Warning: Spoilers regarding the plot of Avengers: Age of Ultron will be discussed below. You’ve been warned.
Actor Simon Pegg recently made headlines after a controversial radio interview in which he expressed his desire to “retire from geekdom.” He denounced the current spate of comic book films and other genre fare as “childish” and indicative of “a kind of dumbing down” of society. He went on:
Films used to be about challenging, emotional journeys or moral questions that might make you walk away and re-evaluate how you felt about… whatever. Now we’re walking out of the cinema really not thinking about anything, other than the fact that the Hulk had a fight with a robot.
Reaction to Pegg’s remarks tended to focus on the irony of his fame and fortune spawning from the object of his scorn. However, a higher critique of Pegg’s comments arises from the fact that what he said isn’t even true.
Nowadays, these genre films do portray challenging emotional journeys and ask moral questions, which stands as a significant reason for their continued success. The days of Adam West and Joel Schumacher have long past. Today, we get Christopher Nolan and assorted Oscar-winners.
In his comments, Pegg specifically references Avengers: Age of Ultron, currently playing in theaters. While it’s true that the film boasts a battle between the Hulk and Iron Man, that’s hardly what the movie is about. Weaved between the action beats are some heavy philosophical themes, including the oldest and most profound of existential questions.
What is the point of life? Why are we here? What should we do with the life we have? How far should we go to protect it? What should we risk?
The film doesn’t get bogged down in these mysteries, nor should it. But Age of Ultron does touch upon these questions in a manner which serves the story.
Of particular note during the film’s resolution is a scene between the villainous artificial intelligence Ultron and a virtuous android known as The Vision. These two non-human characters reflect upon the human condition, arriving at every different conclusions regarding its value.
Ultron declares of humanity, “They’re doomed!”
“Yes,” Vision coolly replies. “But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”
In that moment, writer/director Joss Whedon inserts his trademark optimistic nihilism. Looking back through Whedon’s body of work, whether Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Firefly, or The Cabin in the Woods, a theme recurs throughout. Humanity is doomed. But life is nonetheless worth living.
Indeed, Whedon’s happy fatalism stands among his more frustrating attributes. He presents an honest view of our terminal existence, and prescribes enjoying life while it lasts. In a world where death had not been overcome, that would be the best we could do. But for the Bible-believing Christian, death has been overcome, we are not doomed, and the everlasting sets a new standard for beauty.
In the broadest terms, these are the two worldviews competing for the allegiance of mankind. One views existence as temporary. The other views existence as eternal. Which view we subscribe to determines how we ought to live our lives. We can live for today – carpe diem – or we can live for eternity.
Believers often make the mistake of presenting this choice as a dichotomy between morality and amorality. It is not. As Whedon portrays throughout his work, doomed people can do good things. The focus shouldn’t be on whether believing or not believing proves moral, but whether life eternal proves preferable to life abridged.
Avengers: Age of Ultron joins Whedon’s other work in presenting a brief life well lived as the point of human existence. That’s certainly the best we can hope for if the atheists are right. Even in the best-case scenario where technology somehow presents a form of immortality at some point in the future, the irrevocable state of the universe is atrophy. Everything is winding down. As King Solomon once said, “I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.” Ultron puts it more bluntly.
But if the Christians are right, if death has been overcome, if we have a hope of life eternal in the Kingdom of God, then all bets are off. The Vision’s modest consolation regarding our doomed state proves feeble. We need not stoically accept fading beauty. We can rest in an everlasting hope.