There was a time when we used to worry about how the world began. Few debates were as furious as the argument over whether it was God or the Big Bang that we should thank for creation. These days we only seem to care about how the world will end.
The potential causes for our demise are numerous. Global warming, viral pandemic, zombie apocalypse. Or, as the latest episode in the Marvel Avengers franchise would have it, our greatest threat comes from psychotic robots with faulty programming. The Millennium Bug is back, only this time it’s armed with pulsar cannons.
Under the direction of Joss Whedon, Avengers: Age of Ultron – which opens today – reunites Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow to fight against a rogue Artificial Intelligence called Ultron. The action is fast-paced, but the title feels like a misnomer.
Although it is difficult to work out the actual length of events, partly because the film is in love with slow-motion cinematography, the “age” of Ultron can’t have lasted longer than a couple of weeks in real time. Still with a running time of two hours and 22 minutes, audiences will be grateful that the rule of Ultron wasn’t longer.
The length of the film is a response to the needs of juggling so many characters. In addition to all of the Avengers, the film introduces a pair of twins, Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch. The boy, Quicksilver, has the power of superhuman speed and the girl, Scarlet Witch, gets practically every other superpower that’s left. It is a good thing that Quicksilver never stops running, because if he paused to think, he might develop a severe case of sibling envy.
Just when you think the Scarlet Witch has shown all that she can do, she pulls out another trick. As if this cast size wasn’t large enough, three-quarters of the way through the film another major character emerges. In this case, quite literally Deus ex Machina, God from a Machine.
Too many heroes
Ensemble casts are difficult. It is hard to balance so many competing points of focus. From the earliest Greek myths, we have traditionally preferred our heroes as solitary figures. One of the epithets for Hercules was “monoikos”, “the one who lives alone”. The modern town of Monaco takes its name from a local cult to this aspect of Hercules.
We love stories with a central hero. Achilles gets star billing in the Iliad. Similarly Odysseus in the Odyssey. In the ancient world, only the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece involved a team of heroes, and it is perhaps no accident that the retelling of their exploits, the Argonautica, has proven to be history’s least favourite epic.
Complicating the problem of ensuring that every hero gets a fair share of screentime is the requirement that every hero now needs a fatal flaw and a tragic backstory. These golden boys and girls all have feet of clay.
The trend for the tormented hero has been growing ever since 19th-century Romanticism taught us that there was something heroic about suffering. The Greeks would not have understood it. All they demanded from their heroes was the ability to be spectacular.
Now, we require our heroes to be haunted by their past or terrified by their future. We love to watch a set of rippling muscles, but we demand that the heart they encase is fragile. If you’re going to be a super-soldier, you also need to be a wallflower at the Victory Day dance.
Ultron wants to destroy the Avengers because he regards them as a danger to stability and growth. It is hard not to have sympathy with his logic. Golf has been described as a game in which people try to get a ball in a hole using implements ill-adapted for the purpose. Watching the Avengers achieve world peace feels a lot like watching a round of golf.
Equipped with razor-sharp throwing-shields, exploding arrows, and the ability to command lightening bolts, the Avengers make odd advocates for tranquillity. The movie transports our heroes around the world leaving mayhem in their wake. Just when you thought downtown traffic in Johannesburg couldn’t get any worse, along comes the Hulk.
The superheroes we need
Ultron sees the Avengers as emblematic of the worst excesses of humanities desires and, in a sense, he’s right. If we really do lust after world peace, why aren’t we inventing heroes with the superpower to erase the gap between rich and poor or, at the very least, get Google to pay tax?
Iron Man can scatter the earth with incendiary devices, but he can’t compulsorily vaccinate children. In the movie, the Scarlet Witch has been genetically enhanced so that she can mess with people’s minds. Why don’t geneticists ever work on enhancing the ability to make people feel comfortable about their lifestyle choices?
Perhaps this is the real appeal of heroes. They provide us with an enjoyable sound-and-light show that distracts us from facing up to just how hard it is to make a real difference.