Age of Ultra Pwnage

The nerd universe was rapturous with delight this past weekend (Olympics…? What’s that?) after it was announced that Paul Bettany, voice of Tony Stark’s AI butler JARVIS, would join the cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron as (get ready for it…) the Vision! That’s right, true believers: we got ourselves something awfully close to Earth’s Mightiest Heroes’ classic line-up coming our way [1]! Having already committed to a bigger team (and the necessary exposition that requires) with the additions of Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, what might have prompted this decision to throw in yet another central character? I have an idea, if you care about comic book movies with any fervency and are groping for a guide; and if you don’t, well… get over yourself and read further anyway!

First, some necessary background. One important clue marking the way forward came with Kevin Feige’s revelation a while back that Captain America: The Winter Soldier would be the direct lead-in to The Avengers‘ sequel. This decision surprised legions of fans who, tantalized by Thanos’ cameo in The Avengers’ credits sequence, had assumed Thor: The Dark World would pass the baton by shedding more light on his push for cosmic autocracy. Instead, Joss Whedon and Marvel made the daring move to keep Thanos lurking in the outer reaches of space as a diabolical schemer slowly encroaching upon our corner of the galaxy [2]. The stark moral landscape and espionage feel of The Winter Soldier, we’re now told by Disney CEO Robert Iger, will “set critical events in motion” for our heroes [3] and pave the way for the creation of Ultron.

Yeah. Ultron.

ULTRON

Whedon et. al. thrilled and perplexed everyone when they announced last fall that Ultron would be the main antagonist in the second Avengers film. Thrilled, because historically Ultron is one of the most vicious, most powerful enemies the Avengers have battled in their long comics career; perplexed, because, as everyone knows, Ultron was the invention of Hank Pym, better known as Giant Man/Ant Man, one of the Avengers’ charter members. Imagine their shock and puzzlement then when Whedon revealed that Pym wasn’t one of the characters being introduced in Age of Ultron. Confounding all expectations yet again, Whedon announced he was constructing a new origin for Ultron. Who could be taking Pym’s place, then? The teaster Marvel unveiled back in September not-so-subtly hints that our favorite genius/playboy/philanthropist may be the one responsible:

The image of the Iron Man helmet being hammered into shape as Ultron suggests that JARVIS may somehow become corrupted, morph into a new entity entirely, and revolt. Unlike Skynet or the machines in The Matrix, however, Ultron is an individual consciousness rather than an impersonal hive mind, tainted by his inventor’s vanity. In the comics that was Hank Pym, of course, but seriously: how much more would that be the case if Tony Stark were the unwitting culprit? JARVIS has a large degree of independence as a program, as evidenced by his remote operation of about forty Iron Man suits at the climax of Iron Man 3, which in turn could be seen as a precursor to Ultron’s ability to manufacture and dispatch replicas of himself to do his bidding. Which is terrifyingly bad news, needless to say.

Where does the Vision come into all of this, though? The Vision, you see, was one of those replicas, Ultron’s secret weapon specially designed to wipe out the Avengers. Happily for us, he rejected his programming and joined them instead, becoming one of the team’s most crucial members [4].

The film, no doubt, will follow this strand of comic tradition impeccably while reorienting it to Ultron’s new origin story. The addition of the Vision clinches for me the JARVIS/Ultron connection. For one, the selection of JARVIS’ voice actor to portray him seems to validate an organic continuity between the two. On top of that, leaked reports of the Vision’s costume and its echoes of the Iron Man design suggest, by extension, that the Vision will have a logical, “familial” correspondence to both generations of inventors:

It has a helmet akin to the Iron Man armor, but it’s designed more like a face than a smooth Stark helmet. The iconic yellow and green are present in the design, but it’s more metallic shades than bright ‘comic book colors.’ They said it reminds them somewhat of the T-100 from ‘Terminator 2’ but it’s not as shiny. The yellow metal ‘liquid’ bits seem to light up. This may or may not happen since there are two designs for that section. One lights up the other doesn’t. That’s the only difference. The cape is present, but they say it appears to only ‘pop out’ when in flight mode. The cape sports some similar shades of yellow as the body. The ‘neck pieces’ are the same yellow but they seem to shift positions from “standing” (for lack of a better word) to ‘flight mode’. [5]

This is where I think the logic of making room for one more character in an already packed cast comes to the fore. At bottom, it’s only fitting to bring the Vision onboard when one has committed to giving Ultron the limelight. It suits Whedon’s style (and Christopher Nolan’s!) to subvert classic comics continuity in one important detail while faithfully reproducing others with close fidelity. Moreover, the Vision’s defection to the Avengers will, I suspect, highlight one of Phase 2’s major themes, namely, the attempt to exert control and the awful consequences that unleashes.

On to the nuts and bolts of my argument, then. Why does The Winter Soldier lead-in make such a decisive difference? The trailers allude to Cap’s dissatisfaction with SHIELD’s moral ambivalencies and his reluctance to be the muscle behind its vision for the world. Seeds of distrust seem to be sewn between Cap and the higher echelons of SHIELD leadership, strongly hinting at corruption in its ranks. Shots of helicarriers crashing and SHIELD units fighting one another gives the impression that a SHIELD civil war has erupted and Cap is out to set it back to right. While he will almost certainly restore some sense of order, the ordeal will no doubt drive home for him the deep, ugly divide between his ideals and the modern world’s.

In addition to these more overt signals, the first trailer’s opening scene subtly evokes an important allusion of its own. In this scene Cap drops into a mission sans parachute, a direct reference to the opening pages of The Ultimates 2, in which Cap is covertly inserted into a hostage crisis by plummeting 600 feet from an airplane into a sewage system. No one other than the Hulk (of course) can survive such an impact, let alone swim three miles into action afterwards and singlehandedly neutralize several dozen heavily armed insurgents. The reason Cap’s involvement in the rescue is kept top secret is that Nick Fury and SHIELD had sworn to deploy their superhuman response team exclusively for domestic crises, i.e. homeland defense and the like.

In this story arc Fury reneges on that promise as new international conflicts arise which “demand” the deployment of the Ultimates. Most of the world resents this reassertion of American hegemony and its superhuman enforcers. SHIELD, anxious to project an image of strength, doesn’t help its reputation any when it uses Hank Pym’s Giant Man serum (after ingloriously firing Pym [6]) to create a division of Giant Men to bump up the Ultimates’ ranks. SHIELD also initiates a joint experiment with several European nations to develop new super soldiers modeled after Captain America. Global tensions come to a breaking point when the Ultimates spearhead a US strike in the Middle East, an action which provokes retaliation from a coalition of disaffected nation-states including China, France, and Iran, all equipped with new superhumans of their own to rival America’s. Interestingly enough, a disgraced Hank Pym contributes his new Ultron robots to their cause after SHIELD ignominiously turns down his offer.

We’ve already seen elements reminiscent of this in the MCU thus far. For one, the Avengers were only assembled in the first film as a last resort when SHIELD’s reverse engineered Tesseract weapons (i.e. Plan A) weren’t ready for action. The Avengers themselves were notably un-psyched about this revelation which didn’t exactly boost their confidence in SHIELD’s integrity. Their non-existent morale was the catalyst for Fury’s manipulative use of Coulson’s death [7] to galvanize them to fight for SHIELD after all. All this to say, Fury has already demonstrated himself in the film universe to be just as dedicated to Realpolitik as he is in the comics, particularly in the Ultimates 2 storyline previously mentioned.

Second, SHIELD and the US government both have displayed a pathological need to maintain an aura of absolute control. Again, the development of the Tessaract prototype weapons evidences a deep-seated paranoia, as does the adoption of Iron Patriot in Iron Man 3. Left shaking after the Battle of New York, the White House yearns to project an idealized version of itself to offset the embarassment of getting caught with its pants down in the Chitauri attack. What better way to do that than requisitioning a deluxe Iron Man of your own, answerable only to you, and plastering him with stars and stripes? The Pentagon wants to cash in on the public relations win the Avengers represented and only knows how to do so by manufacturing replicas of existing heroes! On top of that, SHIELD is clearly beefing up its fleet of helicarriers (as we see in the new trailer) to intimidate any would-be challengers.

This persona-heavy, post-Battle of New York world is the context in which The Winter Soldier will throw Cap and Black Widow into SHIELD counterterrorism operations. SHIELD, desperate to soak up all the good press it can, will undoubtedly try to bank on Cap’s and Widow’s statuses as Avengers members by deploying them in high profile preemptive strikes. Moreover, SHIELD is clearly gathering up all the superhumans it can find to marshal a strike force no other power can rival: we’ve already known for some time that Falcon would make his debut in The Winter Soldier, but rumors are already abounding from test screeners that Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch will be introduced in its post-credits scene as new additions to the team. War Machine’s recently confirmed role in Age of Ultron further suggests the team as a whole will be touted as a symbol of American might, something many of our heroes will object to. If this is the case, SHIELD will most likely shift its rhetoric and begin to identify its superhuman response team as a branch of SHIELD (or worse- as SHIELD employees!), a move Tony, Thor, and Bruce Banner will no doubt be extremely unhappy with. Casting the Avengers as champions of America’s agenda rather than defenders of the human race will only serve to drive a wedge between our heroes and their superiors.

All of these maneuvers by SHIELD to assert its dominance and maintain control manifest an entrenched theology of glory, similar to the one Tony struggled with in Iron Man 3. There Tony labored to project an image of imperturbable omnicompetence to mask his crippling post-traumatic stress disorder, constructing forty specialized suits in his own idealized image as Iron Man. Consumed by dread, Tony curved in on himself completely by compulsively stockpiling new Iron Man tech to counter any conceivable threat. Luther described this very thing in the Proof to Thesis 22 [8] of the Heidelberg Disputation:

Because men do not know the cross and hate it, they necessarily love the opposite, namely, wisdom, glory, power, and so on. Therefore they become increasingly blinded and hardened by such love, for desire cannot be satisfied by the acquisition of those things which it desires. Just as the love of money grows in proportion to the increase of the money itself, so the dropsy of the soul becomes thirstier the more it drinks…

The remedy for curing desire does not lie in satisfying it, but in extinguishing it. In other words, he who wishes to become wise does not seek wisdom by progressing toward it but becomes a fool by retrogressing into seeking “folly”. Likewise he who wishes to have much power, honor, pleasure, satisfaction in all things must flee rather than seek power, honor, pleasure, and satisfaction in all things. This is the wisdom which is folly to the world.

Fear will never be abolished by following the glory reflex; that will only curves us in on ourselves further and dig our graves deeper. As Tony had to painfully discover, not “control”, but love casts out fear.

My hypothesis is that the construction of Ultron will represent the consummation of SHIELD’s theology of glory strategy, their bid to harness the logic of Iron Patriot and push it to its furthest, hands-free conclusion. As with all theologies of glory, however, it will inevitably collapse. SHIELD’s self-aggrandizing efforts will sabotage itself when they begin to see yielding any measure of direct control to an artificial intelligence as the tightening of their control. (Isn’t this particularly fitting for our context as well? Relying on digital facsimiles as substitutes for what we actually crave? And the consequent self-deception that we’ve acquired the real thing?)

This relinquishing of control is a subtextual admission that they never had it in the first place. All of man’s idols are solutions he manufactures with his own hands then turns around and ascribes ultimate reality to. This technological idolatry (again, a primary theme in Iron Man 3) will translate into a Frankenstein crisis for SHIELD and will make better sense of the god-complex Ultron exhibited in the comics. Within the film continuity, how could Ultron not be warped in such a way given the circumstances of his creation? It only makes sense then that he will follow in the footsteps of his inventor and manufacture machines “in his own image”, replicating himself in a debased parody of Genesis 1 and 2.

Just as it was Tony’s undoing, however, it will also prove to be Ultron’s. Ultron’s revolt will actualize the law of retribution tightening the noose SHIELD set its neck within, but his grab at power will in turn self-destruct as his very own weapon for exacting revenge on his creator turns on him. In Age of Ultron, technocratic democracy’s Frankenstein will fashion a Frankenstein of his own and all will reap the whirlwind.

I could be wrong, of course; these are only speculations. But the significant parallels between the film universe and the source material as well as the thematic interlacing between these films strongly support this interpretation. Whatever direction Age of Ultron does take, one thing is guaranteed: the darker tone Whedon has promised augurs devastation and grief the likes of which never before seen in the MCU. It’s going to be emotionally shattering as our heroes are pushed beyond their limits and their commitment to their ideals and to one another is strained to the breaking point. Who will survive the ordeal and what will survive of them? Age of Ultron began filming in Johannesburg, South Africa three days ago and is scheduled to assault theaters nationwide May 1, 2015 [9].

______________________________________
[1] Minus Giant Man and Wasp, of course… but more on that later.

[2] More on that probably in Guardians of the Galaxy, the second-to-last installment of Phase 2, though his future role in Phase 3 was teased with The Dark World‘s post-credits scene which featured one of the Infinity stones, thereby alluding to the legendary Infinity Gauntlet story arc, provoking geeks around the globe to wet their pants nearly simultaneously

[3] Vanessa Frith, “‘Avengers 2’ Quicksilver & Scarlet Witch To Feature In ‘Captain America 2’? ‘Age Of Ultron’ Confirmed Tie In With ‘Winter Soldier’ [VIDEO]”, http://www.enstarz.com/articles/33200/20140206/avengers-2-quicksilver-scarlet-witch-to-feature-in-captain-america-2-age-of-ultron-confirmed-tie-in-with-winter-soldier-video.htm

[4] He and the Scarlet Witch even had a thing together, which, I know… it’s kinda weird.

[5] Ben Silverio, “Possible Costume Details For the Vision In “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, http://sciencefiction.com/2014/02/10/possible-costume-details-vision-avengers-age-ultron/

[6] The dude had it coming, though: he only put his wife, Jan (aka the Wasp) in the hospital in The Ultimates.

[7] Can you imagine how pissed Cap et. al. are gonna be when they find out he’s alive???

[8] “That wisdom which sees the invisible things of God in works as perceived by man is completely puffed up, blinded, and hardened.”

[9] Midnight premiere, anyone…?

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2 thoughts on “Age of Ultra Pwnage

  1. Pingback: EW’s Age of Ultron Preview | Glimpses Elsewhere

  2. Pingback: Civil War Tidings | Glimpses Elsewhere

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