When comparing The Avengers to its follow up, Avengers: Age of Ultron, I have described Ultron as more “thematic”. The Avengers is super fun but it’s not really about anything other than being fun, but Ultron actually has some creative and narrative aims that give it some heft in the comic book genre. Narrative and character threads that have been unspooling for the ten previous movies come to bear in Ultron, and then they spin out in new directions, setting up events to come not by dropping irrelevant Easter eggs but by shifting the landscape around the Avengers in such a way that there can’t help but be consequences down the line. Ultron expands the Marvel Cinematic Universe in ways that will change it forever—not for nothing is next year’s marquee Marvel title Captain America: Civil War.
The MCU has always presented a limited scope for superheroes. This is not a world run amok with powered people—although with the Inhumans waiting in the wings that’s beginning to change—but one where there are only a few superheroes scattered here and there, and to date they’ve all had grounded power sets. All of the heroes we’ve met so far, whether it’s in a movie or a TV show, has a power set that stems from physical ability. Either they’re super strong, like Captain America and Thor, or they’re exceptional fighters like Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Daredevil, or they can manifest a physical force, like Quicksilver’s super-speed or Skye/Quake’s earthquake powers on Agents of SHIELD. But in Age of Ultron we get a new kind of hero, one with metaphysical power—Wanda Maximoff, the Scarlet Witch.
The central theme of Ultron is that of legacy, particularly Tony Stark’s legacy which, no matter what he’s accomplished as Iron Man, he is ultimately unable to change. The twins Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are the most human and realized example of Stark’s legacy as the “Merchant of Death”; as children they were orphaned during a bombing and then they spent two days trapped in rubble with an unexploded Stark missile, waiting to die. Their story is horrifying and makes the twins, despite their early villainous bent, sympathetic as the victims of circumstances beyond their control. And however much he’d like Iron Man to be his legacy, Stark’s real legacy is Wanda Maximoff, a woman with incredible power fueled by Stark-spawned pain and anger.
Of course, Stark is also responsible for the murderous robot Ultron, but while the consequences of Ultron’s rampage around the world will undoubtedly be felt for years to come, Wanda is the one left standing at the end of the movie; she’s the one who will continue to affect change throughout the MCU. And she shares an interesting connection with Stark—fear. Throughout Ultron we see Stark reacting out of fear—he creates Ultron because he’s afraid of another alien invasion—and one of Wanda’s powers is the ability to trap a person inside their greatest fear.
Wanda’s “hex power” is somewhere between nightmare and prophesy; she basically shows people their darkest timeline. This is why Steve Rogers doesn’t really react when Wanda hexes him, as he’s pretty well living in his darkest timeline already. But Stark sees a world destroyed and the Avengers dead and gone with it, with only him left to bear witness to the destruction. The rest of the movie is the fallout from Stark’s reaction to this vision, which is, in a way, Wanda revisiting on him what she has already lived through. She has already seen the destruction of her world, and she’s already been the survivor left to deal with those losses. Her power is a manifestation of her pain and anger, and as she once had fear inflicted upon her, so she now inflicts it upon others.
Stark is a man of science and innovation, but Wanda is outside quantifiable boundaries. She is, at least in the sense of her abilities, pure emotion and energy. She works in opposition to Stark; where he represses and obfuscates, she unleashes and reveals. Her power is as immense as her suffering, and even on the side of good she is still a product of Stark’s destructive capability. His history as a war profiteer is inescapable, and Wanda is a constant reminder of the human cost of that past. Just as Steve Rogers manifests hope in the face of adversity, Wanda is the manifestation of the psychic scar of war.
If Wanda represents how actions have unintended consequences down the line, then Vision represents what purpose of action can achieve. Vision is meant to be Ultron’s creation, a sort of next-gen vessel for his consciousness, but the Avengers interrupt this process and instead Vision becomes something unique, created by the team. Stark’s legacy as a person is an inescapable trail of fear and destruction, but as an Avenger his legacy is embodied in Vision, something greater than the sum of its parts. Initiated by Ultron, ultimately Vision is created by a combination of Stark’s artificial intelligence, Jarvis, and Thor’s raw power. This is why I believe Vision is worthy of wielding Thor’s hammer, because he’s a part of Thor, but also because his instincts are to protect, not destroy.
Vision seems to be omniscient, thanks no doubt to the infinity stone melded with his mind, and he sees the same failings in humanity as Ultron, but he also sees the grace and hope in humans. Ultron, spawned from Stark’s fear, can only react in the same destructive ways as his maker, but Vision is a product of the Avengers as a team, and as such he has a more hopeful, protective nature. Stark, so concerned with the mark he’s leaving on the world, has a hand in creating the two most powerful Avengers. His legacy may not be the one he wants or intends, but Wanda Maximoff and Vision are both game-changing presences in the MCU. Tony Stark opened the door to extraordinary power, stemming from forces both good and bad, and ultimately the legacy of that power will depend upon the people who wield it. In the end, that’s all a legacy is—the record of our actions.