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The Age of Ultron

1 May 2015
James Spader Ultron and Iron Man: The Early Years
An avenging teenager in Tuff Turf
First Cylon
Zoe Graystone, the First Cylon
Whether you know it or not, we've been in the Age of Ultron for several decades now. The idea of computers taking over the world, once frightening enough all by itself, has evolved into the much more dangerous idea of an artificial intelligence technology (AI) hosted in a weaponized robot chassis - the Terminator of the James Cameron films and before that, the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica. We fans of all things Marvel have all been wondering whether Joss Whedon could follow up the massive success of The Avengers with a sequel deserving of similar success. If you became a Marvel fan because of the quality of their characters, both good and bad, you also wondered whether Ultron could offer anything more for the fast-tiring psycho robot/AI subgenre.

I went into the movie skeptical whether Ultron could be new and interesting enough to make this movie as entertaining as its predecessor. Tom Hiddleston as Loki entertained us well enough in The Avengers to make us almost root for a guy who would make Hitler look like a softie. Could Ultron attain that lofty pinnacle of comic book badguyness? The answer is no, he could not, but James Spader did turn out to be a fairly inspired choice to play the new maniac. He did not have to dig deep to find the freaks in his characters from Blacklist, or for that matter Boston Legal, and use them to good effect as Ultron. I doubted that the mere sound of his voice would be enough to energize Ultron, and clearly the movie's makers agreed, because they used modern motion tech to make the robot move and feel like Spader himself moving naturally, often lurching around as if drunk or stoned with his signature tilt of the head. It made me think back to his wildest characters-perhaps the werewolf who fought Jack Nicholson in Wolf? It's hard to say because Spader earns his pay and pulls from all of them.

Spader may have made as much of the character as could be made, but in the end the treasure of this movie, like the first one, was the magical mix of the main characters, the Avengers and their coterie of followers-on. They make this movie special. Since the mix of characters in the Avengers will change quite a bit in the next two Avengers: Infinity movies, whether this A-list quality of scriptwriting and character interaction can be maintained is anyone's guess. For now, Marvel has another well-deserved massive hit on their hands.

We can't talk about this movie without discussing where it fits into the plans for the future Marvel Universe, but first let's look more closely at Ultron. How does this new psycho robot, along with its robot slaves, compare to its most popular predecessors, the Terminators and the Cylons? After a recent re-viewing of the Syfy channel's Battlestar Galactica prequel, Caprica, I realized that the answer lies in the age-old question of method actors everywhere: what is the motivation? Ultron has very little, while the Cylons had an amusing genesis that would make anyone go "ah-haaaaa!" In a moment let's back up and talk about the back story of Battlestar Galactica, which provides some interesting insights into what makes a good robot go bonkers. The Terminators, who were nothing but killer robots, had a limited mission that does not interest indefinitely, but the Cylons are a different matter.

Ultron's genesis, like too many comic book origin stories, leaves much to be desired. We get no sense of why it is "bad". First it reveals a mission to "keep the peace" and kill the Avengers; before long the mission has morphed with the logic that there is no difference between killing the Avengers and killing all of humanity. Huh? Where does this come from? It is no spoiler to say that this part of the story is weak to the point of speciousness, but this is a good time to reiterate: it's not about the bad guy, it's about the good guys. In Avengers 2 the bad guy is nothing but an excuse to get the gang together again. It's a pretty good excuse.

By contrast, Syfy's short-lived show Caprica seeks to provide a valuable missing link, the answer to the question of why the Cylons go crazy and try to wipe out all humanity. The answer lies in the AI: who is it patterned after? That source provides the motivation. In Ultron we have no real motivation: Tony Stark examines a mysterious (digital) bottle and a genie pops out, malevolent without coherent cause.

But in Caprica, we have weaponized battle robots controlled by an AI based on-a 14-year-old girl, an adolescent genius and terrorist to boot. Anyone who has raised a teenage girl can understand how such a girl, given the powers of a nearly invulnerable robotic weapon, might be the downfall of humanity. We see it every day, and I do not mean this ironically. It was a stroke of genius to write the Cylons as confused, angry teenaged girls. Ultron was not created with such ingenuity, but in Avengers 2 it simply does not matter. The magic we were looking for is there again, probably for the last time. Enjoy it! And now for this column's Easter Egg -

The next phase of the Marvel Universe is leading into relatively unfamiliar territory. By now most of the major characters of MU have been introduced, with a few noteworthy exceptions still missing such as Prince Namor (the Sub-Mariner) and the Inhumans. MU fans know that some confusion has been caused by the fact that, before Marvel began producing films for itself, it licensed its most popular characters to other studios - Spider-Man, X-Men, and Fantastic Four. Those studios keep their rights as long as they use them. In the comics these characters all intermingle freely but in the movies, because of this licensing, no such luck. This is slowly changing; contractual changes have made it possible for Spider-Man to appear in upcoming Avengers movies, and (rumor has it), the FF and XM may end up working together soon. This is a key development, because the next phase of MU movies will focus on Civil War.

In the comics, the Civil War was after my time. It's a post-9/11 story line with a gripping premise: super-powered people with secret identities are a menace to society. Expect a comparable story line in the upcoming Batman vs. Superman movie from DC. In Civil War, Congress passes a law requiring super-heroes to publicly reveal their alter-egos. Some agree and some do not. Within MU a schism occurs as the costumed vigilantes come down on one side or another-with Tony Stark/Iron Man for forced revelation, or with Steve Rogers/Captain America for freedom over despotism. We see Peter Parker's life ruined when he reveals his Spider-Man identity. The conflict between the two groups, which boils over into open warfare, clearly reflects the split feelings within the American population about freedom and security, so it was an inspired story line. We will see it first in Captain America 3: Civil War, starring Robert Downey Jr (RDJ) as Iron Man versus Chris Evans as Captain America. It will carry over into the next two Avenger movies, currently referred to only as "Infinity". RDJ has confirmed that while he will continue with CA3 and Av3/4, he will not star in any more Iron Man movies. Iron Man may well continue, but Tony Stark could turn those honors over to another man, eliminating the need to replace RDJ. But for now, just go to Age of Ultron, and enjoy.

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