Avengers: Age of Ultron pulled off the nearly impossible feat: the sequel was better than the original. Boasting eye-popping stunts and fast-flying quips just like the original, this one added a series of story lines that proved much more thought-provoking than the “See alien, hit alien” motif of the first installment in 2012. James Spader’s alien Ultron is the engaging villain every superhero needs, but the fleshing out of the different members of the Avengers team also added fodder to the spiritual conversation. And above it all flies an integrated conversation about what it means to be morally absolute, even divine.
The Scarlet Witch’s “reach” into Tony Stark’s mind unearths a series of feelings and emotions revolving around Stark’s survivor guilt at a potential future. It sets in motion everything that will take place after it, hinging on Stark’s own assumption that he is smart enough, rich enough, and resourceful enough (with Jarvis as his co-pilot) to prepare for any, inevitable moment. He’s aimed at keeping the world safe, but he doesn’t really know what that means. Stark just knows he doesn’t want to “hear the man was not meant to meddle medley,” even as he attempts to play god and create a synchronistic artificial intelligence.
But the thing about artificial intelligence is that it never comes with a moral guideline without fault. That’s the truth about moral guidelines: they’re subjective and flexible even when we don’t expect them to be. And when it comes to the Avengers, it’s a loosely assembled group of people, forced into being a team without having had a chance to explore their individual and corporate truths. From Captain America to Bruce Banner to Black Widow to Hawkeye, they all have their own moral guidelines, and they’re all different. Throw in Stark, and it’s an explosive mix.
And Ultron is the straw that stirs that drink. Ultron is the classic Pinnochio figure: he wants to be a real boy, and even sings “there are no strings on me.” But he doesn’t just long to be Geppetto, or to be a man: Ultron wants to be a god. Ultron wants to rule all and control all. That issue, of godhead, is explored by Whedon through the words of Clint Barton’s wife, through Thor’s condemnation of Stark’s decision to mess with artificial intelligence. They are more than mere mortals but they are not infinitely moral gods. They are broken and battered, and Scarlet Witch’s meddling reveals the shame and fear in all of them, that thing that causes them to wonder whether they’re really monsters or not.
All of this culminates in the battle royale… in a church. Ultron points it out that church was placed in the center of the city so that everyone could be equally close to God. Ultron calls that the “geometry of belief.” But there’s a difference between proximity and belief, there’s a difference between structure/religion and faith. Ultron thinks that can be established through fear because he sees it as the primary motivator for decisions and faith; he’s seen the way that the villagers in Sokovia received the Avengers and the way that the Maximoff twins hate and fear them because of Stark Industries. He’s a fear monger, not a peacemaker; he will make peace but he will not work for peace.
All of this exhibits quite nicely in Whedon’s story and his use of the Ultron character. He’s constantly spouting off things that sound vaguely (and more specifically) religious. “There is no man in charge” could refer to his inhumanity or God himself; he says about vibranium, “On this rock I will build my church,” a knock off Matthew 16:18. Ultron is another ultimate tempter/devil character, beyond Loki and yet ahead of Thanos, who is moving in the background. Ultron is the bottled up darkness of Stark, who says he doesn’t trust Cap because he doesn’t have a dark side, while at the same time calling Cap “God’s righteous man.” The darkness of Stark’s heart has been passed in raw form into this A.I., without any sense of compassion or moral ambiguity.
That leads Ultron to his Noah allusion, his presentation of God as an ‘actor’ in the narrative who gets fed up periodically and ‘throws a rock’ at Earth, to generate change. He says he intended to provide the world with an opportunity to look ‘up to the sky and see grace and mercy.” But his own moral fortitude (in his own mind) leads him to believe the only way to cleanse the Earth is to wipe all of the humans off of it. He’ll even allude to his ‘final solution’ as his “swift and powerful sword” (Isaiah 27:1, Hebrews 4:12, and… “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”).
In same ways, Whedon’s script still leads us to a confusing end. Because Stark could not save the world from himself or from Ultron, but his other, collaborative AI creation, Vision, does. Vision who says, “I am not Jarvis, I am not Ultron, I am,” a correlation to Exodus 3:14, where God tells Moses “I am who I am.” Vision is – and that defies explanation, but he is still ultimately made. And yet, he is the best of Stark, with the ability to choose morally: he doesn’t want to kill Ultron, because he knows that this other A.I. is in pain. Still, Vision recognizes that Ultron must be stopped, while acknowledging grace in the beautiful, broken humanity of Earth.
The thesis on all of this seems wrapped up in Captain America’s line that the final battle is “not just about beating [Ultron] but about whether he’s right or not [about the Avengers being monsters].” We may never get a true theological statement definitively from Whedon (how can we in a blockbuster film chock full of so many ideologies?) But when Scarlet Witch hears the redemptive words spoken by the “non-god” on the team, Hawkeye, and chooses to blaze out of her hiding place, she claims the salvation he offers – which sounds a lot like the words of Jesus calling his disciples:
“It doesn’t matter what you did or who you were. You step out that door and you’re an Avenger.”
In the end (except for Thor), no one is divine, but a few of them prove to be more than monsters, even saviors of men.