There’s nothing simple about Ultron. In somebody else’s hands, the titular robot in Joss Whedon’s Avengers: Age of Ultron may have been the most straight-forward of the characters in the film, a one-dimensional arch-villain along the lines of the Red Skull (Hugo Weaving, Captain America: The First Avenger) or Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace, Guardians of the Galaxy).
His role in the film’s architecture of meaning, too, should have been transparent. We’ve seen how Captain America and Iron Man broach the thematic tension of Shit/Language!, and how this relationship is further articulated in the interplay between Black Widow and the Hulk.
It seems obvious, then, that the film should have been borne to its conclusion by Ultron (James Spader) and the Vision (Paul Bettany). They would have made a perfect match: Ultron’s apocalyptic excess should have represented “shit” and the Vision’s purity should have stood for “Language”. In fact, the conflict between the two characters has already been identified as central to the film’s subtler parables. Theirs should have been the final word, then, and theirs the synthesis the film so desperately yearns for.
Bettany’s character, to be fair, falls in line quite well. His digital forebear is the computer program Jarvis, who starts out as nothing more than a voice speaking inside Iron Man’s armour. He is described by Tony Stark in the following terms (my emphasis): “When it started out, Jarvis was just a natural language U.I.” The Vision’s response to the question “what are you?” comes in the two words “I am”. This is not just an echoing of God’s assertion in Exodus 3:14 (“I am who I am”), it’s also a statement of linguistic intent. Compared to Captain America and Black Widow, who are endowed with the powers of illocution and perlocution respectively, the Vision stands on the next level: he is the verb itself, the active element of language, that which acts but is never acted upon. Hence his ability to do what even Natasha and the Captain couldn’t, wielding the film’s symbol of linguistic authority—Thor’s Mjölnir.
The Visions stands for Language! That much is simple to argue.
The trouble is that Ultron refuses to play receiver to that. The bad robot in this film does not stand for “shit” at all.
James Spader’s character does not correspond and cannot be reduced to playing the Vision’s rival. Instead of being a clean representative of the “excess” thematic side, he works as a character on multiple other levels, simultaneously embracing and absorbing elements of “Language!” and repeatedly transcending the whole duality. In fact, and unlike the Vision, he starts and ends the movie with a mask that brings together signifiers of the two opposite poles: a sophisticated technological helmet from Stark’s Iron Legion (“Language!”), marked by scars, corrosions, burns and dents (“shit”).
Truly, and as mentioned at the outset, there is nothing simple about Ultron. His appearance as a robot is deceptive: he talks, moves and (over-)acts in ways that are only too human. The way he occasionally forgets words (“Children! I lost the word there!”), breaks off his lines, swans around histrionically or lets his temper flare, is quite the opposite of what you’d expect from the stereotypical movie automaton.
Critics who analysed the character so far have noted his penchant for religious language, and there’s certainly plenty of that. Ultron openly lifts lines from the Gospels (“Upon this rock I shall build my church”), sits in the center of a church musing on the “geometry of belief”, compares his plans of destruction to Noah’s flood, and greets Iron Man with the question, “Come to confess your sins?”
At the same time, what these readings often overlook is that Ultron’s internal bibliography extends well beyond the bookshelves of religion. His manner of talking resonates with the works of numerous canonical writers. The obvious nod to TS Eliot is hard to miss: “You think I’m one of Stark’s puppets, his hollow men?” Less obvious is the line, “This is how you end, Tony”, but it’s identical in both sound and apocalyptic context to the famous, “This is how the world ends” from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Ultron picks up another very famous line from Friedrich Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, even highlighting the fact that he is quoting a specific person: “As the man said, what doesn’t kill me, just makes me stronger.”
But the expression that truly illuminates his use of language is subtle to the point of being encoded, and it comes in his final monologue. “You, Avengers, you are my meteor, my swift and terrible sword and the earth will crack with the weight of your failure.”
Let us pause for a moment on the words “my swift and terrible sword.” The sword in question is another literary quote, naturally, as Ultron borrows it from the lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “He has loosed the fateful lightning / Of His terrible swift sword.”
That this should have been interpreted as yet another of Ultron’s many religious references is understandable. But that reading does not exhaust what’s truly going on in this line. For one thing, Ultron is not quoting Scripture here, but a much more modern patchwork of a text that exists within a very different network of signification, more political than religious. The fact that he’s willing to conflate two items that operate on such different levels of textuality is telling as to how sacred he really considers them to be.
Furthermore, to anyone with an ear trained in the classics, the expression “my swift and terrible sword” sounds distinctly, even purposefully literary. Similar constructions course through the history of literature in English from William Shakespeare (“All strange and terrible events are welcome,” Antony and Cleopatra), all the way up to Cormac McCarthy (“…he gathered him in his arms against his immense and terrible flesh and shot the wooden barlatch home behind him,” Blood Meridian). The phrase construction is in fact a near-cliché now, as we find it in the title of more anonymous works (five seconds on Google brought up Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty and Catherine Bristow’s My Strange and Terrible Malady).
Absent Ultron’s obsession for reference, I might have dismissed the phrase as such a cliché. But in this stream of deliberate and dramatic allusion, perhaps the titular villain was meant to sound specifically literary, in a way that acts as a foil to his more ironic and playful sides. It’s unlikely that Ultron’s quotations are a case of deliberate reference to other people’s works; more plausibly, the robot just happens to talk in a language that brims with textuality, the way that a highly erudite writer or professor may furnish their more casual conversation with similar references.
Ultron’s (textual) universe is much vaster than that of the superheroes who surround him, and so is his character. This is what makes him so different, and this is what makes it impossible for him to play the “shit/Language!” game with the Vision. The two characters are simply not equal.
The fact that Ultron is literary, however, does not mean that he is necessarily serious (or only ever like that). I mentioned the character’s playfulness earlier, and indeed the best example is also the most distinctive of Ultron’s endless citations: “I had strings, but now I’m free/There are no strings on me.” This comes from a far less sacred text, Disney’s animated film Pinocchio (1940).
The line is, naturally, at the heart of Ultron’s complex character. In the rest of this article we shall attempt to trace it back to its real meaning, proposing that a proper understanding of the “I had strings” quip is equivalent to an understanding of the movie—and all of its intricate textual threads—as a whole.
Ultron first references the Pinocchio lyrics indirectly, in his opening monologue to the Avengers. This is the specific line (beautifully slurred by Spader): “I was asleep, dreaming. I was tangled in strings.”
Let’s compare this to a specific phrase uttered by Joss Whedon himself in an interview about the film, and let’s make a first note of how these overlap: “But then I didn’t actually want to make the film necessarily [“I was tangled in strings”]. I was ragged from the first one, and so I just turned off my brain [“I was asleep, dreaming”].”
We may strike this off as a coincidence, but then it’s hardly the only thing that Ultron and Whedon share. Ultron hates the Avengers passionately; the Pinocchio reference suggests that the anxiety behind this should be his fear of determinism, his wish not to be controlled (“I’m free, there are no strings on me”). Oddly, though, the character never mentions any of that when actually discussing his resentment. He lashes out at Ulysses Klaw for suggesting he may be “one of Stark’s puppets”, sure, but he seems more angry at the Avengers—and humans in general—not for the way(s) they control or controlled him, but for their limitations, their stagnancy and their fear of change.
“You want to save the world, but you don’t want it to change,” he tells them, in that first monologue. And again later, while fighting Captain America on top of a truck: “You know what’s in that cradle? The power to make real change. And that terrifies you.”
Why this emphasis, and what kind of “change” is he really talking about? It’s hard to tell—Ultron never goes to great lengths to describe the “better world” he is trying to build. But he never goes back to his anxiety of being controlled, either; he seldom lists “freedom” among the things he wants or cares about, for example, not from the Avengers or in general (the one and only time he mentions it is to say he has already attained it: “I’ve gone beyond the mission, I am free”).
More emphatically, his concern seems to be aesthetic. “I was meant to be new; I was meant to be beautiful,” he tells Natasha Romanoff. And once more in his final monologue: “Do you see the beauty of it, the inevitability?”
Ultron’s sensitivity to beauty is linked to his creative aspirations. In order to create his new body, he steals a load of vibranium, the fictional metal that went into Captain America’s shield, and hands it over to geneticist Helen Cho (Claudia Kim). “It’s beautiful,” she immediately says, as though recognising Ultron’s aesthetic intent. Then we get one of the few real glimpses into Ultron’s mysterious mind: it’s revealed that he scorns and resents the Avengers and humanity specifically for their creative limitations: “The most versatile substance on the planet… and they used it to make a frisbee.” This, we may hazard, is the type of thing Ultron is thinking of when he tells the heroes, in the very first line of his address: “Worthy? No, how could you be worthy?”
This sentiment has nothing to do with the character’s anxiety of being controlled—he doesn’t say something like, “a substance of such power, and they think they can hold it in their human fists.” Instead what happens on this occasion as in several others, is that Whedon allows his own thoughts to subconsciously slip into Ultron’s dialogue.
Ultron’s motive to resent the Avengers is actually Whedon’s. The writer-director never made a mystery of how exhausted and enervated he was by this sequel: “This one was much harder. It a little bit broke me.”
But it’s not just the size and scope of the project(s) that drained him, it was the fact that he was being creatively stunted. His artistic talents were not given space, they were not appropriately put to use. Whedon had been tied down to the Marvel project for years by that point, barely able to create anything of his own and acting more as a mediator between the narratives of the comics, the desires of the producers, and the internal congruence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:
Let me tell you how bad things got for me. I was like, ‘I am not doing anything like that, I’m not even going to think of a limerick.’ Every time I think, ‘Oh, I have time to create,’ I’m gonna be like, ‘OK, good.’ What’s wrong with the movie? … That’s how burnt I was.
What he’s describing is also at the heart of Ultron’s neurosis, and indeed the sequence in which we see the robot’s birth as an artificial intelligence is a short representation of Whedon’s work with Marvel. Ultron is seen researching all available data on the Avengers in his mission to serve them, then psychologically breaking down under the excess of “shit” he has to deal with. The scene is brief, but not inconsequential.
“It’s an enormous amount of work telling what is ultimately somebody else’s story,” Whedon goes on. The writer-director describes, throughout all of the interview, a breathless drive to break the shackles of this creative and commercial determinism, to emerge on the other end with his integrity or at least his sanity intact. If he were singing, his response upon getting out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe might very well be a little mad, a little delirious, a little euphoric all at the same time. It might very well go like this: “I had strings, but now I’m free/There are no strings on me.”
Ultron exceeds the intended limits of his character, moving away from the rails of the “shit/language” theme that dominates the rest of the movie, because Whedon hijacked the robot to exorcise his own demons and describe himself. It may be the most autobiographical of his characters to date, and the tremendous textual range of Ultron’s language is simply the author’s. Whedon may draw from a particular linguistic/cultural matrix when writing the lines of any given character; for instance he may use an idealistic and specifically American idiomatic register when writing Captain America’s dialogue. But when it comes to the film’s villain, it is the other way round: it’s Ultron who has permission to draw from the entire library of Whedon’s mind, mimicking not just every text that is available to the other Marvel characters but every one that the author is equipped with.
At the end of the interview, Whedon himself recognised a link between his artistic creation and the titular character: “This child may be insane, but it’s mine. It’s like Ultron. It may try to kill you all. But I love it.”
His last statement refers to the character rather than to the film. Once you understand not only the exhaustion that the director experienced but also the sapping away of his creative powers in favour of this (ahem) great and terrible city that he helped lift up in the air, you see that city for what it is: the Marvel Cinematic Universe itself. Bring the metaphor to its logical conclusion, and you will see Whedon’s drive in bringing it crashing down to the ground, and the bitterness, the desolation in Ultron’s words when first encountering Paul Bettany’s character: “My vision… they really did take everything from me.”
Read in this light, this is by a distance the most heartbreaking line in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and one of the most touching in the MCU films so far. This is Joss Whedon himself speaking, nor can it be anyone else, because the Avengers never really “take” anything from Ultron in the film other than claiming back their own cradle. As far as this writer can tell, it is the only way of reading the line that makes sense on every level.
Joss Whedon also puts his voice in Ultron’s dying words, and they are directly bound with the above line. After he has crashed to the ground from his jet, Wanda Maximoff approaches him. “Wanda,” he murmurs, “if you stay here, you’ll die.”
“I just did,” she replies. “Do you know how it felt? It felt like that.” With these words she rips out Ultron’s heart, completing the film’s autobiographical allegory.
That Maximoff should finish off Whedon’s character is particularly poignant as she is, in so many ways, the truest of his creations. This is also her limit, being yet another iteration of a figure the director can’t stop writing: the traumatised female genius, as already seen in Firefly‘s River Tam, Buffy the Vampire Slayer‘s Drusilla or Alien: Resurrection‘s Ellen Ripley.
Wanda Maximoff is the only character who competes with Ultron in terms of stage presence. Nobody steals the film quite like these two do. The love that Whedon placed into her is palpable, and expressed through Ultron’s strange, particular attachment (far more marked with her than with her twin brother, whom he actually kills).
But Wanda, unlike Ultron, is well integrated in the film’s dynamic. Like Natasha Romanoff, she is able to transcend the spoken word and find her own language by way of her magical hand-gestures. This may be the closest the film ever comes to finding a bridge between “shit” and “language”, as she mirrors a genre tension between science and magic and successfully “convinces” all of the other Avengers but Hawkeye. She also mediates the distance between Joss Whedon’s creativity and Marvel’s demands, and this may be what he meant when he said in his interview, “I feel like I did get to put myself into it.”
Or perhaps the fact that Wanda went over to Marvel is another way of saying that Whedon’s heart was ripped out. Remember: “My vision… they really did take everything from me.” Everything, including the Whedonite archetype that Wanda represents? Or everything but that? We may never know.
The real difficulty here is that there appear to be two active drives struggling for Whedon’s attention; the responsible one that wants to make a real film and find synthesis between shit and language, and also the subconsciously driven one, that wants to get out of the MCU and in the process destroy its own creation.
Ultron represents, if not all of Whedon, at least the subconsciously driven Whedon, and his revenge is really the author’s. The robot’s anarchic character refuses to take part in the “shit/language” dance and give it closure. Therefore Avengers: Age of Ultron ends up being limp, unable to find a sense of resolution. The final synthesis between the Hulk and Black Widow, along with all of its possible symbolic suggestions, is interrupted by the robot himself, who showers them with machine-gun fire and then flies away singing Whedon’s own repressed and increasingly irrational jubilation at spoiling the film and leaving the MCU: “I’ve got no strings, so I have fun, I’m not tied up to anyone.”
Whedon’s Age of Ultron ends up being a comparatively weak movie, not only by the standards of the MCU. Or at least a modest one, in which issues and themes are raised but never fully addressed. This is only a failing if you understand it to be undeliberate, or if you think that Whedon’s volition was ever that of making a good film; there was at least a part of him that wanted to burn the whole thing to the ground. “There is grace in their failings,” says the Vision at the end, and it applies to this film too. But that statement is part of a final monologue about chaos and order that never takes off, because the Vision has no grounds to anchor his own parable. Ultron is not tied up to him, any more than Whedon is, or at least not anymore.
At their lowest point as a team, the Captain of the Avengers mumbles a little reference: “Earth’s mightiest heroes. He pulled us apart like cotton candy.”
Captain Rogers may be overstating it, as Whedon was never able to take down the MCU. That’s far too great a task even for his vibranium pen.
This film, at least, this one film that was so highly anticipated—yes, he pulled it apart, deliberately and gloriously before walking away. He raised it from the ground like Ultron did with the city of Segovia, and then let it fall away from him. That, if not everything, is worth watching in the film, and has true dramatic power: Ultron’s city coming down, and Whedon’s revenge.