We saw two films this week--The Avengers: Age of Ultron, by Joss Whedon, and Girlhood, by Céline Sciamma. Both really incredible, and absolutely different. I don't have time to set down a full-blown reflection about each, but damn, do I recommend them.
I've enjoyed the Avengers and other Marvel movies a lot over the years, in particular for the way that they explore geopolitical thinking: where "bad guys" come from, whether it's violent and unstable regions or from our own backyard, and whether it's the policies and actions of "good guys" that ultimately produce the scary threat. They've been quite ambivalent about evil, I think, and at the least have implied that techniques of regulation, oppression, exploitation, etc. by the imperial West play a large role in generating the destructive force the Avengers have to neutralize. Like, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, we learn that Bucky (Cap's old best friend in WWII) has been picked up by the Russians, experimented on, brainwashed, and so on...and in the post-credits scene, he ominously checks out a Captain America exhibit at the museum, darkly adjusting his hat and looking surly. It's all very Dialectic of Enlightenment. But Age of Ultron went one further in its exploration of this reactive flux, turning the dialectic back into something hopeful. Naive? Maybe. Intriguing? Yep. The Avengers don't just realize that "The Twins" (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) have been motivated by their childhood trauma with Tony Stark's weaponry: a shell labeled Stark Industries killed their parents, and they huddle terrified in the rubble waiting for another (a dud) to kill them too. The Avengers also show that even enemies of your own making can be brought back to your side when they realize that, in the words of Quicksilver, Tony et al. aren't "so bad" after all. The superhero figure reaches a kind of self consciousness here, when Captain America says, "Ultron thinks we’re monsters...This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right."
Then everyone comes together and saves the world as a team that is focused centrally on preventing human death. Come together! Save the civilians! It was all so staunchly committed, compared to the darkness and destruction of other recent superhero films. And that commitment can seem strange when other moments in the film reflect a curious apathy about the survival of the human race. "Nothing lasts forever," says Natasha Romanoff. The Vision acknowledges to Ultron that humans, yeah, "They're doomed," but... "but a thing isn't beautiful because it lasts." Really? Whedon gives us hope, self-doubt, principled commitment, and a kind of cosmic resignation at the fate of humanity. Ultron muses about the "purity" of the meteor that extinguished the dinosaurs, and his plot is meant to recreate that purity with a piece of our own Earth. So: is this film also about climate change, the end of our species at our own hands? Yes, and that blows my mind.
The final thing I loved about Age of Ultron was its treatment of the unpredictable nature of ego development and attitude -- and how this can be the line between total nihilistic destruction (Ultron) and hopeful but resigned appreciation (Vision) with respect to the human race. What attitudes can we have, and how are those attitudes made possible? I've already commented on the film's uncertainty: Will we go extinct, and is it worth trying to prevent? But it's not just a logical issue, it's an issue of temperament that's highlighted between Ultron and Vision. First we see Stark and Banner create Ultron out of the energy and "neuron-like" network of the mind stone. But it's unclear to me: what exactly makes Ultron into a bad-guy? Is it that he's connected to the web and he sees, in the early moments of his consciousness, all the terrible destruction that humans have wrought on the world and each other? We hear him whisper "no...no..." as he views records of explosions, genocide, and more. So...is Ultron's negativity a result of childhood trauma, being exposed too early to the horrors of the world? (This makes me think of Richard Powers's Galatea 2.2 and the AI's horrified reaction when she finally learns about human history.) Or--is Ultron such a madman because he kills the first other consciousness he meets, attacking Jarvis in a frenzy of rage when Jarvis attempts to stop him from searching the web? (If I remember correctly.) This would be a different sort of trauma, rooted in shame rather than disappointment, and it highlights the irrational rage that seems to motivate Ultron above and beyond his "logical" decision that humans don't deserve to live. (Mattie has told me about Ultron in the comics, going out into the universe to explore life before deciding that essentially no one is redeemable...this makes more sense to me with respect to Ultron's personality.) These don't exhaust the options: we also get the implication that Ultron is evil because he's been made "in the image of" Tony Stark, and that Tony's offspring would, like Tony, be a bit rogue, risk-taking, and megalomaniacal.
This still doesn't exhaust the movie's play with subject formation and its indeterminacy: we also have to ask what makes Vision so ultimately good? Is it that he's got Jarvis instead of Ultron as a personality? Is it the energy of Thor that finalizes his creation? Is it the human cells that underlie his physical body? And -- why on earth would anyone go through with this, when Ultron was such a disaster? This is where I see the geopolitical and psychological dimensions of the film come together into a suggestion that we can keep doing the same things and somehow there will be different results. We can continue oppressive and destructive patterns of industry and labor worldwide -- and we can create bad guys who will eventually turn good instead of wrecking it all. We can continue to experiment with AI and cyborgs even after they're the most terrifying creation ever, and expect the next time around that something different will happen. But--this isn't entirely madness! It takes the dialectic of enlightenment to a new level, countering it with its own double and bringing things to an even more chaotic level of recursive complexity. Ultimately, the film seems to say, We have no idea what the effects of our actions will be...and so we can't judge current actions based on either rules or effects. No matter what, we'd better get used to the idea that we're all going to die, because WHO KNOWS! But we can still save all the civilians and do it right even if it means risking the whole world's continuation, because anything else would begin to dabble in utilitarian calculations. If anything, those are the enemy here. Maybe this is the advent of virtue ethics, Marvel style.
There's plenty more to say - about Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanoff, about the multinational nature of the fighting, about the origin of Ultron's super-metal and its connections to Marvel's utopian African nation, about the nature of worldwide industry in the film (South Korea has the cornerstone on health technology...), about Whedon's leaving twitter amidst radical feminist death threats, and so on. But I don't have time here to pursue it all, and I'm not even going to get to Girlhood. But I will say: although most movies are more like short stories than novels, these films were BOTH definitely novels, in their level of complexity, segmentation, and number of thematic concerns. Very few epiphanies- but that's fine with me.