Editor’s note: This article is presented as part of the limited article series There Was An Idea…, where every week, the Lewton Bus crew dive into the Marvel Cinematic Universe in the run-up to Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War.
Most stories will let you know who and what they’re about pretty early on. Why wouldn’t they, after all? It’s the focus, the center. There’s very little sense in spending time on people and things that won’t end up being the main part of your story. The only reason to the contrary would be if you’re trying to subvert the audience’s expectations, somehow – give them a heroic character who’s not the protagonist (see Game of Thrones, which spent an entire book/season leading you to think it was one man’s story, only to unceremoniously kill that one man), or show different sets of characters and events that seem unconnected, only to join up as the story goes on (too many plotlines on Lost to count).
The Marvel Cinematic Universe is unprecedented in many respects, but the way the multiple lead characters have come to the forefront, how the entire franchise exists to hold up their development and interaction, doesn’t get a lot of recognition. Eight of these characters have now had movies with their name as the title, and despite the breakout popularity of Tony Stark, none of them have emerged as the single most important, the focus of the entire series. That’s an achievement on about a dozen levels, especially considering that to most decision-makers, a main character for the franchise would be something to establish and push, so you don’t have to pay eight marquee Avengers’ worth of salaries.
Speaking of salaries, let’s circle back to Iron Man and his performer Robert Downey Jr., by far the highest paid actor in Hollywood this side of the Fambly. Iron Man might not be the most important player of the MCU, but he’s by far the most prolific, coming up on his ninth appearance out of nineteen movies. Tony Stark was the first result of this grand experiment, and such a success that there were serious rumors circling back in 2010 or so that the light at the end of the tunnel for this strange little series would be called “Iron Man and the Avengers”. Iron Man was the prime mover of the MCU, the first-known and best-known of all these superheroes.
Despite this, the actual narrative of The Avengers did everything it could to make Iron Man just one more part of the team. His Stark Tower is the venue for the final battle, true, but he doesn’t show up in the movie for nearly a half-hour, and as Will said in his excellent article for this series, Nick Fury is the real star of the show, an avatar of writer-director Joss Whedon, with Iron Man just one of the volatile elements he has to control in combination.
THE IRON AGE
The same can’t be said of Whedon’s follow-up Avengers: Age of Ultron – which, true to form, is the movie I’m actually talking about even though it’s been absent up until now. Tony Stark is front and center from the word go, taking the emotional weight of the narrative entirely on his shoulders. It’s him who finds Loki’s staff in the Hydra base, who gets the most obvious follow-on from his Phase 2 movie by casually stepping out of the Iron Man suit, and who gets punished for that when he sees a terrifying vision of the future, where Black Panther is so popular no one cares about the Avengers anymore.
More obviously, it’s him who serves as the public face of the Avengers, with the “Iron Legion” serving as roadies and bouncers for the teams’ pyrotechnic performances, and him who starts the Age of Ultron, when the Infinity Stone inside Loki’s staff allows his research to go from zero to artificial intelligence1 over the course of a single montage. Loki was carefully designed to be a generalized threat to the Avengers – goading the Hulk, outfighting Captain America, using Nick Fury’s plans against him – but Ultron, the growly-voiced fruit of this labor, is out for Tony Stark’s blood, and the rest of the Avengers just happen to be caught in the strike.
When the Avengers as a group fail to stop Ultron, though, they all feel responsibility for the vague atrocities he plans to commit. Tony created Ultron, but his motives are to create “a suit of armor around the world” and “peace in our time”.2 Or, if you want to put it another way, he had an idea to create a group of remarkable robots, so that when we needed them, they could fight the battles that the Avengers never could.
The connection is clear: Ultron is intended by Tony (the real First Avenger, no matter what the movie titles say) to replace and supercede the Avengers, to do a superhero’s work without the personal failings that inevitably stain that heroism. It’s a very Tony Stark solution, since “build a machine to do it for me” has been his solution to every problem from “I can’t escape this terrorist prison” to “I’m insecure about my role in geopolitics” to “I need someone to set up my one-liners”.
MIND AND IRON3
In fact, let’s cover that last solution, or as we’ll call him, JARVIS. The mechanical majordomo was initially overshadowed by the rest of Stark Industries’ preposterous-for-the-modern-day computer technology, but after four movies, he gained a following and respect from the audience, that you have to grant anyone who’s spent his whole existence putting up with Tony Stark’s bullshit. In Age of Ultron, when Iron Man contraptions threaten to end the very Cinematic Universe they began, some thematic and narrative importance is finally given to the only thing Tony ever made that never malfunctioned, got used for evil purposes, or both.
From the first moments of Ultron’s creation, it’s clear that it’s in the latter category – something has gone wrong, and it’s turned evil, killing JARVIS in a way that suggests a parasite taking over the host, and going off to plot what he first says is the death of the Avengers, but later turns out to be plain ol’ world destruction.
Probably the worst stumble for this area of the movie is in how vaguely the actual specifics of this journey to supervillainy are elaborated. Was he, like Frankenstein’s monster, resentful because he was abandoned by his creator out of fear and trepidation? Was he, like Bostrom and Yudkowsky’s popular “paperclip AI” , simply doing the most logical version of the job he was imperfectly programmed for? Or was he, like a Horcrux from Harry Potter, an actual imperfect copy of Tony’s relentlessly creative and solitary thought patterns, rendered electronic via Infinity Stone?
However it happened, the point is clear: JARVIS was made to be intangible but coordinated, uncreative but perspicacious – everything Iron Man and Tony aren’t, including the part where he can’t really do much superhero stuff, as the chaotic final battle of Iron Man Three showed. In creating a superhero, though, Tony has gone and made something that thinks and acts the same way he does, without the lifetime of human experience to filter out his most essential impulses: To protect, to dominate…and to create.
YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT COMING?
I was kind of fibbing, earlier. This isn’t about Age of Ultron, any more than the movie itself is about Ultron or Iron Man. This is about the Vision.
The second act of the movie revolves around Ultron’s plan to exponentially improve himself – an action movie version of the AI cascade concept, where we create something smart enough to create something smarter than itself, and so on. It leads to the kind of thing you expect from these movies – fights, chases, character conflict, technobabble, some universe-building courtesy of Andy Serkis warming up his stage villain muscles. Something unexpected comes afterwards, when JARVIS is revealed to have been alive the entire time, limiting the scope of Ultron’s destruction, and (insert a few sentences worth of technobabble here) can fit inside the ultimate, biomechanical body Ultron was making for himself. The being that results is so outside the context of a superhero movie that it immediately cuts short the requisite good guy vs. good guy fight, in a short, simply written sequence that fills the hole that’s been at the center of the movie since the beginning.
The Vision stops himself doing some minor damage, and takes a drawn-out moment – probably slower than anything else in the movie – to notice the complex beauty of both the world and his own face. He introduces himself as willing to help the Avengers because their cause is good, in a tone that suggests they’re really helping him instead, and lifts Thor’s hammer to show his bona fides (or, translated from the Latin, his good faiths). Unlike Ultron he had years’ worth of learned behavior from JARVIS stored up – experience without life, rather than Ultron’s life without experience.
The Vision could not have existed without all the Avengers working in tandem – the 3D printer/womb he emerges from has been passed between each Avenger like a relay baton. The first movie leaned hard on “teamwork good, lack of teamwork bad”, but this colors the issue by embodying that teamwork – making the unified philosophy and strength of the team into an actual person, who can talk to all the individuals who comprise it. The Vision is the core of the Avengers, and therefore the apex and core of the entire Cinematic Universe – hence one of those Infinity Stones where his hairline should be.
ON THE EDGE OF VISION
Of course, there’s a word we have for a person who’s the product of teamwork, and that’s ‘a child’. The nature of being a child pops up occasionally, but the Vision is only the nexus for the team, and if they’re his parents, that means they have to be (shudder) old. Each Avenger grapples with age as it pertains to parenthood over the course of the story: Their abilities are all erratic, or fading, in a way that makes them regret not leaving anyone to carry on after they fade completely.
Captain America isn’t fulfilled by his decrepit 1940s veteran’s life or his ultramodern superhero’s life. Thor, defender of Asgard, sees a vision of himself powerless to save it. Bruce Banner and Black Widow find themselves bonding over their lives of attempting to escape the inhumanity within them, inhumanity that has made them both sterile. And Hawkeye, the only actual biological parent among the bunch, has to deal with the distance that gives him from everyone else.
Despite probably being able to beat each individual Avenger at their own game, the Vision very carefully never overshadows the team, just slotting into it as one more person, trading banter and doing cool combination moves. This is, I think, my fundamental issue with the movie: It doesn’t do enough to reconcile the mega-action team-up fun movie people came to see, with all this exploration of artificial humanity and creativity as childbearing. There’s a whole other dimension to this movie, of fistfights and airborne battles and quips, of Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who I haven’t even mentioned until now, a parallel and opposite storyline to the whole Ultron thing that intersects it without being intertwined. By the time of the final battle, which involves an entire city getting flung into space, the only vestige of the stuff we’ve been talking about is a line of Biblical allusion that I also haven’t mentioned, mainly because I’m bored with the way they present it.
…except for that marble statue over the credits. The marble statue’s pretty cool, especially how it parallels the one on the front of Grand Central Station, that’s been replaced by a memorial to the first responders who died in The Avengers. Back to my point, though: Why is the statue the whole team, not just this iron Trinity we’ve been discussing?
Call superheroes fascist all the live-long day (to paraphrase Tony), but that’s almost never been intentional, just the negative implications of a shallow power fantasy of having special abilities, and using those abilities to help people. All the MCU Phase 2 business of abuse of power and collateral damage and PTSD only comes in when you apply real world logic to these unreal scenarios – in other words, the secret to Marvel’s success since 1962.
The problem is, to be blunt, that superheroes just don’t actually work in the real world – the logic will always break down eventually. You have two ways to deal with that: Do a story about the breakdown of that logic (e.g. Watchmen, and surprisingly few of the things that Watchmen inspired), or the Marvel way: Start from superheroism as an axiom.
Age of Ultron holds that being a superhero is hard, but that there’s no better solution – that the direct connection superheroes have, and the inspiration they can give, outweighs any negatives and risks. Being an Avengers movie, it further holds that this is doubly true when superheroes work as a team: That’s why when the entire team delivered the coup de grace on Loki in the first movie, it was the final moment of triumph, but the final dispatch of Ultron by the Vision is a somber, quiet moment of reflection. Whatever happens to the Vision, he remains – among the Avengers, or humanity, or the entirety of the nineteen-film-strong Cinematic Universe that encircles him – alone in his connection to it all.
- I don’t care what you say, this movie confirms that JARVIS was just a very very well-programmed plain-language interface. No, I don’t care that it stands for “Just A Really, Very Intelligent System” (yes, really).
- We’re supposed to recognize that Tony is quoting notorious Nazi appeaser Neville Chamberlain in 1936, in a kind of double-nega-ironic way that’s mostly meant to show off that he knows famous quotes. It’s a clever touch that this tossed-off bon mot is implied to be imperfect enough to send Ultron on the wrong path from the start, which you could easily read as Joss Whedon grappling with his own penchant for quotation and allusion. Also, compare Killmonger’s quotation of British colonialist verbiage in his plans for Black Panther’s Wakanda – this is why all these movies fit together so effortlessly, folks.
- I hate to explain a joke, but I don’t expect a lot of people to know that this was the original title Isaac Asimov wanted for his collection of technical-drama robot stories, before an editor purchased the reprinting rights to an SF story by Supergirl creator Otto Binder – a story called I, Robot.