Avengers: Age of Ultron
Christian Movie Review
[Note: after you read my “Age of Ultron” review below, if you’re a fan of C.S. Lewis, please check out my new blog Stabs of Joy or my podcast Aslan’s Paw. Both seek to crack open the surprising treasures of Christian belief — the things that Western society has forgotten, ignored, or never encountered — with the help of logic, literature, film, music, and one very unsafe Lion.]
2012’s “Marvel’s Avengers,” directed by Joss Whedon, earned a whopping 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. And it certainly deserved it.
Joss Whedon is back in the director’s chair, but so far “Avengers: Age of Ultron” — at the time of this writing — only has 75%.
Ouch. Frankly, that’s a little lower than I expected.
But sequels always have it rough.
In this review I’ll give my two cents on whether Avengers 2 is better or worse than the first one, and I’ll discuss any worldviews, subtext, or interesting themes of redemption in this highly anticipated superhero money machine — without any major spoilers.
But first, in case you need to know what kind of parental guidance content is in “Avengers: Age of Ultron”:
Parental Guidance Issues at a Glance…
Sexual Content/Nudity/Themes of Sexuality and Romance: No nudity or sex scenes. Some kissing. Iron Man uses a somewhat juvenile, semi-crude code phrase to describe a couple who he thinks might be having sex.
Violence/Gore: About 70% of the violence is done to robots. Innocent civilians are seen getting tossed aside or roughed up, with some marks of blood on their faces, but no civilians are seen dying or sustaining graphic wounds. A man is grazed by a cannon, and we do see his wound for a moment as he is getting patched up. But it’s not terribly graphic. A man’s arm is chopped off, and we do see it happen, and we see the stub afterward. A woman is seen shooting an innocent man to death. And, actually, the Hulk takes quite a pummeling in this movie. Poor guy. It’s not easy being green.
Language: No f-words. Plenty of b-words, s-words, a-words, etc. — the usual array of swear words found in the English language. Captain America, however — for the most part — frowns on any of the Avengers using obscenities, even when they make fun of him for it. Classic Capt’.
Alcohol/Drug/Smoking Content: None.
Frightening/Emotionally Intense Content: Ultron and his robot minions can be a little creepy, I suppose. If you have an overpowering phobia of robots or human-like machines with artificial intelligence, this is probably not the movie for you.
Squeamish Content: The arm getting chopped off is a little gross.
(Review continues below)
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Entertainment Value and Film Craft
There is no such thing as a bad Marvel movie. Even the weakest ones, Iron Man 2 or perhaps The Incredible Hulk, are still decent movies and are certainly better than the majority of action/adventure movies that are released each year.
With “Avenger: Age of Ultron,” it gets a little complicated. It’s not a cut-and-dry “this is the most amazing, flawless superhero movie ever” reaction, like many of us had with the first Avengers movie.
Its primary weakness?
It doesn’t have the novelty of uniting all of the Marvel heroes together on the same screen for the first time. But nothing could have helped that. No amount of film craft would have changed that. The first Avenger film — that first merging of all these legendary heroes who wowed us in all of their own movies — was a one-time event, never to be duplicated.
For that reason, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” feels just slightly less thrilling — at least in the first act, as the story warms up. But that’s hardly the whole story.
Why Age of Ultron is Still an Amazing Film
However, if you set aside that initial sense of “Why does this not feel as monumentally thrilling as the first Avengers?” and simply judge the film by its own merits, it is a fantastic entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And though it can’t recapture the freshness and novel charm of the first Avengers
, the final act and grand finale of Age of Ultron — in special effects, action, plot, and screenwriting — is much better than the ending of the first Avengers.
I’ll be honest: I resented the way the first Avengers ended. It felt, from page to page in the script, like an approximate rip-off of the ending of “Transformers 3.” In both films, a wormhole was opened and aliens were going to travel through the wormhole and conquer earth; and, in both cases, the heroes had to close the wormhole, etc. etc. The ending of the first Avengers just felt lazy and unimaginative — or just a fantastic coincidence that it mimicked Transformers. (And why would the far superior Marvel series ever feel the need to imitate the Transformers?)
As you can see I still have unresolved issues there — sort of like how Tony Stark had unresolved issues with his experience in New York.
However, I had no such problems with Age of Ultron. The ending was brilliant, perfectly executed, and carefully thought through in the script with imaginative flourishes. Of course, there’s nothing new under the sun, so there’s probably some movie out there that it resembles, but the Ultron finale bested the first Avengers.
Other Awesome Things About the Film Craft
I also thoroughly enjoyed:
1. The constant ribbing of Captain America by the other Avengers. The Capt’ has come to symbolize my culture that I grew up in — the patriotic, proudly old-fashioned, evangelical American Christian culture — and the film expands on some of the traits of the Captain’s “old-fashioned” America in ways that are comical. But somehow it’s not insulting — not to him or to the culture that he represents. Somehow it makes the ol’ Capt’ even more likeable as a character.
2. There are a couple of minor cameos of characters from the Thor films, who are some of my favorite supporting characters in the Marvel series.
3. I loved how Age of Ultron didn’t neglect the stories of the heroes. In moderate but meaningful increments, the film advanced the story lines of every Avenger and added a few more heroes to the mix in the process — an admirable screenwriting feat.
Age of Ultron does some things better than any of the other Marvel movies as it casts a wide net of introspection over everything and forces the Avengers to ask: are we a curse or a blessing to this world? (And it has some action sequences, like the Iron Man vs. Hulk scene, that will likely become legendary). With those strengths, it burns bright and stands out from the growing army of Marvel movies that have accumulated since “Iron Man” hit the screens on May 2, 2008.
Is it the best Marvel movie yet? Honestly, I’m not sure. I need a few more days to let the film sink in. Whether or not any consensus is formed among the fans, one thing is clear: it’s at least one of the best installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Worldviews, Subtext, Symbolism, Themes of Redemption, Etc.
The film’s plot — and some of the key moments of dialogue from the “wise sage” characters — carries the dogmatic assumption that macro-evolution, the belief that the theory of macro-evolution explains both the origin and the ultimate destiny of humanity, is fact, not theory.
The film perhaps dabbles in Monism as well — a vague version of it that perhaps draws a little from Zen Buddhism or Taoism (two very popular worldviews in Hollywood) — when one of the wise sage characters states, with a sort of know-it-all benevolence: “the humans still think that order and chaos are opposites.” If you accept the premise that chaos equates to evil, then that quote from the film might be another way of saying that any perceived dualism in the universe — order and chaos, good and evil — is an illusion. [However, one of our readers, TSK, makes an interesting argument in a comment below that good things like free will might be defined as “chaos,” and that chaos isn’t intrinsically evil; it is only evil when it is used for evil purposes.]
But then you’ve got, of course, the overarching Norse mythology of Thor that binds the Marvel Universe together. And you’ve got Captain America, a great arch-type of the noble, “old-fashioned,” Judeo-Christian persona (or stereotype, perhaps) of American’s Greatest Generation.
So what does it all add up to? Well, on the surface, it’s exactly what we’d expect from Hollywood: a mash-up collage of worldviews that synthesizes into a postmodern moral framework — a wild blender mix of this and that and a little bit of everything else.
But Wait, Did You Know the Bible is in this Movie?
But there’s some fascinating subtext in this movie and some influence from the Bible that most folks in America will probably miss (at least, judging by the man-on-the-street interviews that Nolan Lebovitz did for “Roadmap Genesis,” which exposed a very low Biblical literacy in our culture).
The Bible gets a few quotes: the use of “I Am” as a name, a mentioning of the verse that says that the earth groans and breaks under the weight of humanity’s wickedness (though the film paraphrases and tweaks it a little to fit their own context), and a few others.
But, as far as an underlying message, Age of Ultron explores many themes — too many to explore in full. I’ll simply mention my three favorite themes from the film that, in my opinion, could bear the weight of spiritual symbolism. Before I get into these, however, I should qualify the whole thing with something I wrote in the comments to one of our readers:
[Any symbolism in this film] is all very much a loose, imperfect analogy [to Biblical truth]. And I’m certain the filmmakers didn’t intend it. But that’s the kind of random stuff I like to think about after I see a movie — especially with what is essentially modern society’s version of campfire storytelling/mythology. Even if a movie is imperfect, I think it’s fun to search for the good in it and try to rework its content in creative ways — to essentially build our own parables from them — that we can use to explain the Gospel to the modern world.
With that qualifier in mind, here are some thought-provoking themes in the film:
1. The battle of the mind. Similar to Loki’s machinations in “Marvel’s Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” sees its heroes facing an internal mental battle that threatens to sabotage their mission. Although this might sound repetitive, Age of Ultron uses it to good effect. It has some interesting parallels to the Biblical concept of spiritual warfare.
2. A fascinating symbolism of our fallen nature. [Minor Spoiler] Ultron works as a powerful symbol of our fallen, corrupt nature apart from the redemptive, transforming work of Christ. Ultron is, put very simply, an extension of Tony Stark — the fruit of Tony Stark’s mind. However, that fruit falls and becomes corrupt — an imperfect version of Tony Stark — and though Ultron bears some resemblances to his creator, he has, of his own free will, transformed himself into something that Stark never intended.
As we see Ultron’s character develop, it becomes clear what Ultron loves: death. The whole situation parallels very well with Romans 8:13: “For if you live according to t
he flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Romans 8:6 works too: “For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.”
And this leads to the third theme.
3. A symbol for the Author of Life. This is probably the most imperfect analogy/symbolism on my list, but I’ll mention it anyways. There’s a character in the film who states that he is “for life” — meaning, he is there to promote and protect life. It reminded me of what Jesus says in John 10:10: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (emphasis mine).
This character, who eventually becomes Ultron’s most powerful rival (I won’t say who — no spoilers), could easily work as a symbol of God/Jesus. This character even calls himself “I Am” at one point.
I Am is the name that God gives Himself when He speaks to Moses. Jesus also referred to Himself as “I Am” (which was one of the reasons the Pharisees wanted to kill Him because He was claiming to be equal with God).
As John 8:57,58 says: “’You are not yet fifty years old,’ they said to him, ‘and you have seen Abraham!’ ‘Very truly I tell you,’ Jesus answered, ‘before Abraham was born, I Am!’ At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds” (NIV).
This character in the film reminded me of some of the qualities of Jesus. This character also had a loose symbolic analogy to the fully human, fully divine dual nature of Jesus. Can’t say much more without spoiling stuff, so I’ll leave it at that. And it is an imperfect analogy. I get into it in more detail in the comments section.
Why Age of Ultron Could Spark Some Life-Changing Conversations
Between these three themes alone, there are some fascinating spiritual parallels and conversation starters. You can sit around with your friends and ask questions like this:
1. How do the mental battles that the Avengers face mirror the spiritual warfare that the Bible teaches about?
2. How does Ultron’s flawed nature resemble the corruption of what the Bible calls our “flesh,” and how do the Avengers symbolize the Body of Christ coming together to help each other overcome our fallen natures?
3. How does the “creation” drama of Ultron’s rival symbolize humanity’s futile efforts to make themselves righteous and “in touch” with the divine by their own works-based efforts? When Ultron’s rival does finally come to life — in a very dramatic way — how does that symbolize God’s intervention in our lives as He works to fill us with His life and transform us “from glory to glory?”
Conclusion: Age of Ultron Stirs Profound Themes and Questions In the Imagination
A) The Bible still has a tremendous subconscious influence over popular culture — as Kevin Harvey’s new book (All You Want to Know About the Bible in Pop Culture: Finding Our Creator in Superheroes, Prince Charming, and Other Modern Marvels) proves in a compelling way
B) God has planted His image and the eternal hunger for the True Superhero (Christ), into the heart of every human being, whether they realize it or not. Therefore, even when secular people make films, these spiritual themes find their way in.
Ecclesiastes 3:11 says it best:
“Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.”
Although Avengers, on the surface, has the typical comic book mash-up of secular/postmodern worldviews, beneath all of those things I can still feel the pounding pulse of people made in God’s image who, whether they realize it or not, carry eternity in their hearts and hunger for the One who put it there.
But, whether you’re in it for the deep layers of meaning or not, one thing is true: “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is one heck of a movie (as Captain America would say).
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