While Captain America is a fixed moral point, and Black Widow’s arc culminates in self-actualization, the other Avengers fulfill more allegorical functions. To save humanity from Ultron, an omnipotent, omnipresent force with the destructive impulse (and retributive disposition) of the God of the Old Testament, Thor, Banner and Tony Stark create a divine being in the form of The Vision.

Stories are usually the sum of their creators. Their thoughts, their hopes, their perspectives — often conflicting ones, as articulated by this video essay by Cameron Carpenter on the film’s Biblical allusions. Creating is one of the ways we leave a part of ourselves behind; a legacy, made tangible.

Creating Ultron and The Vision are the logical extension of Tony Stark’s God complex. He creates a fallen angel before creating a savior — as if to re-write his gift to humanity — though Stark’s story here is also akin to that of a storyteller wrestling with a conflicted worldview.

Stories help us make sense of the world; concepts like God and the Devil, or any governing forces of Good and Evil, stem from that very instinct. The world is chaotic, and we create our own mirrors to bring it into a form resembling order. The same can be said of Tony Stark, whose hallucination feeds off his fear and P.T.S.D., throwing him deeper into his obsession to encase the world in armour. In order to do so, he needs to create, but he first creates from a place of fear and isolation. He sees bringing order to the world as his sole duty, regardless of what the world might think, and so he flirts with pure utilitarianism for the first time since Iron Man. The result is more important.

In his cynicism, Stark fashions a being that absorbs only the worst in humanity, reflecting it back to him tenfold. Ultron, in his infancy, learns about humanity’s destruction without learning about humanity itself. He understands the art of war, but can he appreciate art?

Tony Stark’s second creation in the film comes from a place of understanding. While Stark has no control over how The Vision will turn out, he creates him by using J.A.R.V.I.S., a program written explicitly to protect. This is the same A.I. that has been looking after Stark all these years, and an A.I. that, even when seemingly destroyed, followed its base protocol and shielded the world from nuclear attack.

Rather than being created cynically, or in secret like some Frankenstein’s monster, The Vision feels divinely inspired. He’s made from Iron Man’s technology, Thor’s otherworldly lightning, Banner’s engineering, and the same material Captain America uses for a shield — like a collaboration born out of conflict, wherein each creator shares a common goal.

The result is a being who speaks with kindness, and whose every movement is graceful; the other side of the Ultron coin. The Vision ascends to the sky in a golden cape, not unlike the heroic Yellow Emperor of the Taoist religion, who rose to heaven in plain sight on the back of a golden dragon. Whereas magician Ye Fa-shan, another prominent figure in Taoist views on death, was said to have turned his own corpse into a sword, the way Ultron replaces his old bodies with newer, more destructive ones.

Even if these specific parallels to Taoist shijie (or transformation in death when one’s spirit is released) were accidents, they speak to the themes of balance at the heart of Taoism, whose symbols the film explicitly references.

Yin And Yang

When Sokovia is lifted into the air, it cracks along a specific trajectory. Half the meteor is a dark forest. The other half is white marble. The curvature of the border between the two resembles the Taoist yin and yang. Nature, and manmade structure, in perfect balance, like the opposing light and dark within all people, each giving rise to the other.

Ultron and The Vision represent competing schools of thought on humanity. They act as opposing narrative forces, pushing and pulling the world between their respective desires. Ultron sees destruction as the only path to salvation. He’s an externalization of Stark’s violent past, unintentionally quoting him from his days as an arms-dealer (“Keep your friends rich and your enemies rich, and wait to find out which is which”). He has Stark’s sense of humor, but he also has Stark’s condescension — that is, the condescension of the pre-Iron Man Tony Stark — thus embodying the very worst parts of his creator.

The Vision however, accepts humanity’s imperfections. Like Captain America, his mission is not to kill, but to save. He claims to be “on the side of life,” an affirming reminder of what the Avengers’ objective ought to be. These competing narratives will determine not only the fate of humanity, but who the Avengers are at their core. Should they fail, they’ll fall in line with Ultron’s view of the world, wherein humanity is only capable of destruction, and deserves to be replaced by a perfect race of soulless, metallic beings. From that point on, stories themselves will cease to matter.

But should the Avengers succeed, despite their many failures in the past, they’ll align with The Vision’s outlook, which he explains to Ultron in the forest: order within chaos, grace within failure, and of the beauty of human imperfection. The idea that people can still be good, even when intrinsically flawed.

The dichotomy between Ultron and The Vision is very basis of storytelling throughout history. It cuts to the heart of conflicting human impulses: to create chaos, and to cede to it; to control, and to be controlled; to create divine beings, and to believe that were divinely created. Dualities we cannot begin to reconcile until we self-actualize through our own stories, drawn from our pasts and written with an eye toward our futures.

Ultron and The Vision are abstract extremes. The Avengers are imperfect beings who fall somewhere in between them. Ultron’s army of thousands may be in perfect harmony with one another, but they’re eventually bested by the varying abilities and perspectives of our discordant heroes.

The Vision may lift Thor’s hammer by virtue of his divinity. But at the end of the day, as if to justify an otherwise imperfect narrative formula, the film’s quippy, comedic scenes brimming with camaraderie, like the Avengers trying — and more importantly, failing — to prove their worth, are what make them feel human.


Expanded from an article published April 16, 2018.

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