Thor is the Asgardian god of thunder in Norse mythology. The Scarlet Witch was given psycho-magical powers by an Elder God. The infinity stones and the tesseract of a pre-universe signularity have in them vaguely Vedic elements. So I am certain the undertones of numerous religions are present in the Avengers, as they are throughout the comic book universe. After all, these are worlds built on the supernatural.
But because The Avengers: Age of Ultron is an American movie and because I’m much more apt to pick up Judeo-Christian symbols than those of any other religion, the blockbuster struck me as rife with Christian references. While I don’t think every reference is an attempt to make a deep theological statement, I also don’t think most of them are accidental.
Up front I must admit that I am not a comic book reader and never have been. I don’t know back stories or character interactions, so forgive me if I say something foolish. But I do know some things about Christianity, so as a way of being nerdy, and to respond to Age of Ultron (which I thought was surprisingly good), I wanted to comment on some of the overlap I noticed.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD!
To begin, Ultron is a being made for the purpose of saving humankind. But as created beings frequently do, he quickly abuses his power and makes himself superior to his creator not just in strength, but also in moral judgment. Ultron confuses saving humanity with destroying it. Ultron makes himself out to be God, but a malevolent one. Like many devils, he does not think he is evil, and he is not evil in a purely black-and-white sense; he’s more cunning than he is hateful, at least to begin with.
Apart from Christ figures in our narratives, there a few more prevalent themes of the Christian ethos reflected in popular culture than the creature turned monster. As in heaven, as in the Garden, as at Babel, as Caesar and the pharaohs, we tend toward the power-hungry and the know-it-alls. We make ourselves gods, whether we intend to or not. And soon we find ourselves despots instead of noble kings. Ultron, as such, is not just a blueprint of fallen man, he is a fallen angel, claiming the high place of knowledge and truth, though he distorts them both.
‘The geometry of belief’
Interestingly, and like many powers and false prophets, Ultron sets up the heart of his world-domination project in an old church. “They put the building in the middle of the city,” he says, “so that everyone could be equally close to God. I like that, the symmetry, the geometry of belief.”
In The Avengers, Ultron has deified himself, and because he has the ability to invade all corners of creation through the internet, he is seemingly omnipresent, always just around the corner. In a way, the “geometry of belief” that allows all people to be equally close to God is democratic in the Protestant sense — we need no priests; we can all access the Father. But it is Catholic and rightly monarchic in that, though we can all find God, He must be the focus of the circle, the hub around which everything else spins. Ultron abuses this power. Though he was created to shield all of humanity, he instead uses his closeness and oversight to destroy it.
One of the most surprising and blatant Christian references comes in Ultron’s (mis)appropriation of Jesus’ words to Peter. Like Christ, Ultron says of the heart of his deadly plot, “On this rock I will build my church….” The irony is proven in the fact that he leaves out the end of the sentence, which concludes, “…and the gates of hell will not overcome it.” Whenever we establish our own church — a church in our own image — it is a false church, and so it is not the gates of hell that overcome it, but the pearly gates of heaven. If Ultron is a devil and his church a false one, the Avengers are made out to be angels when they take over the church, rescuing it and all the town’s inhabitants.
The destruction of the world, in a very Christian sense, is prominent throughout the movie. Dr. Banner says outright it is the End Times.
As one might expect in a blockbuster, action-packed, superhero megamovie, apocalyptic violence is everywhere. Ultron compares the Avengers to Noah, saying they’ll watch the destruction of the world unfold before them. Whereas in the first Avengers, Loki wanted humanity to bow before him, Ultron wants to change people into something nearly robotic, something artificial, or destroy them. He insists that God requires people to evolve, that if they become complacent, they need to be destroyed: “When the earth starts to settle, God throws a stone at it.”
And the Avengers’ view of salvation in the apocalypse is not utilitarian. Though they could destroy the town, killing all its residents but saving the world, they refuse (as led by “God’s righteous man,” Captain America). Instead, they are not willing to lose a single person, risking all of humanity in order to give every person a chance at rescue.
Though The Avengers doesn’t hearken back to any biblical proverbs, it tries to add a few axioms to Solomon’s wisdom, some of them slanted.
- “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children… that will supplant them.”
- “Keep your friends rich, and your enemies rich. That keeps everyone happy.”
- “Every time someone tries to stop a war before it starts, innocent people die.”
- “You hope for the best and make do with what you get.”
The most shocking biblical reference for me came when The Vision was “born.” He admits that he’s not really a human, and not really a robot either — he is a sort of synthezoid god. He says of himself, quite simply and bluntly, “I am.” Any good Christian will know that those two words, used in isolation, belong to God alone, who is the great I Am. And though The Vision, possessor the Mind Stone, is humanlike in his organic makeup, his more-than-human “worthiness” is revealed in his ability to lift Thor’s hammer. His Christlikeness is furthered when he compares himself to the Avengers’ present foe: “I am on the side of life. Ultron isn’t.” Is there a more christocentric statement, for Jesus too gives life, and life to the fullest.
In true biblical fashion, The Vision exhibits a unique empathy to the fallenness of humanity, saying, “There is grace in their failings,” and “A thing isn’t beautiful because it lasts. It is a privilege to be among them.” The supernatural, mutant, and magical powers of all the Avengers heroes lends an obvious divine quality, but Age of Ultron’s picture of The Vision lifts him above the rest.
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I don’t know what the intention was in including all of these Christian elements. Surely, some of it was misused and some used more to stir discussion than as a means of furthering a gospel message. Still, with Judeo-Christian values and narratives as thick as they are in the West and in media, it is an interesting and though-provoking exercise to consider well their use in Hollywood’s work that millions will see.