I was reading my favorite socialist blogger when I came across an article that I pretty fervently disagree with. It is on the “theory of second best” and its application outside of economics and policy. The idea is that because we do not live in an ideal world we may have to engage in acts that are ethically or morally wrong in order to arrive at an improved state of the world. However, the author, Chris Dillow, points out, rightly, that “There is, though, a massive problem with such second-best thinking – it can justify pretty much anything.”
This is just “ends justify the means” morality in a different form and as everyone knows, this is the inherent weakness of the philosophy. Anyone can rationalize their actions under the auspices that their ultimate goal warrants the (literal or figurative) blood on their hands. In fact when people decry this philosophy this is the implicit argument that they are making. However, the only possible way to make any decision is to employ this strategy. I give up much of my free time to go to work and make money because I believe the ends (money) justifies the means (working). Similarly we take money from people (a violation of private property) to fund programs that we believe enhance the welfare of all citizens more than the cost of seizing private property. This is always the moral calculus we engage in.
I guess the only time you don’t need to justify your ends are situations that are in a sense “no-brainers.” If I have a bunch of leftovers I wasn’t going to eat anyway and I give them to a homeless person, it really entailed no sacrifice on my part to give them to him. It was a non-decision. At the same time this also washes away any goodness associated with the act. To pick up a strain of thought in Dillow’s piece, engagement with an imperfect world does not sully us. I would argue that it is in fact through this interaction that our moral worth is assayed. A perfect world would not require sacrifice (nor would it allows harm) so how would we ascertain the morality of an act?
However, I digress. My point is that despite the fact that you must always justify your means by your ends only under the most extreme moral relativism does that mean that if a person believes that the consequences of his actions will outweigh the costs of the action itself that the action is morally permissible. This is why we form societies and governments and democratically elect leader so that people can come to an agreement on which actions are justified. This should be obvious, but instead I suspect many people would disagree that “ends should justify means” after numerous media portrayals of heroes and villains that ostensibly deny or manipulate this doctrine. Of course as my earlier post on macro morality discusses, they are often in the wrong.
This is the first Marvel movie where what I will dub the Marvel Method has churned out a formulaic and mediocre product. Prior to this I still held a healthy affection for superhero movies, but Age of Ultron gave me my first glimpse of the comic book movie fatigue which afflicts others. However, my opinions on recent movies differ from the mainstream view. I found Avengers merely good and I quite enjoyed Thor 2 which seems to get quite a bit of punishment. In general I am not fond of “team” books where the team is full of visitors from solo comic books. That means Justice League and Avengers, but allows Fantastic Four to be among my favorites. The same weaknesses that undermine team comic books mar Avengers.
The primary issue with all Marvel Method is the villain. So far only Loki has managed more than one picture. Meanwhile, in their sole film, other villains have very limited exposure. This was particularly bad in Guardians of the Galaxy and AoU as both villains seem to be evil for no particularly good reason explicated in the movie. At least Ronin in GotG was not forced into awkward comic relief as Ultron was. Loki in the first Avengers film was also turned into something of a joke. The lack of menace from these villains severely undermines the gravity of the film’s events. All of the tension must be generated inside the group of heroes because the villain’s actions are merely plot points to hit.
Secondly, both Avenger’s films suffer from poor fight scenes. Because of the large cast and disparate power levels among the heroes, the enemies consist of many relatively innocuous mooks, aliens in the first movie and robots in the second. You get the feeling Thor could mow through the foot soldiers all day without breaking a sweat, but poor Hawkeye is constantly on the verge of death. The villains are just as weak physically as they are in personality. Often the villain feels like the underdog which is not how it is supposed to work. You can’t be a hero if the odds are in your favor. This results in the need to bring in Hulk for a real fight. This worked fine in the first film, but it felt like a sorry retread in the second and its consequences were trivial. The bad publicity was supposed to drive the Avengers underground, but this just seemed like an excuse to get everyone to feud at a farm.
Such unnecessary scenes waste time in an already long movie that still doesn’t have enough time for all of its characters. We don’t see much of the influence of Stark on Ultron. The Black Widow/Hulk romance is mostly assumed rather than shown. Captain America does almost nothing, not even really fulfilling the role of team leader and his Scarlet Witch-induced dream is not really explored. Thor is similarly given little to do except create The Vision because dreams… Each new character added is just another character given too little development.
In place of character development we get a lot of one-liners that aren’t particularly funny this time around. Even Ultron slings a few and they end up doing more harm than good. Too much of the movie is riding on the audience just enjoying spending time with the heroes and those are the most successful scenes in the movie, but it’s not enough to support two and a half hours. This is particularly true when even Stark’s normally overwhelmingly charismatic personality doesn’t seem quite as infectious here.
It’s too bad because this film is actually very subtle and thoughtful in the interstices. You see a Hulk betrayed that Natasha would use him as a weapon when he doesn’t want to be, but this is left to the viewer to stitch together. This is in contrast to Natasha’s awkward speech about being a monster. Some things are just better left unsaid. A lot more could have been done with Tony’s inability to distinguish saving humanity and controlling them and of course Ultron deserved better. The film certainly had the seeds of a more interesting subtext.
I do not however agree that this is just a stepping stone to Avengers 3. Other than the somewhat inexplicable appearance of an Infinity Stone, nothing in this film is poor because it is setting up a sequel. Avengers 2 falls short on its own merits.