As a rule, summer blockbuster movies aren’t known for their thought-provoking subject matter. They certainly aren’t in the habit of weaving references to God and the Bible into their CGI-enhanced storylines. Hence when things like that happen in a big budget film, it grabs our attention. After all, we don’t usually go to the theatre expecting to munch on some theology along with our popcorn.

Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that kind of rare cinematic hybrid. Sure, it’s a superhero movie, replete with all the expensive visuals and eye-popping action that come with the turf. But it also catches its breath to ponder some hefty questions of human existence, sprinkling in Biblical imagery along the way. The conclusions it draws are not what one might expect from a secular feature film.

[Warning: the rest of this article contains major spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron. You may wish to see the movie first before reading further.]

A thoughtful treatment of spiritual topics

Like the first Avengers movie, Age of Ultron was written and directed by Joss Whedon. Known for his witty dialogue and well-developed characters, Whedon also doesn’t shy away from spiritual topics, which he typically engages in a thoughtful and fair manner.

In the present film, most of the spiritual content swirls around the titular villain, Ultron, an artificial intelligence created by one of the movie’s heroes, Tony Stark. A brilliant inventor with an ego to match, Stark designed Ultron to be the ultimate security system for humanity.

Once he comes to life, however, Ultron promptly decides that the human race itself is what’s wrong with the world. He embarks on a genocidal mission with quasi-evolutionary zeal, seeking to replace humanity with upgraded versions of himself. As he pursues this quest, he becomes like a mechanical fallen angel, driven by pride, anger and an overarching hatred for his human creator.

A robot preoccupied with religion

For a robot, Ultron is strangely preoccupied with religion. He sets up his initial base in the ruins of a medieval church, located in a fictional Eastern European city. Noting that the church was built in the centre of town so that everyone would be equally close to God, he comments, “I like that, the geometry of belief.”

Later on, he acquires a supply of vibranium, the material that will allow him to redesign himself. As he holds up a canister of the stuff, he quips, “Upon this rock I will build my church.”

Later still, he uses the story of Noah’s cataclysm to justify his own murderous actions and twisted sense of divine mission. “When the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it,” he says, “And believe me, He’s winding up.”

Ultron doesn’t get everything wrong. He recognizes that evil and suffering exist in the world because of human sin. But his mechanical mind has no grasp of human value or divine grace. His robotic logic is devoid of kindness or mercy or love. This is poignantly expressed in his cold assessment of children as the product of people’s fear, “designed to supplant them, to help them . . . end.”

A jarring interlude: the healing oasis of family

In the sharpest contrast to Ultron’s bleak worldview, there’s a scene at the heart of the film that catches everyone – characters and audience – by total surprise. Having suffered an initial defeat at the hands of Ultron, the Avengers retreat to a safe house in the countryside. As it turns out, the house is in fact the family home of one of their number, Clint Barton, along with his pregnant wife, Laura, and their two young children.

The scene is profoundly jarring – in the most positive way – precisely because it subverts the basic ethos of the standard action movie. Far from being a lone wolf or a womanizing maverick, Barton is a devoted, affectionate husband and father. His home and family serve as an oasis of peace and healing to his wounded comrades.

Once they’ve recovered, the Avengers re-engage the battle with Ultron. But unlike their foe, their chief concern is for the well-being of the people Ultron has targeted. They suffer and sacrifice – in one case to the point of death – in order to preserve humanity from extinction.

Enter the Vision: synthetic saviour and redeemed version of Ultron

Along the way, the heroes manage to capture and reprogram Ultron’s intended upgrade of himself. Known simply as the Vision, this android looks and acts far more human than his robotic predecessor. In essence, he becomes a purified, redeemed version of Ultron, a saviour rather than a destroyer. In his words, “I am on the side of life. Ultron isn’t.”

Near the end of the film, there’s a final showdown between Ultron and the Vision, between artificial life fallen and redeemed.

The Vision defends humanity to Ultron: “There is grace in their failings. I think you missed that.”

“They’re doomed,” Ultron responds.

“Yes,” the Vision admits, “But a thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”

To be sure, the theology on display in Avengers: Age of Ultron isn’t exactly in lockstep with Biblical truth. Joss Whedon is, after all, an avowed atheist. But by the grace of God, he’s also a supremely gifted writer whose work offers aesthetic delight while inviting us to think.

In any event, a popcorn movie that gives us the geometry of belief and the grace in our failings has more than earned its price of admission.

[Note: this article does not constitute an endorsement of the movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron, by Focus on the Family Canada. Consult the full review at Plugged In to help you determine whether Avengers: Age of Ultron is appropriate for you or your family.]

Sources and further reading

Paul Asay, “Age of Ultron may be the most spiritual superhero movie yet,” Patheos, May 4, 2015.

E. Stephen Burnett, “‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ is a gourmet cheeseburger for Christian fans,” Christ and Pop Culture, May 5, 2015.

Jessica Gibson, “Avengers: Age of Ultron – Grade-A sci-fi and a meditation on evil in the human heart, in one entertaining package,” Christianity Today, May 1, 2015.

Russell Moore, “What the Avengers movie tells us about marriage and family,” Moore to the Point, May 2, 2015.

Jairo Namnún, “What Ultron misunderstands about God and man,” The Gospel Coalition, May 5, 2015.

Tyler O’Neil, “Rise of the machine – ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ showcases human frailty, nobility,” BreakPoint, May 1, 2015.

© 2015 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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