Why 'Avengers' is So Much Better than 'Man of Steel' (And Why, for Catholics, It’s Important)

Much like its heroes, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” continued to destroy all opposition this weekend, earning an estimated $77.2 million domestic and bringing its grand total thus far to an incredible $875 million worldwide.

When it comes right down to it, nobody likes a bully (least of all a Marvel movie!). So seeing “Age of Ultron” stomp like Hulk over puny films like “Hot Pursuit”, well, it makes for a pretty big target. Since it came out May 1 the film has been attacked for excessive CGI and writer/director Joss Whedon has been accused of abandoning his usual feminist agenda for making the main story for the Black Widow her crush on the Hulk. (A move that actress Scarlett Johansson parodied to hilarious effect on Saturday Night Live last week.)

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In our own Catholic press, Father Robert Barron has attacked Whedon for being an atheist and cast the film as a Nietzche-ian parable of the Ubermensch with decidedly Nazi overtones. (The final image of the film, he says, “is in complete conformity with the aesthetic favored by Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl, and the other artists of the Nazi period.” You know, except for the super powers and the robots. But maybe that’s in “Triumph of the Will,” the director’s cut?)

But for all its supersized explodey wonder, etc., “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is also an important film. In the genre of blockbusters that storm our billboards and subway stations and Twitter feeds each summer, Whedon’s story stands alone in keeping its focus almost always on human beings—on what it means to be human, about the struggles we have as humans, and above all on saving other humans.

It’s actually quite notable how much of “Ultron” is explicitly dedicated to saving ordinary people. [Warning: Spoilers ensue.] Almost the entire last act of the movie, in fact, is dedicated to the Avengers running around rescuing people. And not in that typical blockbuster movie sense of “Baby, we gotta do this or the world ain’t gonna survive.” No, that last half hour is all about our heroes actually saving individuals—people plummeting to their death, people stuck in collapsing buildings, people about to be shot by robots that sound like James Spader.

Yes, there is a ticking clock, and oh boy, if they don’t stop it the species is going the way of the dinosaurs (literally). But even so, most of the heroes’ effort is dedicated just to rescuing the people around them, even when they’re not entirely suited for that mission. In maybe the most talked about moment of the film, sharp shooter Hawkeye—who has no super powers—tells the frightened young hero Scarlet Witch—“Okay, look, the city is flying, we’re fighting an army of robots, and I have a bow and arrow. None of this makes sense. But I’m going out there because it’s my job.” Bottom line, people are in need, and that’s all that matters.

The midpoint of the film comes at the same idea from a different angle. Put under a a spell, Bruce Banner Hulk-rampages through an African city, as Tony Stark desperately tries to talk him down, all the while saving as many people as he can, even scanning a construction site to make sure there’s no one there before he throws the Hulk into it.

Hulk aside, Bruce Banner has a meaty role in “Age of Ultron,” and his central struggle is again all about the danger he poses to people. Indeed, the question of whether our heroes are actually monsters, a danger to society, haunts almost all of them at some point in the film.

Really, it’s hard not to see that final act of “Ultron” as a you-best-drop-the-mic-cuz-there-ain’t-no-comeback indictment of the summer blockbusters, with their oh so ready willingness to forget the human casualties amidst the spectacles that they create. Watching the film I couldn’t help but think of the recent Superman re-re-boot “Man of Steel,” which ended with something like 40 minutes of Superman fighting Zod throughout Metropolis, basically wiping out the city without the filmmakers ever giving attention to the plight of anyone but the few characters we’d met.

Indeed, that last half hour of “Man of Steel” is just soulless, unending violence that echoes 9/11 without offering any of the humanity that actually makes such horrible events bearable. For those looking for an Ubermensch parable, you might start there.

As Catholics we believe that human beings have value. In fact, we believe that every single human being is of infinite value. It’s for that reason that we speak out so strongly about respect for life from conception to death. It’s because of our strong stance on human dignity that sometimes we find ourselves challenged when our moral doctrines seem to waver from that commitment. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan said so well in his maiden homily as Archbishop of New York City, “Everybody is somebody.” That is the standard we live by as Catholics, and that is the standard by which both individually and as church we will be judged.

In blockbusters, if normal people are considered at all, it’s just to motivate the main characters. They’re not subjects or individuals with value of their own.

And that should disturb us. Because the stories we tell have power. They teach us what is of value and what is not. To the extent that our blockbusters don’t wonder about what happened to the people in the buildings that collapsed around Superman or that the Transformers blew up, they encourage within us a sweet forgetfulness that is dangerous and awful when applied to the real world.   

I know, I know, way to harsh your summer mellow. Nobody goes to blockbusters to think.  But “Avengers: Age of Ultron” shows that entertainment and human dignity, human values are not incompatible. In fact these characters’ concern for human beings makes them relatable and helps us to find ourselves in their story.  

At the end of “Age of Ultron”, Whedon’s villain and messiah figure—both robots (sort of)—have a conversation about humanity. “Human beings are doomed,” says Ultron. (He’s that kind of guy—not a lot of fun at parties, but just fantastic for extinction events.)

“Yes,” replies the Vision (way cooler—think Jesus with a hard drive and a cape). “But things don’t have to last to be beautiful.”

We may not agree with Whedon about whether we’ll last, either as a species or beyond death. He is, as Barron points out, an atheist. (He has also said, “I think faith is an extraordinary thing. I’d like to have some, but I don’t.")

But paradoxically, that emptiness that he experiences actually is the engine for the stories he writes, stories about the struggle to be decent, to be courageous, to be human.

“We create,” he said in a January interview in Entertainment Weekly, “to fill a gap.... So yeah, I write things where people will lay down their lives for each other. And on a personal level, I know many wonderful people who are spending their lives trying to help others, or who are just decent and kind.... But on a macro level, I don’t see that in the world. So I have a need to create it. Hopefully, that need gets translated into somebody relating to it and feeling hope....

“I hate to say it, it’s that line from the Lord of the Rings—‘I give hope to men; I keep none for myself.’

“They say it in Elvish, so it sounds super cool.”

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