“Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the follow-up to the third-biggest grossing film of all time, is right around the corner and Marvel fans are getting all their action figures, cosplay and collectors items ready for the second coming, while the folks at DC are retreating to their bomb shelter and hoping Iron Man doesn’t hit them too hard and take their lunch money this time.
This will be the eleventh Marvel Cinematic Universe Film and the 41st film derived from Marvel Comics. At this point, Marvel is only a few nuclear weapons short of a global superpower, so it naturally provokes one to wonder what it all means — not in the sense of trying to figure out the meaning of a divine punishment in which one is bombarded by endless movies about men in spandex but, rather, to sort out the meaning of the movies themselves.
What is Marvel’s message to man-children around the world? What are its ideological and rhetorical goals? At face value, the intent looks to be the manufacture of faithful recreations of the comics for the sole purpose of thoughtless fun (and perhaps earning a billion dollars here and there). But after re-watching the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe; i.e. anything made under Marvel president Kevin Feige’s vigilant auspices), I noticed a strange pattern. It first became apparent in “The Avengers” when Tom Hiddleston’s villainous Loki began scoffing at Scarlet Johansson’s Black Widow’s moral ideal of “sentiment.” This same dynamic was repeated in the recent “Guardians of the Galaxy” when Michael Rooker’s Yondu, a criminal, scolds the main character for indulging in altruistic “sentiment” for wanting to save the galaxy.
In “Thor: The Dark World,” Christopher Eccleston’s Malekith wants to create a new order in the universe by introducing eternal darkness and Thor needs to stop him to preserve Odin’s pre-established regime. When
Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin threatens to destabilize America, Iron Man fights to keep the United States strong. Loki and HYDRA strive for a New World Order that the Avengers must thwart to keep things the way
they are. Thanos and Ronan the Accuser seek to wipe out the Nova Corps for their war crimes, but the Guardians of the Galaxy must fight the good fight to keep the the Galaxy under Nova Corps protection.
Most blatantly of all, Captain America outright destroys the modern intelligence community because the morally gray concept of post-9/11 surveillance doesn’t compute with his old-school, World War II-era views.
In almost every film, change is depicted as a sinister force that threatens to undermine a noble, pre-existing establishment. Simply put, Marvel has old-fashioned systems that are depicted as correct, proven goods, while change is presented as a vile, disruptive (and sometimes Swastika-bearing) evil.
So what does this mean? Is Marvel covertly injecting the world’s youth with conservative themes? Just because the original comics themselves were never intended to carry overt political messages other than the ultimate supremacy of good over evil, does this mean that the films carry no additional ideological baggage?
If the movies do have a hidden meaning, it less addresses politics than it does an attitude toward the comics themselves and how they should be treated.
In the world of comic books, change is by far the most horrifying threat. Comic book writers have long striven to maintain a certain chronological limbo for their characters. Spider-Man is to be perpetually a young web slinger, an eternally young Batman and Joker are to maintain the same undying rivalry, Superman must always face down Lex Luthor, freshly out of jail and devising nefarious schemes.
If a character dies, a new continuity is created that negates it. If someone’s secret identity is revealed, a new storyline soon erases its consequences. In fact, comic book writers at both Marvel and DC have gone to great lengths in the past to preserve their beloved limbo. Marvel’s Ultimate Universe and DC’s New 52 operations have effectively clean-slated their own cannons to keep their continuities from becoming too complex
to…well, not change.
When a choice is made that actually entails change, fanboy outrage is sure to follow. When Batman retired, or Supergirl got killed, or when Robin became a woman, the community took up arms. The same goes for the movies. At DC, when the mild-mannered and humorless Mr. Freeze was depicted as a muscle-bound, pun-touting Arnold Schwarzenegger, nerds rallied in their united displeasure. Even worse were the reactions when Superman broke his no-kill rule in “Man of Steel,” when Bane wasn’t Hispanic in “The Dark Knight Rises,” and when Parallax was turned into a globular motion-capture pudding in “Green Lantern.”
Marvel itself has felt this fury when it completely altered the character of the Mandarin for “Iron Man 3.” The original character was actually an insulting Chinese stereotype equipped with magic rings and a personality defined exclusively by a megalomania befitting a descendent of Genghis Khan. Marvel decided that racist caricatures were not the way to go and instead experimented with an Osama bin Jong-Il-type terrorist figurehead. Despite the fact that retaining the source material’s wincingly outdated approach was out of the question, fanboy zealots took up their torches and pitchforks.
When it comes arch-conservatism, then, it would seem that ground zero would be occupied by the comics’ most ardent fans themselves; any changes the filmmakers might make to the sacred texts or the nature of
the original characters are viewed in a negative range stretching from pre-release suspicion to reflexive fury. Changes made to the characters and the context for their heroics are seen as villainous revisionism, and like Loki, Malekith, Thanos or the Mandarin, a force of evil that threatens the world order. These changes are to be prevented at all costs by the heroes who are, after all, noble preservers of the status quo.
Perhaps what is most telling about the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” trailers is that the villain, the conscious automaton Ultron who has plagued the Avengers in the comics perhaps more than any other villain, says to the Avengers that they “want to protect the world but don’t want it to change.” It seems clear that the Marvel movies’ creators are acutely alert to these themes, with the result being that the Marvel films, like the mad robot Ultron himself, have become exceedingly self-aware.