Friday, May 15, 2015

The Age of Ultron

WARNING: This is not a review; it is a discussion. I am writing this to people who have already seen the movie, and I will not make any effort to avoid spoilers. I strongly urge you to see the movie before reading this, or at the very least read last week’s article on spoilers first. You have been warned.

When I hear of the fantastic, epic stories of MARVEL comics, I sometimes experience a sense of majestic awe. Yet, though I have seen many superhero movies, none of them have elicited this feeling in me. None, that is, until now.

I originally wanted to discuss everything that Avengers: Age of Ultron has to offer, but the movie has so many dimensions I could almost write an entire documentary on it. As such, we will focus on the big overarching themes, leaving the characters’ personal stories and other themes for another time.

First, a quick overview of what we are saving for later. Although this was a superhero action movie, the writers put a lot of effort into keeping the focus on the story. Nothing felt wasted; even the scene with the Hulk on the loose and Iron Man fighting him in his Hulkbuster armor played a key part of Bruce Banner’s personal story. We see the minor Avengers from the first movie, Black Widow and Hawkeye, get their own personal stories. In addition, we see some buildup toward Captain America:Civil War, as tension continues to build between Cap and Iron Man. These all have potential for future discussions, but the topic I have chosen for today is artificial intelligence and the meaning of life.

To begin, we set our focus on the villain, the movie’s namesake, Ultron. Ultron is not an alien or a demon or some extra-dimensional menace, but an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner with the intention to protect humanity from outside threats. Unfortunately, the “outside” part did not quite get programmed in properly, and Ultron determined that humanity was the greatest threat to itself. Why did he conclude this? He saw the world from an outside viewpoint. To him, it was obvious it would only take one giant meteor to wipe out the entire species, yet humans simply skittered around squabbling amongst themselves in petty disagreements that lead to them killing each other in wars. Ultron saw a flaw in the logic of his intended purpose: the belief that humans are the quintessential embodiment of the prosperity of life.

The first thing we notice about Ultron is that he has a deep hatred for the Avengers, as he sees them as puppets in humanity’s mission of self-annihilation. Ultron has a specific hatred for his creator Tony Stark, as Ultron realized his own intended purpose was to simply be another puppet on the chain. Believing his purpose and programming contradicted each other, and that this fact was a demonstration of the self-destructiveness of humanity, he abandoned it all, as we see by his ominous chanting, “There are no strings on me.

When I got to this point in the movie, I was worried it would end up being a carbon-copy of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Ultron was an artificial intelligence life form created by one of the heroes. When Ultron began questioning the meaning of existence, he turned against his creator with a vengeance. However, whereas Shelley was content with the shock of creation turned against creator, this shock was only the beginning for Ultron.

The core of the differences, I think, comes from the fact that, while Frankenstein’s monster was basically human, Ultron was a computer program designed for global-scale activity. Thus, Ultron had the power to do something about the problem he saw.

Let us take a moment to marvel at Ultron’s design. His first action was to make humanoid robot bodies for himself. But not just one, he made hundreds of bodies, and inhabited them all at once. This gave him the tremendous advantage of being in many places at once. In addition, he used his multiple bodies for intimidation, demonstrating his superiority over other life forms. It has become a cliché of MARVEL movies that if a character is making a speech to their enemy, the enemy will cut the speech short by attacking. However, this does not work with Ultron, because when one of Ultron’s bodies is destroyed while speaking, another simply takes its place without breaking syntax.

So what does Ultron decide to do? He determines that in order to uphold the principle values of life, he must force evolution by bringing about the next mass extinction himself. He creates a perfect techno-organic body in human form to house his consciousness, but fails to upload his consciousness to it as he is interrupted by the Avengers. Undeterred, he continues on with the next phase of his plan: lifting a city out of the ground in order to bring it crashing down to earth as the meteorite that destroys humanity. The devastation that followed would destroy humanity, paving the way for Ultron, the new, better life form, to take its place. In his own words, “When the dust settles, the only thing living in this world will be metal.”

This, of course, brings up the question of whether artificial intelligence can be said to be alive. We see Ultron, a computer program, act with a personality, emotions, etc. in an eerily similar manner to humans. But this movie takes that question to a whole new level with the creation of Vision. Built by Ultron and completed by Tony Stark and Bruce banner, with a consciousness fused between Ultron and Jarvis, enhanced with an infinity stone and Thor’s lightning, Vision is an awe-inspiring mystery. It is impossible to say what exactly Vision is, though it is clear that he is alive.

Remember how I said at the beginning of this discussion that this movie was the first to capture the majestic, fantastic, epic feeling of awe I associate with MARVEL comics? Vision is what did it for me. Following his mysterious creation, he joins the Avengers to take out Ultron. However, it is not simply because Vision sees Ultron as the enemy. No, nothing in this movie is as simple as that. Vision sees the big picture as clearly as Ultron, but disagrees on what is the right thing to do about it. After the big battle, Vision has a conversation with the last Ultron bot, in which we find out that the two of them agree that humanity is doomed to be its own destruction. But we then hear why Vision made his choice when he says, “A thing isn't beautiful because it lasts.”

This leads into another big theme of the movie. The Avengers were assembled to protect the earth and humanity from whatever would threaten it. Yet Ultron, a being bent on world destruction, was created by an Avenger. This begs the question, are the Avengers really the world’s saviors, or are they instead its doom?

Hidden in this question, there is another, closer to home: as we advance as a civilization, we come to grasp more and more power. As that power grows, it becomes easier to affect the world as a whole, whether it be by climate change, nuclear war, or what have you. We may have already reached the point where total self-destruction is possible, and it will only become easier as time goes on. Will the very advances that have provided comfort, cured diseases, and extended human life eventually lead to its destruction? I think not, because we will always have the option to make the right choices. But even if we do not, I agree with Vision when he says, “It is a privilege to be among them.”

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