After having recently watched both Joss Whedon’s first big screen writer-director debut, Serenity, and his most recent writer-director film, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was struck by a shared theme, in fact, a theme that is most at home in the classic Western.
[Spoilers for Serenity, Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Searchers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier]
Civilized vs. Savage
In the Western, the baseline theme is civilization vs. savagery. Sometimes it’s played straight, as in The Magnificent Seven where the semi-savage gunhands fight for the livelihoods of the civilized farmers, but other times the two ideas get muddied. In John Ford’s The Searchers, Ethan (John Wayne) hates the Comanche and especially their leader, Scar, for massacring his family. The hatred drives him out of a civilized head-space until at the end he actually scalps Scar in revenge, becoming the savage thing he hates. The movie goes to great lengths to show Ethan and Scar as foils, more alike than they are different, two sides of the same coin. Ethan, after becoming near savage himself, doesn’t belong in civilization. The final shot of the film symbolizes this acutely.
In Serenity, Ethan and Scar become Mal and the Operative. Malcolm Reynolds is “not the pluky hero” as the Operative points out. Mal finds out the Operative isn’t armed in their first meeting and immediately fast draws and shoots him. Mal does point out that he “doesn’t kill children,” as the Operative does, but the Operative points out that the world he’s trying to create through his belief and actions doesn’t have a place for either himself or Mal. “I’m a monster,” the Operative says of himself. They are both outsiders, uncivilized. Fit only the margins of society, broken by violence–perpetrated by and on them.
Ironically, in an attempt to make the universe more civil, the Alliance government introduces a drug into the air processors on the planet Miranda that causes most of the population to simply become detached from themselves and die, but .10% respond with an extreme aggression, becoming what is called Reavers in the film–rage-driven savages who rape, cannibalize, and generally terrorize whomever they can. They make the uncivil outer planets of the ‘Verse look homey and quaint by comparison. So the governors of civility, in Serenity, manufacture the ultimate savage in the form of the Reavers.
In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the theme of civilized vs. savage is explored through the inner struggles the Avengers face regarding whether they are actually heroes or monsters (an echo of the Operative). This is most readily seen in our two mad scientists: Tony Stark aka Iron Man and Bruce Banner aka Hulk. In the aftermath of the Battle for New York and the murky reveal that Hydra and SHIELD were in cahoots from Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the good and bad sides of power are stone gray. Some consider the Avengers heroes–a statue in New York gives this view–others consider them monsters–as Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and Ultron do.
Tony Stark believes he is working to protect the world by creating Ultron. He is trying to save the world from even needing the Avengers. But ultimately, the vision he is shown by Scarlet Witch is ambiguous in terms of what leads to the Avengers’ deaths. Is Ultron the cause or response to the possibility of Tony being responsible for his team’s demise? When Scarlet Witch tells Captain America that Ultron has gone crazy and doesn’t know the difference between saving the world and destroying it, she tags it with the question, “Where do you think he gets that from?” The answer–Tony Stark–is left hanging in the air. Stark’s past weapons sales have already placed him in monster-territory, and his movement to Iron Man has largely been a redemption arc. But the transition from monster to hero hasn’t been an easy one, and Tony’s decisions haven’t always had the best outcomes. Ultron is a case in point–he’s meant to protect the world, but the greatest threat to the world is humanity. So true, but not really what Tony was going for.
Bruce Banner’s inner struggle is somewhat more straight-forward. Bruce is a thoughtful, intelligent guy. The Hulk is muscle-bound rage. Banner’s not much use in a fight, but Hulk is difficult to control. The Avengers are learning ways to contain the extraneous damage Hulk can do–civilizing him with the “lullaby” or trapping him with “Veronika.” But ultimately Bruce cannot deal with the damage Hulk does–he’s a monster. Widow attempts to connect with him on this, pointing out that she was made to be a weapon. Even Captain America doesn’t seem himself anywhere but at war now. His civilian days are over.
The final battle of Age of Ultron sees the Avengers attempting to come down hard on the hero side by doing everything they can to rescue every civilian. To keep their civility over the savagery of violence, the Avengers must risk themselves for the people–all the people. Widow makes the relativity argument early on in the battle, suggesting that they drop the city now, sacrificing the population of the town but saving countless others by doing so. But Cap rejects this idea, and with the help of the helicarrier, the Avengers are able to pull off being heroic.
Despite this, Banner disappears, still unable to see himself as anything but a time-bomb, though he is crucial in keeping Ultron from dropping the city-bomb. The team needed the monster–“the other guy”–but the civilized man within can’t deal with the costs. Wild savagery marginalizes him, just like the Operative and Mal, just like Ethan in The Searchers.