Now, I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a huge Age of Ultron fan. This is despite the fact that it’s really not quite as good as its predecessor and despite the fact that Marvel advertised it as a dramatically different movie from the one that hit theaters earlier this month. I’ve happily seen it four times in the last two weeks, and will doubtless watch it a few more before it rotates out of theaters later this summer (I know, I know… I have a problem).
The thing is, though, that Age of Ultron reveals itself to be a surprisingly nuanced character study upon repeated viewings, and probably not in the way that you’d initially expect it to be. You don’t dredge up anything new about Stark or Cap’ on your second (or third, or fourth) viewing that wasn’t already there during the first. Stark is justly paranoid about aliens invading the Earth again and is more than willing to go to unjust extremes to prevent it. Cap’, on the other hand, is every bit the bastion of moral virtue that he was in The First Avenger and The Avengers and The Winter Soldier.
It’s not even about the rest of the team. Banner is understandably concerned about the Hulk’s collateral damage, but we already got that in The Incredible Hulk‘s opening credits. Widow knows herself to be just as abhorrent a monster as he is, but that’s a continuiation of her character rather than some kind of revelation. Thor is just as worthy of wielding Mjolnir as he was following the Destroyer’s New Mexican rampage and Hawkeye’s extended back story and development, while long overdue, fails to operate at anything deeper than the movie’s surface text.
Ultron is this film’s focus and its revelation. Although he at first comes off as just another megalomaniacal villain for the team to face off against – a part which he incidentally plays to a T – he transforms into something far more when you take another look at the film. He’s still the genocidal extreme of Tony’s post-New York paranoia, but he is a profoundly tragic character when you start to think about his role in the movie.
He’s the perfect marriage of Stark’s and Banner’s outlook on world peace. As he’s quick to point out throughout the film, his desire is “peace in our time.” That’s not to be confused with quiet nor an intermittent calm, mind you, but a lasting, sustainable peace. The problem was, however, that he wasn’t just parroting Stark’s end-game, but paired it with a dark twist on Banner’s realization that, under Ultron’s watch, the only people that would be threatening the Earth would be people.
That right there is his end game. After all, he doesn’t just stop with Tony’s mission: “to end the fight so we can go home.” He applies it to a geologic scale, viewing humanity’s brief terrestrial tenure as miasma of violence, chaos and general unrest. He argues that mankind has to evolve beyond its current, unsustainably violent form if it wants to avoid being brought back to square one: “boom — the end.”
The idea of mankind’s social evolution stagnating is a decades old concept that was brought to the cultural forefront in Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. In it, he argues that since the French Revolution, Western-styled democracy has proven to be”the fundamentally better system [of government] (ethically, politically, economically) than any of the alternatives.” Implicitly, it argued that history as we knew it – the ideological struggle of nations for dominance – was coming to an end and that governments would inevitably homogenize under a single banner:
“What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution
This, of course, makes him an outcast among his would-be kind: The Avengers. His mission can only be brought about by one of two ways. He could either force humanity to move beyond its inequities – which history has continually shown is a fruitless endeavor – or destroy it outright: making the world clean for the new man.
The first two people that he had any contact with beyond his understandably antagonistic makers were the Maximoff twins. They were the only people that he didn’t have to fight to get to accept him. While they could hardly be called friends in the Human sense, they were never-the-less the closest thing that he had to them.
That’s why their betrayal (ie, not wanting to be murdered by his Sokovian meteor) struck him so deeply. It was both obvious and inevitable – from the second that Wanda could read his mind – that they were going to turn on him. After all, “what choice [did they] have?” It was fatalistic from the first that they could never truly stand together.
But what’s Ultron’s reaction when they finally join with the Avengers? Does he strike them down? Does he rage against them for daring to defy him? No, he pleads with them. He begs them, “please, don’t do this.”
After his highly visible and irrevocably public defeat at the hands of the newly augmented Avengers, he kidnaps Black Widow. While it is at least half born of strategy, there’s no small bit of desperation in the act. As much as you could argue the point, Ultron didn’t need Widow. The Avengers already knew well enough that they needed to stop him and he could have told them himself to meet him in Sokovia. Black Widow was there not because she needed to be, but because he genuinely wanted her to be there.
When she finally comes to, he tells her that he “didn’t know if [she’d] wake up. I hoped that you would. I don’t have anybody else.” Simply put, Ultron is lonely and hurt. He might have harmony with his legion of selves, but he has nobody to talk to nor interact with. He only has himself now that the twins have defected from his cause.
As he goes on, it’s increasingly obvious that he never wanted to be the villain. He wanted “people […] to look up to the sky and see hope,” to replace the Avengers in the exact way that Tony wanted him to replace them. More than being designed for it, he wished it to be true with a desperate strength. But the incident on the bridge – in which the Avengers defeated him before the entire world – cast him as a mechanized monster: something to be feared rather than revered.
They’d stolen his heroic legacy from him, forcing him to roll over the world and start it anew. His first words upon seeing the Vision side by side with his enemies are profoundly sad: “My vision… they really have taken everything from me.” And in their final confrontation, when Vision confirms that he is in fact facing the last Ultron, his response is pure dejection, reminding him that Vision “was supposed to be the last.”
His most heart-rending scene isn’t his death, however, but seeing Wanda for the last time. While he did indeed kill her brother, he was never his target: Hawkeye was. Quicksilver ran into the line of fire to save his fellow Avenger and the child he was returning to the helicarrier. And upon seeing his sister, Ultron doesn’t rage at her betrayal or even make any attempt to kill her. Once again, he pleads with her: “Wanda… if you stay here, you’ll die.” Even at the last – after everything that passed between them and fully aware of how she had to feel about him – his sole concern was her safety: protecting his would-be friend from death.
When I see Ultron now, I don’t simply see a villain. He’s not just an obstacle to punch through in the name of peace. I see a monstrously tragic creature, “unique and in pain.” He was burdened by fate – by the very nature of his being – into becoming the Avengers adversary when he ultimately wanted nothing more than what any of us want: to be accepted and loved. But that was never in the cards for Ultron, who was as much a slave to his nature as we are to our own.