Fr. Robert Baron has written an insightful post about how Joss Whedon’s second installment of the Avengers franchise contains themes from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Without disagreeing with his analysis, I do think there are some scenes in the movie that contain material useful for demonstrating Catholic teaching, even if these scenes are best approached to be examples of what not to do.
The movie opens with the superhero team trying to recover Loki’s scepter but during this attack Iron Man/Tony Stark sees his greatest fear of living through the destruction of the earth and the Avengers. Out of this fear, he develops an A.I. program, named Ultron, meant to protect the earth and also the superheroes but Ultron sees humans as the greatest threat to peace so he seeks to eliminate them. Tony Stark’s attempt to control his fate results in ushering in what he seeks to avoid like Oedipus Rex. He is the exact embodiment of someone who does not have love but acts out of fear, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love” (1 John 4:18). This is confirmed by Captain America (Chris Evans) who says that threats must be confronted together and not by developing a secret A.I. in isolation from others.
Later, Ultron meets up with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olson) and Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) in an abandoned church. Ultron says, “They put the [church] in the middle of the city, so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.” With his new allies he obtains the metal vibranium on which he says he will build his church. Some may not know what to make of all the God talk in the movie or may interpret it to make an anti-religious statement. It is in line with Whedon’s viewpoint where the order of reality we gain from religion masks the chaotic realities we choose to ignore according to Nietzsche. Ultron can stand for Nietzsche’s/Whedon’s criticism that religion actually brings destruction to the world through its desire to establish absolute order by setting up a God who Whedon views as a sky bully (this link I think provides the best background to Whedon’s atheism). However, Whedon’s mischaracterization of God is actually true of other biblical persons like Nimrod, Sennacherib, and Nebuchadnezzar. Ultron’s pride has its origin in Tony Stark and both characters make decisions as if they are God. This is a prime definition of sin but Whedon doesn’t see that acting as God the ultimate judge—as Adam and Eve did in the garden—is what brings chaos, disorder, and a misperception of God. Thus, Ultron best serves as an example of one who thinks they can act by divine right which brings death.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson) reveals her desire to be a mother but she was sterilized so she could work more efficiently. Several commentators have lamented this revelation of Johansson’s character and it only reveals the lack of dignity we accord to the vocation of motherhood. In this scene, Natasha realizes that efficiency for work ends up hindering her to achieve fulfillment and such a message is greatly needed in our American culture that seeks more efficiency at costly prices that even affect our dignity as persons.
The most problematic character of the whole movie is Vision (Paul Bettany). He is composed of human and android elements that mimic Christ’s divine and human natures. When trying to name himself, he calls himself “I am” alluding to the divine name in the burning bush and Jesus’s use of it in the Gospel. However, Vision is not truly the savior of the film though he has an important role and is created by good and evil forces represented by Stark and Ultron respectively. This new superhero claims to be on the side of life but admits chaos’s necessary existence in the world when he says, “Humans are odd. They think order and chaos are somehow opposites.” What is being communicated is that there can be no life without death, no order without chaos. Although Ultron is an anti-savior by seeking the destruction of the human race to bring peace, Vision is also an anti-savior by affirming that the two realities of order and chaos must exist together just like Nietzsche’s atheistic outlook. While the movie does not have a Christ-like character, Vision just provide a key role in uniting the Avengers to work together to save the earth instead of acting individually within a group.
The movie concludes showing how Stark moves beyond his fear—although not completely—to put his faith in the team instead of himself. Earlier in the movie he was hopeless about protecting the earth from future threats and sought to solve the problem alone. Ultron also sees a problem with humanity and tries to solve it on his own. His solution is to inculcate fear in people as when he says, “The world would’ve looked to the sky and seen hope, seen mercy. Instead, they’ll look up in horror.” When Ultron asks how Iron Man can hope to stop him, the superhero responds, “Like the old man (Captain America) said, together.” Here we see at the climax of the movie the different effects of fear and hope. Fear moves one to act without others for control while hope is exercised in community for freedom. It is hope that gives life and fear—out of which often try to control our future—which brings death.