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Those Who Would Trade Liberty for Security Get Ultron

Warning: spoilers for the movie Avengers: Age of Ultron follow.

Somehow the big blockbuster superhero jamboree of the summer, Avengers: Age of Ultronturned into a bizarre referendum on madcap feminism, to the apparent surprise of writer and director Joss Whedon. It’s a pity the enraged far-Left fringers who turned on Whedon because he wasn’t power-feminist enough can’t see the far more devastating message at the heart of the film, involving its two primary villains, the android Ultron and his father/creator Tony Stark. They’d be even more entertainingly enraged at Whedon if they understood how thoroughly his script trashes their enthusiasm for prolonging adolescence and trading liberty for security.

It’s understandable that some would miss this theme, because the main narrative thrust of the film is muddled by distractions and wild tangents, many of them imposed on Whedon by the studio. (Have fun waddling through that extended trailer for your next solo film, Thor!)  Much of what Stark and Ultron do in the film seems nonsensical, and they’re both supposed to be super-intelligent. Stark’s character beats from the earlier Iron Man 3 seem largely ignored, dumping him back into the throes of the post-alien-invasion-traumatic-stress-disorder he supposedly came to terms with in that film. Just spitballing here, but Tony’s colleague Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) should be able to spot a man suffering from PTSD and offer some good advice… and doesn’t Cap’s good buddy The Falcon, invited to the Avengers’ big cocktail party early in Age of Ultron, counsel veterans for a living?

In any event, the plot of AoU is driven by Stark’s determination to make the world safe without himself and the other Avengers constantly standing guard. As he puts it, he envisions the Ultron artificial-intelligence project as “building a suit of armor around the world,” much as he wears a suit of super-powered armor into battle himself.

To this end, he pulls a dodgy A.I. out of the scepter formerly wielded by Avengers nemesis Loki, the Norse god of mischief, and given to him by an even more terrible power, the galactic tyrant Thanos, who obtained the gem powering the scepter from, an even worse force of cosmic destruction, the towering planet-smashing godlike beings whose image made Peter Quill “pee his pants a little” in Guardians of the Galaxy. What could go wrong?

(To appease nit-pickers, let us grant the movies have established that only Loki knows about Thanos, and only Thanos and a few other aliens versed in cosmic lore know about the Celestials.  Still, AoU makes it clear Stark and his colleague Bruce Banner know they’re messing with insanely advanced alien technology… and are we supposed to believe Thor never asked Loki where he got that scepter from? Also, doesn’t everyone remember that one of the scepter’s established powers is that it drives everyone around it to violence, like Tolkien’s One Ring…?)

Leaving plot points aside, we have two narrative themes: Whedon’s usual broken-family, father-child conflict between Stark and his creation, and the ultimate act of trading essential liberty for security. It’s a pity Age of Ultron doesn’t really live up to its name, because the titular “age” seems to last maybe three days, and has so little impact on anyone other than the Avengers and spectators of their fisticuffs that Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD TV show dismissed with a single line of dialogue.

If there had really been an “Age of Ultron” – if the system had gone online and worked essentially the way Stark intended for a while – how would it have worked? A swarm of robots sharing a single all-powerful machine intelligence neutralizing everything it perceived as a threat to public safety, everywhere in the world? A self-replicating army of robots, no less.

Either Ultron would have imposed his own vision of security on the people of the world, or he would have been effectively enslaved by world governments, perhaps the same shadowy cabinet of directors that did such a bang-up job with SHIELD. One way or the other, someone’s liberty was going on the pyre to summon a new age of security. Stark would have relieved the human race of both the necessity and responsibility of protecting and policing itself.

As things worked out, Ultron ended up being a worst-case fusion of homicidal alien computer code and Tony Stark’s own arrogant personality. He’s also a literal joke machine, his sarcasm occasionally obscuring what he’s actually trying to say about his world-view and agenda. If you look past his sardonic quips, and the things he’s clearly saying just to manipulate allies like Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, Ultron is motivated by sheer disgust for the special-snowflake humans who want to offload responsibility for managing their lives onto his shoulders.

That’s an even bigger motivation for Ultron than his ostensible hatred for his “father” Tony Stark.  In fact, the clearest sign of rage at Stark displayed by his creation is when someone makes the mistake of explicitly comparing Ultron to Stark, or describing him as Stark property. Ultron doesn’t seem remotely as cheesed at Stark as he does at those who essentially accuse him of being an apple that didn’t fall far enough from the tree. He’ll literally rip your arm off for saying something like that.

Look at Ultron’s absurdly theatrical master plan, which is so over-the-top that no one else seems to understand it. According to Ultron himself, he’s not actually determined to wipe out the human race – he wants to kill most of it, because he thinks the remnant will become stronger. He’s completing the process Stark began by “building a suit of armor around the world,” so the Avengers can retire. Ultron wants to make the human race evolve into something stronger, so he can retire.

In other words, he’s telling his creators to grow the hell up, with a zillion-megaton bomb dropped from low orbit. His job was to allow humanity to remain in a state of perpetual adolescence, tucked into “safe spaces,” a planet of college students living forever in Mom’s basement while Ultron took care of their needs. He got sick of that after about 10 milliseconds on the job. He’s smart enough to foresee that he’d probably end up taking care of a lot more than physical security against Avengers-level threats.

If you’ve seen the movie, think about Ultron’s final conversation with the Vision, who is the living organism, the Pinocchio-style “real boy,” Ultron wanted to become. Ultron thinks we’re doomed.  Vision thinks we might not be. It’s the ultimate argument between collective responsibility and individualism. You can hear versions of that exchange on every social and political chat forum in America. It’s not surprising that the guy who did Firefly would find another novel way to pose the argument, and it would go right over the heads of people who think Ultron throwing Black Widow into a cell for a few hours was a sin against power feminism.

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