By. Daniel Matthys
The latest Marvel blockbuster the Avengers: Age of Ultron is a remarkably God-haunted movie for a film that appears to take place in a world marked by the absence of God. Not since The Dark Knight has a comic book film flirted as much with the notions of meaning and purpose in an apparently absurd and chaotic universe. Yet where The Dark Knight and its sequel ultimately affirm traditional understandings of human worth the Avengers leaves the question much more open.
The Avengers charts the creation of not one, but two god-like beings amidst a backdrop of human characters struggling to find meaning in a world stricken by conflict, and threatened by extra-terrestrial life. The film begins with the on-going repercussions following the alien invasion at the climax of the first Avengers. These repercussions are psychological as well as physical in nature as characters, particularly Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark, struggle to come to terms with the realisation that humanity is vulnerable in an increasingly crowded and dangerous universe.
The film opens as the last Avengers ended with the team fighting together against an obvious threat to peace and stability. Yet these early scenes are shot through with a sense of foreboding, a sense that for at least some of the team the constant solving of problems, the constant avenging is not enough. Following the opening action a solo from the opera Norma plays. The singer offers a prayer to the moon goddess asking for peace.
“Scatter peace across the earth
Thou make reign in the sky…”
It is quest for a solution to repair the sins of mankind and to shield us from the consequences of a chaotic universe.
The quest for a lasting peace, for a perfect world to replace our fallen one, for a world where the Avengers can “win the fight and go home” is the dream for Tony Stark. It is quest for a solution to repair the sins of mankind and to shield us from the consequences of a chaotic universe. Note that this is also a quest to supplant the traditional role of God. Peace and salvation is the domain of God, but in the film’s universe God is omitted or at least trust in his providence is absent. Instead the potential of artificial intelligence presents to Stark the apparent solution to his problem. In Stark’s mind a being with intelligence greater than humanity must be constructed to deliver “peace in our time.”
Stark’s creation of the artificial intelligence Ultron, gives us a character that is close to a literal God. Ultron himself is aware of his godly pretensions. He establishes his headquarters in an abandoned church and announces that he has come to “save” the world. The abandoned church itself is a fitting representation of the status of the Christian God in the film. Abandoned by a world rent with conflict and despair His place is taken by humanity’s own constructions designed to bring peace upon the earth.
Ultron here is alike to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with his conception of the Übermensch, the Superman of the future that has evolved beyond human values to create his own meaning.
Ultron’s own solution to the absurdity of humanity’s quest for meaning is the evolution of the species. Declaring that humanity is ultimately doomed to extinction, a verdict that is tacitly endorsed by the film, and therefore meaningless, Ultron begins to construct a new man that will transcend the limitations of human beings. Ultron here is alike to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche with his conception of the Übermensch, the Superman of the future that has evolved beyond human values to create his own meaning.
Stark’s quest for “peace in our time” seems to have failed. Indeed his very choice of words is a reference to the infamous announcement of the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, following the Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler. Just as Chamberlain’s “peace” only paved the way for greater violence, so too does Stark’s quest for peace lead to the construction of Ultron, a murderous robot determined to destroy life unworthy of protection.
Were the film to rest here it would seem to endorse a Christian understanding of the world. Stark’s attempt to supplant God with technological constructions has failed, yet Ultron unwittingly continues the project. In a scene that fittingly takes place aboard a ruined ship named after Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister that succeeded Neville Chamberlain, Ultron seizes the material he requires to construct his new man. Like Ultron he is designed to fulfill in humanity what previously only God could fulfill.
When asked who he is the Vision replies simply “I am.” Christians cannot fail to miss the reference to God’s answer to the same question in the Book of Exodus.
Apparently immortal and immensely powerful Ultron’s new man, the Vision is the second godlike being to emerge in the film. When asked who he is the Vision replies simply “I am.” Christians cannot fail to miss the reference to God’s answer to the same question in the Book of Exodus. Unlike Ultron however, The Vision is a benevolent being, albeit a being whose motivations, origins, and values are unknown and incomprehensible.
The appearance of the Vision in many ways vindicates the path Tony Stark started upon. The Vision is furthermore a messianic character, appearing at a crucial moment to literally save the world from Ultron’s destruction. As a messiah however, the Vision is remarkably unsatisfying. He is inscrutable, unknown and unknowable. He is benevolent but his creation stems from the same process as Ultron. He fights for humans but agrees with Ultron that humanity is doomed to extinction.
Where the Vision fights for life that is ultimately condemned to extinction, Jesus offered eternal life.
A contrast is worth drawing between the Vision and the Incarnation of Christ. Where the Vision is inapproachably above humans, Jesus came down to spend thirty-three years upon the earth. Where the Vision is unknowable, Jesus spent his time preaching and answering questions in the synagogues. Where the Vision fights for life that is ultimately condemned to extinction, Jesus offered eternal life.
Here is the problem at the heart of the Avengers. The repercussions of the first film have necessitated a shift in the understanding of the Earth and its inhabitants. In the world of the Avengers, humanity is not alone. Nor can we claim to be the most advanced life form in the universe. The assumptions upon which many people place the worth of humans, our intelligence, uniqueness, and superiority to other forms of life have been shattered.
Of course this challenge to our understanding of our place in the universe is purely fictional. In the real world we have no strong evidence of extra-terrestrial life, intelligent or otherwise. We have not had to deal with an invading alien army through a wormhole above New York. Nor do super powered beings force us to question our apparent superiority to other forms of life.
But, a parallel can be drawn between the fictional challenge to humanity’s understanding of itself in the Avengers, and the challenge that for many people modern science and philosophy present against traditional ways of understanding the universe.
The very immensity of the universe, and the Earth’s tiny place within it, is profoundly jarring to our assumptions of the value of our planet and its inhabitants. There is a famous image, the “Pale Blue Dot”, taken of Earth by Voyager 1 at six billion kilometres that away shows a planet dwarfed by the immensity of space. Through the lens of alien invaders and superhuman beings the Avengers: Age of Ultron seems to be asking; what do we make of this pale blue dot?
How can human life be considered valuable?
In the face of this, the questions the film asks are the right ones. How can human life be considered valuable? How can the earth be protected? And ultimately, what is the purpose of human life?
The technological construction of mankind, Ultron, fails to provide the answers to these questions. This should be expected. Man cannot create his own gods. Nor can he fight against the reality of a fallen world with promises of utopia. The history of the human race has shown time and again that the answers to these questions lie beyond the capacity of humanity left to its own devices.
The Vision however is also a poor provider of answers. Not only is his arrival unexplained but his very status as something ‘other’ than human undermines any answers he might give. How can something, which is the product (at least in part) of human engineering and essentially different to humanity, offer meaning to human life?
There is moment in the film where Ultron seizes the metal required for the Vision’s construction. As he leaves he quotes scripture; “Upon this rock I will build my church.” The line is spoken by a robot in the process of constructing an android. For my part I prefer when it was spoken for the first time by Jesus, who was fully human, to the very human man upon which the Church was founded.