And On This Rock: Religion in the Age of Ultron [SPOILERS]

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If someone had told me that one of the major settings for Age of Ultron was in a church, I would have laughed. Unless Thor and the rest of the Asgardians are being referenced, religion hasn’t really played a role in the MCU. Not even in the first Captain America movie – when it would have been tolerated because we were, you know, dealing with World War II. So why did I walk out of Age of Ultron feeling like I had just been preached at?

Maybe it has to do with that church. The church in Sokovia is one of the critical locations in the film. It’s where Pietro and Wanda meet Ultron for the first time; where Ultron chooses to house the device that is supposed to plummet the skyward piece of Sokovia into the earth. This church is also where Ultron chooses to beat up Thor. Or rather, where Whedon chooses for Ultron to beat up Thor. While watching that segment, I felt like there was supposed to be some “subtle” statement being made here, as a man-made machine pummeled a god into the “house of god,” but for the life of me, I don’t know what it was. And honestly, that’s how I felt about a lot of the religious references that Whedon shoved into this movie. It felt like he was trying to make some sort of statement, but just gave up halfway through and decided it didn’t matter.

If it had mattered, Whedon would have given us some contextualization about Ultron’s obsession with Biblical quotes. If Ultron’s mind is supposed to mimic that of Tony’s to some degree, where did the religious part come from? Perhaps it could have been when Tony referred to peace in our time.” Assuming he was talking about the speech Neville Chamberlain gave in 1938 – most notable because less than a year after that speech, WWII began – the line is actually “peace for our time,” but it is often misquoted to resemble the a hymn from the Common Book of Prayer “Give peace in our time, O Lord.” If Ultron misunderstood Tony to be referencing this, that makes some sense – but why would he then say “peace in our time” back to Tony before attacking him, in mockery of Chamberlain’s own blunder?

Also, you mean to tell me that an AI that’s so intelligent it can understand the moral ambiguity of the Avengers existence, looked through all of the millions of databases in the world to amass a wealth of knowledge and chose Christianity as something it could quote? Whedon does know how many horrendous things have historically been done in the name of just that particular religion alone, right? Maybe Ultron was quoting it ironically.

As a writer, I get it. Ultron needs to sound threatening and unhinged, yet also like he’s got some grand vision for this future he’s planning. But bringing religion into a story where one of the running plot threads is basically Frankenstein? Whedon opened the “Religion vs. Science” can of worms in a movie where the writing lacked the follow-through to address it.

Think about this: When Tony and Bruce try to create their first AI – Ultron – it turns out as a failure and becomes something monstrous. On an ambiguous villain scale from 1-10, Ultron is solidly on the “destroy the world” end of the spectrum– a 10– so nothing about him is really redeeming. Yet Ultron is supposed to be the ultimate good, the best for humanity, but he cannot attain this goal.

On the other hand, when Tony and Bruce try again, Vision is only successfully created with the help of a god, giving him this “divine spark” of life. Vision aligns himself with the Avengers and becomes their all, thereby allowing us to quantify Tony and Bruce’s experiment as a success. Vision not only defeats Ultron, he is so worthy that he can lift Thor’s hammer. This gives Vision a validity that not even the scientists who created him have.

So what is Whedon saying here?

That without divine intervention, any life that’s created through purely science alone is unnatural and should be destroyed?

You see what I mean about that can of worms?

So let’s go back to that church.

That church in Sokovia is the spot for Tony’s final showdown with Ultron – where Ultron has come to literally meet his maker – and where Vision first begins to dismantle Ultron.

It serves as a backdrop for so many important moments, and yet, oddly, not for Ultron’s death. If you’re going to go all the way with the religious references, Whedon, why not stick an homage to the pieta in there while you’re at it?

For me, this all boils down to the writing.

Making religious references and using them to enhance your plot is one thing – but making your villain into a walking Biblical quote generator feels predictable and lazy. Ultron was supposed to be this incredibly threatening villain that should have shaken us to the core.

Instead he felt more like the guy that once stood in the free speech zone of my liberal college campus and shouted about his beliefs while everyone put their earbuds in and ignored him.

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About Author

Emily Willis is the writer of Grave Impressions, If The Shoe Fits, and Cassius. She’s been traveling the USA for three years with her fiancée, Ann, attending numerous comic and anime conventions and selling their work. You can find her work at http://www.arbitrarymuse.com or talk to her on twitter at @gicomic

3 Comments

  1. I’m so glad I wasn’t the only one who picked up on this weirdness! I mentioned it to my husband after we saw it and were compiling a list of complaints and he looked at me like I was crazy.
    I agree that it’s an(other) underdeveloped theme in the movie that could have maybe worked if it’d been given more attention (see also: fertility), but didn’t add anything as written.

    • Another underdeveloped theme indeed. Emily, I like the use of quotations around the word “subtle” up there. There were so many themes that were beaten into our heads with James Spader’s quotes and Hulk’s fists, and that weird romance, but that’s the most we got out of all of them. None of them were properly explored and as a result, we got puzzling, awkward moments, one of which (read: sterilization) has people all up in arms. Perhaps some of these issues would have been more readily accepted if they’d been written better, but instead we got lazy reliance on tropes. Worse, lazy reliance on Joss-specific tropes.

  2. Daniel Schulz on

    Hello! I enjoyed your post, but I disagree:

    1) Gratuitous knock against Christianity with the weird claim that because Christianity has been used to justify terrible crimes it shouldn’t be referenced in art. Or something.

    2) Tony is not a Christian, but he is an educated Westerner, which is why his creation would go first to the Western literary and philosophical traditions for language and metaphysical concepts. If Ultron had been created by an Egyptian physicist then presumably there would be more Islamic references in his philosophic musings.

    3) As to Vision being partly summoned by Thor – I *think* that might be reference to the Incarnation, so I guess I agree with you here – although when I had that thought it seemed to me a bit of a stretch.

    4) Whedon is known to be an atheist, although he was once described as an angry atheist – that is, he believes God does not exist, and he is angry with Him for not existing (caveat – I think Whedon takes issue with this characterization, but I think it jives with his artistic output thus far). I think the biblical references that so chafe the author are just Whedon working out on the page his complicated feelings about faith and the lack thereof (that line of Ultron’s admiring the central physical location of the church, “The symmetry of it” sound s to me like a classic lapsed person of faith, who does not believe any more but misses the music and the architecture and the symbolic meaningfulness). The best line in the movie was I think Whedon expressing how to be an atheist but not live in despair of meaninglessness. Ultron: “They are doomed.” Vision: “Yes, but a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”