The Avengers and philosophy – Peace in the age of Ultron

Gijsbert ItersonBy Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten / Reading Time: 6 Minutes

Why would anyone interested in peace (like me) go and look at a violence-packed superhero movie for inspiration? Doesn’t violence in movies lead to real world violence? Well, the evidence on that question is still inconclusive and Avengers: age of Ultron, when viewed with the right kind of questions in mind, offers insights into peace you just won’t find in arthouse beauties such as One day after peace.

Avengers - image retrieved from www.savethecat.combeat-sheetavengers-age-of-ultron-beat-sheet.com

Sure, most people going to watch the movie will do so because they enjoy the highly stylized violence, the beautifully choreographed fights, the exploding buildings or the testosterone packed jokes by the main characters. But the film also explicitly deals with the victims of the Avengers’ violent way of solving conflicts and the plot is driven to a large extent by various desires for peace going awry. Moreover, in the lulls between fights, the protagonists inadvertently end up having quite philosophical conversations on the meaning of peace, coming up with no less than five different conceptualizations of the term.

If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you might find this post contains either spoilers or things you totally don’t understand. I apologize for the former and try to make up for the latter by explanatory hyperlinks. That said, here are the five concepts of peace that drive the plot development and make Age of Ultron one of the most interesting peace-related films I have seen in a long time.

  1. Tony Stark (Iron Man): Peace as the absence of any and all threats
iron-man-3-theatrical-poster-tony-stark

Tony Stark/ Iron Man “Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian.”

The first view of peace present in Age of Ultron reminded me of what I heard from people working at NATO: peace means the absence of any and all threats to human life. It is this drive for total security that leads Tony Stark, one of the heroes, to build Ultron, who then turns into the main villain of the movie (see below for his idea of peace).

Stark’s vision of total security necessarily remains Utopian. As Anthony Giddens pointed out a long time ago, there will always be threats to humanity’s existence, and trying to control for all of them inexorably leads to new dangers. Or to a totalitarian dictatorship, the central message of Captain America: the Winter soldier, another Marvel superhero movie.

  1. S.H.I.E.L.D.: Saving civilian lives
sokovia evacuation

Evacuation of citizens of Sokovia

On a much less ambitious reading of peace, the rebuilt employment agency for superheroes, SHIELD,  limits its role to saving civilians from the combat zones where the Avengers do their job. Even if the town of Sokovia is annihilated by Ultron, at least the people living there get out of it alive and thus might be able to find peace again elsewhere. This echoes the Just War criterium of discrimination, the idea that armies ought to distinguish between innocent civilians and enemy combatants, and only target the latter. In the real world, it also seems to mirror (highly dubious) efforts by the Israeli army to get civilians out of the way before moving in to fight with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

However, we can rightfully ask whether the refugees in question would agree that this is a form of peace. Taking their cue from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, some present-day critics of liberal peacebuilding point out that safeguarding the ‘bare lives’ of civilians does not really suffice to speak of any kind of peace ‘worth having’. Even though in mainstream academic literature, armed conflict is only defined in terms of how many people die as a result of the conflict: as long as nobody dies, there is peace. I have criticized this view in a previous blogpost.

  1. Dr. Banner (the Hulk): inner peace
hulk

The Hulk : “This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject”

Back to the movie. Dr. Banner, Tony Stark’s superhero partner also known as the Hulk, tries to come to grips with his (and mankind’s?) violent nature. Already in the first Avengers movie, Banner was found taking yoga classes in India, trying to control the violence in himself. At the end of Age of Ultron he flees his companions and sends a postcard from Fiji, supposedly having found peace there by sitting on a beach watching the sun set.

This idea of inner peace as a tranquil state of mind is found both in Eastern philosophy and in St. Augustine’s musings on the subject. It does have one major drawback though, as Natasja Romanov, a.k.a. Black Widow, points out in the movie while shoving dr. Banner off a cliff: “I adore you, but I need the other guy right now”. In order to save the world, the Hulk has to give up his inner peace and engage himself with the world, through violence if need be. This is the same criticism pacifists have received ever since the term was first invented: in a bad world, you have to make dirty hands.

  1. Ultron: harmonious balance with all of nature
ultron

Ultron: “His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’ is a step too far”

The theme of peace is running so strongly through the film that even the bad guy, Ultron, is driven by a desire for peace. Built by Tony Stark with the aim of creating ‘Peace in our time’ (a rather obvious reference to Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler), cinematic logic demands that Ultron decides the best way to achieve this peace is the eradication of mankind. Our violent nature means we will never be able to live in peace, so perhaps we should just die out and make room for another, more peaceful species. Ultron sincerely cannot believe the Avengers, with their violent way of dealing with conflicts, are in any way agents of peace. He is probably right about that. His conclusion that mankind can never learn to live in peace and thus should be ‘saved from itself’, however,  is a step too far for even the most radical eco-hippies. It does mirror the idea of peace as ‘living in harmony with all of creation’ though, adding another layer to the movie’s philosophical dealing with peace.

  1. Hawkeye: peace as normality
"As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment"

Hawkeye: peace as normality: “As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment”

One of the big surprises of this movie comes approximately halfway, when Hawkeye, a side character famous for shooting explosive arrows, turns out to have a family living in an idealistic mid-West cottage, apparently without 21st century technology. This cottage is the counterpoint to all the violence in the movie and the viewer is left with the distinct impression that Hawkeye is best off of all the superheroes. As long as his family is safe from physical harm, he knows both inner peace and lives in harmony with his environment. Which might be a lame conclusion for a superhero movie if you are a testosterone-filled 21-year-old comic geek, but it is the kind of peace your parents will definitely identify with.

 

 

So what have we learned from this brief exploration of Avengers: age of Ultron? I would say three things. First, peace and security are not the same thing, and the desire for total security threatens all other forms of peace we might be after. Secondly, if all we want is to safeguard our own inner peace, we leave the world to the bad guys. Sometimes we just “need the other guy.” Even though his violent acts might stand in the way of more durable solutions to the world’s problems. Finally, I would say that Hawkeye understands peace best of all. It is a lived experience, not some Utopian dream.

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Gijsbert van Iterson Scholten is a PhD candidate at the department of Political Science and Public Administration. His research focuses on how different peacebuilding professionals define peace.

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