“And a witty atheist shall lead them.”
You can have all your biblical epics like Noah or Exodus, or your Evangelical niche films like God’s Not Dead or Heaven is for Real.
If I want to see a movie that wrestles with significant questions, quotes from Scripture, values the family, and presents the church as the center of the battle between good versus evil, I’m going to watch the latest superhero movie written by an atheist.
Despite his personal lack of belief, Joss Whedon manages to give movies, even those with a big-budget and even bigger expectations, a soul.
Was Avengers: Age of Ultron a perfect movie by itself? Clearly, it wasn’t. It faced a gigantic task of further developing the characters of an already crowded team, introducing new villains and teammates, connecting with the audience emotionally, and moving the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe forward—setting up the next three years worth of films.
There were moments when it stumbled under all of that weight, which was magnified by the almost perfect handling of the first Avengers film. But it never collapsed. It pushed forward with quips and heart, one-liners and fists flying, levity and sobriety. And did it all simultaneously, partly through the injection of religious symbolism and allusions.
Tony Stark’s messiah complex is fleshed out or, more appropriately, built out as the robot Ultron, endowed with artificial intelligence.
Iron Man and the new all “iron” man have a father-son relationship that doesn’t come across so much as rebellious, but as the realization of Stark’s approach to life and desire for an all-encompassing solution to every potential problem.
Stark continued the belief of his father Howard that “everything is achievable through technology,” which “holds infinite possibilities for mankind and will one day rid society of all its ills.” Ultron believes the same as his “father,” Tony. He simply decides the way to rid society of all its ills is to destroy all humanity.
To be clear, Ultron is an ideologically-driven villain. He is not so much seeking destruction as he is the advancement of his cause. Killing humans is merely the means to the end. He’s wanting to build something much grander.
As he begins the implementation of his plan, he quotes Matthew 16:18 and says, “upon this rock, I will build my church” as he tosses a canister to Quicksilver, whose real name is Pietro or Peter. (Whedon knows his Bible.)
The climax of the movie, the decisive battle between good and evil, takes place in a church building on a city in the sky. (Again, Whedon knows his Bible.) Sitting on a throne in the center of the building, Ultron says, “They put the building in the middle of the city, so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”
For Ultron, being a robot (even one with artificial intelligence) belief and faith is about symmetry and geometry. He is unable to grasp what it means to be made in God’s image. This becomes perfectly clear in his conversation with Vision, another type of artificial intelligence, but one who has aspects of humanity as part of his make-up.
Vision tells Ultron, “Human beings are fearful and in need of protection. But then, that fear can inspire them to do great things.” Ultron retorts that Vision is simply being naive. As they talk, we can see almost two different versions of belief and faith.
Ultron sees humans as incapable of being made new. They are worthy of only wrath. He says humans look to the sky for hope and he wants to take that from them first.
Vision, on the other hand, says that Ultron has missed that “there is grace in their failings.” While Ultron regards the mortality of humans as a weakness to be eliminated, Vision responds, “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.”
In a way, that’s how I felt about Age of Ultron. It isn’t beautiful because it will last and be remembered as one of the greatest films ever. It’s beauty as a film within the Marvel universe is that it honors what came before it and faithfully points to what comes next.
If we can look at the film itself in a broader light, and Whedon as a filmmaker, there seems to be a much brighter future for faith on the big screen than many thought, myself included.
Looking at films like the Hunger Game series, I openly worried that the church had removed itself from the arts and so the arts had returned the favor. But great art will always draw from the grand narrative of Scripture. Artists, created in the image of the Creator, cannot help themselves.
The reflection may frequently be dirty or disjointed, but it’s there. And in a film like Avengers: Age of Ultron, it’s there and fairly clear. I can only hope Christian artists learn from Whedon. There is grace in our failings and people are longing to see hope on the screen, even if they don’t expect it from the sky.
As a follower of Christ, I can only pray viewers (and artists like Whedon) look beyond the screen to a Savior—not one made of metal, but One nailed to a tree.