One might expect something like The Avengers: Age of Ultron to be utterly bereft of anything resembling critical thought, and indeed the structure of a blockbuster of its kind precludes any sustained reflection on anything substantive. Beyond something like the value of unique individuals working together towards a common end, both installments of the Avengers are almost uniquely devoid of meaningful messaging or social commentary, at least in the context of such comic book film installments as The Dark Knight or Captain America: The Winter Soldier. This is a consequence of the nature of the commodity form on the work of art itself, and is on display with Age of Ultron most poignantly with Joss Whedon’s battle with its producers to retain the "farmhouse sequence" in the film.
Of course there is something substantive developed with the characters in both films, particularly building off of the other Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) installments. In particular, the willingness of Black Widow and Hawkeye to die for one another as friends rather than lovers is a nice Whedon-esque touch added to the plot. And yet, beyond character development and excellent writing (exhibiting a superb economy of dialogue within remarkable creative constraints), there is very little there there in the new installment of the Avengers. Nonetheless, there are a couple of remarkable science fictional elements that can be extracted from the mess of frenetic action sequences and the appalling lack of screen time for Thor (I admit it, I love every moment Chris Hemsworth plays Thor, particularly in his delivery of Asgardian ways of speaking…this is, assuredly, a matter of “likes” and not objective analysis on my part).
The sf elements in question concern the nature of Ultron as an example of singularity consciousness and the characterization of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner as “mad scientists.” With each of these elements, a sliver of The Avengers: Age of Ultron is elevated beyond its rather one-dimensional nature into something more worthy of the title of speculative fiction. Though the first element—Ultron as an example of the singularity seeking to displace humanity—is not terribly original, the means of addressing this problem by embracing the mad scientist label is comparatively rare in American sf, which generally denigrates science as “corrupting nature” or some variation thereof.
Concerning the first element, Ultron spends only a few moments searching the internet for clues as to who he is. Within the programming parameters given to him, he determines that to save humanity and carry out the Avengers’ project, he must in fact destroy human society and displace them with an evolutionary leap into a higher form of being (a defensible conclusion if all one has to go off of is the internet). One can see here within this rather common machine uprising mythos—one which continually recurs in our society, leading one to question what it is that makes this resonate with ordinary people so much—an embedded critique of superheroes in general. Just what is it that they are saving if not the status quo, a situation brimming with unspeakable horrors for millions of oppressed, exploited, and dominated people?
Ultron as an example of singularity consciousness is on full display here. Like other versions of this sf trope, Ultron represents a disembodied consciousness constructed by human computer technology which supersedes the "confines" of the human mind, embodied as it is in a singular, mortal individual. Ultron is the kind of being who can download his consciousness into many bodies, access information without the weakness of human aging or memory loss, and carry out computational feats that dwarf the capacities of contemporary computers. In this sense, Ultron is a rather direct example of a singularity consciousness, a being of strong artificial intelligence who overcomes the limitations of their human creators.
Thus, carrying out the Avengers’ goals in a rather exact manner, Ultron determines that a new form of consciousness must displace human civilization in the manner of a dialectical movement (in short, by "dialectical movement" I mean the process in which a being, entity, or concept is torn in two by its internal contradictions and then resolved by a third point into something new, as in the philosopher Alain Badiou's interpretation of the dialectic). From human minds came the ethics of justice as well as the means to create a perfect instrument of justice, which, once created, necessarily must displace the human minds from which it was spawned.
This rather elegant formulation is implicit in the ideology of the singularity professed by many thousands of people who treat it as a matter of inevitability. Indeed, the singularity is a rare example of a science fictional concept having legs first outside of fiction and only later imported into fictional spaces. That Whedon worked it into the story line is no surprise given the character’s history in Marvel Comics. But the means of addressing Ultron’s project is interesting for a whole other reason.
Generally speaking, Anglo-American sf decries the “dark side of science.” Replete with mad scientists, mutations, and science gone awry, the repetition of this concept is not far off from its own parody in the Manhattan Projects comics, whose tagline “Science. Bad.” really says it all. This is most explicit in the 1950s atomic horror films, but it carries on with the fear of robot uprisings that seems to haunt the genre. One finds a sharp contrast, for instance, in much Japanese sf which embraces the ontological fluidity between the biological and the mechanical to a degree unseen in Anglo-American work. Works such as Ghost in the Shell and Neon Genesis Evangelion are in many ways precluded from the field of Anglo-American sf, at least generally speaking (there are always outliers).
Thus, when Tony Stark responds to Bruce Banner’s fears by insisting that they both embrace their role as mad scientists rather than carry out the expected “we’ve learned our lesson not to meddle with nature” performance, it produces a major part of the solution to the problem posed by Ultron. In this process, the Vision is created, a kind of anti-Ultron. The Vision’s status as an android furthers the dialectical movement of Ultron, sublimating his oppositional nature and bringing into existence a new kind of being which harmonizes these biological and mechanical forms of identity.
By eschewing the traditional response to a mad science project gone awry and embracing science as the only way forward, Stark and Banner carry out an authentic and unformulaic act within the rubric of a more conventional film. Indeed, from my perspective, it was the only moment in the film in which I was genuinely excited about the narrative itself (though fight sequences and character development always keep me coming back to MCU cinema).
This standpoint is something that I find compelling about a truly Marxist response to ecological crises. Many on the left tend to embrace a perspective that sees science as inherently caught in the world of domination and exploitation, rather than as a way of relating to the world that can lead to multiple outcomes. Science, in this perspective, is reified and treated as an accomplished fact which can be evaluated rather than as a terrain of struggle. As someone who comes from a philosophical tradition that highlights feminist and other struggles against “bad science,” I find these standpoints to be self-defeating. After all, what is their solution to the ecological crisis? Localism? They act as if we don’t have the historical example par excellence of widespread localism in the form of European feudalism, whose class struggles birthed the capitalist order itself (and indeed it had its share of major ecological problems).
Thus, in the midst of the debates over Natasha and Banner’s relationship, whether or not it was wise to kill that character, or whether we should be making these movies at all, there is something genuinely interesting within The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Nonetheless, if one wants to talk about AI, the singularity, androids, and so on then Ex Machina is really the movie to see in theaters at the moment.