Pop culture, according to its very definition, reflects mainstream values. For a piece of art to be “popular,” or to place popularity as its stated goal, it must resonate with a mainstream audience. It must not challenge us in any structural or significant way, only reinforce the status quo and make sure its viewers feel all snug and warm by the end. The guy must get the girl. The superhero must make the world safe again. The dog must live.
So what does it mean when not one but two Hollywood films currently in theaters urge us to accept the end of humanity as a reality? On the largest and smallest possible scales, respectively, Avengers: Age of Ultron and The Age of Adaline champion mortality as a virtue, or at least an inevitability. That each film contains the word “age” tells us much about their ambitions: they seek to make overarching statements about our era, mankind’s place in the world, and perhaps the business of Hollywood itself, and those statements paint a stark picture of our future.
In Age of Ultron, man’s hubris is the culprit. Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) uses newly-discovered AI technology to create Ultron, a computer program designed to ensure global peace. He calls it a “shield over the planet,” but Ultron interprets its mission differently. It takes the form of a robot (voiced with top-notch smarm by James Spader), and decides that the only way to ensure peace is to destroy all the humans. Ultron sets forth with a plan to wipe out humanity by dropping a really big chunk of planet on them, and Stark and his buddies find themselves in the position, once again, of saving mankind.
But are we worth saving? The most poignant moment comes when Ultron, on the verge of his own demise, comes face-to-face with a sort-of bizarro version of himself, an android named Vision (Paul Bettany). Just before Vision kills him, Ultron says, “They’re doomed,” referring not just to the Avengers, but all humans. Vision replies, “Yes.” Wait, what? Here we have a mainstream movie – potentially the highest-grosser of the year – telling its audience that mankind has an expiration date. It urges us to accept our collective mortality, while simultaneously praising us for the way we fight it. Just before destroying Ultron, Vision offers a slim defense of man: “[A] thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts.”
Such a sentiment could easily have been the tagline for The Age of Adaline. The producers instead chose, “Love is timeless,” a more satisfying adage that hardly describes the film’s values at all. In the film, Blake Lively plays Adaline, a beautiful young widow who, in the early twentieth century, is struck by lightning, somehow halting the aging process. As the years go by, she cultivates a lifestyle designed to keep her secret: She moves once a decade, create new identities with falsified documents, and very carefully plans annual visits with her daughter (Ellen Burystn), who quickly eclipses her in age.
This lifestyle comes at a cost, specifically a lack of romantic entanglements. Early in the film, however, she breaks her code and becomes involved (Michiel Huisman), a nerdy but exceedingly fit internet billionaire. She falls for him and tenuously embarks upon a relationship with him, while still keeping her secret. Only in the end, once she has accepted that he will grow old and die without her, does she tell him the truth. Miraculously, he decides to love her anyway. The film’s message then is the antithesis of its logline; love is only possible when you accept the inevitability of loss and, ultimately, death.
If we are truly in the age of both Ultron and Adaline, it marks a departure from the way Hollywood typically approaches issues of aging. After all, this is a town whose citizens routinely reverse the aging process through artificial means, a requirement of their youth-obsessed industry. In fact, Hollywood filmmaking has moved beyond simply celebrating youth; now, they are into immortality. Last year in the New York Times Magazine, Alexander Huls pointed out how the economics of franchise filmmaking essentially prohibit the death of any major character; when Marvel, DC, or any other major studio do kill a character – like Pepper Potts in Iron Man 3 or James T. Kirk in Star Trek Into Darkness – they find a way to revive them so they can star in the sequel. Actual mortality – one of the few constants of the human experience – is not an option.
But that’s clearly changing. For starters, Avengers: Age of Ultron does kill off one of its stars, even if the unfortunate superhero is not one of the franchise’s most beloved. More noteworthy is that Ultron and Adaline are not the only recent works of pop culture to espouse the view that mankind is, in the words of Vision, doomed. At one point in Ultron, Tony Stark makes reference to the flood of Noah when asked about mankind’s prospects for future survival. As I wrote about at The Atlantic last year, Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 biblical epic portrayed Noah as a simmering misanthrope who was more than happy to help God dispose of humanity, even if it meant murdering his unborn grandson. On the small screen, True Detective featured one of the most overtly misanthropic characters ever created, Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey). The opening episode featured a lengthy monologue by Cohle in which he espoused a human-hating worldview: “Human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. Maybe the honorable thing for our species to do is deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction.”
Yikes. Taken together, it paints a scary picture of the way Hollywood views mankind, but don’t blame them; they are only catering to the public mood. So what is the cause of this sudden grappling with our collective mortality? There is no shortage of possibilities. Climate change, economic anxiety, and congressional gridlock all touch on existential fears about our ability as a society to thrive and even continue to exist, but these problems seem to have particularly impacted the perspective of young people, who have never known a world without them. New polling from Harvard University’s Institute of Politics discovered among the youth a “lack of trust in longtime pillars of society,” according to the New York Times, including Wall Street, the federal government, the Supreme Court, and even the police. Similarly, a British economist recently surveyed more than 1,000 teenage girls and discovered a generation that is “profoundly anxious,” and has been “shaped by this world of existential danger and threat which is now piped into their smartphones: the beheadings on Facebook, the tragedy on Twitter feeds.” The author of this study event went so far to dub them “Generation Katniss,” a reference to the violent Hunger Games franchise so popular with pre-millennials.
And so as the younger generations grapple with a dangerous world that humans have no apparent ability to fix, Hollywood is creating a product to reflect this reality back to them. Still, few of these films actually have the courage of their convictions; only Adaline fully embraces our mortality. As Adaline discovers a gray hair in the film’s final shot – evidence that she is in fact aging – she tells her boyfriend that she is now “perfect.” Ultron – as well as Noah and True Detective – still manage to find notes of hope and a chance for rebirth amidst their apocalyptic fantasies. But that’s the old Hollywood talking, and there could come a day in the near future when hope for humanity would require more than a simple suspension of disbelief.