Fear, Love, and Identity in Age of Ultron

“Yeah, what kind of monster would allow a German scientist to experiment on him to protect his country?”

“We’re not at war.”

“They are.”

And with one short exchange, Age of Ultron immediately signaled something new and powerful; at least in this one instance, the enemy is a friend. Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are the Captain America of another nation, a nation just as valuable as our own, a nation filled with loves, hates, fears, dreams, and hopes. It’s third world and poor, not alien. Sokovia, not New York or Chicago or the fictional-but-American Gotham City, is the main prize of that movie. If the Avengers were just concerned about our own way of life, they’d blow up the city before it could rise too high, but Sokovia is loved.

C.S. Lewis would say that it’s a mistake to assume our heroes and our history are better and more glorious than the heroes and histories of others. Age of Ultron took that principle to the screen.

Which . . . probably isn’t that surprising, since Age of Ultron tried to cover everything. There’s the unexpected and psychologically complicated love story between the teams’ two main monsters (Hulk and the Widow); the “own your identity” quest that Tony Stark wound up forcing on both his “son,” Ultron, and his friend, Banner; and there’s the four main responses to fear as demonstrated by Stark (avoidance), Rogers (acceptance), Thor/Natasha (adventure), and Banner (anger). I’m not sure which storyline intrigued me most.

It’s interesting to note what fear was shown to each person. Natasha sees the past that she is fleeing, Stark and Thor are both shown a worst possible future, and Rogers sees what is little more than a dramatization of his present reality. As far as anyone knows, Banner saw nothing at all before fear sent him spiraling into madness—we all know he isn’t stable.

Rogers hasn’t got anything to lose and nothing to flee, so, as Stark notes with what might have been spite, he “seem[s] to have walked it off.” For him, there’s nothing to be done. He can’t go back to the past, he’s not going to give up, and so he works to accept reality.

Natasha and Thor both start asking questions; the moment the fear lets up, they embark on their respective adventures. Natasha wants reassurance that she’s more than the monster they meant her to be, so she “runs with it” with Banner. Thor wants to continue the vision and learn more about the threat approaching. Both seek out friends, confess fears, take counsel, and return to their normal lives with renewed vigor.

But Stark isn’t one to take counsel from anyone, and he’s definitely not going to sit around and wait. He’s used to having all the answers. He’s used to fiddling with things and having a solution fall into his lap. So, he doesn’t ask questions or discuss problems, he simply corners Banner with his ready-made plan, insists on avoiding any alternate viewpoints, town-hall debates, and the “man was not meant to meddle melody,” and pushes until Banner surrenders everything that Stark wants. And thus, Ultron was born.

I’ll come back to Banner, because Ultron deserves close attention. He is, in a very real way, Stark’s son. It’s a running joke throughout the movie —“ah, junior, you’re going to break your old man’s heart”—but it’s also true. The relationship between them is that of a controlling parent and a rebellious, broken-hearted teen. That’s why Jarvis tells Ultron “you’re in distress,” and why the Vision says “I don’t want to destroy Ultron. . . . He is in pain.” Ultron is born out of fear and haste, with a mission defined only in sound-bites (“peace in our time”) that quite literally encompasses the world. It’s too much for him to do.

But he has to do it. He has to create peace, or be forever faced with his failure to measure up to daddy’s vision. The shame, the guilt . . . it’s too much. He hates Stark for doing that to him. He hates Stark because he loves Stark, but he already knows that Stark won’t be pleased with his meager efforts. So, Ultron embraces the one thing Daddy has given him; anger. Daddy’s going to stay angry. Ultron is going to hurt Stark back. Show him what it feels like to not be good enough.

Everyone creates the thing they most fear. Invaders create Avengers. People create . . . smaller people? Children! I forgot the word.

Know why Ultron forgets that word and only that word? He’s the child and he doesn’t want to think of himself as a child. He is worth just as much as Daddy. He’s not a subordinate to be changed and bullied and perfected at whim. He’s “smaller people.” It sounds better to define the parent/child relationship as one strictly of size. Especially since he can change himself to be whatever size he wants. He resents the claim that Stark has on his existence.

So, why is the Vision not Ultron? Stark and Banner didn’t take any more time with him than they did the first time. They didn’t consult with anyone, and Stark deliberately got Barton out of the room and out of earshot before broaching the topic with Banner. I suspect the real difference is Thor and Thor’s understanding of the mind-stone’s workings and purpose. Thor wasn’t looking for “peace in our time,” he only wanted someone who could protect the mind-stone from those who would use it to destroy and terrorize, and he somehow replaced Stark’s goals with his own when he brought the Vision to life. Thus, the Vision might allow Ultron to act like a disappointed father, he might speak with Jarvis’s voice, and his skin might recall Ironman’s, but he wears a uniform patterned after what he saw on Thor, he talks with Thor’s elevated diction, and he wields Thor’s hammer.

Choices, not parentage, define a man.

Going back to Banner, I loved how the movie ended for him. It brings a tear to my eye to watch that quiet moment as The Other Guy, still angry, reaches out and clicks off the connection to his dear friend’s voice. He still loves Natasha . . . but something else needs to happen first.

Banner spent the whole movie being pushed around by one faction or other. Stark wants him to be the mad scientist that he used to be, the way Tony himself still is. The other Avengers want both men to be responsible adults who don’t create murder-bots, and especially who don’t sneak around to do it. Natasha wants him to redeem two monsters by loving her. All these things are good, but no one, not even Banner, knows whether these are things that Banner wants. He has no sense of his own identity, no way to stand firm against all these competing demands, and the one and only thing that he does know about himself is that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. That makes it even harder to stand firm, because it means that if he doesn’t give in to Stark, Stark will be disappointed in him and Banner will also be disappointed in himself. Banner needs to get away from the demands. He is looking for inner peace.

I would be very, very curious to see whether or not he ever comes back. I think it is possible he will. Unlike the last time he was on his own, he now has someone who has seen his full monstrosity, has been as terrified by it as he was himself, and yet has learned to love him despite it. Natasha is not so very different from him as he assumed, she’s just taken one short step more than he has—she has accepted herself. She knows what she’s lost, that she’ll never be a mother and that she can’t ever be safe, not with the horrors in her head, and she has chosen to make the most of that. She can’t give life, but she can save it; sometimes, monsters are necessary for civilization to survive.

That’s what “the job” means to her and that’s why she can’t just walk away from it. But Banner has yet to accept that reality. To him, a monster is a monster is a monster. He can accept Natasha as a blood-bathed savior, but not himself. Maybe he never will. Maybe the horror of The Other Guy will always keep him locked up in regret and self-loathing. Or maybe not. Maybe he will be able to put the horror aside and see in himself that same potential that Natasha has learned to see and value.

Whether or not he ever does, I can virtually guarantee you that Natasha will still be waiting for him. There’s “plenty of fish in the sea,” but not for everyone. If the Black Widow could be content with someone who couldn’t understand her, she would have found some other man long ago.

There were a number of other things that I adored; Nick Fury showing up to confront, comfort, and counsel Tony Stark being one of the big ones. After The Winter Soldier, I was afraid that he could never be trusted again. I’m still not entirely convinced, but if he is trustworthy, taking a back seat role and staying in his bounds is a good way to earn that trust back. Also, I squealed aloud when we saw that Stark Tower has a new logo—”A” for Avengers—because I love how much the team fulfills Stark’s need to belong. He’s a great guy who just needed to replace that family that was taken from him too soon.

Everyone’s got a need to belong. That one’s universal. Whether it’s belonging to a city, Sokovia, or a team, the Avengers, or just to one significant other, Widow and Hulk, our lives have meaning because of the lives of those around us.

Pepper Darlington

Pepper Darlington

Pepper is a graduate of Patrick Henry College with a Bachelor's degree in Classical Liberal Arts. She is a mental health advocate, with a concern for building up the confidence of the voiceless, and she currently works for The Great Courses, whose college-level materials occupy much of her spare time as well. Her studies focus on history, religion, and psychology, while her interests include superhero movies, travel, writing, and kayaking. A Christian Protestant from a low-church background, she nevertheless has a great interest in the other major world religions, especially Buddhism, and she hopes someday to visit Japan.

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