“Grace in Our Failings”: Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, Joss Whedon’s Kinder, Gentler Atheism, and the New Puritan Shame Culture by: Ted Turnau

Posted: May 14, 2015 by jperritt in Uncategorized

by: Ted Turnau [Picture created by: Jason Ramasami]proxy
[Spoiler warning.] Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron came out to mixed reviews. I for one thought it was a worthy follow-up to The Avengers. Full of Whedonesque wit and meta-awareness, but still a solid superhero saga filled with the awesome. And then all of a sudden, Whedon was gone, driven off of Twitter by what can be only called rabid fan disapproval of his spin on Natasha Romanov’s backstory. Though Joss says it ain’t so, there was a brouhaha, and he left. Coincidence? Apparently, having Natasha identify as a “monster” because she had been rendered infertile for the greater good of being an assassin (able to take life, but not create it), and seeking solace and help from a male monster (Bruce Banner), that was just too much for some feminist fans. All this despite the fact that Whedon sees himself as a feminist (Buffy the Vampire Slayer doesn’t come out of thin air). Didn’t see it coming, but hindsight, you know. It makes sense. Because Whedon also identifies as atheist and humanist.

You might have noticed the artificially intelligent murderous robot nemesis Ultron never tires of spouting Scripture and Christian references throughout the film. What Whedon did subtly in some of his earlier films (Avengers and Serenity) he just comes out and says in Ultron: ideas of utopia and perfection smack of religious illusion and end up killing humans, destroying flesh and blood humans, flawed, beautiful, doomed humanity. Ultron and the havoc he wreaks are the direct result of a false hope for “heaven” (perfection and eternal existence). There is, as Whedon asserts at the end of a marvelous interview, no hope for humanity except the false hope what we create; we’re doomed. Ultron understands that humanity is flawed and doomed. The only way to achieve lasting perfection is to wipe them out to clear the planet for the next stage in evolution: clones of himself (a reference to the way God makes Christians, perhaps?). Ultron plays God to create utopia, and humanity (almost) dies in the process. The Vision, Tony Stark’s accidental bio-based artificially intelligent being, has a quite different take:

The Vision: Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.

Ultron: They’re doomed

The Vision: Yes… but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.

Ultron: You’re unbearably naive.

The Vision: Well… I was born yesterday.

The Vision treasures humans precisely because we’re screwed up and doomed to extinction. For Whedon, humans are an autumnal race, a sunset species, all the more beautiful because we are dying. That really is the best he can offer in an atheist universe where extinction, war, and deep disfigurement are the order of the day: compassion for the dying and deformed (cf. George R. R. Martin’s affection for “cripples and bastards and broken things”). Any attempt at a utopia that would perfect us will backfire and destroy fragile humanity, creating unspeakable evil in the process. In Serenity, the corporation Blue Sun tried to create a perfect, violence-free society on the planet Miranda. The pacifying drug ended up killing the vast majority of the population (they became so passive they lost the will to live). But a small percentage became the ravenous cannibals known as the Reavers who unleashed terror on the galaxy. For Whedon, it always turns out this way with utopias, whether fascist, communist, Christian or Darwinian. The logic of utopia leads Ultron where utopias always lead: the extinction of the flawed, the imperfect, the doomed.

Which brings us back to Natasha Romanov and the rabid feminist criticism of her storyline. What the haters failed to see is that Natasha herself exemplifies exactly the kind of humanity that Whedon so treasures: flawed, imperfect, doomed. She bears “grace in her failings,” beauty in her disfigurement. And the only response for humans who find themselves flawed and doomed is to find help and solace in each other. Community doesn’t ultimately fix things, but it is a way of facing hopelessness together, and there’s some comfort there. The haters, in effect, want perfection: Natasha as a strong, independent woman who is able to overcome in and of herself, an Uber-Mädchen, a female Ultron, the Strong Woman with no weaknesses she can’t handle. In this, they are gunning for utopia, a New Puritan shame culture where ideological deviations (such as admissions of feeling like a monster and other weaknesses by females) have no place and must be made extinct with an Ultronesque relish.

What I so love about Joss Whedon is that he has too much insight into the human condition to fall for such traps. We cannot just wish away the fact that underneath it all, we’re doomed monsters, simultaneously full of beauty and death. What I wish he could understand is that God is not looking for a surgically pristine utopia that would end us. God is not The Sky-Bully, a mean-spirited jerk who uses violence to achieve his vision of perfection. God embraced flawed humanity by succumbing to its inherent violence and monstrosity because he treasures this screwed up, doomed race. And by virtue of his succumbing to our violence, we’re no longer doomed, because God loves and saves screw-ups like you and me. In Christ, humans can become (to invert the Vision’s phrase) “the beautiful things which last.” I only wish more churches and Christians operated along the “flawed but redeemed” script rather than the “gunning for utopia” script. But then again, what can you expect from a bunch of redeemed screw-ups?

I believe that Joss Whedon is one of the most attractive (and hence, influential) atheists on the planet. He does away with the cold callousness and shrill histrionics of Richard Dawkins and co. and replaces it with something warmer aesthetically, gentler, more emotionally approachable, like the atheism of Alain de Botton. And he adds awesome superheroes. But even he can’t outrun the New Puritan shame culture of the Internet. Strange days indeed. Atheist humanists assemble.


Reel Thinking thanks Ted Turnau for the post and Jason Ramasami for the pic!

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