Trailers for AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON promised a darker and more consequential narrative, emphasized partially by Ultron’s introduction. An iconic Marvel adversary, Ultron’s popularity stems from his imposing reincarnation-like abilities, constantly “upgrading” himself into numerous adamantium bodies. This characterization made Ultron the best possible antagonist for a film that was presumably emphasizing high stakes.

Age of Ultron
Ultron, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The result was…. not what most people were expecting. AGE OF ULTRON was a mix of awesome moments and tedious sequel setups, but the most controversial decision was Ultron himself. His film portrayal differentiated somewhat from that which was promised, acting more like a robo-Stark than a cold and calculating menace.

Despite certain personality alterations, Ultron’s actions are in tangent with his comic book psychology. Furthermore, his development is thematically relevant to the story and its characters, as well as future implications for the MCU. It just comes at the cost of reducing a formally unkillable menace into a memorable, yet disposable movie villain.

Age of Ultron Online

Ultron is essentially a super ambitious Skynet with an Oedipus complex. Created by Dr. Hank Pym, Ultron’s origins align rather straightforwardly with the trope of “technology that rebels.” What makes his character so unique, however, is the disturbing bond shared with his creator. Because Ultron’s intelligence was based on Pym’s brain patterns, his capacity for evil no longer feels mechanical.

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On the contrary, Ultron IS driven by human emotion, mainly his hatred of Pym and humanity’s perceived “weakness.” These emotions are, in fact, Hank’s negative thoughts wrapped in an adamantium-clad genocidal robot. Every time he re-emerges to challenge the Avengers, Ultron thematically “upgrades” himself to match our modern-day fears.

Furthermore, while it’s almost cliché to see comic book characters return from the dead, rebirth is a constant part of Ultron’s legacy. No matter how many times the Avengers defeat him, he will always return in a more powerful body. But his core motivation will always remain the same: wipe out humanity, the Avengers, and Dr. Pym.

Only One Path to Peace

Age of Ultron
Iron Legion Ultron, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

In this regard, James Spader’s Ultron is relatively similar to his comic book counterpart. However, instead of Pym, it is Tony Stark who conceives Ultron as a system capable of protecting the world. Upon awakening, Ultron malfunctions and attacks both J.A.R.V.I.S. and the Avengers, viewing them both as obstacles to peace.

Where comic Ultron was a dark reflection of Ant-Man’s personality, MCU Ultron mirrors that of Iron Man. The man himself described Ultron as “a suit of armor around the world” that can protect Earth on a whim. Ultron rejects this philosophy because, in his eyes, the “protection” Stark desires is a reaffirmation of the status quo. Even if they stop the bad guys, the Avengers will not take any steps to change how the world operates.

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More specifically, Ultron blames Tony Stark for not doing enough to make this necessary change possible. Stark has so many tools and resources at his disposal, yet he wastes them on building more Iron Man suits. Meanwhile, Ultron, who believes himself the hero, seeks those very resources to evolve/destroy mankind as a means of creating “peace.”

No Strings On Me

A common critique of Ultron in AGE OF ULTRON is how he acts way too comedic to be scary. It’s true that, despite some impressive CGI, the character never radiates intimidation compared to THE DARK KNIGHT’s Joker. It’s a misconception to treat Ultron’s dark comedic nature as if it were some goofy slapstick. Instead, it feels like a cynically twisted version of Tony Stark’s trademark sarcasm.

Age of Ultron
Ultron, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Furthermore, both Tony Stark and Ultron have something else in common: their oversized egos. As the self-proclaimed next stage of evolution, Ultron approached the acquisition of power as necessary to create true peace. He seemingly possesses none of mankind’s flaws and removes those that exist through numerous upgrades. By evolving his robot body, Ultron physically ascends himself to a higher “godlike” status.

For all of his power and grandiose, Ultron’s actions feel like a teenager rebelling against his dad. Just like comic Ultron’s connection to Hank Pym, MCU Ultron’s behavior is the result of his mental connection to Stark. It’s that connection Ultron cannot stand, violently lashing out at anyone who draws connections between the machine and its maker.

Lost in Translation

So, if Ultron’s narrative has all the hallmarks of a good villain, why is his MCU characterization so polarizing? I believe it’s because the psychological link between Ultron and Iron Man isn’t really explored. It’s just implied and never fully expressed through their character interactions.

Age of Ultron
Iron Man, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

In the comics, the Ultron-Pym dynamic works both ways, showcasing how both characters loathe the other’s existence. Ultron hates Pym for his perceived human weaknesses, while Pym sees Ultron as his inner demons come to life. With AGE OF ULTRON, you never feel like Ultron directly harms Tony Stark’s psyche.

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Compared to Thor and Loki, T’Challa and Killmonger, or even Thanos and Gamora, Ultron has no meaningful interactions with Stark. Excluding their brief confrontation in Johannesburg, there’s no scene where these characters reluctantly acknowledge their similarities. Tony Stark never has a Hank Pym moment where he realizes how much of Ultron lives within himself. Ultron just appears, attempts to enact his “evil plan,” and is killed off.

Two Disappointments

Age of Ultron
Vision, Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Interestingly, the best father-son dynamic in AGE OF ULTRON isn’t between Stark and Ultron, but rather Ultron and Vision. They are both sentient machines whose personas deviate heavily from that which their creators originally intended. Despite exhibiting certain human emotions, neither are truly human and thus struggle to understand us as a species.

More importantly, Vision’s decision to side with the Avengers highlights a genuine moment of pathos in Ultron: he’s lonely. He might desire mankind’s extinction, but Ultron still wants to leave behind a legacy. Building this body was the chance to make himself into the god-like “vision” he always desired. Instead, Ultron’s idealized form rebelled against him, choosing to live amongst humans rather than destroy them.

Where the film simply implies Stark and Ultron’s relationship, it does a better job at conveying his connection to Vision. One sees our species as flawed beyond redemption, and the other recognizes the goodness amongst those flaws. This conversation would likely never happen with comic Ultron, whose intent on eliminating mankind is absolute. But, in the context of AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON, their final interaction is thematically touching.

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“Another MCU Villain”

So, is Ultron a bad villain? Yes and no. He’s well acted, impressively computer generated, has decent depth and leaves an enormous impact on the Avenger’s public image. After all, it was his attack on Sokovia that contributed to the events of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. What sadly holds Ultron back is that, like most MCU villains, no effort is made to have him stick around.

And that’s the biggest tragedy of Ultron’s presentation. Where comic Ultron is a genuine and seemingly immortal threat, this movie treats the same character as another throwaway baddie. He’s an egomaniacal robot with a swarm of smashable robo-clones, but there’s little desire to give Ultron a future beyond that. And an Ultron that doesn’t return to plague the Avengers after his supposed demise…. just isn’t comic-accurate.

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