At long last! Avengers: Age of Ultron arrived in theaters this weekend, kicking off the Summer and almost concluding Phase Two of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe. (That honor will go to Ant Man in July.) As the self-proclaimed “Marvel guy” here at Reel Spirituality, I could not wait to not only see this but review it.
As is often the case with sequels, especially ensemble ones, there is a lot to talk about. With this many characters and story arcs running between different films, brand new characters and villains and future stories being teased, there is much that could be said about what this movie is trying to do. I am certain that a few other critics here at Reel Spirituality will point us in some other key directions.
Personally, I found the film most poignant in its conversation about fear, and what it causes us to do.
In this film, one of the new characters named Wanda Maximoff (AKA “Scarlet Witch”) has telekinetic and telepathic abilities. She uses these abilities to stir up the Avengers and royally mess them up. She does this by manipulating their minds and forcing them to confront the thing they most fear. Each character sees a vision of what they dread: some about the past, some about the future – things they left behind, things they buried, or things they fear they may do.
In fact, the entire film’s plot is set in motion by fear. Ultron later muses that, “Everyone creates the thing they dread. Men of peace create engines of war, invaders create Avengers…” While this is not the extent of Wanda’s power (by no means!) it does become the most devastating blow to a team that seems so in sync and unstoppable early in the film. When people, even heroes, are forced to confront what they fear the most, it tears them apart and forces them to do things they never would have imagined before – to abandon people they love, to create something they can’t control, to turn on someone for whom they once cared deeply.
These thoughts about fear were particularly on my mind as Walter Brueggemann, the renowned Old Testament scholar, was in town for the Fuller Forum the same weekend as the opening of this film. I got to hear Brueggemann preach a wonderful sermon called “Diving In and Casting Out,” which you can listen to here. Brueggemann teaches on the Ethiopian eunuch, and proclaims that it is a story about someone who moved from a world of fear to a world of love, and concludes, “This is the movement we are always making in the Gospel.”
This is not the first time Marvel has tackled the ideas of freedom and fear. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s best film to date, shows Cap’s refusal to accept a world where we allow fear to take us into total surveillance and utter annihilation. Brueggemann echoes these sentiments from a theological perspective: “Fear makes us selfish. Fear makes us do crazy things. Fear turns neighbors into threats. Fear drives us into a desperate self-sufficiency and a yearning for privatism. Fear drives to greed and idolatry. Fear refuses the other. And now we live in a culture of fear that regards as ordinary surveillance and torture and drone because perfect fear drives out love.”
Fear tears apart the Avengers, and it tears apart our world. The Avengers have to own up to those fears and learn, once again, to work together and sacrifice for one another if they are to defeat Ultron. Every character, even Ultron, has something or someone they fear, and they all deal with it in different ways. Some of them confide in others, and we learn about developing relationships and ones we never knew existed – and those members of the team that have played subliminal roles find themselves needed more than ever to hold the team together in crisis.
This larger issue of fear and safety will further come to fruition next year in Captain America: Civil War, which will pit Captain America against Iron Man. In the comic book storyline, Iron Man supports the registration of all superheroes so that they can be regulated, and tragic destructive events (like the destruction of entire cities as depicted throughout these films) can be avoided or at least supervised. Captain America sees too much opportunity for corruption, and believes that heroes need to operate outside of regulation for them to have any true role in society. You can see the seeds sown even before this film, as Iron Man continually fights against the demons he creates and has created, and Captain America fights against those who would create a culture of fear and use it to control people.
In a world dominated by fear, we remember that the opposite of fear is not courage, but love. As we see the news of wars, racism, torture, drones, and unrest, may we mourn the tragedies that our fear causes us to perpetuate. And may we always seek to remember that we have been shown perfect Love, which casts out all fear, and dive head first into that Love.
You might also find these reviews of Avengers: Age of Ultron helpful: