Tue
Sep 10 2013 9:00am

Why I’m Apprehensive About Marvel’s The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron

Joss Whedon the Avengers Captain America shield

Joss Whedon is brilliant. He is awesome. In my personal opinion, he is the second greatest storyteller in the history of the Western world. He is a master of giving audiences what they need, not what they want, and succeeds in creating poignant, provocative stories with memorable characters and worlds that connect with the human experience on primal levels. And judging by the commercial struggles of some of his work, he’s been admirably uncompromising in this pursuit. Even when he’s not quite perfect, there’s always some small shred of genius shining through his ambitions. People can be overly and unnecessarily critical with an artist of his caliber—look at the initial reaction to Dollhouse—but I have remained steadfast in my nearly unflinching faith in his abilities.

And I am utterly terrified for Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron.

SDCC 2010 Joss Whedon arm wrestle

To further illuminate my Joss devotion—and to demonstrate, by comparison, why this is so difficult for me to admit—I’d like to share a few personal anecdotes. First, here’s me and Joss arm wrestling at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. Why are we arm wrestling? What the hell was I supposed to say to him? I wasn’t just going to stand there and gush all over him. That would have been awkward. So I asked him if he wanted to arm wrestle. He said yes. It was awesome.

Here’s a picture of my original framed artwork of the 2-page spread of the Sunnydale crater from the first issue of the Buffy The Vampire Slayer Season Eight comic book, which Joss signed right in the center of the crater.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer comic Joss Whedon original art

So as you can see, my apprehension does not come lightly. I’m not the kind of person who hates on things just to hate on things. But Joss has historically demonstrated a weakness for stories about artificial intelligence. A weakness in his affection for it—and a weakness in his ability to successfully tell a cohesive and emotional story about it. Granted, Joss is still a highly creative storyteller who always comes up with unique ideas and twists, but his past forays into AI have been ambitious, intriguing philosophical ideas that…didn’t quite work.

Joss’s struggles with AI began in Season 1 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the episode “I Robot, You Jane,” in which Willow engages in a relationship with a boy she meets online. But he turns out to be an eternal demon named Moloch who happens to be trapped inside of the internet. The episode is mostly a metaphor for the dangers of Internet anonymity, and while it did introduce us to Jenny Calendar and Willow’s “technopaganism,” it’s…not one of the better episodes of the series. There are some interesting ideas proposed—that a demon bound to a book can escape by being scanned into a computer, and Moloch’s disappointment with the limitations of his new physical robot body—but it doesn’t ultimately come together.

This idea of artificial intelligence must have continued to gnaw at him, because Joss revisited it with Buffy’s season 4 antagonist, the zombie-cyborg-demon-super-soldier Adam. The character began as a Frankenstein archetype, combined with the forced-military-order of The Initiative and the moral grayness of the demon cultures in the Buffyverse, and was pitted against the philosophical ideas of programming—of overcoming the nature with which you were created. Unfortunately, the metaphor never quite connects with the viewer in the same way that, say, Buffy losing her virginity to an older guy who immediately turns bad does. Adam’s got his moments—his cold, analytical introspection as he tromps around Sunnydale killing things in order to learn about life—but there’s a reason that Season 4 is remembered more for its individual episodes than its overall arc.

But Joss still had this itch that he couldn’t quite scratch. He had explored souls and identity and free will so well in these magical realms on Buffy and Angel, and he really wanted to go at it from an artificial perspective. So he tried again, in the second arc of his run on Astonishing X-Men, where he introduced the idea that the X-Men’s Danger Room—itself a highly advanced piece of technology from the alien Shi’ar—was in fact sentient, and that Professor X had kept it trapped as its consciousness evolved, and now it wanted out. While Danger, as she becomes known, has a pretty clever plan for overriding the blocks in her programming, and has since been accepted as an interesting character within the X-Men universe, the actual story in which she’s introduced is not Joss’s best work. There are lots of exciting twists and turns, but philosophical concepts that he proposes are never quite satisfactory. It’s more like “Big Crazy Idea!” followed by clever dialogue and whatever the next plot point is.

Joss did eventually find ways to express these themes of nature versus nurture versus literal programming that he’d been struggling with in River’s arc in Firefly and all throughout Dollhouse (which I think I was the only person who watched it when it first aired and actually loved almost the entire thing from the start—again, my faith in Whedon). Those shows focused on flesh-and-blood individuals, and often mirrored soul struggles of both Spike and Angel, even though the magic was replaced by technology. But Joss has still never quite managed to tell a cohesive story about a fully artificial being dealing with those same struggles.

Still, I’m trying to have faith. Joss did the impossible with Marvel’s The Avengers by combining several individually successful franchises into one coherent film, with consistent emotional through lines for the entire ensemble. Sure, it’s got its faults, but no one’s perfect, and most of those can be chalked up to the unprecedented difficulty of the task at hand. I had never doubted that he could pull off the same miracle twice—until I heard the title of the second film. I have no qualms about Ultron possibly being spawned from Tony Stark’s technology instead of Hank Pym’s; I care very little for slavish adherence to established comic book continuity as long as the story is internally consistent, and I still trust that Joss will make those details work. What I’m skeptical of is the emotional arc, the philosophical implications of this dark robotic son, bent on destroying the establishment that brought him into his artificial life.

I have no idea if The Vision—Ultron’s own artificial son created to destroy the Avengers—is actually going to have a part in Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I keep thinking back to the end of Avengers #58, when the Avengers scientifically prove the inherent goodness of The Vision and allow him to join the team. Upon hearing the news of his acceptance, The Vision slips away for a private moment in which we learn that “even an android can cry.” And as a reader, you really feel for The Vision in that moment. Personally, I’m afraid that even if Joss shows us that an android can cry, I won’t actually feel it—won’t empathize with it, the same way I felt when Spike, or Angel, or Echo fought to prove the existence of their own souls—no matter how much Joss says that this is going to be the smaller, more personal film. And that’s hard for me to admit, because it hurts to be disappointed in something you love so much.

So please, Joss. Please prove me wrong.


Thom Dunn is a Boston-based writer, musician, homebrewer, and new media artist. He enjoys Oxford commas, metaphysics, and romantic clichés (especially when they involve whiskey and/or robots). He is a graduate of Clarion Writer’s Workshop at UCSD, and he firmly believes that Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” is the single worst atrocity committed against mankind. Find out more at thomdunn.net.

24 comments
jeff hendrix
1. templarsteel
so perez and busiek being consalutants on Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron doesn't mean anything
Hadtorefill
2. Hadtorefill
If I could put my thoughts it in such a coherent text, this would be it. With the small adition of "I was made to love you" S05
Hadtorefill
3. DavidEsmale
You were not the only one that watched Dollhouse from the beginning and loved nearly all of it. There were at least 2 of us!
Nate the great
4. thDigitalReader
"look at the initial reaction to Dollhouse"

Having seen the original pilot, I think Dollhouse was a horrible mangled train wreck of a series which only got slightly better as time went on.

If anyone's initial reaction was similar to my distaste for the Dolls being reduced from heros to little more than mind-wiped prostitutes, then I don't see the problem.
Hadtorefill
5. vjj
Yeah, "Danger" was a huge stinking pile of crap - both the story and the character.

I know Whedon has control over the script but this time the studio has to assert some control because Whedon has some very dumb ideas about the field of artificial intelligence. If I were the studio, I would get the creator of Terminator the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV Show to do the script and fight Joss on some of Joss's more stupid ideas about technology
Hadtorefill
6. Nix
@templarsteel It's a reflection on Joss' writing overall. Since we've been lucky enough to see several shows and projects under him, it's easy to get a good feel for what he may and may not be good at. Much in the way that we know Speilberg cannot deliver dark endings of films, or even how James Cameron can take four hours saying what other people can say in two, Joss doesn't have the best history with these types of stories.

It's especially pertinent in this case. Marvel is really "writing" the majority of the movie; who lives, who dies, what heroes are in it, who fights whom, etc. The franchise is what makes all the big decisions, and someone like Joss is brought in to do enough writing to humanize it, and to help audiences connect with something other than CGI and costumes.

More than likely, the case is that Marvel said "hey, you're going to write Ultron as the bad guy," and he doesn't have much of a decision from there on out...
Hadtorefill
7. BDG91
First let me meanly laugh at the idea that Joss is the second greatest creator in the western world: BAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. I'll never understand the love Joss gets, his avengers story in the movie is nowhere near the best stories in the franchise, but was instead super fun with some hamfisted moments of artificial emotional manipulation (the old man in Germany, after Hawkeye wakes up with black widow). His track record, as a creator, is far from spotless: dollhouse was kind terrible and the last two seasons of Buffy was less than great. His treatment of women, are again, far from spotless and his lack of POC is disturbing ( including Firefly). I trust he'll provide a fun movie once again but really nothing more than that.
Hadtorefill
8. Gerry__Quinn
When did Adam try to escape his nature? He seemed happy enough as he was, barring the odd machine-gun arm upgrade - and his plan was to make lots more of his kind. April and Buffybot were more interesting in their limitations as purpose-built constructs. (Oh, and I forgot Ted.)
Hadtorefill
9. Wodan
I'd just like to point out that neither cyborgs nor demons are AIs or "fully artificial beings;" therefore most of the article is without logical basis.
Hadtorefill
10. To Wodan
I'd just like to point out that you sound like an utter tool when you say $hit like that...
Sean Tabor
11. wingracer
@7

I suddenly feel the need to quote Wayne's World:

"Led Zepelin didn't write songs everyone liked. They left that to the BeeGees"
Matthew Brown
12. morven
@Wodan: the broader point is that Whedon doesn't handle technology very well, and I think it's a valid one.
Hadtorefill
13. Gordon Roth
Not that it balances everything, but I think that Warren's Robot Girlfriend and the BuffyBot were both handled really well. You also left out the pretty awful Ted episode of Buffy.
Hadtorefill
14. vampiredoctor
I'm apprehensive of Avengers 2 as well, but not for this reason. It's because Marvel doesn't even have the balls to keep a minor character like Agent Coulson dead. Bad storytelling and kills any tension going forward. Also, Iron Man 3 was a very annoying and overhyped movie, and not just because of the Mandarin twist. To me it's Marvel's Phantom Menace.
Shelly wb
15. shellywb
Joss Whedon is the second greatest storyteller in the history of the Western world Buffy Franchise.

FTFY
Kurt Busiek
16. KurtBusiek
>> so perez and busiek being consalutants on Avengers 2: The Age of Ultron doesn't mean anything>>

Say what? I haven't been consulted on a thing.

But I expect Joss to do a great job.
Chris Nelly
17. Aeryl
@14, Marvel didn't make the decision to bring back Coulson, Joss, with the eager assistance of Clark Gregg, did, and that was just because Marvel made him kill him.

all throughout Dollhouse (which I think I was the only person who watched it when it first aired and actually loved almost the entire thing from the start—again, my faith in Whedon)

Not alone! Now we are 3!
Hadtorefill
18. BoomingEchoes
Not saying I'm not quite a bit worried about Age of Ultron myself, but I'm not worried about it for these reasons at all.. To me these are really non-reasons. First: Most of your examples have nothing to do witn AI, as you make it a point is a weakness that he has in his storytelling. The Willow episode was a demon stuck in the net, Adam was an amalgom of beings forced to live as 1 thing. There was no AI for either of these things, it was only I. Second: Whedon may have had control over the greater works, but he wasn't the only creator on these shows. He had a staff of writers and runners, it wasn't him writing and directing, he had to relinquish control to someone else, and couldn't go back to completely redo an episode that he didn't like about what they did or wrote: thats not realisitc TV business. Third: X-Men is massively screwy in the first place, you can't totally blame him for everything. He may have written the character in, but he brought it to Marvel and they waved it on, and there was still stories that probably supported the character being there -in Marvels eyes- before he did it. All of my qualms come from the exact thing you don't have qaulms about: Ultron not being Hank Pym's fault. Theres huge reasons -that yeah, don't nessesarly fit into the movie universe- that Ultron comes into being, and they all have to do with Pym himself, as a person, and not simply because "machines gonna take ova" Theres a lot of depth that Whedon could work with, but isn't.. And I don't totally blame him for it either, I just don't think they're willing to spend the time, now, to lay that kind of ground work.. Though its puzzleing why they won't there, but are willing to do a movie connected to this, about a bunch of space heroes really no one but comic fans, and even then specificly focused fans of that series, really know a damn about.. Guardians of the Galaxy is going to be a FAR bigger risk then Ultron will be.. But then again, Guardians isn't Joss' movie, and really has no place here other then to say what happens with that movies release, probably will effect some things that will happen with the production of AoU.
Chris Nelly
19. Aeryl
Avengers 3 is going to be Avengers and GoTG vs Thanos, so if they are going to do Ultron, they have to do it now, they can't wait for Pym.

Plus, even if they squeezed in Ant Man prior to A2, movie fans wouldn't care. We care about Tony's manpain, not some scientist from one movie's manpain.
Hadtorefill
20. Snahgle
Make that 4! I watched Dollhouse as it was coming out - and loved it, and still love it. I may be the only person on Earth who net prefers Dollhouse to Buffy.
Chris Nelly
21. Aeryl
I don't know if I'd say I prefer it, but I rewatched Dollhouse more recently than I have Buffy(but that tends to be because it's shorter and my partner likes it, where he despises Buffy).

It's definitely more twisty than Buffy, and more adult, which might be why I choose it more as I've aged.
Alan Brown
22. AlanBrown
Whedon is part of a team, not just putting this all together alone. And that team has done such a good job of putting together the Marvel movies to date, I have every confidence that Age of Ultron will be another good one!
Hadtorefill
23. FRANKPETERMAN
I've been worrying about this since they announced that they were looking to make Ultron very different than how he is portrayed in the comics. From my understanding, Ultron is going to be more of maniacal human instead of a robot. Even though I liked Iron Man 3, they pretty much butchered on of IM's most iconic villains for the "Movieverse", and I'm afraid that Ultron will get the same complete departure treatment. I'm so glad the Marvel movies have hit their stride, but they are giving too much control to the writers to depart competely from the source material and go in an entirely different direction. Yeah, it can be refreshing, but it can also be irritating and just plain baffling.
Anthony Pero
24. anthonypero
The MCU is its own thing, separate from the comics. This annoys some people and thrills others. But the vast majority of the audience, close to 90%, has NO CLUE about anything that came before. There is no possible way that the level of actors, creators and writers they use would ever allow themselves to be slavishly tied to a canon that 90% of their audience doesn't care about.

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