A bit callous, perhaps. But it was a frustration borne of the fact that the central ethical struggle in “Age of Ultron” makes very little sense. The artificially intelligent Ultron (voiced by James Spader) pronounces that the Avengers are the true danger to Earth, the real threat that must be stopped. And though it’s an inaccurate assessment with lethal implications, everyone on the team starts behaving as if Ultron’s right, and it’s superheroes who are earth’s biggest problems, not a genocidal robot. As Captain America (Chris Evans) puts it before the climactic civilian evacuation—sorry, climactic “battle”—the team needs to prove to the world that Ultron is wrong about the Avengers being a deadly menace.
This is a rather head-scratching reaction. The Avengers, both as a team and in their constituent parts, have shown time and again throughout the movies that comprise the Marvel Cinematic Universe that they’re nothing but conscientious of civilians. We have no real reason to think the public distrusts them. They are war heroes and billionaire playboy philanthropist celebrities. They take special care to avoid civilian casualties while stopping genocide and make sure to rescue trapped civilians while stopping an alien invasion.
All of which is to say that I think Kate Erbland is basically right when she suggests that the real foe in “Avengers: Age of Ultron” isn’t a super-powered AI but 2013’s “Man of Steel.” For those of you who fail to follow the ins and outs and what-have-yous of every nerd kerfuffle (for shame!), many people were very upset at the Superman reboot’s last hour of Kryptonian-on-Kryptonian action. As Erbland puts it,
The Avengers want to save you. The DC heroes would like you to get out of the way. … Man Of Steel notably (and controversially) ends with the near-complete destruction of Metropolis, the kind of ruination that all but assures a hefty number of human casualties and plays up director Zack Snyder’s seeming obsession with making everything look terribly gray and filthy. Worse still, Superman (Henry Cavill) kills Zod (Michael Shannon) with a well-timed neck-snap once he realizes that his greatest foe will never stop waging battle against Supes or the planet at large, a brutal (and literal) twist that nearly takes off the villain’s head. It was awful.
I’ve never found the line of argument that Superman in “Man of Steel” doesn’t care enough about civilians particularly compelling. In part, that’s because making the case involves ignoring the first half of the film: We repeatedly see Clark Kent using his powers to save people, putting himself and his family at risk. He continues to aid people even after his father gives his own life to keep Clark’s true, alien identity secret. “The only way you could disappear for good is to stop helping people altogether,” Lois Lane (Amy Adams) tells Clark after tracking him down. “And I sense that’s not an option for you.”
Further, this argument suggests that Superman is responsible for the destruction of Metropolis, a notion I have a hard time fathoming. After all, most of the damage to Metropolis actually occurs during a 9/11-style attack by General Zod and his “world engine,” a terraforming device that uses gravity waves to demolish a solid 30 square blocks of the city. Sure, there’s a bit more ancillary damage as Zod and Superman fight in Metropolis after the device is destroyed, but most of that battle takes place long after any sane civilian has fled the city in terror. The action goes down in the hole the world engine has created, through an empty office building, and into an empty construction site. Could Superman have redirected the fight away from the city? Perhaps. But given the fact that Zod has explicitly stated his desire to murder as many folks as he can, I’m not sure it would have worked for long.
When Superman finally comes face to face with civilians during the final fight with Zod, we see his protective instincts kick in again: The mad general has turned his heat vision on a family cowering in a corner, pledging to kill as many humans as he possibly can to make Kal-El suffer for destroying his dream to rebuild Krypton. Superman begs him to stop. Pleads. Cajoles. And, when push comes to shove, he kills the murderous mad man in order to save the innocent civilians.
Erbland describes this as a “shocking crime.” Frankly, this seems a bit overwrought. After all, the Avengers can brutally dismember a thousand robots—essentially exterminating a new form of sentient life—and no one cares. But we are supposed to wring our hands if Superman uses lethal force to stop one mass murderer with superpowers who has repeatedly pledged to kill millions more solely for spite? It’s certainly a powerful moment, in large part because Pa Kent (Kevin Costner) taught Clark that good men must turn the other cheek when confronted by bullies. The anguished cry Superman lets out as Zod hits the pavement shows the emotional toll the action has taken on him: He now understands that sometimes doing “good” means taking a life.
I get the sense that what makes some people uncomfortable about “Man of Steel” is that it more closely reflects the way war is fought today than a movie like “Age of Ultron.” Ours is an age of terror and drones, of bombing campaigns and troops on the ground in urban settings and of the collateral damage that results. Joss Whedon’s flick, with its supposedly civilian-casualty-free assault on an Eastern European nation, calls to mind the conception of warfare from the mid-1990s, an era when smart bombs and precision-guided munitions were supposed to prevent war from affecting innocent people.
The idea that you can stop monsters with missiles, sparing civilians entirely, is a pleasant (if false) fantasy, one that might help explain why “Age of Ultron” surpassed “Man of Steel’s” box office take in just nine days. Some people prefer soothing falsehoods to harsh truths.