Saw this over the weekend. Nutshell: For the first time in the Marvel universe of blockbuster movies, I was unable to turn my brain off enough to really enjoy this one. At first, I wanted to say that, if you *could* turn your brain off sufficiently, it was a workable action and special effects packed popcorn muncher, but, upon reflection – nobody should turn their brains off that much. I’m not talking about the highly improbable to ludicrously impossible ‘science’. That’s fine and expected. Contrary to the Marvel brand, at least as far as the movies go, Age of Ultron exists in a terrible, loathsome moral universe.
Some spoilers ahead.
The story picks up where previous Marvel epics left off, particularly Winter Soldier: the team is attempting to recover Loki’s scepter from some Hydra bad guys. Once they get it, via the daring-do and gee-wiz we buy the ticket for, we get a nice series of Avenger bonding and character-development moments in the luxurious Avenger Tower, which is apparently the rebuilt and rebranded Stark tower in Manhattan.
So far, so good.
But now, an inexplicable plot development: Stark wants to take a look at the scepter, in the sense of subjecting it to the full array of diagnostics and probing at Jarvis’s disposal. For no reason, Thor goes along with this.
Minor pause: either Thor, in his wisdom, decides to let the earthlings have Asgardian technology, or, more wise, perhaps, decides not to. There are no doubt some folks or at least systems on Asgard that could explain it to mere human, if Thor wants to go that route, spoon it out appropriately and with the proper safeguards. What he does not do is let the likes of Stark and Banner, a couple egomaniacs with, to say the least, questionable decision-making paradigms, play with a particularly nasty piece of advanced tech just for the hell of it. Makes no sense whatsoever, even in a comic book.
While the party rocks on upstairs, Stark sneaks off with Banner to the lab where Jarvis is attempting to hack the scepter. (Reminds me of the scene in Independence Day where an alpha-geek hacks the alien system of an advanced interstellar race. Right. At least he used a Mac.) Stark sells Banner on the idea that, with the power of the scepter, they can *really* protect earth! Throw a super-duper Iron man suit, figuratively speaking, over the whole damn planet! Banner, who always seemed the more reasonable of the two, somehow is convinced.
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.
Even if – here’s the crucial part – even if good guys think they could win by blowing up planets full of innocent people. Right? Some things are just out of bounds. If the evil Emperor were on a planet full of innocent people, it’s still not OK to blow up the planet to get him. Right? We agree on that?
For many modern writers, this little rule is no fun at all, in fact, it seems to uniquely get their dander up. They believe, it seems, that the one fantasy we can’t be allowed to indulge in in our escapist movies is that the good guys can do their universe-saving thing while not killing any innocent people. Nope, (slightly) regrettably, omelettes, eggs.
Some modern movies seem to nudge and hint in this direction. Some are perfectly plain. The Matrix sequels take us straight to the ultimate nihilist/Übermensch world view, wherein the unplugged and Zion born kill the copper-tops with nary a twitch of conscience. Those still plugged in are, while innocent, still part of the system, and therefore Bad Guys even if they have not personally done anything bad. There is not even so much as a ‘too bad we had to kill them’ – nope, all in a day’s work of blowing up virtual office building and power plants.
Age of Ultron is one step removed from this view, but with both feet firmly on the path. Tony and Bruce create a monster – for our own good, right? To save us! This monster then proceeds to kill many, many innocent people. Our Heroes save the day, but only after a couple cities and thousands of their inhabitants have been destroyed – AND they manage to save the day because the second time they try the same stupid experiment, it works! Vision! Then, as the dust settles, Stark walks off into the sunset, Banner/Hulk runs away, and Thor heads off the Asgard, far from any mourning families, policemen and annoying wrongful death and property damage lawsuits.
Follow the implicit thought process: It’s OK that all these people died because we were trying to do the right thing; then, despite all these people dying, we tried again to do the right thing, but this time it worked! So, everything is cool and we get to go on with our lives. You little people just suck it up because we did all this for you!
Sound like any political movements you’ve run into? Except for the part about eventually getting it right. As Prince Farquaad said: “Some of you may die – but that’s a price I’m willing to pay.”
No, I do not recommend this movie. What it is doing – and I think it intends to do this – is to lull children of all ages into accepting the premise that the ends justify the means if the ends are holy enough. As long as we keep our eyes on the worker’s paradise or ‘equality’ or even universal health care, we can safely ignore that ever-growing pile of corpses we create to get there.
Until the day we join them.
23 thoughts on “Review: Age of Ultron”
I don’t disagree that this was really quite a bad movie – poorly put together, lurching from scene to scene, the action subpar compared to other Marvel films – but I don’t think there was an attempt to implicitly weave Modern values into the plot.
I wonder how Joss Whedon got so famous?
Thanks for dropping by.
I don’t think it’s conscious in a mustache-twirling sort of way – it’s just that writers convince themselves that a Captain America type of morality is simplistic or outdated. They then add grit or realism or something in the form of what they consider moral complexity or ambiguity. The result is a grey goo, morally speaking.
Out of that grey goo anything can arise.
Joss Whedon is a self-proclaimed absurdist/Nietzscheite/feminist. I DO think he was trying to display Modern ethics on purpose. Here’s quotes from the Wiki:
“He has also spoken about existentialism, explaining in detail how it, and more specifically Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea, was used as a basis for the Firefly episode “Objects in Space”. He called it “the most important book” he ever read, and said it was handed to him right after he saw Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, whose impact, he recalls, had made him an existentialist.”
“In college, Whedon studied the theory called “womb envy”, a concept he says observes “a fundamental thing that women have something men don’t, the obvious being an ability to bear children, and the resilience to hang in as parents. I don’t understand why or how anyone ever pulled off the whole idea of ‘women are inferior’.”
As we can see here, he has been taught a “theory” subject at university, so it all goes downhill from here. He even self-identifies as a humanist, despite not having any idea what that word means.
And even if Mr. Whedon did not purposely inject his morbid philosophy in the film on purpose, most modern film artists, always being entrenched in the “mood of the culture,” just happen to pick up on popular Modern ethics and display them, even unconsciously.
Father Baron wrote a piece on this movie on Strange Notions as well, mentioning many of the same points poked out by you: http://www.strangenotions.com/the-avengers-and-friedrich-nietzsche/
Thanks. That Fr. Barron link was good. I didn’t even go down the building a ‘perfect man’ cyborg thing, which is morally a whole ‘nother can o’ worms.
Too bad about Whedon – I was hoping he were more the gullible rube than the informed proponent. For the most part, it seems modern writers feel like they need to make morality real iffy because that strikes them as more real, somehow, and gets them pats on the back from their peers. For someone – the Wachowski brothers are another 2 – to actively try to promote a drain-of-death circling philosophy in a work little kids will watch is actively evil.
I don’t know, I still don’t think that Whedon went all ‘heh heh heh’ and crafted every line and scene of that movie to instil Modern values. I think (as you mention in your closing paragraphs) that he has drunk so deeply from the well of Modernity that it all comes out even when he’s not thinking so hard about it. I just don’t see that much effort being put into attempting to deconstruct traditional morality – I just felt like I was seeing Rambo in spandex/metal suit, though for some reason it wasn’t as interesting or fun to watch.
Alan Moore, on the other hand, excels at this kind of deconstruction. I would have no problem admitting all the points made here if this had been pulled off with Moore’s skill. Vision, for instance, would be a better Nietzschean if he were more like Dr. Manhattan. But perhaps Whedon knows his audience.
And if he really said “I don’t understand how anyone pulled off the idea that women are inferior”, he’s really…obtuse. Having just had my first child, the physical differences between men and women are now extremely obvious to me, the main one being that the woman is basically functioning at a severly compromised rate during her pregnancy, is practically incapacitated for weeks to months after delivery, and (before the invention of breast pumps and formula milk) had the infant attached to her at the most inconvenient times. Sure, we have the odd superwoman, but it’s not hard to see why the more obvious strength advantages of the man and the woman’s dependence on him during her pregnancy (and usually long after that) might have become warped into ‘men are simply superior’ thinking.
Thanks for helping me put my thumb on what bugged me about this movie. Most of the other MCU movies have been liked-to-loved for me, but this one left me rather cold in spite of all the robot-punching action.
It’s been a topic of discussion in our house for a while that Mr Whedon doesn’t know what to do with a morally good character; hence the focus on the more ambiguous characters like Stark and Banner, while Thor and Cap have smaller roles. Someone said elsewhere that Stark is basically a villain at this point; it’s just that everyone else has yet to acknowledge the fact. I think that’s pretty accurate. One could feel bad for Tony, letting his fears control him … up until the point where he creates a murderbot, at any rate. >_<
Good point about none of the Avengers saying, "Hey, what are those two crazy scientists doing poking at Loki's mind-controll-y scepter? Shouldn't somebody go stop them?" What the heck was everyone else even doing for those three days?
“What it is doing – and I think it intends to do this – is to lull children of all ages into accepting the premise that the ends justify the means if the ends are holy enough.”
I can’t say I thought this the best movie of the franchise, but I honestly don’t think this is the message the filmmakers intended, and it certainly wasn’t the one I came away with.
First and foremost is the fact that it’s Ultron, a self-willed independent thinking being with moral agency, not Tony or any of the other Avengers, who is morally responsible for the deaths of those civilians; we don’t blame Hitler’s father for the Holocaust simply because had he not married Hitler’s mother it might well not have happened. 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. It’s only when Tony repeats the experiment drawing upon Ultron’s own efforts and the template for JARVIS, as well as the additional boost from Thor’s power — relying, in other words, on something other than his own mad science — that it succeeds and produces the Vision, the only character morally pure enough to lift Thor’s hammer besides Thor himself.
Secondly is the very clear (to me) thematic implications of the backstories for Black Widow and the Maximoff twins: all lost their families and were turned into villains by their lives, one by a totalitarian regime and two by the fallout of war (including Tony Stark’s own weapons, specifically), but all of them eventually turn their back on that villainy out of the conviction that their personal suffering, no matter how acute, does not actually justify what they’ve done in its name. Likewise, Bruce Banner’s perpetual dread of unleashing the Hulk, his hatred of what he becomes in that state, and the disaster unleashed when Wanda Maximoff pushes him out of control seems to me to be a very clear demonstration that even in the hands of decent heroic people, the kind of power the Avengers wield is a dangerous and frightening thing.
Even Natasha’s and Bruce’s relationship, I think, points this out. I personally think that part of the reason — spoiler alert — Bruce left the Avengers at the end of the movie was a feeling of betrayal. Despite professing her love for him, Natasha unhesitatingly pushes Bruce off a high precipice solely to trigger the manifestation of the Hulk because she’s convinced it’s necessary; in other words, she ruthlessly puts her own judgement ahead of his desires and plunges him into a state of mind he utterly loathes and fears without even asking him. If, in the end, she turns out to have been right — the Hulk’s presence was necessary to win that final battle — the fact that she made the decision for him cost them their relationship, I think.
I would say rather than saying “the ends justify the means,” the film is rather about the idea that there is never a perfect solution to suffering, only solutions with greater and lesser costs, and carelessness and overconfidence about one’s estimates of a solution’s cost and one’s capacity to pay it can cause just as much, if not more, suffering than the original problem.
Well, I’d be fine with all that except it’s not like blaming Hitler’s father at all. Tony knows what kind of power – and evil – can be done by the scepter. He’s seen it used. Further, it’s impossible to think the others at some point hadn’t filled him in to its mind-control capabilities as well.
Yet, knowing all that, knowing it contained power way beyond anything he’d been able to work up, he decided to tamper with it? He just assumes he and Banner can use some alien artifact of unknown but stupendous power to their own ends? Then it goes totally wrong, and we’re going to give him and Banner a *pass* because – why?
If I somehow had an atomic bomb in my basement, and decided that, before calling in some nuclear weapons experts to take it away, I was going to fiddle with it to see what I could figure it out, and set it off and killed a couple hundred thousand people, I don’t think people would shrug and say, ‘he meant well’.
Nope, we either believe Stark and Banner are the super geniuses they are portrayed as, in which case their insane recklessness makes them responsible for all the damage Ultron did – or they’re idiots.
And they’re not idiots.
Thor is likewise responsible, if not more so for his better knowledge of what the scepter could do, because he let a couple of out of control egomaniacs play with it in the first place. It would be like handing a bright toddler a loaded bazooka.
“Tony knows what kind of power – and evil – can be done by the scepter. He’s seen it used.”
True, but bear in mind that part of Tony’s fundamental motivation as a hero is the belief that it is always possible to take power that was once used to evil ends and turn it to good ends; that’s the entire reason Iron Man exists. Bear in mind also that what actually occurs is not as reasonably obvious or plausibly likely a consequence as that of tampering with a bomb — is it reasonable to expect Bruce to say something like, “But what if the AI spontaneously generates more effectively than you imagine, goes mad from the experience and sets out to destroy the world with its own army of robot bodies?” Or Tony to look worried, say, “Geez, you’re right, I’ve created dozens of AIs already but this time I’d better back off,” when absolutely nothing in his personality in any of the movies suggests this is how he thinks or acts? And Bruce is neither likely to be argumentative in the first place for fear of losing his temper, nor is he inclined to put his foot down with the closest thing he has to a best friend at that time in his life; and he, too, must have found the idea of never having to unleash the Hulk again a great temptation. There are reasons to make that mistake that don’t require idiocy.
Most of all, though, it should be remembered that Tony is still operating under the lingering effect of Scarlet Witch’s mind-warp; he’s not thinking clearly, and unlike a drunk driver, it’s not obvious he isn’t thinking clearly, nor did he enter that condition willingly or consciously. For all we know, if he hadn’t been driven into the terror of seeing all his friends dead, he might well never have had the idea of the Ultron Force in the first place, or would have taken much more care with the experiment if he did.
Good intentions don’t excuse every bad consequence, but there’s a difference between malice and recklessness, and a difference between recklessness and artificially-distorted thinking. And there are still a few movies left in the series; it’s entirely possible that Tony will yet have to face consequences we don’t know about. (We never saw his PTSD fallout from THE AVENGERS until IRON MAN 3, for example.)
Fun discussion, thanks.
OK, I think I get it. I disagree with your assessment of the scepter – it is an atomic bomb, only worse. It is way, way beyond Stark’s understanding. He has no reason to think he can bend it to his purposes, and every reason to think that bad things will happen if he tries. It’s hubris of the highest order to tinker with it.
As far as Stark’s state of mind, my wife put it this way: the manipulation of Stark’s mind by the Scarlet Witch is a temptation to despair, and Stark’s desperate and reckless attempt to create Ultron is him giving into that temptation.
But my complaint boils down to this: tell your version to the widows, orphans and friends of all the people who die under Ultron – tell them that Tony had no idea it would go so badly, and every reason to hope it would work. How do you think they (and their lawyers) will view that position?
You can play with everything in a fantasy story except metaphysics and ethics. Mess with those, and the story gets mortally wounded.
There’s also been some debate among fans as to how much “will” the scepter (and by consequence, the mind gem within) has. Like the one ring, it may be pushing and nudging Tony to do what he does.
So in some ways, we might say Avengers 2 shows us what would have happened had Boromir gotten the ring…
I agree with Stephen J. that the first time around, Tony’s plan is both adequately explained in the movie, and also not presented as justified by the movie.
The *second* time, however, is just ridiculous and knocked my WSOD out — I wasn’t even convinced that Tony would try it, and *certainly* not that Bruce would have gone along with him.
They might have been able to make it work by introducing Thor earlier: I’ve had a vision; I have Asgardian tech to add to the mix; we can make this work. True, there would have been some cost in dramatic tension, but I’m willing to forego tension bought at the price of idiocy.
I can’t continue reading the review until I correct this:
IIRC – when they took the hydra base, hydra had deleted their files and tried to hide the evidence of what they were up to. So Tony wanted to take a look at the scepter to find clues as to what hydra’s plan was.
I think there may have also been a “let’s make sure this hasn’t been booby-trapped or made a trojan horse before you take it back to Asgard where all the REALLY dangerous toys are.”
I’ve heard rumors that there’s a longer scene here that got trimmed down for the movie so I’m looking forward to seeing an extended release on blu-ray that perhaps includes this cut and maybe it plays better.
Actually from a programming perspective… yeah that does kind of make sense. I mean… think of it this way. If you’re a programmer, and you’re creating a world (whether for a video game or a pixar film) you have to build the laws of physics from the ground up WITHIN the program. You can’t just say “input gravity,” you have to say “things fall down” and specify which direction is down in the program and the speed at which they fall etc etc. Binary code does not have an innate sense of what physics “is.” So likewise if one were to work on creating AI, we would also have to implement moral coding from the ground up. “Do not kill” means we’d have to define what death is, what killing is, the being’s responsibility towards such and so on. If you think that would be easy… well imagine you were building a program who’s sole purpose was to grow and distribute crops. Ah but food is energy for people. And if people have energy, then those people can kill other people. So therefore the program cannot provide food. But if it doesn’t provide food, then people will die. Ergo the program probably commits suicide from the resulting logic loop. If you try and say, “well you can’t ‘directly’ kill” how does the program distinguish “directness” between the two scenarios? If you think about it mathematically, both are equally indirect. Again, AI suicide.
This logic does not follow. I mean by your reasoning here… Stalin had Russian parents, Stalin killed a lot of people. Therefore Russians should no longer have babies because one of those children might again kill a lot of people.
Let me quote from someone else…
I didn’t piece it together till just now but this is almost exactly like Ultron. (in fact glancing at wikipedia, it seems he developed chemical warfare before the green revolution) Man develops weapon, but from it learns a way to save more lives. (see also: Nobel)
Per what I can tell of your logic here, it is better that billions and billions of people to have starved to death than for a man to beat his sword into a plowshare. That all the times knowledge used to create a weapon was turned and adapted to more peaceful ends, that was wrong?
‘If you try and say, “well you can’t ‘directly’ kill” how does the program distinguish “directness” between the two scenarios? If you think about it mathematically, both are equally indirect.’
I don’t see the equality. In the second scenario the program directly intends the death of people via starvation, in the first the program does not directly intend, though it foresees, the possible death of others.
‘This logic does not follow. I mean by your reasoning here… Stalin had Russian parents, Stalin killed a lot of people. Therefore Russians should no longer have babies because one of those children might again kill a lot of people.’
I think Joseph’s point is that there was no attempt in the movie to show how Stark and Banner tried to get things right the second time round. They effectively tried the same thing they did the first time, only with the new superbody, and somehow it worked.
Weird, I swore I was watching comments on this post.
Because you were born with robust, preloaded software and spent several years (decades?) gathering data and instructions using the most powerful interpreter currently known.
An AI would have none of that.
No, IIRC, the 2nd time around they were directly building the AI based upon JARVIS, whereas before they were just having JARVIS help (and the AI arose from the mind gem – maybe, the full details of that are sketchy). Like the difference between a nurse helping a doctor, and one giving birth.
“Age of Ultron is one step removed from this view, but with both feet firmly on the path. Tony and Bruce create a monster – for our own good, right? To save us! This monster then proceeds to kill many, many innocent people.”
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.
I think you are confusing this movie with WATCHMEN, where Ozymandias does indeed kill many innocent people allegedly in order to achieve the great good to preventing World War Three. That was a morally bankrupt film of arctic levels of nihilism. AGE OF ULTRON was the exact opposite.
I go camping for a weekend and look what happens!
The Mary Shelly point would only work if the villagers of New York grabbed their pitchforks and torches and went after Stark and Banner (not that that would go very well villagers, but let it go). Because the villagers get that it’s Dr. Frankenstein that’s the problem – he made the freaking monster, what it does is his responsibility.
What makes this terrible, morally, is that Stark and Banner walk off into the sunset – THAT’S the corrupt, horrible message. That good intention + hubris = bad stuff isn’t what is being communicated by having them escape all responsibility. The script even notices this, by having Stark refer to something like the Stark Relief Corp or something when the first batch of wanton destruction strikes – is he saying he’s just a good Samaritan helping people out after some unfortunate event? Or is there any acknowledgement of responsibility? Or are the writers vaguely aware that some people might not like where they are going, and so throw them a bone?
No, in Sci Fi, the tradition in the good-intentions-gone-bad theme is for the creators of the problem to pay, somehow, for the evil they cause. The tradition among those who would create the earthly paradise is to forgive the any evil if the intentions were ‘good’ – and that’s what we see here.
(BTW: I also hated the ending to the original King Kong for similar reasons – the dude who brought Kong to New York gets this ‘beauty killed the beast’ closing moment, which would have been much improved by having the police slap him in irons immediately afterwards.)
Stark and Banner spend the whole movie fighting the evil they accidentally unleashed, which they do successfully and heroically. At best, they are guilty of negligence, not any malicious crime.
The episodic nature of superhero movies does not really allow for the two men to die trying to undo the harm they caused, which would have been the classical way to end the plot, or have them exiled to the arctic, which is what happens to Dr Frankenstein in the book.
All I can say at this point is that if this movie is morally bankrupt because Stark lives, then so were all superhero comics back to the golden age, since scientists meddling with Things Man Was Not Meant to Know not only created Ultron, it also created the Hulk, and the Spiderman, and Bizzaro, and half the supervillains in comicbookland, not to mention the America bomb tests creating Godzilla.
The problem with your theory is that, in the movie universe, Tony Stark is not wrong about the threats facing the earth, particularly from Thanos, who has been set up as the big bad wolf for three movies now. Men who refuse to meddle with nature will not develop the science fiction weapons needed to fend off the science fiction enemies.
“(BTW: I also hated the ending to the original King Kong for similar reasons – the dude who brought Kong to New York gets this ‘beauty killed the beast’ closing moment, which would have been much improved by having the police slap him in irons immediately afterwards.)”
Then be at ease. For the record, at the opening of the sequel, SON OF KONG, Carl Denham is bankrupt from the many lawsuits, and it hiding from the police, so the justice had to wait for the sequel.
That still sounds like you think parents of criminals should be thrown in jail as well. Or (as I said earlier) that it’s better billions should die by starvation than accept the green revolution of the father of chemical warfare. It’s hard to read that point as anything other than it is better that we all huddle cold and hungry in a cave than develop ANYTHING. After all, I’m sure the maker of fire had good intentions, but look at all the evil it’s been used for.
Age of Ultron is very low on my list of MCU favorites, but not for the reasons stated above. While I did find Banner’s actions odd, it made a lot of sense for Tony both based on the character we’ve come to know and for he will likely do in Civil War, if it is anything like the comics. Tony’s character development *is* that he’s heading down the slippery slope. Captain America, of course, kept his footing, while Thor … had the Deus ex Machina that let him knew what to do.
That’s what bothered me; developments just happened with little explanation. Suddenly, Ultron was a project and – a few minutes later – a reality. Suddenly, Thor can consult … something … and … seriously, what happened in that cave? Oh, and now everyone knows about the Infinity Stones. So that’s cool, I guess.
The final battle was cool and contradicts what you’re suggesting here. The tactical challenge was eliminating the collateral damage, talked about in a manner that acknowledged the failings of the characters earlier in the movie.
That’s my take, anyway.