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.
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.
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.