Avengers: Age of Ultron is less a stand-alone work than a continuation—a fact well-known to Marvel’s legion of fans, whose anticipation for the film is predicated on the various Marvel Cinematic Universe films that have preceded, and in some cases directly set up, its gargantuan adventure. The conclusion to what Marvel is dubbing its cinematic “Phase Two” (which includes the post-Avengers sequels to its original hits, as well as Guardians of the Galaxy), Ultron is a blockbuster designed to keep the superhero franchise moving forward. Yet if it’s a movie that propels the studio’s serialized narrative into its next phase, it’s also a continuation of something else: Marvel’s concurrent, politicized portrait of 21st century war and peace.
A political angle is acutely felt throughout Ultron, which further dives into the very issues of democracy vs. autocracy, and security vs. warmongering, that have been at the core of not only both Avengers films, but also the Iron Man and Captain America series. In Joss Whedon’s sequel, those topics come to the fore courtesy of Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), who in the aftermath of the first film’s planet-imperiling alien invasion, becomes taken with the notion that he can harness one of the famed Infinity Stones (i.e. mythic objects of power) to create true Artificial Intelligence, which he can then use to create a virtual, defensive “shield” around the planet. It’s a project that, like Stark’s Iron Man armor and Iron Legion autobots, is driven by the idea that stability and safety can be achieved through the employment of militaristic technology and hardware—so long as it’s spearheaded by the right people.
Apparently unaware of where such good intentions often lead, Stark initiates his endeavor without first consulting his fellow Avengers (save for Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner, who expresses grave reservations). The result is the birth of Ultron (James Spader), a robot who quickly deduces that the surest way to accomplish peace on Earth is to exterminate the Avengers—and then the human race itself. For that reason, Ultron plays out like a worst-case scenario for Stark’s belief in the benefits of using militaristic means to achieve global-tranquility ends. Except, of course, that the Avengers’s potential savior comes courtesy of Iron Man himself, as well as the Vision (Paul Bettany), a robo-child of Ultron blessed with the sentience of Stark’s computer program, JARVIS.
It’s not surprising that Ultron is of two minds about the positive applications of techno-artillery, since a similar schism runs throughout the Iron Man trilogy.
Stark’s Iron Man origin story is one in which he recognizes the folly of his corporate arms-manufacturing ways—given that his weapons are in the hands of the very enemies who take him captive in Afghanistan—and then develops his own one-man armament suit to carry out justice on a domestic and international scale. He’s a critic of the military-industrial complex (of which he’s a chief component) and its increasing sway over American diplomacy, which gives him a distinctly left-leaning political orientation that’s further mirrored by Iron Man 3’s portrait of Middle East terrorists (i.e. Ben Kingsley’s Mandarin) as mere phony, media-filtered puppets of the world’s real villains: American capitalists! And yet, all three Iron Man films also celebrate a tough-talking, off-the-cuff, go-it-alone rebel outfitted with more weaponry than your average tank, which skews the series in a distinctly opposite, right-inclined direction.
The same also holds true for Mr. Red, White, and Blue himself, Captain America, especially with regards to his sophomore solo outing, 2014’s The Winter Soldier. Directed by the Russo Brothers, that sequel channels the spirit of paranoia-drenched 1970s thrillers—most overtly, 1975’s Three Days of the Condor—for a story in which Cap (Chris Evans) learns that the covert government agency he’s been working for, S.H.I.E.L.D., is secretly developing a trio of gigantic helicarriers that will work with spy satellites to preemptively take out targets. In other words, what he discovers is a clandestine super-drone project, which is depicted as evil in and of itself, even before it’s revealed that S.H.I.E.L.D. (the supposed government good guys) are actually controlled by Hydra (the proto-Nazi bad guys).
“[Anthony] and I just looked at the issues that were causing anxiety for us, because we read a lot and are politically inclined. And a lot of that stuff had to do with civil liberties issues, drone strikes, the president's kill list, preemptive technology,” said Winter Soldier co-director Joe Russo.
“The question is, where do you stop?” he continued. “If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there’s 1,000? What if we find out there’s 10,000? What if it’s a million? At what point do you stop?”
Consequently, Cap is forced to confront an American military in thrall to anti-democratic, preemptive strike-loving villains—which he successfully combats thanks to the superhuman powers he received (via Nazi-esque “Super Soldier” scientific experimentation) from that very same military.
Trading in topics that relate to real-world debates about the nuclear bomb, to American intervention in the Middle East, and to the ongoing global War on Terror, the Marvel movies, and Ultron in particular, come across as having been designed to play well on both sides of the political aisle.
Stark’s cocky lone-wolf attitude toward creating Ultron, which involves disregarding his comrades’ opinions and using dangerous technology as he sees fit, is the kind of cowboy-badass heroism that seems targeted at red state audiences. Meanwhile, the fact that Ultron ultimately argues that crises are best resolved by altruistic people (albeit superpeople) working together rather than via shock-and-awe armaments, is more apt to please blue state viewers. As in the rest of the studio’s output—including Guardians of the Galaxy, which champions teamwork and togetherness at the same time that it celebrates DIY roguish heroism—Marvel’s latest strikes a careful balance between delivering anti-authoritarian, anti-military political messages, and lionizing independent badasses who use their own militaristic (or paranormal) might to get the job done in the best way they see fit.
Which isn’t to argue that Ultron and its predecessors are fundamentally hypocritical. Instead, like The Dark Knight’s two-sided opinion that Batman’s vigilantism is both the cure for—and the factor that causes an escalation in—crime, Marvel’s movies straddle politicized lines because, no matter their brightly colored comic book origins, they strive to create worlds steeped in moral greys. They’re conflicted at heart because the issues they aim to tackle, from the limits of democracy and the dangers of totalitarianism to the practical pluses and minuses of remote-controlled warfare, often offer no easy answers. And if courting both liberals and conservatives also helps their films appeal to the widest possible moviegoing audience, well, you can’t fault a studio for being populist as well.
“This is a very global film,” Whedon said of Ultron. “We wanted the world perspective on The Avengers. They’re being The Avengers and that’s a global thing and it doesn’t make everybody love them, so we wanted to see both sides of that.”