Age of Ultron: God in Man's Image
Writer-director Joss Whedon is a self-described humanistic atheist, meaning he disbelieves in the concept of God or gods and sees humanity and its good as life’s ultimate purpose and meaning. Humanists, not people of faith, are the “true believers,” Joss asserts, because being one “means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary.” Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he regularly deals with themes of God and religious faith in his projects, wrestling with in a way that those who assume religion’s validity often do not. He has the intellectual freedom to tinker with religious terms and ideas because he has no real allegiance to them. The end result is a commentary that sometimes stoops to mockery but can also, in turn, provide some useful insights, particularly into common humanist/atheist perceptions of deities.
Whedon’s most recent film catalogue entry is, of course, AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (A:AoU), the latest blockbuster addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe Whedon helped solidify with his 2012 film THE AVENGERS. In this effort Whedon introduces two characters, one villainous, one heroic, that seem to almost perfectly encapsulate a common atheistic view of God the Father and God the Son.
Fair warning, major spoilers abound from this point on.
Way back in 2009 Whedon was awarded the Outstanding Lifetime Achievement Award in Cultural Humanism by Harvard’s Humanist Chaplaincy. During his acceptance speech and ensuing Q&A session, Whedon touched on a litany of topics including the creation of gods by man as a kind of societal coping mechanism for problems such as the existence of evil, the need for morality, and purposelessness, among others. While the video made for a fairly engrossing experience, it was severely outmatched in entertainment value by seeing Whedon bring those same themes to life in A:AoU.
Ultron is the film’s villain, but he’s a villain of man’s own making (specifically Tony and Bruce’s). Brought into existence for the sake of achieving “peace in our time,” Ultron goes rogue quickly, recasting himself as man’s judge as opposed to man’s protector. He begins his violent path to peace with an assault on Tony’s AI butler JARVIS and ends it with an artificial meteor plummeting towards an extinction event. In between these events Ultron paints himself as a god, specifically one in the tone of an Old Testament rage monster.
“Whenever the universe settles,” he tells a couple of temporary allegiants, “God throws a stone at it.” Translation, the world needs a reset and he, being god, will provide it in the form of the aforementioned extinction event. Genocide, global floods, and promises of swift and violent judgments are things of which Ultron is seemingly a fan. He is set on a mission of “peace” and is not at all fazed by the idea of collateral damage in the form of humanity. He is the antithesis of Joss Whedon’s humanistic philosophy, he is the anti-humanist.
Although Ultron is shown to be unquestionably evil, he is not wicked in the maniacal, mustache-twirling sense of the word. He’s the villain, not because he opposes good, but because his path to achieving it is so radically destructive. Unlike Loki in the first Avengers film who at times questions his own path when faced with its wickedness, Ultron never wavers in his villainy because he doesn’t think himself the antagonist. He’s the personification of a deity that Whedon calls “the sky bully,” so set on his version of global good that he is unable or unwilling to see the consequences it will have on his vassals.
In many ways Ultron embodies the merciless, wrath-filled, anti-human deity that many see when they attempt an interaction with the Old Testament. Here is a God who destroys mankind with a flood, who orders His people to wipe-out entire civilizations, and is quick to speak words of violent retribution against any who don’t please Him. Though Ultron is shown in the film to be the “son” of Tony Stark, it seems he was also imbued with all the perceived foils of the Old Testament God. And perhaps this is intentional since humanism sees the concept of god as a man-made idea that became philosophically sentient and turned from man’s servant to his oppressor. Some of Whedon’s comments about religion in his acceptance speech hint at a view of religion as a nearly all-powerful oppressor of dissenting views, so perhaps there is something more than subtle irony behind Ultron’s claim that “upon this (extinction-event inciting meteor) I will build my church.”
Conversely, the Vision, who makes a dramatic appearance late in the film’s third act, seems to embody much of what humanists claim to admire about Jesus Christ and even has a kind of twisted father-son relationship with Ultron (God the Father) to boot. The Vision was meant to be Ultron’s final incarnation, a near indestructible android that blurs the lines between human and machine. Instead, he becomes the symbol of humanity’s hope in the face of a destruction-bent deity. While Ultron is creation of humanity’s arrogance, the Vision is born from a marriage between a god’s aspirations and mankind’s desperation (with a healthy dose of lightning.)
Here is the ultimate humanist, the one who sees no greater good than man, the one willing to take on his evil, raging father to save an unworthy human race. In many ways The Vision is a humanist view of Jesus recast as an android. He is humble, unassuming, and undoubtedly worthy. He even assumes the title God introduced to Moses and Jesus later claimed in His ministry. “I am….I am,” the Vision answered when asked his identity. And he leaves it at that.
Following the climactic showdown on Ultron’s artificial meteor, the father and son share a quiet moment together before the Vision ends the villain’s threat once and for all. Humanity will destroy itself and the world, Ultron warns. The Vision doesn’t argue, he merely asserts the privilege it is to serve them and live among them. This is the ultimate humanistic explanation of deities. That they exist to serve man and, were they actually conscious beings, would revel in that privilege because, what greater good is there than to serve humanity?
While some will no doubt have a major meltdown over Joss Whedon’s “blasphemy” and mischaracterization of the God of the Bible, it would seem a better response is to appreciate the honesty he demonstrates and also point out that neither God the Father nor God the Son are as easily pigeonholed as Whedon and other humanists might believe. The God of Judgment in the Old Testament is not so easily separated from Jesus’ mission of mercy found in the New. Neither can Jesus’ life be boiled down to one in service of mankind since He himself only ever spoke of His service of the Father. In short, neither God the Father nor God the Son can be seen as creations of humanity because they rebel against man’s wishes at every turn. Not to destroy man as does Ultron or to serve man as does the Vision, but rather show man the better way that man could never see or reach without them.