The Anthropology of The Avengers: Age of Ultron
This article is not so much a film critique as it is an attempt to extract some ultimate meaning from this popular flick. I do not attend the theatre as often as I would like or can afford, but when I do I find myself constantly trying to perceive applicability to real life from what I see on screen. I am fascinated and beguiled by the world of visual narrative, and I believe we are created to gravitate towards and resonate with narrative and storytelling since it is there that we discover life on a deeper level than what meets the eye and allowing us to express and experience things that cannot really be put into words very well. Thus, Christ himself used narrative as almost his exclusive means of communication.
Towards the beginning of the film Tony Stark becomes captivated by the opportunity to create world peace by means of artificial intelligence, Ultron, after harnessing the energy within Loki’s scepter. In my mind, he wanted to play God; to be the creator and mastermind of a new and better world order, just to enable his pride to say, “Look what I did!” He did not consult the rest of the group aside from Bruce Banner, he was too anxious and trigger-happy. But what resulted from this was catastrophic; Stark’s mistake became in itself an extremely powerful entity with a virtual mind of its own that began mobilizing all of its powerful, spreading throughout the world via the internet, with the goal in mind to bring the human race and all of its problems to an end. Ultron is a very real and convincing villain and the actor’s voice (James Spader) acutely expresses the character’s dark persona; he is not cheesy, over-dramatic, or caricaturized in any way. He is pure and unadulterated cynicism, dismal pessimism, and apathy for all of life, and his efforts appear more driven by a complete disenchantment with everything than a mere greedy attempt for self-gain. Note his sardonic words:
“Do you see? The beauty of it? The inevitability? You rise, only to fall. You, Avengers, you are my meteor, my swift and terrible sword, and the Earth will crack with the weight of your failure. Purge me from your computers, turn my own flesh against me. It means nothing. When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world will be metal.”
The fact that Ultron is “artificial”, I believe, keeps even the most cynical audience member from being able to identify with Ultron because he embodies a virus more than a person, and herein lies a distinct contribution the film makes to theology. Movement in the direction of that kind of existence is a devolvement into a disillusioned wretchedness that competes with the very fabric of who we are; it is indeed as far away from true humanness as one can get.
There are new “enhanced” characters introduced in this film, the Maximoffs, a twin brother and sister who underwent government-funded experimentation and initially join Ultron due to their hatred of Stark for creating the military weaponry that killed their family in their home country. Pietro Maximoff can move at lightning speed and Wanda Maximoff has telepathic and tele-manipulative abilities. As the Avengers encounter them, Wanda causes each of them to experience a deep mental confusion according to their respective backgrounds. I found myself thinking of how availing ourselves to the demonic influences that wage war on our thoughts each day progressively causes us to sink further and further into a very dark and pitiful existence which varies for each person, but ultimately leads to madness, despair, helplessness, and an altogether nihilistic outlook on the futility of all life. Surely Wanda felt these demonic attacks in the loss of her loved ones. The plot of the film brings to mind the words of Saint Anthony the Great:
“A time is coming when men will go mad, and when they see someone who is not mad, they will attack him saying, ‘You are mad, you are not like us.’”1
The Avengers have to go into hiding at Hawkeye’s house and Bruce Banner is being hunted for tearing up a city. Meanwhile Ultron employs (or mentally manipulates) Dr. Helen Cho to create a human body into which he can upload his consciousness. But things begin to look a little more hopeful when the upload is interrupted, a car chase ensues, the Avengers gain possession of the body, and in the midst of heated confusion Stark’s Jarvis computer intelligence combines with some of Thor’s extra-terrestrial necromancy to produce an altogether new being, one with neither the mind of a computer nor merely human, but something of great power that speaks with the voice of Jarvis. When the Maximoff twins learn of Ultron’s plans for ultimate world destruction, they remorsefully begin to resist him. Then comes the final battle action in which full Avenger muscle must contend with the robotic army all containing Ultron’s consciousness as they make their move for world domination. In the midst of this heated battle comes a scene of most intimate significance. Wanda and Hawkeye take refuge in a little room, battle raging all around them, and Wanda expresses her broken heart of despair that this is all her fault, that she has brought about the end of the world. Hawkeye presents a beautiful and frank little speech to her in which he simply states that, yeah, she can sit there and wallow in grief and give up, or she can turn around and fight what she helped create. Once she walks out that door, she’s an Avenger. This is the prep talk we all need to hear as we battle the demons. Yes, we are responsible for contributing to what the Enemy is causing all over the world. Yes, life is unfair, harsh, full of pain and brokenness, and we have made a monster that is killing us and casting us farther and farther away from what we were meant to be, from union with God. But this can be reversed. We can choose now whom we serve, utilize the spiritual disciplines to gain strength against the passions and demons and struggle to gain eventual victory over the madness that the world has become, and to which we have fallen prey. Living in the world we will open our hearts every day to this madness as we go about our lives, but we must be prepared for it, we must remember who we are and be constantly ready for a fight.
I SET BEFORE YOU LIFE OR DEATH
The reason for the title of this article lies in what I saw The Avengers expressing through the two extremes of Ultron and “The Vision” – the name of the bio-computer creation that has the voice of Jarvis. Each is an altogether antithesis of the other, exemplifying two ends of a spectrum of what a person can be. When The Vision was born, he stated, “I am not Jarvis, and I am not Ultron . . . I am, I am.” At first I snickered at this rather cheesy inference to a Divine Being, but the more I pondered it the more sense it began to make. The Vision is the only other known character besides Thor who is “worthy” to lift and use Thor’s hammer. Just before we see him do this as he hands the hammer to Thor, The Vision states:
“I don’t want to kill Ultron. He’s unique . . . and he’s in pain. But that pain will roll over the earth. So he must be destroyed: every form he’s built, every trace of his presence on the ‘net. We have to act now, and not one of us can do it without the others. Maybe I am a monster. I don’t think I’d know if I were one. I’m not what you are and not what you intended. So there may be no way to make you trust me. But we need to go.”
The innocence and purity of his words express compassion and understanding even for the epitome of evil personality while also recognizing the need to hinder evil from spreading, and he does not judge others for not trusting him because he does not really trust himself; he just knows what he must do, that he is compelled to action in resisting evil and saving others from it. After reading the quotes and lives of so many historic Church saints, this exemplifies so well the persona that they develop from a life of devotion to God and self-denial. So many saints have spent their lives weeping even for the demons because they could not bear the thought of a creature separated from God; they accept criticisms and accusations with deep appreciation for their aid in developing their spiritual lives; they have complete purity and innocence towards sinful things. Ultron and The Vision illustrate for us that we can either allow the voice of the one holding the world in slavery to overcome our senses, or we can be compelled to resist it, and in that effort become reborn; become the image and likeness of God. Wanda redirected the energy she was using to aid Ultron through delusion and brokenness into a resistance of evil, finally yanking Ultron’s mechanical heart out of his chest and exclaiming that that is what her grief feels like. We can allow our grief to enslave us and cast us into despair, or we can harness the exasperation it causes us to attack the Enemy, and thus use our pain to destroy the darkness that plagues us. Fourth century Church Father Evagrius of Pontus states:
“The further the soul advances, the greater are the adversaries against which it must contend. Blessed are you if the struggle grows fierce against you at the time of prayer. Do not think that you have acquired any virtue before you have shed your blood in your struggle for it. Until death you must fight against sin, resisting it with all your strength. Do not allow your eyes to sleep or your eyelids to slumber until the hour of your death, but labor without ceasing, that you might enjoy life without end.”2
FIGHT THE GOOD FIGHT; WAGE THE GOOD WARFARE
I think The Avengers: Age of Ultron encourages us to be slow to judge by considering what others are going through in their own lives and the pain and grief they are facing, and realize that even the most wicked people are capable of changing and being transformed. By bearing one another’s burdens we can become more effective in overcoming evil, and the more we enhance and promote the beauty that survives in the world the harder it will be for the darkness to corrupt it like a virus. The basic Orthodox Christian understanding of the world and of the human being seems to be that nothing is evil inasmuch as it exists, but only in that it has turned, and acquired deep imperfections. All creation is very good, but it is sick, suffering, and in pain to the point that it has become destructive. Rather than focusing on depravity and how guilty and wicked people are – which generally leads to self-loathing, despair, and more pain and misery – the emphasis should be on helping people recover, compassionately understanding their pain and their struggles and offering means by which to undergo healing from sin and death. The Enemy is a real entity external from ourselves that wars against our minds and hearts each day, and without recognizing the attacks of sin and death from outside we can become so overwhelmed with self-blame and repulsion of ourselves that we can lose hope of ever changing. By realizing that our mistakes, starting with Adam and Eve, have contributed to a much larger force that is waging war against us – that it is not just our own depraved selves we are struggling with – we will be better enabled to perceive our ability, with God’s grace, to defeat it and be transformed by the renewing of our minds.3
1 “Anthony the Great.” Orthodox Wiki. Accessed June 9, 2015. http://orthodoxwiki.org/Anthony_the_Great
2 Evagrius of Pontus. +399. What the Church Fathers Say About . . .Vols. 1&2. Fr. George W. Grube (ed.). Minneapolis: Light & Life Publishing Co. 2005. p. 49.
3 Romans 12:2
Photo courtesy of Bryan Ward.