In this post, I opine that Age of Ultron, unlike the rest of the Marvel Universe movies, is morally bad. Most of the people who commented on my humble review disputed this. After careful consideration – I hope you’re sitting down – it’s possible I’m the wrongest wronger who ever wronged a wrong. The issues hinges, I think, on whether Stark, Banner and Thor were in their right minds when Thor allowed Stark and Banner to play with Loki’s scepter. Although I didn’t pick this up at the time (and I don’t intend to watch this one again) the Scarlet Witch’s mind-fritz of the team during the initial scenes was intended to establish that they were ‘compromised’ (a recurring theme among the Avengers) in their efforts to create Ultron. If so, then Stark, Banner and Thor are not responsible for the death and destruction it caused, but Hydra (again!) takes all the blame.
The problem with this view is that Stark would not have been able to keep his hands off the scepter in any event, and that his dream of Ultron seems not to have been the result of the having his mind messed with. The responsibility then falls back to Thor, who could reasonable be expected to have some serious doubts about letting Stark out of his sight with *anything* that came from Asgard. They can play with the hammer – it seems to have adequate fail-safes against puny humans – but everything we’ve seen so far shows that nothing good comes from humans messing with Asgard-tech, especially Tony.
Within the Marvel Universe, with its rules about how superheroes act and their responsibilities to us mere mortals, does it work for Thor to let Stark play with the scepter? Or does the resulting *predictable* body count of innocents break the spell? It did for me. I can see why, on the ‘their minds were clouded’ premise, another man might disagree, and might enjoy this movie.
Lots of great comments, but here I’ll just look at two which seem to capture the major objections.
I think Stark and Banner tinkering with Loki’s scepter is reckless, given that they *know* it was the weapon of a bad guy – Loki – who used it to do Bad Things, and that it is based on technology that makes Stark’s weapons look like pop guns. The gist of my complaint:
Predictably, the scepter doesn’t want to be used by puny humans, but instead, disassembles Jarvis and reinterprets the ‘get powerful and save humanity’ goal as ‘get powerful and save humanity by exterminating it’. Perfectly logical conclusion based on utilitarian ethics – human suffering is reduced to zero once all people are dead. Scepter-tech + Jarvis + Stark & Banner’s input = Ultron.
All hell breaks loose. Jarvis appears dead, and Ultron has infected and taken over the internet and almost all computer systems on earth. It makes an army of puppet Ultrons to serve the cannon-fodder role so essential to this sort of thing.
So far, so good-ish. We’re set up for a rollicking smash ’em up good time. Except –
One of the unwritten rules of mindless fun movies is that, if innocent people are to die, the bad guys do the killing. The good guys do the saving. Right? The Empire blows up Alderaan, the rebels blow up enemy ships and shoot storm troopers, and save planets. If the rebels started blowing up planets full of innocent people, we’d quickly loose sympathy for them.
Ultron does the actual murdering, sure, but is not this a case of (Thor) handing a loaded machine gun to (Stark) a chimpanzee? Is not the man who does so responsible for the damage the chimp causes?
To rephrase the point: even within a comic book universe, morality is the same (1). In fact, that they take place in a traditional moral universe is why comic book movies are so popular – evil is punished, virtue is rewarded, suffering has a point, redemption is always possible.
Thor, knowing Tony as he does, nonetheless lets him have a crack at the scepter. Tony and Bruce, knowing what they do about the power of the scepter, nonetheless not only tinker with it but try to bend its power to their wills. So far, it’s standard comic book fare.
Predictably, things go horribly wrong – not just predictably from our somewhat omniscient audience viewpoint, but predictably *from within the story itself*. And that’s the rub: Hitler’s parents had no reason to believe little Adolf would go bad (and having a baby is not exactly tampering with the Powers of the Universe); the genetic engineers who tinkered with the spiders (in the first Toby McGuire Spiderman) had no reason to suspect that a spider bite could have such effect. BUT: Stark and Banner would have had to have been stupid, crazy or full of hubris NOT to know that using the scepter in any way whatsoever was very, very, as in threat to the planet level, dangerous.
But it still could have worked. In my opinion, Ultron crosses that moral line by the massive body count it racks up. It’s that whole one death a tragedy, 1,000,000 a statistic thing. Ultron’s casual murder of thousands of people makes the expected reflexive act of forgiveness of Stark, Banner and Thor on the part of the audience too much for me. That nobody flinches says as much or more about the audience than about the writers.
We’re used to gratuitous violence in our popcorn movies. What makes the Marvel universe so, well, marvelous is that justice is meted out – the bad guys get nuked, Loki goes off in chains, Hydra is slaughtered in a hundred different ways, and so on. Here? Well, Ultron does get mushed. But it’s not so clear the moral responsibility stops with it.
As pure entertainment, I would probably been cool with this movie had they just toned down the murder. I didn’t like it much in the other movies, either(2), but at least those responsible got theirs in the end. On to the comments:
The best counterpoint was offered by Stephen J.:
Moreover, insofar as Ultron’s emergent personality takes any notes from Tony, it’s from the distorted state of mind in which Tony’s operating following Wanda Maximoff’s mind-warp upon him.
Taking this observation back a step, that’s enough to excuse Tony – he wasn’t in his right mind. Are we willing to extend this excuse to Thor and Bruce as well? If so, I’ll take it all back. My wife’s observation is that, in making Ultron, Tony was giving in to the temptation to despair – that his (understandable) fear of Thanos lead him to take steps that were not really justifiable – just as SHEILD’s attempts to use the Fancy Blue Cube were shown to be ultimately misguided and corrupting. That he was under the influence of the Scarlet Witch at the time is very much mitigating.
We forgive them because, while their actions were reckless, their minds were clouded and their intentions were good. A friend of ours commented that the whole Scarlet Witch mind-warp really made no difference – Tony was going to do it anyway, given everything we know about him. That sounds right to me, and may be why I overlooked the mind-fritz originally.
John C. Wright perhaps puts this in the context of history, tradition and the requirements of this particular art:
This has been the basic message of all science fiction stories from since the days of Mary Shelly.
It is hardly morally bankrupt to pen a tale warning people that good intentions are not enough, and to warn people that those who exchange freedom for security end up with neither, and that pride goeth before a fall.
Beside, that is the origin story of Ultron in the comic books (except it was Ant Man, not Iron Man, who made Ultron).
So, no. With all due respect, you are absolutely, positively, and dead wrong. Science fiction stories about man playing God and having his creations turn on him are as morally straight and upright as the Boy Scouts, and just as old, tried and true.
To this I only say: so long as the perps don’t walk, I’m down with that. The tradition as I see it is that the people playing God get their comeuppance in the end, not march off into the sunset.
1. I’ve got this draft essay about how, even in speculative fiction, the two things that don’t survive much speculation are metaphysics (the rules under which a human mind interacts with reality) and morality (what gives a story meaning, if any). It’s like the story, I think it’s in Aquinas, where a man is sure that he is looking at a round tower in the distance, only to discover it is square once he gets closer – if the tower is nothing outside his perceptions, he can’t be surprised or corrected at all. Stories play with this idea, where as they go along the characters discover what is *really* going on. Push this too far, so that the readers are left not knowing what is going on, and it’s hard if not impossible to write a good story.
Similarly, you can have cold blooded murder, suicide, gratuitous violence all around – but without some appeal to right and wrong, again, it’s next to impossible to pull off the story. If we really, truly cannot believe why the characters do what they do, or if their ‘why’ is sufficiently repulsive but presented as matter-of-fact, who would want to read the story? Blindsight, I’m thinking of you.
2. Saw an otherwise completely unmemorable movie as a kid that evidently has still left me traumatized, some sort of spy/anti-hero movie. In it, the protagonist knock a lady unconscious, and throws her in the trunk of a car. Moments later, the car rolls into the water and sinks while the protagonist escapes. I just remember being shocked – what? You’re just going to let her drown? Perhaps in the context of the movie, it made sense that she had to die – I was a kid, I was not picking up on any more sophisticated plot points. Perhaps I’m hypersensitive to this sort of casual murder – ruins it for me.
Another story: our eldest son Andrew, when he was very little, like 3 or 4, wanted to play the old computer game Lemmings. When he got to the first level where you need to sacrifice some lemmings in order to complete the level, he burst into tears. It just wasn’t OK with him to kill some so that you would win the game. I think he was onto something, that my casual acceptance of the need to kill the little worker lemmings in their green overalls by the dozens says something unattractive about me.