Age of Ultron: Recap of Criticisms

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.

Galaxar
Another Egomaniacal Mad Scientist who destroys a planet. It’s the tentacles which make it so that he has to die at the end of the cartoon.

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.

Lemmings
They explode, if you want them to! Nothing problematic about that!

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.

Advertisements

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

12 thoughts on “Age of Ultron: Recap of Criticisms”

  1. Thoughtful review. Have not seen the movie, will wait till video /movie channel release. The moral ambiguity of the Marvel comic universe has grown quite rapidly in the last few years. Whereas in the past, the comics emphasized the complex motivation of some of its villains and society’s distrust of its heroes, the trend in recent years has been to bring the heroes further down through various events. Turn the good guys bad. This seems to be where the movies are going.

    This movie is set-up for the whole Civil War scenario that will be part of the Next Captain America movie.

    When instructing my Grd 10 English students about science fiction, I used a basic breakdown into categories based on science. This helped students get their heads around the idea that science fiction speculates and that it is not just about spaceships, aliens, robots, ray-guns and weird creepy stuff.

    Hard Science Fiction are narratives that put speculative emphasis on the Hard Sciences & Technology.

    Soft Science Fiction are narratives that put speculative emphasis on the Social Sciences and personal/cultural relationships & values.

    Metaphysical Science Fiction are narratives that emphasize speculation about the nature of reality – time travel, other dimensions, mind transfers and things of that nature.

    Naturally in lengthy works there will be a blend of various elements. The shorter the piece, the more emphasis is placed on one area.

    Any science fiction narrative that goes beyond problem solving & adventure will explore ideas in depth and confront moral & societal issues.

    Naturally I am referring mostly to written works. Movies tend to only have so much room to explore a complex idea & present it with depth. They tend to go for visual short hand and simple confrontation when dealing with science fiction, more tropes & cliches, less insightful commentary. Bring in as many to fill the seats and go wow – more money.

  2. It seems clear enough that by reflecting back at them their greatest fears, all the Scarlet Witch was doing was intensifying what was already there — as she points out to Cap, and Cap gets the point immediately, if Stark really thinks something needs to be made right, it’s part of who he is to stop at nothing to make it right. Just as Rogers is afraid of the possibility of no longer having anything to fight for, Stark is afraid of the possibility of not having gone far enough to protect others.

    I think one of the complications in interpreting what is going on here is that this is very clearly a transitional movie, and I think it will make some difference how they handle the Civil War storyline, when Mr. Freedom for the Little Guy and Mr. Military-Industrial Hegemony finally come into full opposition. I think that so far there’s an argument to be made that for all practical purposes Stark is already a villain (although a well intentioned and probably redeemable one) and none of them want to see that because he’s still their comrade in arms. And while I’m not sure it’s intentional, it’s an interesting pattern so far that almost all of the problems Tony has saved the world from were caused by him in the first place, even if never before this intentionally.

    But it’s true that Thor is remarkably casual about the scepter.

  3. (weird, how did I not see this post, I stalk – I mean, follow – your blog)

    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.

    And not to mention the possibilities of the MIND gem having its own will (like the Ring). How much that swayed things is up to debate.

    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.

    1) I don’t think the scepter is Asgardian. Loki seems to have gotten it from Thanos so I don’t know why you expect Thor to be any more knowledgeable about it than anyone else. It would be like a stone-age soldier teaming up with a civil-war soldier on adventures, and then the stoner expecting the civil to explain atom bombs to the former. Yes, to the stone-age soldier both muskets and atomic weapons seem equally advanced, but that doesn’t mean he’s right and the master of the musket knows all about weapons even more advanced than he is to the more primitive.
    2) Nothing good comes from humans messing with Asgard-tech? Yeah, not like in Thor 1 when… oh it was Loki that sent a big, automated robot against earth. Well in Thor 2 it was… the 9th Doctor who used advanced tech against earth.
    Hm… looks like nothing good EVER comes from Asgard-tech, regardless if it’s alien or man messing with it. So, again, it seems that your premise that Thor could handle the scepter does not hold.

    Or does the resulting *predictable* body count of innocents break the spell? It did for me.

    This and…

    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.

    Is where we completely disagree as I do not see the predictability within the story form. Heck as I pointed out before, look at our own history. Atomics? What good could come from them? (they’ve already blow up so much) Well just some of the greenest electrical power on the planet as well as advances in medicine. Chemical warfare? only the green revolution that now keeps BILLIONS alive.

    Yeah, human history is chock full of instances of things that had previously only been destructive used for positive ends.

    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…

    In other words: “We cannot dare use this plowshare because it was once a sword.”

    Is not the man who does so responsible for the damage the chimp causes?

    Was Prometheus responsible for everything humans did with fire? So you’re saying not only did he deserve the punishment Zeus inflicted, but that it would have been better had we never been given fire at all?

    You’re right, morals persist in movies too, but I don’t think you’re making that strong of a case that your proposed morals are any better.

    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.

    I’m guessing ya’ll don’t play chess then.

  4. “And not to mention the possibilities of the MIND gem having its own will (like the Ring). How much that swayed things is up to debate”

    That’s exactly it. The scepter might have a mind of its own, or any number of other powers Stark can’t control. It might even have been let fall into the Avenger’s hands so that it might do evil. This never occurs to anybody in the movie?

    Your entire argument is based on lack of knowledge – that Stark and Banner don’t *know* that the scepter is too hot for them to handle, therefore it’s OK for them to try to bend it to their will. Hogwash – they’ve seen the thing in action, seen it used to do all sorts of evil in Loki’s hands. The scepter is not a plowshare or the gift of Prometheus, a thing either well understood or a gift from the gods. It is a weapon of unimaginable power, NOT understood by men, and NOT a gift from a benevolent god.

    And your arguments from atomics and chemistry totally miss the point. You do not see the difference between, on the one hand, products of man’s ingenuity that can be used for good or ill – made by man, man’s responsibility – and the alien technology of an evil god never intended for man’s use?

    Chess at least has the decency to use little ciphers for most of the pieces. Lemmings are little guys.

    1. That’s exactly it. The scepter might have a mind of its own, or any number of other powers Stark can’t control. It might even have been let fall into the Avenger’s hands so that it might do evil. This never occurs to anybody in the movie?

      I don’t see why it would. Not even Thor knew anything about the infinity gems themselves until he had a mystic vision. The audience didn’t even know anything about them until the previous movie: Guardians of the Galaxy where we were informed but there’s been no sign that anybody involved there has talked or dealt with anybody in A2. And really, a rock with a mind of its own? Sure not outside the realm of possibility in that universe but not exactly something anybody would guess.

      Your entire argument is based on lack of knowledge – that Stark and Banner don’t *know* that the scepter is too hot for them to handle, therefore it’s OK for them to try to bend it to their will. Hogwash – they’ve seen the thing in action, seen it used to do all sorts of evil in Loki’s hands. The scepter is not a plowshare or the gift of Prometheus, a thing either well understood or a gift from the gods. It is a weapon of unimaginable power, NOT understood by men, and NOT a gift from a benevolent god.

      Well 1) Isn’t the whole bit with Thor actually paralleling a “gift from a beneveloent god”? (well that’s just occurred to me reading you there)
      2) Think a moment about the first men and fire. What has been their experience with it? Solely the providence of Zeus it is not understood by men and used mostly to smite them (as they’re struck by lightning). Why then should man accept fire from Prometheus when all man has seen is it used for evil? (setting aside a moment the finer moral details of greek deities and their interactions with mortals, I’m assuming that from men’s perspective, Zeus’ actions could seem outright evil)
      3) It seems you misread my reference. I wasn’t saying it was a plowshare, I was saying it a sword they’re trying BEAT into a plowshare. Your argument is basically that the “nature” of a thing cannot change. It is essentially that if a sword was used for killing, it must always and forever more be used for killing, it can never be reshaped and reforged into a tool for harvest and growth. That is a point of view I just do not share nor find any logical stake in.

      And your arguments from atomics and chemistry totally miss the point. You do not see the difference between, on the one hand, products of man’s ingenuity that can be used for good or ill – made by man, man’s responsibility – and the alien technology of an evil god never intended for man’s use?

      Ok, then you’re making essentially 2 different arguments. On the one hand, you were saying that the nature and use of a thing can never change: once used for evil, it must always and forever be used for evil. MacGyver alone has taught us otherwise. Or even look at GoG.

      On the other hand, you’re talking about the tech vs maturity debate. While it can lead to paradoxes, it is a more tenable position and one we can amicably disagree over. For instance, I don’t see “made by man, man’s responsibility” in the tech of the MCU. In that, a plethora of sapient life exists, so whether something is uniquely made by a people or “discovered” by them is debatable. (example: did man invent atomic power etc? or is it something all aliens have figured out and used as they advance) Correct me if this is the wrong interpretation, but your contention seems to be that tech & science must be unique to each people. So that something invented by Asgard is something which no other (or very, very few) people elsewhere in the ‘verse have created. I would believe that for art, less so for science. You can have the last word on that.

      Finally, let me remind you that there is NO evidence that the staff is Asgardian in the MCU. As far as we know, it might be as above Thor as Thor’s hammer is above humanity. Giving it to him might be just as dangerous or unwise as leaving it in the hands of the two smartest humans. (heck it wasn’t even technically wielded by an Asgardian, but a Frost Giant so… now I don’t know what lol)

      Chess at least has the decency to use little ciphers for most of the pieces. Lemmings are little guys.

      lol fair enough, though doesn’t that just present more problems? Now you’re saying that your moral sense isn’t tripped if the figures are sufficiently ugly or unhuman enough? http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/WhatMeasureIsANonHuman

  5. Here’s the thing with Thor, though: Ultimately, he was correct that Bruce and Tony could create something wonderful out of the Scepter – hence Vision (that’s the name, right?). He was just wrong about Tony and Bruce’s states of mind when they made the original Ultron. And so you can still blame Scarlet Witch for that.

    I think it’s much simpler than you’re making it out to be. Oddly, I came out of the movie pleased at its optimism. I loved how, in the big climax scene, the Avengers absolutely stone cold refused to accept that there would be innocent casualties resulting from the battle. That was heartening.

      1. Well you’re not even that wrong. 😉

        It strikes me that your instinct is right, something bad is happening, but you’re looking for blame when sometimes blame is either not there or it’s not enough for our tastes. As a consequence, we seek to convict more to make it feel right. But sometimes in our rush to convict we can end up with a precedent that would either paralyze everyone in inaction, or hang even God by the new standards.

        There might be some lesson in there somewhere about the modern age but I’m too tired today to bother teasing it out.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s