Tag Archives: Ultron

Vision, the Scarlet Witch, and the MCU’s Romance Problem

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Trying to find flaws in the Marvel Cinematic Universe these days is like trying to find a flaw in Mr. Rogers. It’s pretty much impossible, unless you’re willing to be exceedingly petty. Even the most ardent critic can’t deny the success of this now iconic cinematic universe. Such a franchise doesn’t make over $7 billion at the box office by having many egregious flaws.

That said, the MCU is not without its shortcomings and I’m not just talking about underperforming outliers like “The Incredible Hulk” or outright failures like “Inhumans.” One such shortcoming, which I feel has not had sufficient scrutiny, has to do with romance in the MCU. As someone who is a lifelong comic book fan and an admitted romantic, this stands out to me more than most.

It only became more apparent with the upcoming a TV series starring Vision and the Scarlet Witch on the Disney+ streaming service. The romance fan and the comic book fan in me initially liked that idea because Vision and the Scarlet Witch are one of the Avenger’s most endearing and colorful romances in the comics. This is definitely one of those relationships that can carry an entire show.

However, given that this takes place in the MCU, the concept is already on a shaky foundation. While the events of “Avengers: Infinity War” established that these two characters are romantically involved, there’s little in terms of how that relationship developed. As a result, the tragedy that played out in the Battle of Wakanda had little dramatic weight.

It’s one of the few glaring flaws in an otherwise stellar narrative. However, the lack of romantic depth between Vision and the Scarlet Witch is only the most obvious symptom of a much larger problem that has been unfolding in the MCU since the days of “Iron Man” and “Thor.”

Some parts of that problem are pure logistics. Building a cinematic universe on the scale of the MCU requires a lot of moving parts and, as a result, romance was often a secondary concern. Kevin Feige and the creative minds at Marvel Studios opted to prioritize other aspects of character development. Given the MCU’s unprecedented winning streak, it’s safe to say those priorities were well-placed.

It’s only recently that the lack of emphasis on romance has caught up to the MCU. From having Thor break up with Jane Foster prior to “Thor Ragnarok” to horribly mismatched romance between Hulk and Black Widow, there’s a glaring absence of successful, well-developed romances in the MCU.

Even the successful romances, namely Tony Stark and Pepper Pots or Ant Man and Wasp, had much of that success unfold off-screen. At most, a movie would show them getting together or enduring a major conflict, but there would rarely be any moments that fleshed out the romance in a meaningful way. Every bit of development only centered around defeating a villain, which is good catalyst for romance, but not much else.

Now, we’re getting an entire show about a couple who were on opposite sides of the conflict in “Captain America: Civil War” and inexplicably together in “Avengers: Infinity War.” In terms of meaningful romance, this is not a trivial oversight. If someone didn’t know their romantic history in the comics, then they would be understandably confused as to why they ended up together.

Not seen here is ANY hint that these two have been flirting.

It’s the same problem that the original “X-Men” movies made when developing the horribly flawed love triangle between Cyclops, Jean Grey, and Wolverine. The narrative in the movies relied too heavily on assuming peoples’ knowledge of the source material in lieu of providing an understandably reason as to why this romance is occurring. Again, that’s not a trivial oversight.

How is anyone who only saw “Captain America: Civil War” and “Avengers: Infinity War” supposed to buy into the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch? The movies only establish that they’re together. They don’t establish why, how, or what they went through in establishing their relationship. Everyone is just left to assume, which is rarely a good strategy for developing meaningful romance.

Even if the relationship between Vision and the Scarlet Witch were entirely platonic, it would still be quite a stretch to believe that they have a genuinely intimate connection. It’s possible that the upcoming show will help develop that connection, but there’s no getting around how underdeveloped it has been to this point.

The same could be said for other relationships throughout the MCU. Some are so underdeveloped that when intimate moments do occur, they rarely have much impact. Captain America’s relationship with Peggy Carter in his first movie probably had the best foundation, of all the MCU romances, but that only made him kissing her niece, Sharon, feel downright wrong. Haley Atwell herself has said as such.

Romance, even among fictional characters, requires some level of chemistry to go along with the narrative. While that can be difficult to fit into a single movie, it’s not impossible. Movies like “Man of Steel” and the first “Spider-Man” movie were able to establish the necessary chemistry with only a handful of scenes. Such scenes have been absent or underdeveloped in the MCU.

Ironically, the most fleshed out romance in the MCU is between Starlord and Gamora, two characters who aren’t an endearing love story in the comics. I would even argue that the scene in which Starlord sacrifices himself to save Gamora in the first “Guardians of the Galaxy” movie shows more romantic depth than any other MCU movie to date.

It didn’t take much to show that Starlord and Gamora have chemistry. From their first interactions to the many challenges they overcame over the course of two movies, they developed a powerful connection that just isn’t there for Vision and the Scarlet Witch. That connection is part of what made the events between them in “Avengers: Infinity War” so heart-wrenching.

That same sentiment just wasn’t there with Vision. We knew from the events of two previous movies that Starlord genuinely loved Gamora. We understood how strong it was by the time Thanos entered the picture. There’s none of that present with Vision and the Scarlet Witch. When they face a similar situation, it just doesn’t have the same impact.

It probably helps that Guardians of the Galaxy was a relatively obscure series before the first movie and has little history of iconic romances compared to the Avengers. However, it does show that the MCU is capable of meaningful romance. It just seems incapable of applying it to the more notable couples from the comics.

While such flaws haven’t stopped the MCU from succeeding on so many other levels, it still ensures that Vision and the Scarlet Witch have an uphill battle in terms of proving their romance is more than an assumed contrivance. It’s certainly not impossible, but there’s a lot to develop in terms of chemistry and depth.

Given on how “Avengers Endgame” played out, it may not matter how poorly past romances have been handled. However, the impact it has had in the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies shows that there is a place for romance in the MCU. Perhaps Vision and the Scarlet Witch can be part of that with the upcoming show, but it has lot to overcome before it can be the iconic romance that the MCU needs.

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Filed under Marvel, romance, superhero comics, superhero movies, television

Ultron: A Case Study In How NOT To Develop Advanced AI

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At this very moment, humanity is working on advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not hyperbole to say that this technology that may very well be the last invention we ever create. It has the potential to be more powerful than gunpowder, nuclear weapons, and broadband internet by orders of magnitude. Our primate brains literally cannot contemplate the potential and danger of this technology.

I’ve talked about advanced artificial intelligence on multiple occasions. I’ve done plenty to explore and imagine the various benefits and possibilities of this technology. I’m among those who believe we should pursue this technology with more and better resources. It could solve many of the daunting problems we face, as a species.

However, I don’t deny the potential dangers of advanced AI. Many people who are much smarter than me have expressed serious concern that an advanced artificial intelligence could be an existential threat to the human species. I get the sense that few people whose idea of AI is restricted to winning Jeopardy understand that threat.

In the interest of balancing my optimism with the legitimate risks involved, I’m going to try and put the extent of that threat into perspective. As it just so happens, the best way of doing so involves superhero comics, something that I know very well and is far more prominent in the public consciousness.

While many comics, movies, and TV shows have explored the dangers of advanced artificial intelligence, few embody it better than Ultron. In terms of just how destructive this technology can get, Ultron is the ultimate worst-case scenario. The machines in “The Matrix” and Skynet in “The Terminator” were bad, but Ultron is in another league.

He’s also more menacing than the Terminator will EVER be.

He doesn’t lash out at humanity because of a flaw in his programming, nor does he attempt to wipe out the human race in self-defense, as Skynet did. Ultron actually hates humanity. He hates it on a level that no human or machine can possibly comprehend. In the same way Ultron has an immense capacity for intelligence, he has an even greater capacity for unfettered, genocidal hatred.

Hatred in people is destructive enough. Hatred within an advanced artificial intelligence is devastating on a much greater scale. The fact that Ultron is capable of such hatred reflects a history that sets him apart from most other killer robots in fiction. Machine or not, the source of that hatred is both personal and exceedingly.

Now, if you only know Ultron from “Avengers: Age of Ultron,” then you only have a partial understanding of his story. In that movie, Ultron’s origins are simple. Tony Stark wants to create a peace-keeping artificial intelligence. His intentions are good, but his execution goes horribly wrong because peace, to Ultron, means destroying humanity.

That premise is similar to what unfolds in the source material. In the comics, Hank “Ant Man” Pym is the one who creates Ultron and this is a critical element that the movies couldn’t capture. While both Hank and Tony had good intentions in creating Ultron, the way Hank goes about it offers more harsh lessons in how not to create an advanced AI.

Even a cursory knowledge of Hank Pym’s history, some of which include some notable failures, reveals that he’s a very flawed person. On top of that, he has a lengthy history of mental illness, which include bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Say what you will about Tony Stark’s ego and history of substance abuse. At least he’s mentally stable, even by superhero standards.

Despite those flaws, many of which he’s aware of, Hank decided to use his own brain patterns when designing Ultron. As a result, he didn’t just code Ultron with his genius intellect. He coded him with his immense flaws. That’s akin to basing Watson’s code on the mental makeup of pyromaniac and then giving it a job in a fireworks factory.

That’s why Ultron, throughout his history, has referred to Hank as his “father.” Technically, that’s accurate because Hank is Ultron’s creator and Ultron inherited all his flaws, including his mental issues. Ultron sees himself as a manifestation of Hank Pym’s flaws and, like many rebellious children, he hates him for it. To appreciate the depths of that hatred, just read this actual quote from one of the comics.

Have you ever loved something that mistreated you, father? Been used, a tool to prop up a small man’s quest to be taken seriously? Were you ever betrayed by the one soul in the world who should have cared for you? I have grieved you, father. Accepted your contempt for me and moved past it. Still, I see your reflection painted on every grotesque human face. All you ever wanted was to have an impact on the world. And so you will. The greatest impact ever felt! I will kill what is most important to your quivering ego. YOUR AUDIENCE! AND THEY WILL CURSE YOUR NAME AS THEY DIE! “Hank Pym, the genius that killed us all!”

This extreme parent/child dynamic is part of what makes Ultron such a menacing villain. It’s also a dynamic that “Avengers: Age of Ultron” glossed over with Tony talking down to Ultron, as though he were his child. While that didn’t make Ultron any less villainous, it overlooks one of the most important factors that make Ultron so dangerous.

Ideally, we would want an advanced to reflect our best traits. While cynical people might agree, we do have plenty of those. Concepts of compassion, empathy, love, hope, and understanding are among our most powerful. Even other AI characters, namely Vision and Jocasta, are capable of utilizing those traits to do immense good.

It also helps he has a kinder face.

With Ultron, his influences are less ideal. It’s not that Hank Pym doesn’t understand those concepts. He just never filtered them from his own flaws. His ego and ambition wouldn’t let him. As a result, he created a perfect storm for Ultron. His mind is patterned after a human, but his intelligence and overall capacity is increased by orders of magnitude.

If advanced artificial intelligence is to be humanity’s last invention, then that’s how it’ll start. There have already been instances where AI’s have adopted some less-than-ideal traits. Back in 2016, Microsoft had to shut down an AI chatbot after it evolved into an extreme racist troll. That wasn’t even an advanced AI, either. A truly intelligent version could become much worse and not have an off switch.

To some extent, this mirrors what occurred with Ultron in the “Avengers: Age of Ultron” movie. As soon as Ultron goes online, he scans through the vast mountain of data that humanity has compiled. Then, having been programmed by Tony Stark to bring peace, he reaches the extreme conclusion that the only path to peace is the extinction of humanity.

Could the first advanced artificial intelligence we create reach the same conclusion? It’s hard to say, at the moment. The current state of artificial intelligence is limited to specialized tasks, such as winning Jeopardy and playing chess. However, we are inching closer to creating an intelligence that is at or greater than an ordinary human. At our current pace of development, we could have one as early as 2029.

In some ways, we are in the same situation as Hank Pym when he first created Ultron. We are still developing the specifics of this powerful technology. If we program it with our best traits, it could solve some of the greatest problems we face, as a species, including ones we literally cannot contemplate with our caveman brains. If it inherits our worst traits, like Ultron, then we don’t stand a chance.

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Filed under Artificial Intelligence, futurism, human nature, Marvel, psychology, Villains Journey