Caution: This review includes mild spoilers and also challenges folks who say they’re sick of all the superhero films, suggesting we need to both lighten up and be deeper Christian Hedonists.
Avengers: Age of Ultron shows the cinematic superhero genre at its zenith. Some readers may doubt that, especially because superhero films have been popular for a while, so some may feel it’s high time they become Disillusioned. But I believe these stories’ great days are still ahead, and I’d love to help you reject your skepticism if you want to enjoy them.
Don’t expect fine steak and wine
In this review I could show many ways that Avengers: Age of Ultron reflects deep concepts. I could discuss the humanity-probing, the respectful-yet-subversive biblical references, or the creative excellence.
But God-given human joy isn’t limited to these things any more than it’s limited to systematic theology, indie films, folk bands, or classic literature. If we expect everything to be fine rare steak and wine, we’ll miss the simple pleasures of cheap cheeseburgers with fries — or worse, we’ll miss truly gourmet cheeseburgers with fries. This goes double if we have children or friends who already enjoy these good pleasures.
Sure, if you just don’t like a popular story, I likely can’t convince you otherwise. I feel this way about many pop culture things that others adore. But let’s remember three truths about why we may feel inclined to critique a certain pop cultural artifact:
First: Pop culture reflects common grace and this side of New Earth it’s also prone to silly but anti-joyful trends that we can “catch” — such as when a successful franchise gets “too big” and triggers nasty human impulses to tear it down.
Second: Christians often buy into what author Ted Turnau calls the “But It’s So Jejune” view of truly popular-level culture, a view that dismisses God’s reflections in human beings and wrongly (and even legalistically) declares that art motivated by mammon has little value.
Third: I understand some don’t follow the appeal of superhero stories. I feel the same way about sports: I don’t understand the sports industries’ constant appeal to fans who love celebrations of macho stereotypes, quasi-violence, flagrant commercialism, and the same actions and slogans over and over. But when I use my limitations to mock sports fans, I’m likely sinning. Instead let’s rejoice in others’ unfamiliar joys. We can learn more about one another. In fact, this is likely how we found our own favorite cultures in the first place.
Well-done with cheese and crisp lettuce
Still, Avengers: Age of Ultron is the eleventh Marvel Cinematic Universe film, so I tried to lower my expectations just in case. Aim for a fun movie and you may get The Most Amazing Film Experience Ever thrown in; aim for an absurdly high experience and you will get neither. But my caution vanished when the film began, and bam, as I expected, we dash into the story on the backs of galloping superheroes. (Some said this was too fast, but not if you had seen the last Marvel stories such as the recent Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. story. Remember, #ItsAllConnected.)
I loved these action moments that are pure joy even for newcomers to the Marvel world like me. The gang’s all here: Hawkeye with his Legolas-ing, Black Widow zapping and/or tripping, Iron Man quipping and zipping, Thor thundering, Captain America super-soldiering, and the incredible Hulk smashing! In the castle one henchman cries: “It’s the Avengers!” The boss demands: “Try to hold them off!” And the henchman falters: “But… it’s the Avengers…” Oh yeah, this is basically a live-action cartoon. And that is awesome.
Before long the story brings the deeper themes. Character relationships are revealed in moments of natural growth that (as far as I can tell) spring from the previous stories. That’s why I count Avengers: Age of Ultron as a gourmet cheeseburger, not a cheap one. I love how Black Widow has grown to accept Bruce Banner and no longer fears but actively calms the Hulk. I love Tony Stark’s vulnerability and feigned “arrogant” desperation to create a technology that will protect Earth better than he can. And perhaps most of all, I love Hawkeye’s secret life that I will not spoil here because it’s just perfectly subversive of our anti-“normalcy” obsessions.
Ultron, the would-be robotic overlord, is an especially Whedon-esque villain who acts with artificially intelligent conviction. He’s unlike MCU villain Loki, but has a teenage brattiness that makes Loki look mature: Ultron’s AI is barely days old but has access to enough information (all of it) to be dangerous. Me, I would have preferred some time spent with “good Ultron” before his fall, but no matter. Once the menace is unleashed, our heroes begin a worldwide mission to stop the robot army — and also face their own fears of failure.
Their quest includes what fans rightfully call Avengers: Age of Ultron’s poignant exploration of humans’ and heroes’ unspoken challenges. The Avengers reflected rivalries that were mostly ego-driven, with hints of stronger belief clashes (such as Stark vs. Cap). But for this story, director Joss Whedon wisely avoids any retreads. Instead, our heroes face their individuals flaws and are motivated to fight anew by three sources of natural common-grace humanity: Hawkeye’s decent, non-radical faithfulness; Cap’s old-fashioned courage; and finally, grace shown by the surprisingly virtuous yet vaguely Gnostic-spiritual (in a good way) newcomer Vision.
Bits to pick out
Some viewers would take issue with two Objectionable Contents not seen in other Marvel films, such as the first innuendos since Iron Man 2 and more Bad Words, including one S-word. (If you like to count them, S-words debuted in the MCU in Thor: The Dark World.) But unlike other films, Avengers: Age of Ultron happily features one hero who rebukes the “bad language words” in a way that’s truly corrective for the other heroes and serves as comic relief. So parents, your children will likely miss the innuendo. But this is a great chance to discuss with your children both the use/misuse of language and how one hero comically shares his dislike of “bad words.”
The film’s only other flaw is minor: Its pace is exhilarating but leaves little time for what some fans request — time to slow down and take it all in. Many story threads are woven in to set up future movies, a change from the first Avengers which felt far more like the final film and less like a middle story as Avengers: Age of Ultron must be. Finally, the story foregoes some dramatic tension: We don’t have time to think, “Oh no! she’s going after the Hulk” before suddenly the Hulk is thrashing up Johannesburg. I wonder if this is due to the filmmakers’ cutting of some scenes. And despite rumors of an Avengers: Age of Ultron “Director’s Cut” already on the way, I’m half-tempted to start my first ever internet petition to make sure this does happen.
However, this particular Friday audience was fully enraptured by this cinematic feast; they seemed to be going beyond temptations to use a gift “in order to make clever remarks about it to … friends” (as C.S. Lewis suggested we often corrupt good pleasures), but simply chose to enjoy it. Surely this joy is part of redeemed humanity. And in the ongoing fight for more of this joy from the Joy-Giver, I’m glad that the Avengers and their stories are on our side.