I’ve had two conversations recently, one with Jeff (of the Imperial Talker) and one with Rob (from My Side Of The Laundry Room). Both centered around how Avengers: Age Of Ultron seems to be unfairly maligned by many when considering the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I would agree – the film is much better than it often gets credit for. As I’ve been making my way through my Mega Marvel Movie Marathon in preparation for Avengers: Infinity War, I realized something else. If I was to teach a film from the MCU in one of my classes, (with the exception of the Guardians Of The Galaxy films) Avengers: Age Of Ultron is the one which would fit the best and allow for the most philosophically-oriented discussions.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron picks up after the fall of SHIELD. The Avengers are mopping up Hydra bases around the world when they finally recapture the staff Loki used during the invasion of New York. Seeing a chance to create a global peace-keeping system on an unimaginable scale, Tony Stark and Bruce Banner use the scepter (containing an Infinity Stone (specifically the Mind Stone)) to try and create real artificial intelligence. Ultron comes to life, quickly deducing the greatest threat to world peace is the Avengers themselves. The Avengers must face the seemingly omnipresent enemy that is Ultron as well as the superpowered twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff, who have joined him seeking revenge for a Stark missile that killed their parents.
I’ll grant Avengers: Age Of Ultron isn’t perfect but it’s good points faaaaaar outweigh the bad. Yet given how quick we are to ignore it (along with Thor: The Dark World, Iron Man 2, and The Incredible Hulk) when we praise the MCU shows just how exceptionally brilliant Marvel’s Cinematic Universe has become. Imagine, if you will, Avengers: Age Of Ultron (or any of those films) coming out, just as they are, in 2000. In an age of nipples on bat-suits, exclusively leather-clad X-Men, and Nick Cage riding a flaming motorcycle, they’d be rightly heralded as the greatest example of a superhero movie bringing the comics they represent to life we’d ever seen.
Even now, with the MCU as a model, all superhero films don’t click. Zach Snyder’s infamously bleak Man Of Steel sought to remove all hope from the character, rejecting John Williams theme and building a death toll that’d make Saving Private Ryan uncomfortable in the process. Josh Trank’s Fantastic 4 proudly ignored the comics (the cast was actively told not to read them) to put their “own stamp” on the story. And, of course, Batman v. Superman: Dawn Of Justice was…um, what do I even say?
Compared to what’s come before and some of what’s followed, Avengers: Age Of Ultron is nothing short of brilliant. Even without the comparisons, it’s a good film on its own. It’s a fun film. It allows the Avengers’ characters to continue to develop. It legitimately feels like a comic book come to life. And it has real depth, exploring theological, philosophical, ethical, and moral issues in a way most MCU films don’t even attempt. There’s so much to it but, for the sake of this piece, I’ll focus on Tony’s struggle and the questions of artificial intelligence.
In Avengers: Age Of Ultron, gone is the Tony Stark who confidently threatened Loki and boasted of privatizing world peace. He’s become a man obsessed with the thought of failing those he has to protect from all the unknown threats the universe holds. Driven by this mix of fear and responsibility, he poignantly illustrates our fragility and the human struggle to acknowledge there is only so much any one of us can do.
After Ultron has Wanda use her mind-altering powers to give the Avengers’ worst fears free-reign in their minds, they retreat to the Barton’s farm house to regroup and catch their breath. As they discuss their next move, Tony tells Nick Fury, “And I’m the man who killed the Avengers. I saw it. I didn’t tell the team. How could I? I saw ‘em all dead Nick. I felt it. The whole world too. Because of me. I wasn’t ready. I didn’t do all I could. I wasn’t tricked. I was shown. It wasn’t a nightmare. It was my legacy. It’s the end of the path I started us on.”
That’s a lot for any one person to carry. It’s certainly an unfair burden to shoulder. But Tony feels he must carry it. He ushered in the modern age of superheroes and villains and, as such, he sees the responsibility for all of it falling to him. He has to do enough. He has to protect everyone. If he doesn’t rise to the challenge, people will die. And it will be his fault. We can call that everything from misguided to hubristic, but Tony calls it his responsibility.
This is a very human failing. I like to joke that, having studied and taught theology for almost twenty years, I’ve developed a bit of a messianic complex. Now, I’ve certainly never created an artificially intelligent murder-bot in the name of protecting the world, but I’ve certainly shouldered more than I should. I’m a doer by nature, a fixer too. I like to help people. I like to solve problems. As a result of this, I often find myself carrying more than I should (or realistically can). I see this part of myself in Tony Stark – as well as a powerful warning of the destruction that can follow if I stay wedded to the idea that I can fix everything or that I alone have to try.
In addition to being unhealthy and (ultimately) unhelpful, our desire to do it all ourselves ultimately says more about our own ego than it does those we want to help. Using a romantic relationship as the entryway for his analysis of this problem, Russell Brand writes, “Here is a more opaque version of self-centeredness. If your partner is a bit wayward, you know selfish or difficult and you cast yourself as the downtrodden carer, pacing behind them going, ‘I don’t know what they’d do without me,’ that is another form of self-centeredness. You are making yourself and your feelings about the situation the ontological (steady!) centre of the world.” When we presume no one else can do what we do, we are making it about us and not whomever we’re helping.
Now, this isn’t to say we shouldn’t do all we can. But we need to realize no one person can fix everything. Heck, even Jesus recruited a group of preachers, teachers, healers, and mystics to send out to preach the Kingdom of God. If Jesus couldn’t do it all on his own, who are we to presume we can? Yet where do we draw the line? How do we know which burdens to lift and which to leave for another? This lesson, I think, is often easier said than done (or seen). By making Tony’s struggle with this issue the genesis for Ultron, the film calls the viewer to consider it themselves. And it does so in a way that raises the question without offering a simple answer so the viewer must seek their own answer. While we see the disastrous results of Tony’s meddling, who can fault his rationale for trying? And when exactly should he have stopped? These questions are certainly worthy of reflection yet difficult to answer.
After they return from their successful raid on Baron Strucker’s Hydra base, Tony shows Bruce what he’s found inside Loki’s scepter.
Bruce – It’s beautiful!
Tony – If you had to guess, what’s it look like to you?
Bruce – Like it’s thinking! I mean this could be…it’s not a human mind. I mean look at this. They’re like neurons firing.
Tony – Down in Strucker’s lab I saw some fairly advanced robotics work. They deep-sixed the data, but I gotta guess he was knocking on a very particular door.
Bruce – …artificial intelligence.
Tony – This could be it Bruce. This could be the key to creating Ultron.
Bruce – I thought Ultron was a fantasy.
Tony – Yesterday it was. If we can harness this power…apply it to my Iron Legion protocol…
Bruce – That’s a mad-sized “if.”
Tony – Our job is if. What if you were sipping margaritas on a sun-drenched beach turning brown instead of green, not looking over your shoulder for Veronica?
Bruce – Don’t hate. I helped design Veronica.
Tony – As a worst-case measure, right? How about a best case? What if the world were safe? What if the next time aliens roll up to the club – and they will – they couldn’t get past the bouncer?
Bruce – The only people threatening the planet…would be people.
Tony – I want to apply this to the Ultron program but Jarvis can’t download a data schematic this dense. We can only do it while we have the scepter here. That’s three days. Gimme three days.
Bruce – So you’re going for artificial intelligence and you don’t wanna tell the team?
Tony – Right, that’s right. And you know why? Because we don’t have time for a city hall debate. I don’t wanna hear the “man was not meant to meddle” medley. I see a suit of armor around the world.
Bruce – Sounds like a cold world Tony.
Tony – I’ve seen colder. This one, this very vulnerable blue one, it needs Ultron. Peace in our time. Imagine that.
Literature is filled with stories of the dangers of humans seeking to usurp power not meant for us (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park come to mind) yet can we really blame Tony for not heeding their warnings? If you honestly believed you had a way to bring about world peace, wouldn’t you try? And, more to the point, how could you justify not trying? Again…where do we draw this line?
Even when he knows the danger, even with Ultron raging out of control, when the opportunity arises to use the body Ultron designed for his next incarnation to create a different sort of A.I., Tony jumps at it. He still thinks they can do it. So he has to try. When Bruce protests, telling Tony they are just stuck in a loop that will yield more destruction, Tony says, “We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters buddy. We gotta own it. It’s not a loop. It’s the end of the line.” I don’t know which is scarier, Tony wanting to push forward after Ultron or the fact that he owns the monstrous nature of their actions and still goes ahead. It’s hard not to be uncomfortable with the ego that goes into Tony’s actions, to not judge the blind faith he puts in himself – consequences be damned. But it’s also hard to imagine not taking the chance to correct a horrible mistake and set right what you’ve done wrong or to see a dream realized. Tony’s story arc in this film is brilliant and it yields fertile ground for discussion, analysis, and contemplation.
But there’s more to Avengers: Age Of Ultron than Tony’s hubris. We also see the frighteningly relevant discussion of artificial intelligence – what it will look like when it arrives and whether or not we should even be attempting to bring it about in the first place. This – the depictions of and questions raised by artificial intelligence – is another of the themes making this a MCU film I’d want to teach. In real life, we are actively pursuing real artificial intelligence. And while we’re not Infinity Stone-close to realizing it, I often think (“fear” is perhaps the better word) we will create it far sooner than we will have considered the implications…and then what will we do?
We all want a digital assistant (like Jarvis!) to organize our lives or a robot to pal around with (like Artoo!). But once we’ve created machines that can think, feel, learn, and grow, how do we justify using them to run our cars or organize our shopping lists? Would that not be a type of slavery? How will this form of life fit in our society? And is this even something we should be playing with at all? As Dr. Ian Malcom tells John Hammond in Jurassic Park, “Yeah, yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” What would we do with true artificial intelligence? And what would it do with us?
Our cultural imagination has a pretty regular answer to the second question. Chuck Klosterman outlines this in his latest book writing, “Whether it’s Avengers: Age Of Ultron, The Matrix, the entire Terminator franchise, or even a film as technologically primitive as War Games, a predictable theme inexorably emerges: The moment machines become self-aware, they will try to destroy people. What’s latently disturbing about this plot device is the cynicism of the logic. Our assumption is that computers will only act rationally. If the ensuing assumption is that human-built machines would immediately try to kill all the humans, it means that doing so must be the most rational decision possible. And since this plot device was created by humans, the creators must fractionally believe this, too.”
Avengers: Age Of Ultron deserves praise for James Spader’s chill-worthy performance of Ultron alone! Shortly after he comes to life he chides the Avengers, “You want to protect the world but you don’t want to see it changed. How is humanity saved if it isn’t allowed to evolve?” His vision of evolution begins with the destruction of the Avengers and soon grows to encompass the extinction of humankind. Yet, Ultron isn’t simply a machine that has evolved to seek the end of those who created it (like Skynet, the Matrix, etc.). He is an artificial intelligence who seeks to do so while overtly espousing religious thought! This is a unique feature in the Marvel Cinematic Universe too.
I’ve given much thought to what this means because the religious language is everywhere. When Wanda and Pietro first meet Ultron, he is sitting in a church in Sokovia. He tells them, “This church was built in the middle of the city, so everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.” When he plunders the vibranium needed for his new form he quotes Matthew 16:18 saying, “On this rock, I shall build my church.” He calls Captain America “God’s righteous man” and when Pietro asks him what happens if humanity fails to improve he purrs, “Ask Noah.” He goes on to assert, “When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it. And believe me, He’s winding up.”
It’s not just quotes though. In his actions Ultron wants to bring about human evolution. Then he wants to create a new form of life. Like his creator, he wants to be God. But what does this all mean? I’ve seen the film many times and I’m still not 100% sure what I think and that makes it an even more intriguing prospect for a future lesson. I love a film that gives me a lot to consider without clearly guiding me to an answer!
Given the fact that Tony “played God” in his creation of Ultron who then goes on to wrap himself and his quest in religious language, I think it can speak to the perversion of faith (taking the will of God and warping it, so we can use it to justify our own ends, what can happen if we misunderstand sacred scripture, etc.) as well as totemism (making God over in our own image and presuming our will is the will of God). I think it also speaks to the danger of false gods (putting our faith in ourselves over God (Tony) or machines over the natural world (Ultron)). But I know there are a great many more avenues to explore with the film’s theological significance.
Yet this film doesn’t offer only an evil A.I. Tony and Bruce’s second attempt yields not another Ultron-esque monster but the Vision and Vision is animated by the Mind Stone, can lift Mjölnir, and helps them defeat Ultron. So the meddling of man yields a monstrosity and a savior. The theological implications are explicit here too. After his birth, Vision tells the gathered Avengers, “You think me a child of Ultron. I’m not Ultron. I’m not Jarvis. I am…I am.” It’s hard to get more on the nose with your allusion than that :). But when Steve asks Vision if he’s on their side he answers, “I don’t think it’s that simple. I am on the side of life. Ultron isn’t.” He, like Ultron, sees his purpose as being larger than the Avengers. Yet he understands Ultron (and Ultron’s vision) is dangerous. He will fight with them while relating to them as not simply a teammate. He’s in their world but not of it, you could say.
As I pondered all this with my most recent viewing, I considered another idea. Perhaps, more than a direct discussion of our relationship to God, this film explores our potential relationship to A.I. If we keep heading down this road, will we create an Ultron? Could we create a Vision? And, if we build an Ultron will we be able to make a Vision in time to save us? Perhaps, more simply, it speaks to the dangers of our hubris and the potential, if we act, to set right the sins of our past. Honestly, I think the film says all of this and more.
Avengers: Age Of Ultron manages to raise all of these issues for us to consider while filling the film with the incredible superhero battles we want (Hydra base, South Africa, Sokovia), the Hulkbuster armor, continuing to develop the Avengers’ character and personality, and the humor their riffing off each naturally brings. Yet we, culturally, tend to see this as one of the weak points of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The extremely high caliber of their other work is the only thing that explains this. And, while we are right to praise those mind-blowing movies, we should also remember how fortunate we are to have the “lesser” films in the MCU’s canon and how they still manage to stand head and shoulders above most other superhero cinematic flair.
Now I just need to figure out which class I can use this in…
 Russell Brand, Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions, (Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2017), 12.
 Chuck Klosterman, But What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About the Present As Though It Were The Past, (Blue Rider Press, New York, 2016), 227.