopped by Iron Man/the military industrial complex using force to pacifiy and controls the beast). It is also shown as a humanizing figure for the Black Widow, who seems to be questioning her role as a cool, collected, killer as she wants to disappear with Banner and quiet her job as a spy. Banner does not let her do so, as he realizes that the he (the public) is a threat to her and not the other way around.
Third, and finally, the relationship between Iron Man and Ultron highlights the potential danger of the military-industrial-complex. In the movie, Stark decides to use Loki’s staff (later we find out it is the mind infinity stone) in order to develop a complex AI system for his cybernetic defense system. Stark thought that by having a strong enough AI system, his robotic army could provide the security and protection that the earth needs, in effect forcing the Avengers to disband. In homage to literally every single sci fi movie ever made, the AI comes to realize that humans are, inherently, a threat to peace and as such human life needs to be eradicated. In this sequence, the biggest threat to humanity—Ulton—is the result of paranoid fear combining with he Military-industrial-complex. This fear leads Stark to develop an automated system that would, theoretically, stop all threats to the planet. The politics of control and surveillance promoted by neoconservatives and liberal humanitarian takes the inevitable dystopian turn, and the good intensions of its creator ends up creating a massive threat to life. It is important to note that in the construction of Ultron Stark and Banner do the project without the input of the rest of the Avengers—in essence this is what happens with the military-industrial-complex uses fear to rile up the American people.
In contrast to Ultron, the Vision—another robotic creation—is the protector hero of the movie. Originally designed by Ultron to be his ultimate weapon, Vision is stolen by the Avengers and Stark and Banner work on turning him into a robotic weapon as well—obviously not deterred by their earlier failure with Ultron. Unlike before, the rest of the Avengers—Captain America, Thor, and Hawkeye—intervene and attempt to stop them before their creation comes to life. In the ensuing fight over Vision, Thor uses his powers and attempts to destroy the robot through a huge electronic blast. Instead of destroying Vision, Thor’s action brings it life. Unlike Ultron though, Vision is a hero, he embodies an American foreign policy in balance—in which the military does not act alone, but is pressured by the other prevailing interests in society.
Overall, the second Avengers movie can be seen as continuing in the symbolic and theoretical aspects of the first film. The Avengers films seem to be a cultural mediation the fear of the “other” that is seen as a threat to our way of life. The first film, emerges from the post 9/11 context to provide a discussion of how we can work to stop the next terrorist attack on New York City, while the second Avengers film discuss the neoconservative fear of an empowered Russia on our eastern front. In both cases the movie narrative promotes neoconservative values—the need to come together to protect ourselves from an always threatening other—but does so in ways that complicates the traditional narrative. For instance, in both movies the threats to America are brought about by US policy failures. In the first Avengers this is seen by Shields attempt to weaponize the Tesseract, provoking Loki it to steal it for Thanos, and in the second, it is Starks attempt to use Loki’s staff as part of a global weapon that leads to the development of Ultron and the potential end of the world. Likewise, in the second Avengers film the enhanced villains turned allies, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, are the blowback of US intervention in the world—both characters are turned towards Hydra due to the usage of Stark Industries munitions in the death of their parents. In an odd way, the Avengers then seems to be saying that, “as more and more of our past actions come back to threaten us we must come together and protect ourselves and our way of life from the monsters we have created.” Luckily for the movie going public the Avengers never learn their lesson and are constantly creating new monsters to fight; sadly for the world, the US does the exact same.