“Thanks for asking nicely?” Brother, you hadn’t seen anything yet.
(Guest post by Greg Forster)
I don’t like to interrupt our celebration of the incomparably important victory for universal school choice in Nevada, but I have something that takes higher priority. I saw the new Avengers movie again and I have some new thoughts to add. Unlike my previous post, this one contains much more serious spoilers.
I liked this movie a lot better the second time. Before I was expecting that its deep theme would be tied to Ultron’s mission and motivation, so I was frustrated we got virtually nothing to chew on there. Loki articulated a clear and philosophically important argument against the dignity and freedom of the human person, so I was waiting for something analogous from Ultron. I see now that I was looking in the wrong place. The real action is in the tug-of-war for Bruce Banner.
In my essay on the first Avengers movie, I wrote that Banner, not Stark, is the real man of science, knowledge and Enlightenment. Those forces produce great power but cannot direct that power toward an end. While moral culture is important in its own right, ultimately it is religion that directs power toward ends. The great question of the past three hundred years or so has been the struggle of competing religions – Christianity, Romantic individualism, Marxism, fascism, etc. – to control the power unleashed by the Enlightenment. Our own culture represents a messy but reasonable working compromise between Christianity (represented by Steve Rogers) and Romantic individualism (represented by Tony Stark). The question raised by the first Avengers movie is whether that compromise can hold together.
The second Avengers movie is not the masterpiece the first one was, but I now see that it carries forward the same theme, but on totally different ground. The conflict between Rogers and Stark remains, and remains religious, as I observed before. But I was mistaken to view this as the center. A new conflict moves to center stage – a philosophical conflict rather than a religious one as such. The question is no longer science and God, but science and nature. (Although God continues to hover in the background and silently haunt this story with his presence, as he always does.)
In the first movie, the words “war” and “freedom” were featured prominently from the very first scene onward. The key themes in this movie are “monsters” and family. The movie dares not use the politically freighted word “family,” but you can hardly miss theme.
In one corner we have Tony Stark, the Romantic individualist. With clear echoes of the Frankenstein myth, he seduces Banner away from loyalty to the group, seduces him into creating a “monster.” He even says to Banner “we’re monsters” and urges him to embrace that identity. Now, in this context, a “monster” is what you get when you use science to reshape nature arbitrarily – use science not to understand nature and use it in accordance with some natural or supernatural scheme of values that tells you its proper purpose, but to manipulate nature as if it had no intrinsic or transcendent purpose. The implicit philosophy here is that science is above nature absolutely and arbitrarily – science is to nature as the potter is to the clay. Or, as another Romantic individualist once put it, “you shall be as gods.”
In the other corner we have, not Steve Rogers this time, but Natasha Romanov. She tries to seduce him as well, to seduce him away from loyalty to the group, but in this case toward the creation of a marriage. The context here is the Barton family and the clear signal it gives us – almost ham-handedly so – that (on the natural level at least) what makes life most meaningful is marriage and children. It has always been central to the Bruce Banner character that he is an outcast, bearing the burden of isolation and alienation due to his affliction. Romanov, who alone can tame the Hulk, offers him redemption. But when he finally accepts, the needs of the greater good drive them apart. Not even the family is ultimate; like Frodo, Romanov and Banner must give up their home so that others may have theirs.
And the family, of course, is the great foundation of human nature. The feminists are right to hate this movie, and not only because Marvel shamefully neglects and disrespects its female characters. (If anyone at DC had a brain, they’d be turning out Wonder Woman and Zatanna movies by the truckload to pick up these underserved customers. Alas.) I believe Whedon was probably catering to the gay lobby by making the point that marriage is meaningful even apart from childbearing. Of course, Christians have always said the same, but the rhetorical incompetence of the “new natural law” people has effectively concealed this. What Whedon apparently did not anticipate (unless he did it on purpose to court publicity) was the feminists’ offense – very justified if one takes their perspective – at the fact that Romanov’s and Banner’s lives are gravely wounded by their inability to have children.
Human nature is not, as the feminists (and the gay lobby!) would have it, infinitely malleable. It has a purpose, and when that purpose is thwarted, we suffer.
And why can’t Romanov and Banner have children? In both cases, the hubris of science that reaches past its bounds, creating “monsters.” Science is to nature not as the potter is to the clay, but as mother and father are to the child.