Where did all the women go?

Photographer: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios

New 'Avengers' Film Is Fun, But ...

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
Read More.
a | A

I got out to see “Avengers: Age of Ultron” over the weekend. Here’s what I liked about it: the goofy dialogue, the clever homages to some of the great (and not-so-great) science fiction and fantasy films of years past, the chance to see Robert Downey Jr. at work.

As to what I didn’t like -- well, that’s a bit of a list:

1. I didn’t care for the science. I’m not talking about the superpowers, which you obviously have to concede if you’re going to watch movies about superheroes. I’m talking about the Hulk landing on a vehicle from above and somehow causing it to explode upward -- that is, in the opposite direction of the force applied. I’m talking about a titanic object falling rapidly toward the ground, with a predicted impact that is supposed to cause horrific damage, only to be blown into a large number of smaller pieces. The kinetic energy of the onrushing pieces would remain the same, but here they somehow shower harmlessly into a lake.  If only Insultingly Stupid Movie Physics, once my favorite website, were still in the review business.

Then there’s that old movie trope, the lone genius. Tony Stark, this time with occasional assistance from Bruce Banner, once again solves scientific problems that baffle everyone else in the field. But successful science is a cooperative enterprise. As the astrophysicist Katie Mack put it in commenting on a different film: “Physicists don’t work like that. We talk to each other. We read the literature. We compare notes and work in teams and divide up problems amongst ourselves. We don’t sit in a room with ... maybe one assistant and just think it out.” Except that in the movies, that’s what the best scientists always do.

And once again Hollywood treats us to the notion that the command codes for nuclear missiles are somehow connected to the Internet. And this time, there’s also a single server in Oslo through which flows every bit of data that traverses the Web. The ease with which we can imagine these two factoids combining to bring about disaster helps explain why neither is close to true.

2. I didn’t care for the overwhelming maleness. No Jane Foster (although admittedly she never had much to do in the “Thor” films). No Pepper Potts. Nothing that Black Widow was called upon to do that no one else could have done. Peggy Carter showed up for seconds, and only in a dream. Helen Cho felt barely squeezed in. And although the Scarlet Witch was interesting when she was evil, she then (small spoiler) went from evil to disillusioned to terrified to heroic too swiftly to be called a character. Even by relatively low standards of the superhero movie, the female roles felt at best peripheral.

3. Although some of the implicit ethical messages were intriguing, I didn’t care for those that were explicit. To take just the most egregious example, about midway through the film, Captain America pronounces what is evidently supposed to be a profound moral point: “Every time somebody tries to win a war before it starts, innocent people die.” Note the implication that innocent people don’t die when one tries to win a war after it starts. So stated, the proposition is incoherent. The innocent always die in war. This is a principal reason that war is morally problematic: It’s impossible to fight in a way that harms only those who have signed up to take the risk. Thus the law and ethics of war aim at minimizing the harm to noncombatants by forbidding the use of tactics that target them directly or recklessly.

I suspect that what writer-director Joss Whedon was trying to get across is the very different notion that one shouldn’t attack the enemy until the enemy attacks first. Not all adherents of just war theory would agree with this proposition, but even those who do make no claim about the number of innocent likely to be killed. Their concern is about the risk of doing enormous damage based on inadequate information: If you don’t wait for the enemy to strike first, you might be wrong about the enemy’s intentions.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand that “Ultron” is only a movie. I don’t watch summer blockbuster movies for ethical lessons or science instruction. I go for the fun, and “Ultron” offered plenty of that. But behind the fun are always messages, intended or not, and it can be worthwhile to take the time to puzzle out what they are.

  1. I spotted clever winks to “The Day the Earth Stood Still” -- no, no, the good version; to “2001: A Space Odyssey” (naturally); to “The Matrix”; to “I, Robot” (sadly); to “Game of Thrones” (unless you’re saying Scarlet Witch didn’t remind you of Melisandre); and to “X-Men: Days of Future Past” (currently the competition, but maybe not forever). And, of course, the opening scene is pure James Bond style fun.

  2. Of course, Hollywood has made this mistake before.

  3. But here, of course, we come upon another familiar trope: Her superpower involves the ability to warp men’s minds, turning them from their duty.

  4. Thus the Obama administration, for example, in its insistence that drone strikes will be undertaken except when there is a “near certainty” of no civilian casualties, is stating an impossible standard. Small wonder that it isn’t followed.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net