In an Avengers: Age Of Ultron trailer, the robot villain compares the Avengers to puppets, too tangled up in the strings of their conceptions of morality to make the big changes they might otherwise be capable of as heroes. The rest of the trailer offers glimpses of the destruction Ultron (James Spader) can unleash upon the planet freed of such “strings,” as a deeply creepy version of the song “I’ve Got No Strings” from Disney’s Pinocchio plays in the background.
It’s a clever trailer, showing that Disney can marry its hot new licenses with its old properties. That connection also provides a first look into one of the movie’s dominant themes: the burden of fatherhood.
Pinocchio tells the story of a man who dreams of having a son, but can only craft an artificial one. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) never really talks about wanting kids, but what he wants from Ultron is something fathers have wanted from sons for millennia: someone to take over the family business. Stark is aging and tired of saving the world. He’d like to retire from his responsibilities, but wants to know that they’ll be left in good hands. What (or who) better to provide him with the peace he dreams of than something he creates?
When he discovers an incredibly advanced artificial intelligence tucked into Loki’s scepter, he recruits Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) to use it to create Ultron—a project they apparently dreamed up some time ago but never were able to achieve. Stark has already built a legion of robots, but they’re capable only of basic crowd control. He wants an intelligent instrument for global peacekeeping.
But your dreams for your children don’t always work out, as any parent whose kid decides they’d rather try journalism than take over the family practice knows. (Sorry, Dad.) Ultron rejects Stark after finding all of humanity unworthy as he scrolls through a montage of the species’ most destructive failures (reminiscent of the same info dump that causes Leeloo to lose faith in The Fifth Element). He quickly strikes out on his own, taking a pair of superpowered orphans (Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch) under his wing and engaging in a rigorous program of self-improvement while trying to destroy his creator.
Stark’s influence on Ultron’s character is obvious: a true credit to James Spader, who portrays a sociopathic version of Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. He’s prone to sarcasm and self-aggrandizement, but also shows he’s picked up some of Stark’s favorite sayings during his negotiations with weapons dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). When Klaue recognizes Stark’s line and realizes that Ultron must be one of Stark’s creations, the comparison enrages Ultron, who doesn’t want to be anything like his weak father or brainless elder siblings.
It’s a shame that the film doesn’t do more with this compelling thread—especially since a recent telling of the story of Ultron digs deeper into his relationship with his creator. The 2010 animated series Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes! cleaves closer to the comic books, where Hank Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man, is the creator of Ultron. In the series, Ant-Man is a pacifist who built Ultron as a combination guard and counselor for a supervillain prison.
When this version of Ultron, like the film version, decides that peace on Earth is best achieved through the destruction of all humanity, Ant-Man is devastated in a way Tony Stark never is. As Pym uses his own brain waves as a model for Ultron, he decides that the robot’s evil must lie somewhere in him. It’s the true guilt of the father of a wayward son who wonders if he failed him through his own nature, nurture, or a combination of the two.
Stark is more concerned with convincing his team that it was a good idea to experiment with an unknown AI without consulting them. Despite Stark saying he needs Banner’s expertise to create Ultron, his fellow mad scientist seems to have all the impact of a doctor who performs an in-vitro fertilization procedure. In the animated series, Pym is Ultron’s primary creator, but Iron Man clearly takes parental responsibility for the film version. The two “fathers” have conflicting visions for Ultron’s purpose, with Stark thinking he’d be more useful as a weapon and even secretly modifying some versions with guns. When his teammates discover this artillery, Stark looks as sheepish as any parent caught letting their kid do something their spouse forbade.
The creation of Vision ups the stakes even more. In the film, Ultron designs the human-android hybrid to be another stage in his own evolution. In keeping with the Pinocchio theme, Ultron aims to make himself a real live boy, but this misses the symmetry created by the comic-book narrative where Ultron creates Vision as his own son. In Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!, Vision is meant to be the perfect lieutenant to fight the Avengers. When he’s defeated, Vision returns home to beg forgiveness. Ultron’s cold indifference hints at the frustration kids can feel when they tell their parents about a mistake they make and don’t get the reaction they expected. Ultron’s not angry; he’s barely even disappointed. He has such a grand plan that he doesn’t really care about the results of his son’s actions. That coldness, contrasted with the passion Vision witnesses while fighting Captain America, convinces the android to switch sides, much to Ultron’s outrage.
This vicious cycle of fathers who have their expectations for their sons shattered by betrayal is tragically missing in Age Of Ultron. Vision is the second creation of Banner and Stark using Stark’s loyal AI Jarvis and the cosmic magic of the Mind Stone. Maybe there’s a metaphor here for the courage found in parents willing to have a second child after losing their first one, but Vision’s immediate goodness in opposition to Ultron’s instant decision to choose evil appears unearned. Parenthood should be more complicated than that.
In the annals of the Avengers, Tony Stark struggles with his father’s legacy and Thor feels he can’t live up to Odin’s expectations. In Age Of Ultron, we learn that Black Widow and Hulk will never be parents. Ultron then loses his adopted kids when Pietro and Wanda turn against him, but as they were never made in his image, the betrayal has far less impact. Perhaps Joss Whedon thought the film could use a happy family to provide some contrast when he inserted Hawkeye’s secret wife and kids. But the Avengers are a team filled with daddy issues, and there’s more that could have been done to show how Ultron and Stark’s relationship is sadly far from unique.