Ultron’s Motivation

Today I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron. I enjoyed it a lot, and my eyes were glued to the screen throughout most of the film. The action scenes were amazing, there were all kinds of surprises, and a few shocking moments that made me gasp.

That’s not to say the film was without flaws. I was analyzing the story structure as I was watching it, noticing a few issues here and there. Most of them I was able to shrug off; they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I kept my suspenders of disbelief on snugly the entire time. But there was one issue that stood out and bugged me enough to want to analyze it in detail.

Spoilers ahead, consider yourself warned.

Early in the film, Tony Stark semi-accidentally creates a super-advanced artificial intelligence that, naturally, goes insane. While Ultron spends a lot of the movie inhabiting various robotic bodies, he also exists in the internet and has access to all the world’s accumulated knowledge. Stark was trying to design him to protect the world, but like every other insane AI before him, Ultron decides that isn’t enough. In order to protect the world, he decides the world must evolve, and he starts planning to wipe out humanity so that only the strongest and those who are able to adapt will survive in the new world. He even equates himself to Noah at one point, implying that he’s destined to eliminate the unworthy to make room for a new world.

This is a common trope, but it’s one that I don’t think quite works. This isn’t just a question of it being done too many times. It’s a question of whether it really makes sense to begin with.

This is more or less the same problem I discussed awhile back with alien invasion movies. The motivation behind the conflict isn’t explored in enough detail, and the audience simply accepts it. I think part of this is because the “insane genocidal AI” is such a common trope that people assume, by default, that any AI given a sufficient amount of power will turn evil. I suppose it’s related to how “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But without sufficient development, it makes me feel like the main villain is a two-dimensional character.

Ultron was an entertaining villain. He was quirky. He got off some good one-liners. He was dangerous and powerful. But he shifted into evil-mode within the first sixty seconds of his arrival on the screen, which is the part I had a problem with.

I think the film might have worked better for me if Ultron had at least seemed to struggle with his morality for awhile. If he’d shown some kind of depth and the ability to consider that maybe he was wrong. Instead, I felt like he was evil just because he was evil, and that was all there was to it.

This didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. There was plenty of depth and moral ambiguity from the other characters, particularly Tony Stark himself. But I didn’t feel like Ultron got the development he could have had.

In some ways, it makes sense for writers to draw on the elements of existing tropes in order to build characters that the audience can more easily relate to. I could analyze every character of the Avengers and show how they are built based on classic tropes. But most of them show a lot more depth and complexity. I just wish Ultron had as well.

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