The theology and philosophy of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'

The theology and philosophy of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'

The theology and philosophy of 'Avengers: Age of Ultron'

“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is new on Blu-ray and DVD; it is also streaming via Amazon and other services. Is “Avengers: Age of Ultron” the “Most Spiritual Superhero Movie Yet,” as Plugged In editor Paul Asay asked when the film was in theaters? Is it a film that, despite being

Avengers: Age of Ultron” is new on Blu-ray and DVD; it is also streaming via Amazon and other services.

Is “Avengers: Age of Ultron” the “Most Spiritual Superhero Movie Yet,” as Plugged In editor Paul Asay asked when the film was in theaters?

Is it a film that, despite being written and directed by an atheist, “resonates with Christians” because of “religious symbolism” and “quiet hope and joy,” as writer Aaron Earls of The Wardrobe Door asked in a Washington Post article?

Or does the film make a “pointed statement” regarding “a destructive Old Testament God,” as Christian Today writer Martin Saunders suggests?

Most provocatively of all, does it offer, in the words of now-Bishop Robert Barron of Word on Fire, an “affirmation of a Nietzschean view of life”? Is the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s newest hero, the Vision, a Nietzchean Übermensch or “superman” who is “beyond good and evil?”

We aren’t exactly talking “The Matrix” here, but it’s been awhile since a Hollywood popcorn action movie elicited such a range of theological and philosophical analysis.

It’s a little disappointing, then, that — despite the clear stamp of writer-director Joss Whedon’s restless creativity and verbal wit — “Age of Ultron” is not a great movie. If its virtues are intriguing, its flaws are intractable.

There are too many important characters, scenes that won’t make sense unless you’ve seen previous Marvel movies, scenes that won’t make sense until you see Marvel movies yet to come, and scenes that probably just don’t make sense at all.

What about the theological resonances? They begin with the efforts of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), A.K.A. Iron Man, to bring to life an artificial super-intelligence capable of defending the Earth against another extraterrestrial threat like that of the first “Avengers” film. Naturally, this AI, called Ultron, winds up rethinking his mission and becoming mankind’s next big threat.

“I know you mean well,” Ultron (silkily voiced by James Spader) says with implacably reasonable calm. “You just didn’t think it through. You want to protect the world, but you don’t want it to change. How is humanity saved if it’s not allowed to … evolve?”

If all this seems like a typical sci-fi cautionary tale of science run amok, Tony isn’t having any. “I don’t want to hear the ‘man was not meant to meddle’ medley,” he scoffs to Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), aka the Hulk, by way of explaining his secretive work on Ultron. Later Tony tells Bruce, “We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters, buddy. You gotta own it.”

Stark is a materialist technocrat — “JARVIS is my co-pilot” reads a bumper sticker on an Avengers Quinjet, a jokey nod to Tony’s faith in technology rather than God that will become more important later — and Ultron is a dark mirror image of his creator. Not only will Ultron meddle where man was never meant to, he will take a quasi-divine role in the progression of life on Earth.

“The human race will have every opportunity to improve,” Ultron says. And if they don’t? “Ask Noah” is his terse response. “There were more than a dozen extinction level events before even the dinosaurs got theirs. When the Earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it, and believe me, he’s winding up.”

In this scenario, Ultron himself is at least the hand of God — and he has not one stone, but three. The first is a large stockpile of the indestructible ore vibranium (the same metal used for Captain America’s shield). This ore is so crucial to his plans that it inspires him to appropriate the words of Jesus in Matthew 16:18 regarding Saint Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my Church.”

The Church in this case is a ruinous old Eastern Orthodox church where Ultron uses the vibranium to build a doomsday device, a machine that will enable him to throw his second “stone” at the Earth — an immense chunk of real estate, in fact an entire city — in much the same fashion as the giant asteroid believed to have killed off the dinosaurs.

“Did you know this church is in the exact center of the city?” Ultron remarks. “The elders decreed it so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that. The geometry of belief.” If Ultron styles himself a kind of god, his religion is marked by measurable, quantifiable criteria.

Then, though, Ultron’s evolutionary plans for himself go awry, just as his creator Tony’s original plans for Ultron went awry. A superior body Ultron has built for himself, a synthetic entity of both flesh and vibranium, falls into Tony’s hands — and Tony meddles a second time, bringing a new hero, the Vision, to life.

Who or what is the Vision? As with Ultron himself — partly Tony’s creation, but also partly an alien artificial intelligence discovered in an extraterrestrial talisman — it’s not easy to say.

The Vision was created partly by Ultron and partly by Tony; a core part of his persona, including his voice, comes from JARVIS, Tony’s first AI (voiced since the original “Iron Man” by Paul Bettany, who now plays the Vision). JARVIS, it turns out, has spent most of the movie surreptitiously thwarting Ultron’s efforts to hack nuclear launch codes (which raises the question why Tony thought Ultron was an upgrade over JARVIS).

Then there’s that extraterrestrial talisman, the Mind Stone — Ultron’s third stone. The Mind Stone is one of the six Infinity Stones seen in past and future Marvel movies, and the power source for Loki’s staff in the first “Avengers” movie. (If you’re not following all this, you’re not alone. I’m a lifelong Marvel buff, and even I get lost sometimes.)

Part of Ultron’s own intelligence was derived from the Mind Stone — and now the stone bonded to the Vision’s forehead. Oh, and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) zaps the Vision with some lightning to help bring him to life, so there’s that.

“I’m not Ultron,” the Vision says, trying to explain the new identity coalescing from all these components. “I’m not JARVIS. I am …”

JARVIS was Tony’s co-pilot; now, as Ultron borrowed Jesus’s words, the Vision echoes the divine Name, “I Am,” first uttered to Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3 and later claimed by Jesus in John 8:53. The Mind Stone on the Vision’s forehead, from which Ultron was partially derived, represents a “singularity” that preceded the Big Bang, so even though both Ultron and Vision are created in this film, they are both partly older than the universe. And, in a startling payoff to an earlier setup, the Vision establishes his godlike bona fides by easily passing a test that only the worthiest can pass.

But what sort of god is the Vision? In their final confrontation, Ultron sneers at him, “Stark asked for a savior, and settled for a slave.” If this is accurate, the Vision is neither a Christlike savior nor a Nietzschean Übermensch, for the superman (or over-man) transcends what Nietzsche calls “slave morality” as well as “master morality.”

Ultron arguably embodies Nietzsche’s “master morality,” valuing strength and power, creating his own values rather than adopting Tony’s interpretation of his role (“There are no strings on me,” he sings), and adopting, like the Nazis — the “master race” — a ruthlessly Darwinian worldview entitling him to exterminate the unfit.

Does the Vision embody “slave morality,” as Ultron implies? To the extent that “slave morality” is defined by virtues like kindness and humility, it can be argued that he does, in part.

Solicitude for the weak and defenseless is a defining preoccupation of “Age of Ultron.” Partly in response, surely, to criticism of “Man of Steel” (2013), which killed off scores of thousands of innocents with very little acknowledgement, the heroes in “Age of Ultron” are continually concerned with saving civilians.

Tony’s motive in creating both Ultron and Vision is not a Nietzschean “will to power,” but a will to protect. In the climax, Captain America (Chris Evans) declares that the loss of even one civilian life to save the world is unacceptable.

“Humans are odd,” the Vision muses. “They think order and chaos are somehow opposites, and try to control what won’t be. But there is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.”

“They’re doomed,” Ultron charges.

“Yes,” the Vision acknowledges. “But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It’s a privilege to be among them.” The Vision’s appreciation of mankind, particularly the note of humility, isn’t very Übermensch-y.

But it isn’t really slave morality either, since it isn’t rooted in weakness, fear, vilification, or pessimism. The Vision’s credo is not will to power, but “I am on the side of life.” In fact, the Vision doesn’t fit very well into any category of Nietzschean thought.

Despite some Nietzschean resonances — I particularly appreciate Bishop Robert Barron’s brilliant observation about the martial neoclassical sculpture over which the end credits play being exactly the sort of work created under the Nazi regime — “Age of Ultron’s” treatment of evolutionary and ideological themes are closer to some form of Omega Point theory.

The term “Omega Point,” coined by the Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, broadly refers to a divine end state toward which mankind, evolution and/or the cosmos are in the process of developing. For Teilhard, the Omega Point was not merely the result of the universe’s development, but preexists the process of development and draws the universe to itself. Others have used the term to refer to an as-yet unrealized divine state — the goal, for example, toward which some transhumanists believe biology and technology are converging.

As a godlike composite of biological and technological material, the Vision could be seen as a transhumanist conception of divinity — the next stage in evolution, rendering mankind obsolete. The Vision himself doesn’t see it that way, though. The Vision’s admiration for mankind is partly what saves “Age of Ultron” from transhumanism as well as Nietzscheism.

There is even a sense in which the movie is ambivalent about all its “supermen.” Most of the Avengers, at one point or another, are called “monsters” — Tony’s own term for himself and Bruce. “You still think you’re the only monster on the team?” Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), A.K.A. Black Widow, asks Bruce. She’s referring to her “Red Room” training as a KGB assassin, but also to a monstrous bit of business that goes along with it: Assassins in the “Red Room” program are surgically sterilized to spare them the emotional attachments of family.

Even Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, asks with self-deprecating irony, “What kind of monster would let a German scientist experiment on them to protect their country?” In the process he also indicts two future Avengers, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, who have also done that very thing.

Later Steve sums up: “Ultron thinks we’re monsters and we’re what’s wrong with the world. This isn’t just about beating him. It’s about whether he’s right.” For Steve (“God’s righteous man,” Ultron calls him), there is a moral standard on which the issue turns, beyond who wins or loses.

Not even the Vision is entirely spared. “Maybe I am a monster,” he acknowledges. “I don’t think I’d know if I were one.”

Key to the film’s treatment of this theme is an interlude at the secluded farmhouse homestead of Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner), aka Hawkeye, who has a previously unguessed wife named Laura (Linda Cardellini), who is pregnant with their third child.

Laura calls Clint’s fellow Avengers “gods,” but wryly adds, “They’re a mess.” These “gods” need her down-to-earth husband, she says, to keep them grounded. What keeps Clint grounded, of course, is precisely what Natasha was robbed of: family life and procreation. (By this standard, even Steve may be a “monster” after all, since he considers “stability” and “family” things that he somehow lost in his long sleep encased in ice.) “Age of Ultron” celebrates the Avengers, but values ordinary human lives and relationships — the lives and relationships of the ordinary people the Avengers are all about saving.

If we must put an ideological label to “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” the most adequate term is probably “humanist.” Whedon is an atheist and a secular humanist, though secular humanism covers a broad spectrum of attitudes, more secular at one end and more humanist at the other. Whedon’s fiction, at least, tends to be more emphatically humanist than secular, and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is no exception.

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