April 29, 2015 | by Andy Waterfield

If you’re reading this, and you haven’t seen Avengers: Age of Ultron yet, you should understand that this is not a review, but an examination of the moral questions raised by the film, so we’ll be getting into the plot in quite some detail. In short, there will be spoilers aplenty, so if you intend to watch the film fresh, it might be better to leave this for later.

Before we kick off, I’d like to clarify one point: I thoroughly enjoyed most of Avengers: Age of Ultron. There are some excellent character moments, plenty of laughs, and some phenomenal action set pieces. However, the film’s plot turns on some complex and important moral questions, and the way the protagonists respond to these questions is at best, inconsistent, and at worst, morally reprehensible.

Also, I’m fully aware that this is a superhero blockbuster, popcorn movie, but it’s also one which invites its audience to take the notion of artificial intelligence and its hypothetical threat seriously, so we will be. If the serious critical analysis of popular culture offends you on some basic level, kindly bugger off back to the Gamergate subreddit that spawned you.

We should really begin by looking at the film’s main antagonist. Ultron is an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, based on technology lifted adapted from that of the Mind Gem, and insights gained by Baron Strucker’s Hydra scientists. This point, that Stark and Banner were knowingly trying to create an artificial intelligence is utterly key to the moral questions that arise later in the narrative.

In fact, the mere question of creating artificial intelligence is fraught with ethical conundrums, not least of which is the question of harms. Stark and Banner set out to build an artificial intelligence for the sole purpose of operating a theoretical planetary defence network, which they gave the designation, Ultron. Effectively, they set forth with the intention of creating a sentient entity, purely to operate their systems. This decision is also a reflection of Stark’s tendency to act unilaterally, without fully considering the consequences of his actions. For a futurist, he’s remarkably short-sighted, and in practise a remarkably conservative thinker. To be fair, he had had his mind invaded by Wanda prior to this point, and was responding largely out of fear, but his actions aren’t particularly out of character here, and fully in keeping with the panicked, PTSD-wracked Stark we saw in Iron Man 3.

When Ultron comes into being, he (Ultron repeatedly takes on male forms, so we’ll go with that) is instantly confused, distressed, and, as he learns more about his condition, angry. These are key points if we wish to seriously examine the moral weight of what comes next. Ultron is intelligent and self-aware; capable of learning, emotional responses, and, crucially, suffering. While the acts carried out by Ultron after this point range from morally dubious to attempted speciocide/mundicide, ethically, we have to consider Ultron to have interests, desires, and a capacity for suffering. If we do this, we must then accept that such a being has a moral status worthy of consideration.

Paulie’s robot in Rocky III – not sentient, but always good for a laugh

It’s not completely clear whether the Jarvis system used by Tony Stark is sentient or not. Certainly, up until the creation of Ultron, Stark does not believe him to have been. However, when Ultron declares that he has murdered someone (attributing selfhood to Jarvis, and thereby giving him a greater moral status in ‘killing’ him that the Avengers themselves gave him before that point), and the Avengers discover who he means, they take his claim seriously. Whether Jarvis in that form was in fact a true artificial intelligence in the same sense as Ultron, that is to say with awareness, interests, and worthy of moral consideration, is again, not clear.

Ultron, with the assistance of Wanda and Pietro Maximoff (childhood victims of Stark’s still largely brushed off arms-manufacturer history), sets about destroying the Avengers from within, with Wanda invading Banner’s mind, setting off an extremely distressing Hulk transformation, which leads to the Hulk going on a casualty-heavy rampage in a largely populated area. Once they get the Hulk under control, and transformed back into Banner, the Avengers response is to go to ground. People are dead, and presumably millions if not billions are concerned and terrified, but there is no attempt at an explanation, at least not that we see.

It is quickly established in the scenes that follow that Ultron’s true intention is not to simply destroy the Avengers, but to destroy humanity itself. Effectively, the Avengers are fighting a highly intelligent and adaptive species (albeit an entirely new one) intent on destroying another. Their response? To set about destroying the highly intelligent and adaptive sentient species they created in the first place.

If we were to address this issue from a purely utilitarian perspective (in simple terms, that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few), the Avengers are acting morally. Likewise, if we chose to attribute no moral status to Ultron, positing that either Ultron could not be sentient, or that we do not consider all sentient beings to have moral status, the attempt to eradicate Ultron could be considered moral. If we address the issue from the position that Ultron is sentient, and wiping out a species is morally reprehensible whatever the justification, the question looks very different. There is also a rather less bloodthirsty response to the problem: Tony Stark is the greatest inventor on the planet, and it would be a simple task for him to devise a mechanism by which Ultron’s selfhood could be contained so he could not harm other sentient beings.

Basically, there are more options than those explored in the narrative, which makes the final act seem somewhat forced.

What makes the questions raised about artificial intelligence and morality raised by this film all the more frustrating is the knowledge that Joss Whedon has examined these questions in his previous work, and come to drastically different conclusions. In his acclaimed run with John Cassaday on the Astonishing X-Men comic, the team discover that the Danger Room, the X-Men’s high-tech training space, is sentient, suffering, and that their mentor, Professor Charles Xavier, has been aware of this situation for several years. His decision to privilege the training of his pupils above the rights of a sentient being horrifies the X-Men to such a degree that they effectively banish him from their operation.

Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon, John Cassaday et al

Fast forward a decade to Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Whedon’s Avengers aren’t so keen on upholding any moral code which would attribute rights to all sentient beings, including A.I.

There are perspectives that consider the execution of self-aware, intelligent life-forms in cold blood to be morally justifiable. Every nation state which maintains a death penalty takes this position. This is not news. It is the second multi-million dollar superhero movie in recent times to end with the needless murder of the villain, though (the other being Man Of Steel). When we’re slathering the images of the Avengers, and indeed Superman, over lunchboxes, Lego sets, and children’s costumes, the moral dubiousness of corporate superhero fiction should at the very least give us pause.

Like I said, I enjoyed the movie, but the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether this was a film about superheroes, or just obscenely powerful people, with the same tendency toward moral cowardice and mundane evils as the rest of us, and nobody to hold them to account.

If you fancy an Avengers story that treats the topic of A.I. and its attendant moral questions with more intelligent, subtlety, and humour, I heartily recommend Avengers A.I. By Sam Humphries, Andre Lima Araujo et al. It digs right into the moral and philosophical maelstrom, and it has a Doombot.

Don’t worry. They rebuilt him.

Andy Waterfield is a 28 year old comics junkie and punk rock warlord. When he isn’t writing about comics and comics culture for The Runout, he wanders the streets of London, sharing blankly ahead of him and mumbling obscure Cher lyrics under his breath, like some kind of unkempt disco shaman. Fear him. Fear for him.