Earth’s Mightiest Monsters: The Character Arcs Of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON
A second viewing of Avengers: Age of Ultron - a viewing free of hype and hope, a viewing in which you’re armed with a basic understanding of the plot, allowing you to dig a little deeper - pays off in enormous ways. The film, a slightly too-breathless, sort of too-dense blockbuster, suddenly opens up, the little character moments emerging from between the set pieces and the fights. Most of my niggling problems with the film simply melted away on a second viewing, and many of the lingering questions felt answered.
More than that, the character arcs of the original Avengers stood bright against the backdrop of Ultron’s machinations; they’re easy to miss on a first viewing because they’re woven so completely into the film’s plot, but once you have that plot under control you can begin to see the ways that the Avengers’ personalities - and their journeys across almost a decade of Marvel Studios films - informs everything.
A thread that runs through Avengers: Age of Ultron is the looming self-doubt of each team member. At one point in the film every Avenger (except Hawkeye) refers to him/herself as a monster. While Thor doesn’t say it out loud, his Scarlet Witch-induced vision explicitly shows him as a monster, the lightning he controls destroying Asgardians around him. Even Captain America, paragon of righteous hope, applies the M word to himself: “What kind of monster would let a German doctor experiment on him to protect his country?”
I want to take a look at each of these characters’ arcs, and show how impressively they have been handled over a series of movies. Let’s start with the single most misunderstood arc:
Tony Stark/Iron Man
The first thing we have to do is go back to Iron Man Three and understand that Tony Stark didn’t retire. This isn’t made clear enough by the film, and it has caused a lot of confusion and has led a lot of people to profoundly misunderstand Tony’s arc.
At the end of Iron Man Three Tony destroys all the armors, not because he wants to stop being Iron Man (although he does, more on that later), but rather because they represent a failure on his part. Tony’s arc is probably the most complex in the MCU, and it’s slightly hindered by Iron Man 2 sucking, but this is basically how it plays out:
The ultimate devil-may-care party boy, Tony Stark is so uninterested in the ramifications of his life and the dangers around him that he packs a bar with his missiles and he refuses to ride in the safer vehicle with Rhodey, calling it the ‘humdrumvee.’ Like America itself before 9/11, Tony Stark doesn’t consider the ramifications of his actions or the fact that he might not be safe as a result, and he is taken by surprise when he is captured by the Ten Rings.
Tony’s initial experience in his Iron Man Mark I armor leaves him traumatized; watching Iron Man again it’s hard to see Tony’s burger-munching, everybody sitting down press conference as anything but a guy trying to process what happened to him and kind of freaking out. Tony makes an initial change - no more weapons systems from Stark Industries - but he can’t imagine how a world without weapons actually works, because he feels so personally vulnerable. Peace in our time, he says in Avengers: Age of Ultron, an ironic statement as he’s quoting Neville Chamberlain returning from making a deal with the Nazis in 1938. But this is Tony in a nutshell - a guy trying to secure peace and only finding more war.
Tony Stark deals with his first bout of PTSD by building a suit to keep himself protected. In the sequel he begins to deal with the truth of repercussions, a truth he mostly avoided in Iron Man. This time it’s all about dealing with the repercussions of his dad’s actions, and it’s about dealing with his own daddy issues. Most pressing, the arc reactor that’s keeping him alive is actually poisoning him - the metaphors here are pretty clear, even if the film itself is muddled. At the end Tony makes peace with his and his father’s legacy - but in a comic book way, by defeating his father’s enemy in a recreation of his father’s expo. By the end of Iron Man 2 Tony Stark has made a journey from a guy who doesn’t care about what happens to himself or the world to a guy who seeks out Nick Fury, hoping to become a part of the Avengers Initiative.
During the course of The Avengers Tony learns his biggest lesson - sometimes you have to lay yourself on the wire. This is, a lot of ways, the culmination of Tony’s journey as a hero. He comes to a place where he recognizes that he must sacrifice himself for the good of the world, a total 180 from the guy we meet at the beginning of Iron Man (and the flashback at the beginning of Iron Man Three). In a lot of ways The Avengers represents the completion of Tony’s arc - he’s a hero, he’s willing to do the most heroic thing possible, and he’s saved the world.
But this is longform storytelling, and so Tony’s arc doesn’t end there. The events of The Avengers render Iron Man Three a fascinating postscript, where Tony has to deal with the PTSD of his trip through the Chitauri wormhole. This is where we get to the point about Tony not retiring.
In the year since New York Tony has dealt with his PTSD in the same way he dealt with his Afghanistan PTSD: he makes suits. But while the original Iron Man armors were generalized protection systems, post-New York Tony starts making individual suits for any possible problem that could come his way. He becomes obsessive, looking at the world as a series of dangers from which he must protect himself. The suits are a symptom of that obsession, a wall that he’s putting between himself and every single part of life.
When he destroys those suits he isn’t destroying Iron Man, he’s destroying the idea that Iron Man can handle his every fear, his every danger. He’s trying to deal with his trauma as opposed to cocooning himself away from it. When he removes the arc reactor he’s removing the crutch on which he stood, and metaphorically he’s removing the barrier to his heart. At the end of the movie he very clearly states, “I am Iron Man.”
But here’s the thing about Tony Stark: he’s a problem solver by nature. That can be trouble when it’s coming from a negative place, but it’s his true super power. And when Ultron opens we see that Stark has been continuing to try and solve the problem of security. He’s created the Iron Legion, a small peace-keeping task force that is low-powered and controlled by JARVIS. They’re basically intended not as warriors but as traffic cops, helping to protect innocents in scenarios where the actions of The Avengers put them in danger.
But when the Scarlet Witch shows Tony a destroyed future, his PTSD kicks in again. It’s important to understand that while standard narratives would have a hero getting over his PTSD, in reality you never do - you just live with it, hopefully dealing with it but never leaving it behind. And that PTSD can return, can rear its ugly head and fuck you up all over again. And that’s what happens to Tony.
Tony’s post-script has now morphed into a new arc. The guy who didn’t give a shit in Iron Man now cannot stop giving a shit. His journey has taken him from shirking responsibility to accepting responsibility to, in Ultron, embracing ALL the responsibility. This is an incredible arc, a profound change of a character who still remains recognizable after all this time.
Tony’s position now is to end Iron Man and The Avengers by creating ultimate security - the Ultron Protocol. Tony’s story continues to mirror that of America, as he comes down hard on one side of the liberty versus security issue (and that arc will get even clearer in Captain America: Civil War). Over the course of Age of Ultron Tony’s arc takes him to a place where he is, happily, setting himself above others. He fucks up with Ultron (although a second viewing makes it clear that Tony doesn’t consider himself responsible for Ultron, as he doesn’t think he and Banner were anywhere near cracking the problem before the party. It seems, in fact, as if the Mind Stone did it all on its own) and then he doubles down with The Vision. This is where he calls himself (and Banner, by extension) a monster, a mad scientist. He stands up to Captain America in the moment and asserts that yes, he does know what’s best for everyone. He has taken on the problem of global security and now sees himself as the arbiter of it. He is the decider.
And he’s right - The Vision is a good guy. And this is only going to embolden him going forward, giving him a glimpse at a future where he doesn’t have to be Iron Man… but where he’s still the central figure standing behind all the heroism (“He’s the boss. I just pay for everything, design everything and make everybody look cool.”) The arc of Tony Stark stretches from a playboy who cares for no one but himself to a budding dictator who cares for everybody, but with himself at the center of it all. He's chasing that security, but now in bigger ways.
Steve Rogers/Captain America
Cap’s arc in Ultron is more subtle and gets less play than any other than Thor’s, but it’s there. Ultron picks up after Cap has seen SHIELD - the group in which he trusted, that was founded by his one true love - fall apart, rotten to the core. Steve Rogers hit the ice as a man who saw the world in black and white - the Allies were good, the Axis was bad - and he was right. He came out of the ice in a world that is far more nuanced, where it is far harder to tell the good guys from the bad guys. He woke up in a world where his best friend has become a brainwashed assassin… but Cap’s still Steve Rogers, which means he hopes that Bucky Barnes can come out of it.
Steve’s visions are not of the future, but rather of his fears - he’s left standing alone in a USO hall. There are flashes of a bustling party in that USO hall, but even that is nightmarish - he sees mortally wounded soldiers laughing and bleeding, revealing that Steve is aware that even the black and white world he saw in the 40s was more complex than he admits.
The crux of that vision, though, is that he missed his dance with Peggy Carter, and when The Avengers come to Hawkeye’s safehouse Steve gets one of the quietest, most emotionally affecting moments of the film. He follows Thor out of the house and, after the thunder god flies away, turns to go back in. But he stands at the threshold. The camera is in the house, Steve is outside. It’s the final shot of The Searchers, but rather than having the door close - which signified that Ethan Edwards can never be accepted into the post-war world - Steve walks away, signifying that he cannot allow himself that kind of a life.
Steve Rogers isn’t just a man out of time, he’s a man out of the world. He doesn’t have anywhere to live - he’s staying in Avengers Tower. He’s throwing himself fully into the job; his only friends are 90 year old WWII vets. When faced with a domestic happiness situation Steve understands that he can’t have that - whether by nature or by choice isn’t exactly clear. So while most of the other Avengers leave the team at the end, Steve chooses to stay behind. “I’m home,” he says of the New Avengers HQ. He’s the guy who doesn’t know how to transition back to civilian life, so he just keeps re-enlisting for another tour. He’s fighting for a homefront he can never truly know. He’s Chris Kyle, but with less bloodlust. There’s always another tour of duty, another mission. There can’t ever be rest. Steve feels out of place in the real world, a monster who has come to define himself only by his shield. What had been the purity of the mission in WWII has become a curse for him in 2015.
Of all The Avengers Thor gets the shortest shrift; in a film this packed with characters somebody had to. But Thor still fits thematically into the proceedings, and his arc is about his idea of himself as worthy… or not. This comes through as a joke, as he watches the other Avengers take turns trying to lift Mjolnir, but it becomes fairly explicit in his Witch-induced vision.
He visits Asgard and discovers - through Heimdall, who sees all and who thus is telling the truth - that Thor has brought destruction to his home realm. This is the next step in Thor’s character arc - he has proven himself worthy of succeeding Odin, but now he must deal with his own self-doubt about his worthiness. And in his vision Thor sees that his innate destructive nature has not been quelled - the energy that destroys Asgardians, turning them to dust, is lightning, the energy he should best control. It’s worth noting that Thor does eventually control that lightning, using it to bring The Vision to life.
Thor’s arc is slightly confused because he has to carry the weight of Infinity Stone exposition, but his side journey is, on second viewing, less shoe-horned in. Whedon even sets it up with a joke - when Thor stands in Hawkeye’s living room he steps on a toy house and smashes it to pieces, and then he pushes the debris under a chair. This joke is a distillation of the larger view Thor has of himself as a monster, a destructive force unleashed in a world of tissue-paper mortals. It even manifests in the way he tries to encourage Banner after the opening fight, telling him that the gates of hell are full of the cries of his enemies - a sentiment that reflects Thor’s aggressive violence and gives no comfort to the peaceful Banner.
At the end Thor takes off to deal with his shit, or at least the larger shit of the MCU. But Thor: Ragnarok seems destined to pick up on these doubts that Thor has, the doubt that he truly has what it takes to lead, the doubt that he is truly in control.
Bruce Banner/The Hulk
Nobody is less in control than The Hulk. Despite his “I’m always angry” line in The Avengers, Banner still controls the Hulk only in the loosest sense. Banner’s vision of himself as a monster is pretty plain, and pretty correct - that’s always been The Hulk’s appeal, the idea of this raging beast just inside of us, a raging beast that maybe we can channel correctly.
But that beast will always destroy us, and Banner knows that. What’s more Banner understands that he lives on a knife’s edge with The Hulk, and that becoming too happy will only leave him vulnerable to the monster. Happiness doesn’t defeat The Hulk, it just makes him more dangerous, gives him more to destroy.
Banner self-isolates, mostly coming alive when he has a problem to solve, a technical issue that will allow him to forget about The Hulk. Interpersonal relations call up the looming shadow of the beast, but working with Tony allows the fully analytical, emotion-free side of Bruce Banner to take over.
His greatest fear is the pure Hulk escaping, that he loses his small modicum of control and that things get bad. This is exactly what happens in South Africa, and The Hulk unleashes horror and chaos. But what Banner can’t seem to understand is that, on some level, he’s always in there - The Hulk and Banner aren’t as separate as he thinks. The Hulk isn’t defeated because Hulkbuster Iron Man is stronger, he’s defeated because when he digs out of the rubble of that construction site he sees the violence he has visited upon innocents and Banner’s guilt and horror take over. He’s on the verge of transforming back (but also on the verge of a new rampage as the police show up) and it’s in this vulnerable moment that Iron Man can knock him out.
It’s no accident that the Hulkbuster armor is called Veronica, by the way. After all, Banner’s old girlfriend was named Betty...
At the end of the movie Banner makes some small peace - he wants to take Natasha and run away, leave the fight to the men he sees as heroes. But she won’t allow it; her moment of weakness has passed and she forces Banner to become ‘the other guy’ again.
In the end the arc of The Hulk becomes very clear as he sits in the Quinjet and turns off the comms, shutting out Natasha. This is The Hulk, but Banner - his empathy and sadness and fear of hurting others - seems to be in control. I wouldn’t be surprised if, the next time we see The Hulk, he and Banner are far more integrated than they ever have been onscreen. This is the next step for Bruce Banner - realizing this beast isn’t a thing he is containing, it’s just HIM.
Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow
If Tony Stark has the most complex arc of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Black Widow comes a close second. Her introduction in Iron Man 2, like the movie itself, is basically a wash. She really comes into view in The Avengers; she’s a superspy with a past that nags at her. Loki uses that, and while Nat is able to outwit him, he hits a legitimate sore point in her psyche - that red in her ledger.
Natasha is the character in The Avengers most self-aware of her own arc: she’s looking for redemption. She has done terrible things, and she is trying to make up for it. In many ways she’s a mirror image of Steve Rogers - a product of war trying to figure out how to live in a world that has moved past her creation. But she’s a dark mirror image; where Captain America is righteous and an agent of the light, Black Widow is sinister and moves in the darkness.
Nat exists in a complicated headspace; while the fall of SHIELD is a blow to Steve Rogers, it’s almost another scenario for which she has a contingency. It’s in Captain America: The Winter Soldier that we really get a look at who Natasha is, and it becomes clear that she’s someone who spends all of her time hiding herself. That red on her ledger can’t bother her if she’s suppressing it, being someone else. No one can hurt her if they don’t actually know her. At the end of the movie she makes a huge personal choice - she puts all of her secrets out into the world, blows all her covers. She makes the decision to expose herself fully, to stand in the light of the world, to emerge from the darkness.
“Love is for children,” she says, but that’s the Nat who hadn’t yet stepped into the light. As Avengers: Age of Ultron begins she’s a profoundly changed person. She’s a hero now, a role that she accepts fully. She’s also ready to be vulnerable, to share her real self with someone, and that someone is Bruce Banner. On the surface the pairing makes no sense, but the moment you think about it at all it comes clear: they’re both people who have spent years pushing others away, terrified by and ashamed of who they really are. More than that, Banner is a man unlike any she has ever met (and she makes this explicit) - she hangs out with warrior and fighters, but Banner does whatever it takes to escape the fight… even though he knows he will always win. She wants to leave behind the life of a killer, and she sees a man who also wants to leave behind violence. After so many years of fighting she recognizes that the greatest strength comes not from winning a fight, but never getting into one in the first place.
All of this is shaken profoundly when the Scarlet Witch gets into her head, reminding her of who she is. She’s never been a person; from her earliest days she was engineered to be a killer. She was never given a choice to be sterilized; in fact she tries to fail her graduation test to avoid it. Her future possibilities were taken from her, a feeling familiar to generations of women growing up in patriarchal societies. This reminder that she was denied a choice in her life makes her question whether or not she’s truly making choices now - she talks about waking up from a dream where she was an Avenger. The Witch’s vision has done what Loki couldn’t - it makes Natasha second guess herself. And that’s because Loki was attacking a woman who was still buttoned up; Wanda came after a woman who had progressed as a person.
Natasha ends the film much like Steve - pining over a lost love, thinking about a life that she can never have (or that she thinks she can never have). In The Winter Soldier Steve and Natasha made a perfect pair because of their dedication to their spartan, military lives. In Ultron we get a glimpse of another possibility for Nat - a happy homelife that resembles what the Bartons have - but in the end she’s at a remove, looking in on that life through her phone. The baby that was supposed to have been named Natasha? Well, it’s Nathan Pietro now. Clint will always be her best friend, but the events of Ultron have left Natasha only able to stand with Captain America, making this mostly military squad of New Avengers her family, still chasing that dream of being a hero and not a killer. Like Steve, her arc is about getting a better glimpse of what she wishes she could have, and possibly resigning herself to never having it. For now, anyway.
Each of the Avengers has this vision of themselves as a monster (and The Vision even questions whether he’s a monster, most apt as his creation resembles that of Frankenstein’s Monster). The two other new members don’t even have to ask themselves - they know they’ve submitted to the experiments of a madman and that they allied themselves with a genocidal maniac.
Of all the main characters in this film, only two don’t look at themselves as monsters. Ultron believes he is righteous, and as a force for positive change. He’s basically Tony Stark without the modicum of self-doubt - a modicum possibly removed by the reveal of The Vision.
The other character who never calls himself a monster is Clint Barton, Hawkeye. After being wasted in The Avengers he gets a much fuller story here, and he ends up being the very heart of the team. For the other Avengers what they do is their destiny - they have all, in some way, been called to being special. For Hawkeye it’s a job. He’s just a regular guy with truly excellent aim, and he’s the only Avenger with something approaching a secret identity. At home he’s a husband and a dad.
Hawkeye’s perspective ends up being ours for most of the movie; he’s the human element through which we see these superspies and supersoldiers and Norse deities and rage monsters and hypergeniuses. All of whom see themselves as monsters, but looking out at them from his cozy bedroom, in the arms of his understanding and supportive wife (living a life none of his teammates can have), they’re seen as gods. That, in the end, is what makes Avengers: Age of Ultron the ultimate Marvel movie - in the grand style of the comics these are characters who, for all their powers and abilities, are as full of self-doubt as we are, have feet made as much of clay as ours. These aren’t the gods of the DC pantheon, they’re fucked up, confused people, doing the best they can. Longform, shared universe, serialized storytelling isn’t for everyone (although the box office indicates it’s for a lot of people), but it allows Marvel Studios to tell stories about characters with long, complex arcs, characters who rise and fall, who progress and regress.
By the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron every Avenger is in a new place, emotionally. Phase Two, The Age of Miracles, is drawing to a close. How will each of these emotionally wounded warriors deal with what comes next? I can’t wait to see how these characters face future events, to see how they move past their monstrous self-images and finally deal with some cosmic, existential madness when Thanos arrives.