The Marvel Universe Bears the Scars of World War II
Marvel’s heroes are still fighting yesterday’s battles
by MATTHEW GAULT
Tony Stark — billionaire philanthropist playboy super genius and the man inside Iron Man’s armor — calls Bruce Banner, a scientist with an anger problem, into his lab. Stark doesn’t want the other Avengers to hear what he’s about to propose.
The team of super heroes have just returned from a mission where they’ve recovered Loki’s Scepter — McGuffin supreme — from Hydra’s villainous hands. Stark has been studying it, and he’s found something strange … and exciting — an advanced artificial intelligence.
Stark wants to develop the A.I., plug it into his Iron Man suits and “put a suit of armor around the world.”
Banner thinks he’s nuts. What could drive Stark to think that autonomous drones patrolling the skies over the planet is anything approaching a good idea. Stark explains that the world is strange and different now. There are extraterrestrial threats humans can’t understand — let alone fight.
Stark thinks the intelligent robots will bring “peace in our time.”
It’s a quick line in a film full of rapid-fire dialogue and clever banter. And Stark almost throws it away, as if the movie’s writer didn’t know he had him quote British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s famous pronouncement after the Munich Agreement.
But this is Avengers: Age of Ultron and Joss Whedon — the man behind Toy Story, Cabin in the Woods and Firefly — wrote the script and directed the film. He’s no idiot.
Whedon knows Chamberlain spoke those words after the prime minister believed he’d negotiated peace with Nazi Germany. Putting the words in Stark’s mouth as he describes a plot to keep mankind safe forever is a deliberate historical allusion.
The Avengers, all of them, are myths forged from the ashes of World War II. Age of Ultron is about how those modern mythic forces face the threats of the 21st century. How they succeed, how they fail … and how they’ve caused most of the problems they face.
Age of Ultron follows the Avengers dealing with the aftermath of Stark’s unilateral decision to create an advanced A.I. to protect the world. That A.I. becomes the robotic nightmare, Ultron — voiced by the wonderful James Spader — who decides the best path to peace is humanity’s extinction.
The Avengers — of course — can’t let that stand.
But Ultron is more than just a cackling B movie villain. He’s a creature who longs to fulfill his purpose — peace. He’s angry that the people around him don’t understand that his vision is correct and because of that, he’s sad and lonely.
When his allies turn on him, Ultron is genuinely upset. He reaches out and tries to explain himself, like a child desperately trying to articulate himself to his friends. He believes — much like Stark, his creator — if he can just make people see … then they will understand.
Ultron takes after his father. When a character asks Ultron what he wants, he echoes his father quoting Chamberlain. “Peace in our time.”
But he defines it far differently than the Avengers do. “I think you’re confusing peace with quiet,” Ultron explains. “Everyone creates what they dread. Men of peace create engines of war.”
Stark and the Avengers created exactly what they fear — their replacement. Worse, that replacement is willing to move forward with the dark desire at the bottom of every superhero story — kill the world to save it.
But what can we expect from a group of people living in the shadow of recent history’s bloodiest conflict?
Whedon’s deep understanding of the myths represented by the various Avengers makes the film exceptional. Marvel’s characters have endured for so many decades because they are basic, mutable and mythic.
These heroes are creatures of World War II. In Marvel’s universe, there are two time periods — Word War II and the long grand unwinding of history that follows it.
Which makes sense. The writers who created the Avengers and laid the groundwork for the Marvel cinematic universe were members of the Greatest Generation.
Stan Lee served in the Signals Corps. He repaired communications equipment and worked on training films. Jack Kirby was an Army scout who drew reconnaissance maps for the allies.
Steve Ditko was too young to serve, but spent high school carving models of German planes to aid the Ground Observer Corps identify enemy aircraft. He joined the Army in late October, 1945 and drew comics for an Army newspaper in post-war Europe.
Those three men are responsible for the bulk of the Marvel canon. The motley crew of heroes, mutants, villains and madness they created left a lasting impression on American culture just as World War II left a lasting impression on them.
The Marvel stories they told were a reaction to a world where evil existed, heroes were real and America joined the fray at the last minute to save the day. The world has been dealing with the consequences of that world view since the last atom bomb fell on Nagasaki.
Stark’s father built weapons for the Allies then turned the family business over to his son. Stark was a weapons dealer for most of his life. He didn’t become a peacekeeper until terrorists kidnapped him and he saw firsthand the devastation his weapons caused.
But he still fights. To Stark, war is the only path to peace.
Bruce Banner and his Hulk alter-ego are monsters of the Atomic Age. Gamma radiation — resulting from a bomb test in the comics and, in the movies, a super soldier experiment — warped Banner into the raging Hulk.
He’s the physical manifestation of America’s power run amok. Piss him off and he’ll destroy a city. He’ll feel guilty afterward, but that won’t stop it from happening again.
Then there’s Captain America.
Steve Rogers is a man of the Greatest Generation who survived the Great Depression and the war against Nazi Germany. He may look 30, but the old soldier was born in 1920.
The modern world is strange and complicated to him. He only understands war. More than that, Cap likes war.
He’s stuck in time, doomed to relive the war over and over again. He believes, wholeheartedly, in a dream of America that many today say doesn’t exist.
But as long as Rogers lives and as long as the Avengers fight against bad guys, he keeps that dream alive. It’s vibrant on America’s screens, in America’s stories and in America’s myths. Even as it fades away around us.
Age of Ultron’s connection to World War II is most explicit in the savage robot’s villainous scheme. Ultron plans to use a meteor to create an extinction event and wipe out humanity. The way he creates that meteor is telling.
Ultron bases his operation in the Eastern European country Sokovia — a fictional former Soviet bloc country. Looking at the streets of Sokovia you’d think Communism had collapsed last week, not last century. Brutalist architecture dominates the streets and bronze statues loom in public squares.
Stark’s robotic son plans to use one of Sokovia’s cities as the meteor. He’ll rip that city — abandoned by Russia and forgotten by the West — from the ground and hurl it at Earth to end the world.
It’s a grand, symbolic gesture — the drone offspring of a man who inherited his fortune from World War II-era weapons sales using a former Soviet city to destroy the world.
The heroes, of course, stop Ultron — but the events of the film change them forever. Banner knows his powers means that no one will ever be safe around him. The only good nuke is a disarmed nuke.
Stark bows out of the team. His technology could not save the world and never could. To believe otherwise is hubris. Ultron proved that.
And Rogers acknowledges that he’s at home in war, that he’ll never escape the fight and that’s fine … he enjoys war. Rogers is Captain America through and through.