In the film Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) (AOU), Artificial Intelligence (AI) should not be understood merely as an element, glossed over cursorily for the sake of moving the plot. In fact, its importance supersedes the many superheroes as arguably the film’s most important protagonist – and antagonist. Set in the aftermath of an alien invasion, AOU begins with Stark (a member of the superhero alliance, the Avengers) fearing a recurrence. This motivates him to create “Ultron”, a global defence program to protect Earth, by reconfiguring the AI stored inside a gem: the Mind Stone. However, Ultron subsequently turns sentient and rogue, aiming to destroy Earth instead. This causes the Avengers to disagree on how to defeat it, splitting them into two factions. Stark’s faction favours creating another being – by combining another AI (JARVIS) with the Mind Stone – to destroy Ultron, while others object, fearing a similarly rogue AI. Nonetheless, Stark’s faction eventually creates “Vision”: a superhero that defeats Ultron. From the above, the duality of AI’s capabilities as both a force of destruction and salvation may be observed – this is most striking, considering that the usual AI apocalyptic films generally focus only on its destructive function. How then do we understand the portrayal of AI in AOU? Considering the time period AOU was released in, there are two main contexts which the film should be viewed in. Firstly, amid the context of the current booming era of AI, it is clear that when considering AOU’s unique portrayal of AI’s dual capabilities alongside societal attitudes towards AI in reality, the film encodes an underlying ambivalent anxiety society has towards AI. This is evident through an analysis of the main characters, Vision and Ultron. Yet, that is not all the film reveals. In further considering the roles of Vision and Ultron in the context of the post-9/11 era, AI in AOU becomes a metaphor for America’s relationship with terrorism, which reveals a different kind of anxiety people face.
The ambivalent human-AI relationship
The ambivalent relationship between humans and AI is most explicit in the juxtaposition of Ultron and Vision as two halves of the same being. At their core, they are essentially made from the same source: the AI embedded in the Mind Stone. Yet, it is most striking that one turned out to be a villain, and one a hero. The role reversal of Ultron and Vision is highly ironic. For one, Ultron was intended by Stark to be Earth’s protector, yet it seeks to destroy it. In contrast, Ultron intended Vision to be its indestructible body, yet it became its greatest enemy. This role reversal of good and evil is dramatized through Vision’s name. The word ‘vision’ is defined as “a mental image of what the future will or could be like”. Indeed, “Vision” was a title bestowed upon it by Ultron, when Ultron explicitly labelled it “his vision” for Earth’s technological singularity. However, Vision’s name has a double meaning: it also represents Stark’s vision of what Ultron should have been. Ultron’s relationship with Stark thus came full circle when Vision joined the Avengers. Understood this way, Ultron’s portrayal as a force of destruction is the representation of society’s inherent fear over the potential disastrous consequences of future AI. In contrast, Vision’s portrayal as a saviour represents society’s hope for AI’s future: a help to humans. It logically follows that Stark embodies society’s inherent ambivalent hope and anxieties over AI: after all, he co-created both Ultron and Vision, implying that humans chart the future of AI’s development, for better or worse. At its core, the irony in Ultron’s and Vision’s role reversal reveal the real-world concerns of uncertainty over AI’s future.
This begs the question: what was the unconscious intention or influence behind Ultron’s portrayal as the “evil twin” of Vision, and how does it affect our view of the human-AI relationship in reality? As aptly exclaimed by Banner when considering the idea of creating Vision to stop Ultron: “I’m in a loop! This is exactly where it all went wrong.” The imagery evokes two ideas: firstly, it reflects an underlying fear regarding AI’s inherently uncertain consequences. Both the audience and Banner are aware that the decision to experiment with Vision may very well lead to where their nightmares started: the birth of another Ultron. More importantly, it reflects the paradoxical relationship humans have with AI: the only way to overcome the perverse effects of AI’s progress (represented by Ultron’s portrayal as a force of destruction), is to raise stakes by accelerating progress (represented by Vision’s portrayal as an ‘upgraded’ version of Ultron). AOU thus reveals the central paradox of the technological system: as described by the renowned philosopher Ellul, there is a need to continually develop new technology to solve problems created through older technology. Yet, attendant problems arise with every creation of new AI, when attempting to solve prior problems. Such is teased in AOU: while Vision saves Earth from Ultron’s threat of annihilation, a new problem arises as to Vision’s integration into human society. Ellul’s underlying concerns of technological tyranny over humanity is espounded by Illich, who asserts that the paradox creates a relationship of dependence between humans and technology, and therefore subservience, because such a solution has become necessary. While both philosophers’ works were published in late last century, they remain relevant as ever: even more so as we live amid AI’s booming era. In this context, AOU should be understood as a product and reflection of society’s subconscious recognition of the ambivalent anxiety humans have towards AI in reality. Such a conclusion is only logical, considering both philosophers’ works alongside the fact that tension between humans and technology have been simmering since the 70s, only to peak in recent years with the sudden explosion of AI performance.
As posited, AOU reveals society’s underlying ambivalent relationship with AI by reflecting the two philosophers’ concerns over human subservience to AI technology in modern times. Yet, there exists evidence in AOU that appears to contradict such an analysis. This is most obvious in Vision’s characterisation as humans’ “servant” rather than “master” – a portrayal that appears to contradict Illich’s view. The conversation between Ultron and Vision in their final confrontation is significant:
Ultron: Stark asked for a saviour, and settled for a slave.
Vision: I suppose we are both disappointments.
Ultron: I suppose we are.
The fact that both admit to being disappointments, only shows that humans are the ultimate winners in the battle between the AIs they created: Ultron views himself a disappointment for failing to save humanity by eradicating them, while Vision feels the same, because he cannot offer anything more to humanity. Ultimately, AI is only humans’ slave. The fact that no humans are present for the final confrontation between the two, further tips the power dynamics towards humanity: it is simply a survival of the fittest between the AIs. Yet, the focus on AI’s subservience to humans only highlights the extent of society’s deep-rooted, ambivalent anxiety towards AI. Such a portrayal encodes society’s ardent desire to take full control over AI’s development, and reflects society’s inherent feeling of confusion and disempowerment that arises from the fear of power and change that AI entails. Understood this way, the portrayal of AI’s subservience is actually consistent with Illich’s view, and in fact strengthens the idea that AOU reflects society’s subconscious recognition of their ambivalent relationship with AI.
AI in the post-9/11 context
While the juxtaposition of Ultron and Vision as two halves of the same being can certainly be analysed as a metaphor for society’s underlying ambivalent anxieties towards AI, AOU does more than that. Justice must be done to the film by also considering its place in the post 9-11 culture. Even though AOU was released in 2015 – some fourteen years after the 9-11 incident – the traumatic and exceptional nature of the event has such serious impacts on our socio-political thoughts, that it seeps into our consumption of American popular culture. As aptly put by Walliss and Aston:
The social trauma and anxieties engendered by 9/11 that circulate in society [is] visible within the popular imagination. Such fears and anxieties are projected onto cinematic forms, especially [in films] that deal with apocalyptic themes.
The narrative in AOU parallels reality, where America was subjected to the same ironies of a created entity coming back to haunt them. The 9-11 incident and the rise of Al-Qaeda did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, its roots can be traced back to the Cold War era. Particularly, the Americans viewed the Soviet War in Afghanistan as a prime example of Soviet expansionism, where the Soviet troops were fighting to suppress the Afghan mujahedeen forces – which included radical Islamic militants. As such, the Americans funded the Mujahedeen to disrupt Soviet plans. However, American funding only planted the seeds of Islamic terrorism, as the Arab mujahedeen joined their Afghan counterparts in what they viewed as a jihad. Arguably, American funding kickstarted exponential growth of the militants’ strength, which continued even after funding stopped. When the USSR finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, the militants viewed their conquest as a successful jihad and shifted their focus to America. The turning point came when US troops were stationed on the sacred soil of Saudi territory during the 1990 Gulf War, which arguably was the root cause of Al-Qaeda’s attack in 9-11. Ironically, the Americans funded and created the very terrorists who turned around to attack them. Understood in this context, Ultron represents the terrorists while Stark is a shorthand for Americans. Earth thus represents the American people.In AOU, the ultimate irony of Ultron’s role reversal can be understood as a metaphor for America’s relationship with terrorism. In creating Ultron, Stark envisions it to be Earth’s ultimate protector, to the extent of looking to it as the Avengers’ replacement. Yet, Stark’s plans backfire when Ultron turns sentient and rogue, seeking to annihilate humanity – the very people it was designed to protect – because it deems humanity as the biggest threat to Earth.
As the essay seeks to show, an analysis of the same object – in this case, AI in AOU – through different lenses, reveal that a film can be understood to encode different things. Viewed in the context of AI’s booming era, AOU encodes an underlying ambivalent anxiety society has towards AI. In contrast, when viewed in the post 9-11 context, AI becomes a metaphor for America’s relationship with terrorism. However, both ways of understanding share a commonality insofar as the film encodes anxieties people face in current society. Yet, the film ends on an optimistic tone. The creation of a new team of superheroes dedicated to protecting humanity alludes to the idea of resilience; that humanity can and will overcome the challenges that are encoded in AOU. Perhaps the optimism, and not the anxieties, is the main message of the film – whether intentional or otherwise.
Avengers: Age of Ultron, DVD, directed by Joss Whedon (United States of America: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2015).
 Robert B. Fisher, AI and Cinema – Does artificial insanity rule? (Division of Informatics: University of Edinburgh), 2. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/245235664_AI_and_Cinema_-_Does_articial_insanity_rule.
 English Oxford Living Dictionaries, s.v. “Vision,” accessed November 11, 2017, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/vision
 Raffaele Alberto Ventura, “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” Philosophy Now, Dec. & Jan. 2015/2016, https://philosophynow.org/issues/111/Avengers_Age_of_Ultron.
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books., 1964).
 Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (New York: Vintage Books., 1964).
 Ivan Illich, Tools for Conviviality (New York: Harper & Row., 1973).
 Kelly Kasulis, “The artificial intelligence boom is here. Here’s how it could change the world around us.,” Mic, May 26, 2017, accessed November 10, 2017, https://mic.com/articles/178155/the-artificial-intelligence-boom-is-here-heres-how-it-could-change-the-world-around-us#.gUSYcs9PE.
 The AI Race, DVD, directed by Fanou Filali, produced by Paul Donoughue (Australia : ABC TV, 2017)
 Roslynn Haynes, “From Alchemy to Artificial Intelligence: Stereotypes of the Scientist in Western Literature,” Public Understanding of Science 12, vol.4, no. 3 (2003), 243-253.
 John Walliss and James Aston, “Doomsday America: The pessimistic turn of post-9/11 apocalyptic cinema.” The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23, no. 1 (2011), 53-64.