So, here’s the thing: the most recent Avengers movie—Age of Ultron—is a lot of fun. So much fun, in fact, so visually stimulating and adrenaline-rushing and blood-pumping and Hulk-smashing that it may seem somewhat heretical—missing the point, even(?)—to deconstruct or contemplate it in a critical way.
I’ve written about some reasons in a previous blog, but there’s something specific that I think is going on with Age of Ultron that’s worth contemplating.
In short, Age of Ultron (and films like it) is not designed to be thought about; it’s designed to be WITNESSED as a series of cultural/moral images, at the expense of criticism.
Basically, we need to listen to Ultron.
Warning: Avengers: Age of Ultron spoilers ahead!
But first, let’s head to the ring.
superhero movies are like wrestling matches
Before we talk about the Avengers, let’s talk about wrestling, specifically the sort that semiotician Roland Barthes wrote about in the late 1950s. Here’s a related grotesque picture to put you in the mood:
So anyway, in his essay “In the Ring” (1957), Barthes talks about how wrestling is not a sport (even an “ignoble” one), but rather a spectacle. The audience comes into the hall and “spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema.” The match is more akin to a [certain kind of] movie experience than an athletic contest presenting a battle of wills in a linear progression. On the contrary, with wrestling, “it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions.” Barthes talks about certain moves and gestures, certain outbursts of emotion that are all sorta coded into the spectacle of the match, even embodied in the wrestlers themselves. That’s what the audience comes for.
Wrestling, unlike other sports, isn’t primarily FOR the athletes, each a protagonist in his own sort of individual epic. No, this spectacle is FOR the audience, who couldn’t care less at the moment whether it’s fair or rigged; rather,
[the audience] abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.
It isn’t WHY the wrestlers are in the ring, nor is it the RESULT of the match that draws the audience’s attention: but the spectacle itself. (More on this as we go.)
I think there’s an argument to be made that movies like Age of Ultron are working in this same way (besides just the obvious fight moves and hyperbole).
Not quite convinced? Okay, here’s a challenge. Actually two challenges.
Challenge One: without using the Internet, can you recite all the PLOT POINTS of Avengers: Age of Ultron?
Okay, maybe it’s an unfair test. Here’s an easier one.
Challenge Two: Without using the Internet, can you remember at least one big set-piece fight scene from the film?
Now this is hardly a rigorous survey, but I think you get my point. The dominant function in Age of Ultron insofar as it is spectacle-like is not NARRATIVE, but rather singularly intelligible SIGNIFYING MOMENTS.
(In fact, if you were to look closely, you could probably see that the trailers for each Avengers movie are designed to both prescribe the primary moments of signifying spectacle and guarantee to the audience that these moments will indeed be delivered.)
In the end, as Barthes writes, “the wrestler’s function”—and we would add, the avenger’s function—”is not to win but to perform exactly the gestures expected of him.” These gestures are signatory, according to Bathes, signs made up of a “signifier” (what you see on the surface) conveying culturally determined “signified(s),” (mental images; meanings that arise for the viewer); the gestures of wrestling appear a certain way, but we in the audience experience not only the emotions they evoke but also the cultural/moral truths that they represent in what Barthes calls “the great spectacle of Suffering, of Defeat, and of Justice.”
Wrestling, then, is a form of theater. So also are movies (duh). And it seems not a stretch to claim that, like Barthes’ wrestling matches, Age of Ultron [repeatedly] provides these same intelligible, cultural/moral signs. Let’s break down these three cultural/moral truths as they’re signified in wrestling and in the Avengers films.
Of Suffering, Barthes refers to the performance’s exaggerated tragic masks seen as the wrestler struggles, for example, “under the effect of a hold reputedly cruel (an armlock, a twisted leg).”
In Age of Ultron, we can see the mask of suffering in moments where the superheroes are rendered somehow powerless, either by some intrinsic weakness or by removal:
Of Defeat, Barthes need only point to the wrestler’s physique and exaggerated bodily performance, “the slackness of big white bodies collapsing to the floor in one piece or crashing into the ropes with flailing arms.”
In the Avengers, the signifier of Defeat usually involves the [hyper]destruction of the environment and/or of character costumes as well as literal death:
Of Justice, Barthes looks at wrestling’s structure, the essential notion of payment and retribution for foul play (like, say, vengeance?…): “If the villain—who is of course a coward—takes refuge behind the ropes…he is pitilessly cornered there, and the crowd roars its approval at seeing the rules broken for the sake of a [subsequent,] deserved punishment.”
As in wrestling, the Justice signified by Age of Ultron’s signifying moments is often a retributive sort (I mean, it makes sense, they’re the AVENGERS…), which means highly visual/signatory moments of retribution/revenge in payment for, in Barthes’ terms, “foul play” (and usually, any winning by the villain can count as foul play in these movies). I’d argue that, in addition, the inevitable RALLYING STANCE and the EPIC ASSEMBLY count as signifiers in this case for Justice, particularly as it always follows the defeat that precipitates the final push to victory.
What I think we can say at this point is that Avengers: Age of Ultron, like wrestling, is designed around the transitory appearance of certain kinds of signs, moments within and connecting the action that instantaneously signify to the viewer a piece of the moral theater we came to see. (This isn’t to say that there ISN’T narrative or any meaningful plot to speak of, but in a semiotic analysis, the way Age of Ultron relates to Barthes’ wrestling match is undeniably compelling. But come on, how much story is there, really?)
In its very form as a superhero movie—particularly an Avengers movie—the film doesn’t invite critical contemplation or thought; it DEFERS it, shoving it (sometimes roughly) out of the purview of what it demands of the audience. The key to this is in what Barthes calls the abolition of motives and consequences: as a spectacle, Age of Ultron isn’t all that concerned with why the characters are motivated to do what they do (Ultron: to cause terror; the Avengers: to…always be avenging) nor is it concerned, ultimately, with the surrounding consequences of what they do (for example, Ultron: hacking, like, the whole shebang; the Avengers: well, let’s just count all the buildings that explode in this movie; and the screaming civilians; and wasted infrastructure…).
The problem is that in this film, the most compelling IDEA—a critique of the Avengers themselves, as it turns out—has nothing to latch onto with the audience, and is hence a nonstarter. Age of Ultron defers even its own critique because of its formal demands as a spectacle. Let’s unpack this a little bit.
delegitimizing critique through villainy
As in many stories, the antagonist serves to offer a critique of the protagonist(s); in this character’s presence, words, or actions lies some criticism. The protagonist often answers this critique as part of the developing narrative—sometimes successfully, sometimes not. The point is that the antagonist sometimes has a valid point.
So it is, I think, with Ultron. But unfortunately, the very form of a superhero movie demands that the antagonist be something more: a villain. And the problem with the formal villain is that any critique (s)he makes is automatically placed under suspicion by the audience; not only that, the movie itself undermines the consideration of that critique.
Ultron’s speeches in the first half of the movie are pointed and compelling.
- When he first confronts the Avengers and says, “You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change,” he questions whether their basic MOTIVATIONS serve only to perpetuate the very sorts of violence they claim to protect against.
- When Ultron mocks Captain America as a signifier for an ostensible Christian nationalism (“God’s righteous man”), suggesting that it’s bad faith to suppose he could even exist without war, he again calls into question whether the Avengers don’t actually precipitate violence as a CONSEQUENCE of trying to prevent it with brute power.
- To Thor’s reply, “If you believe in peace, let us keep it,” Ultron challenges both the motives AND the consequences of the Avengers’ actions (“I think you’re confusing peace with quiet”), thus problematizing both the motive that believes peace can be wrought from violence, and the nature of the consequential “quiet,” which may not amount to peace at all.
- In another speech, this time to the Maximoffs, Ultron suggests that the Avengers are part of a structural, systemic violence endemic to human society, if not to human nature, in which case the Avengers are doing nothing to deal with the root of the problem they’re trying to solve.
What Ultron is doing—as all good antagonists do—is upsetting and calling into question the status quo. Ultron offers (I believe) a valid critique of the basic assumptions the Avengers-as-characters and the Avengers-as-movies are making.
In short, his claim is that the Justice the Avengers have been uncritically signifying all this time is illegitimate. (For a deeper analysis of this aspect of the film, check out Culture Decanted’s article about vigilantism and justice in pop culture.)
But that notion of Justice, as well as its supporting moral struts of Suffering and Defeat that we’ve been talking about, are BAKED INTO the spectacle that is Age of Ultron (and films like it). Age of Ultron’s very structure assumes an ad hominem stance toward what it conceives of as villainy, indeed, toward whatever approaches critique in general. Ultron’s words may be valid (as I think they probably are!), but his status as the villain automatically exempts both the Avengers and the audience from engaging with them in any meaningful way. Bullets and punches and lasers and discus-shields are apparently the appropriate answer to critique because within the structure of this spectacle, critique counts as “foul play,” like jumping behind the ropes, a sign of villainy deserving of punishment.
The formal, a priori, “baked-in” understanding of the cultural/moral truths that Age of Ultron sets about repeatedly signifying necessarily defers, even rejects, any serious contemplation of just what sort of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice it offers for the audience, who in turn is also unconcerned: what matters to the audience is not what it thinks or believes; only what it sees.
epilogue: thinking through the Avengers
Ultron’s own words seem appropriate here as we begin to look upon the Avengers in a more critical light: “I know you mean well, you just didn’t think it through.”
This is true even when the film tries (futilely) to supplement Ultron’s critique, as in the moment when the Avengers are at their most humble(d). Thor steps on a Lego house in a micro-signifying moment of Defeat that, read critically, brings to mind Ultron’s words to him about mistaking peace with quiet.
But I don’t think the message got through. And anyway, even when forced to “think through” a little bit about motives and their consequences, the following always seems somewhat to be the conclusion:
When faced with critique, Thor speaks for all the Avengers: “Fortunately, I am mighty.”
In the end, the Avengers don’t have to deal with the motives that were challenged in the first half of the film, or with the moral and physical consequences of the collateral destruction left in the wake of their vengeance. In fact, the end of Age of Ultron sees the Avengers newly re-institutionalized in a shiny new designer training headquarters, freshly reiterated, having changed little, if at all. Status quo is lookin’ pretty great! As Ultron noted well in the beginning, change isn’t what’s at stake for the Avengers.
In the end, Tony Stark drives off in his plain clothes just like Barthes’ wrestler after the match: “the man who has been seen a few minutes earlier possessed by a moral fury, enlarged to the size of a kind of metaphysical sign.” But we know what he is: Stark and the other Avengers “remain gods, for they are, for a few minutes…the pure gesture which separates Good and Evil and unveils the figure of a finally intelligible Justice,” a Justice that remains unquestioned, apparently immune to criticism.
What are some other movies that respond to valid critique from its antagonist(s) with roundhouse kicks and bullets? Let me know in the comments or on the subreddit.
“Thor Steps On Legos” by Darkslayer
“Ultron: Best Lines & Moments” by John Nemesis