Wednesday, May 27, 2015


In an update to a previous post, Mark Harris at Grantland perfectly sums up the world-destructive violence that was waiting in the Age of Ultron when I eventually got around to seeing it:

"At the climax of Avengers: Age of Ultron, the titular supervillain portrayed by 8 million CGI artists and the voice of James Spader launches an attack on a large part of an Eastern European country called Sokovia.1 Basically, he scissors a border around a big section of a Sokovian city and then lifts it into midair. Because he can, and also because of something about how the only way to save mankind is to destroy it, yada yada yada. It’s a messy business, because all of that city-scissoring is slightly imprecise. High-rise buildings tend to fall off the borders; there’s lots of dirt and crumbling and stuff tumbling either into the hole that’s left or onto the city around the hole. But this is Marvel, so the stakes are at once preposterously high (it’s the end of the world as we know it) and calculatedly low (you’ll feel fine). “Sokovia,” after all, isn’t real; the city isn’t real; the threat isn’t real. The Sokovian populace is basically a stand-in for “Worried-looking white extras in a country really far from the U.S. that probably isn’t even that much of an ally.” It’s only a movie — in fact, it’s a movie in which the characters all seem to have a general sense that it’s only a movie and that things will work out in movie terms. (Iron Man to himself: “Please be a secret door … Yay!”)
Anyway, they’re all OK. Really. In a couple of lines that sound rather hastily spackled-in, one or another of the Avengers pauses during all of this world-saving to mention that they’ve gotten just about everyone out of a building.3 So, lots of destruction, little death. It’s Teflon Apocalypse. Then, at the end, there’s a kind of efficient evacuation in which everyone who’s left on the floating-island part of the city intuitively races over to the same edge in order to get on the equivalent of four or five space buses. In a very meta nod to the long-prevailing need to protect delicate sensibilities, even a dog gets to jump onto the rescue convoy. If Age of Ultron were a plane-crash movie, it would offer a lot of mayhem interspersed with affable discussions and would climax with the orderly inflation of life vests and deployment of yellow slides."

I recall from my younger days reading G.I. Joe comics, identified now to be little more than pro-military propaganda to help recover from the malaise of 70s skepticism and institutional distrust, that the invention of far-away countries to concurrently terrorize and rescue was a common tactic in those forced narratives.  It allowed for the illusion of ill will (off-panel, off-screen) that was only as gruesome as your fantasies allowed, but securely allocated to a country whose imaginary borders were far from our own and whose unknown customs and cultures were exoticized enough to be dispensable anyway.  The stakes are high for Sovokia, but all that really accounts for is a bigger thank you owed to our Randian supermen.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron actually introduces fantasy lands like this twice, once in "Sokovia" and once in "Wakanda", a fictionalized African nation known in the comics as the home country of Black Panther*.  After being set off by Scarlet Witch's telepathy, the Hulk goes on a rampage, ravaging the streets of an urban center in Wakanda, throwing cars, busting holes in buildings, and running afoul of mostly black faces instead of the white ones we see in Sovokia.

The parallels between Ultron and the Hulk's rampages should be crystal clear.  Clearly, this seems  a narrative choice on Whedon's behalf, a chance to either contrast reaction or demonstrate the thin line separate madness of righteous zealotry, but in one of the most hypocritical moves of a superhero franchise thus far, it's none of those thing.  The Hulk is meant to be forgiven, since he is bestial and destructive by nature, while Ultron is scheming and deliberate.  While Ultron seems to be acting in an aggressively punitive, fatherly mode, punishing the world for its misdeeds, Hulk is in some snare of shellshock, wanting to be a do-gooder but unable to reconcile how awesome it feels to just smash shit up.  We're expected to condemn one- the fracturing logic of megalomania; and condone another- intrinsic violence bubbled up to its breaking point.**

But in the People's History of the Marvel Universe, would anyone in Wakanda or Sovokia know the difference?  Does intentionality play that vital a role to the collateral damage on the sidelines?  What winds up happening instead is a marginalization of African lives, which would already be quite a thing were African lives not already the most expendable of all lives in the current Western geopolitcal landscape.  The disappearance of their stories and their struggles, the off-panel/off-screen tragedies, is a daily occurrence.

A throwaway line suggests that no one will be fired, suspended, and charges won't be pressed, but to whom do the Avengers answer exactly?  The International Criminal Court?  S.H.I.E.L.D.'s internal auditors?  The Baltimore PD?  In the comics, Wakanda becomes independently wealthy thanks to its clever harnessing of resources, but in the film there's little evidence that the country is any more rich than its neighbors.  Best case scenario, the property damage alone would surely bankrupt the country.

And at this point in the film, this is only the second war crime that Hulk's Bruce Banner has committed.  Earlier, it's actually him and Iron Man/Tony Stark who, without oversight or authorization or so much as a second glance in the barely-regulated Stark labs, create Ultron, which is in every sense of the word a weapon of mass destruction.  Again, intentionality alone seems to get them off the hook, because despite the seemingly eviler wreckage that Ultron induces, Stark and Banner are never treated like the war criminals/terrorists they most certainly are.  Purest intentions don't count for shit for those laying in the body bags.

Of course, as the tone of the Grantland quote above suggests, this would a silly thing to argue, except that Age of Ultron precisely mirrors existing hegemony; a world were Africans are bystanders to our most destructive impulses, ignored to the mercy of tyrants, Ebola, HIV, famine, poverty, et al. while the security council nations take what they need; where war crimes perpetrated either intentionally or as a goof go unpunished; and where the death of 2000 people in a lucky strike terror attack by a gaggle of Saudi half-wits is still given more credence than the millions of war dead launched in its wake in a calculated global war on/of terror.

Look, you know how we've been trying to create a super advanced
robot AI to protect the world from aliens? Well, this technology
from those exact same aliens, used by the leader of those aliens to
nearly destroy us all, might be the key to stopping future aliens!
I'm going to load the computer stuff and see what happens.

What?! Are you seriously the dipshit that finds a random
USB key in your office parking lot and immediately
plugs it into your work computer?
OK, I ran not_a_virus.exe. Now let's go party.
A.I. Paul Bettany can finish this up.

The muse to Stark's Reaganite vision of creating an A.I. Star Wars defense shield in Ultron was a vision implanted in him by Scarlet Witch, not of a world where the Avengers had failed to protect the populace, but a neatly stacked altar of superhero corpses, the self-anointed elite crumbled under their own impotence.  A world without those to simultaneously protect us and destroy us.  Would that really be so bad?

*I'd always assumed Black Panther was a badass ode to the black nationalists of the 60s and 70s, but Wikipedia seems to signal that the name preceded it. I'd be curious to know if there was any intersection between the two in the comics.

**The inevitability and essentialism of the Hulk's aggression is particularly problematic given the recent antics of the superhero franchise's fanboy audience.  Since it has little to no effect on world diplomatic relationships or the rest of the Avengers, this behavior's main impact is on Black Widow, Banner's love interest.    Black Widow is tasked with "taming" Banner and, as well-publicized elsewhere, becomes more of a sexual prize than an autonomous character with her own desires and agency, let alone a superhero. Everything about their pairing has the air of an abusive relationship. "He's not so bad.  He has a temper.  Deep down, he's all fluff" she says at one point.  

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