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The sick and twisted history of Ultron, Marvel’s lesson about the singularity

Age of Ultron #10
Age of Ultron #10
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Born during the Cold War, sprinkled with daddy issues, and blessed with an unquenchable megalomania, Ultron, a robot created by the most troubled Avenger in history, has been one of the great Avengers villains for 46 years. Now, he will play the main baddie in the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron, wreaking havoc on Earth's mightiest franchise.

Ultron's staying power is a sterling example of how the comic book industry has continually held a mirror up to society. The Ultron story has tracked fears of communism, of nuclear war, and now of artificial intelligence. But he began with a scheme that redefined comic book evil.

What comic book evil looked like before Ultron

Avengers no. 54 (Marvel)

Ultron first appears in Avengers no. 54 — written by Roy Thomas and illustrated by John Buscema in 1968 — but this isn't really an appearance at all. In disguise, he goes by the name Crimson Cowl and is, yes, draped in a crimson (in all honesty, it's pink) cowl.

Readers learn the Cowl has assembled a group of villains who want to take down the Avengers. At first glance, none of this seems particularly significant. Villains hatch plots to take down the Avengers all the time. Mysterious figures are a dime a dozen. And the plot, involving brainwashing, isn't all that memorable.

Where Thomas's plot breaks free from the norm of the time — and sets Ultron on the path to becoming one of the most sinister villains the Avengers have ever seen — is in the villain's plan. Ultron wants to capture the Avengers, stick them into a hydrogen bomb, and blow it up over Manhattan:

Avengers no. 55 (Marvel)

This kind of diabolical master plan represented a type of evil that was rarely seen in comics of the time — largely thanks to a mandate called the Comics Code, which began in the '50s.

The Comics Code seal of approval

Comics have always reflected reality — even if only subconsciously. In the years following WWII, there was a rise of superheroes who got their powers from nuclear explosions, as well as a rise in comic books about war, crime, and horror. With the rising popularity of the latter, adults began tying juvenile delinquency to comic books. The US Senate cobbled together a subcommittee in April of 1954 to address the growing "problem" of comic books and their "effect" on juvenile delinquency.

This hearing soured the American public's view of comic books as art. Sean Howe, author of Marvel Comics: The Untold Story, points out that 15 publishers went out of business that summer.

With a public relations nightmare looming, surviving comics publishers banded together in September 1954 to form what's known as the Comics Magazine Association of America. It created one of the most damaging documents the industry has ever seen: the Comics Code.

The Comics Code aimed to change public perception of comic books by removing the industry's gory bits. What it did was defang and neuter comic books and bind the industry's artistic creativity.

Howe explains:

According to the new Comics Code, covers could not even include the words horror and terror; under no circumstances were zombies, vampires, ghouls, or werewolves permitted to appear anywhere in the comics. Furthermore — and this is where the rules tipped into the Orwellian — there could be no sympathy created for criminals, nor disrespect of the sanctity of marriage. "Good," the rules demanded, "must triumph over evil."

Though there was no penalty for violating the Code, distributors only wanted to sell comics bearing its seal.

One thing the Code allowed for, however, was superheroes, who began filling comics pages again. And along with those heroes were over-the-top supervillains who'd never be mistaken for werewolves, vampires, or zombies. This is why the villains in Avengers no. 54 — the Klaw, Whirlwind, the Melter, and Radioactive Man — look goofy in hindsight.

But with Ultron, Thomas didn't just set the form of one of the greatest Avengers villains in history. He also changed the characterization of evil, and helped usher in a different, darker way to tell stories that would come to full fruition in the '80s.

Thomas, who taught high school English in Missouri and was an avid fan of comic books before joining Marvel, carefully positioned Ultron as leader, demoting the "Masters of Evil," by making them his puppets:

Ultron's mask comes off in Avengers no. 55.


Avengers no. 55 (Marvel)

The Masters of Evil's dreams of taking down the Avengers, robbing banks, and conquering the world paled in comparison to Ultron, who wanted everything to burn. Along with Ultron, the mid to late '60s also saw Marvel introduce more serious villains like HYDRA, Magneto, and Bolivar Trask and his Sentinels.

Thomas's work on Ultron reflects the fears of the Cold War era. In 1967, China tested its first hydrogen bomb, and France followed the year after. And there are times when Ultron feels like a tale of a doomsday device gone sentient — if humans won't destroy the world, Ultron's arc reveals, a machine will.

A powerless man created the most powerful villain

Avengers no. 58 (Marvel)

Though we're introduced to Ultron in the "Masters of Evil" arc, we don't find out his origin until four issues later in Avengers no. 58. Hank Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man, is Ultron's creator — and he didn't even know it.

Pym was one of Marvel's most troubled superheroes. His powers — changing his size — weren't as flashy as Thor's or Iron Man's. And his intelligence wasn't as revered as Reed Richards's. He was the Ringo of the Avengers.

"His history was largely a litany of failure, always changing guises and switching back and forth from research to hero-ing because he wasn't succeeding at either," Jim Shooter, a former editor-in-chief at Marvel wrote on his site, explaining Pym's shortcomings. "He was never the Avenger who saved the day at the end and usually the first knocked out or captured."

Ultron's origin was another indication that Marvel was changing the way it thought of bad guys and the importance of where evil comes from. Marvel wanted to make it clear that villains' beginnings mattered and that it benefits storytelling and superheroes when a story's antagonist has nuance and depth.

It's, thus, deeply poetic that in Pym's long-running history of failures, Ultron was his greatest creation.

Avengers no. 58 (Marvel)

Though Ultron is a robot/embodiment of artificial intelligence, he still subscribes to the human conventions of family. He resents that his father is a simpleton and failure. He is on a mission to buck control. This reflects another political reality of the time: during the '60s — the time when Ultron was conceived and written — white men controlled everything, largely without question.

And then things changed.

The Civil Rights and Women's Liberation movements caused people to question the system, highlighting how much power lay in the hands of so few. The government waged a far-off war that people increasingly turned against. The Cold War loomed over the country, and Americans started to distrust technology that seemed to build only better and better doomsday devices.

Thomas's Ultron represents any or all of that. And Thomas's background in teaching literature shows itself in themes like Ultron's Oedipus complex, and Pym's tragedy. But the clearest thing that Thomas wanted to get across is how eager man can be when hammering the nails in his own coffin. The true horror of Ultron is about the loss of control:

Avengers no.58 (Marvel)

Ultron brings out the worst in people

Hank Pym hits his wife in Avengers no. 213 (Marvel)

Though Ultron kills many people, his greatest destruction is the psyche of Hank Pym. Ultron becomes a symbol of shame, disappointment, and failure for Pym. Both characters would draw from this dark reservoir of contempt and frustration throughout the years, with Pym always trying to make up for his creation.

Pym's desperation speaks to a fear about his legacy and pride. This all comes to a boil in one of the greatest Ultron stories ever told, Kurt Busiek's Ultron Unlimited arc in 1999.

In that story, Ultron slaughters the inhabitants of a fictional country called Slorenia, then raises up a robot army from their remains. Pym has to come to terms with what he has created and admit to himself that the scariest part of Ultron is that there's a bit of himself in it:

Ultron Unlimited (Marvel)

Ultron's evil always felt organic, but knowing that it stems from a human source changes its tone. Busiek drives home the idea that evil is a human creation and that it just doesn't happen on its own. And realizing that, as Pym does here, is devastating.

Ultron and our greatest modern fears

When Thomas created Ultron, his intent was to capture mankind's greatest fears of the time, and wind those fears around the theme of technology. But technology has advanced rapidly since then. The topics — hydrogen bombs, doomsday devices, the Cold War — that Thomas was tackling in the '60s are now anachronisms or givens. There is, however, an original component from Thomas's conception that's remained completely relevant — the twin ideas of artificial intelligence and a technological singularity.

That was fully realized in Brian Michael Bendis's Age of Ultron arc, published in 2013.

"I'm kind of obsessed with artificial intelligence in the real world and why people are scared of it," Bendis said during the promotional tour for AOU. "If there were a Marvel Singularity, it would be from Ultron. This is the moment technology takes over in a hostile way."


Age of Ultron #1 (Marvel)

Though Age of Ultron shares its name with the movie, they have nothing in common. AOU is a look at a dystopian world where Ultron has succeeded in wiping out humanity with only a handful of Marvel's heroes left to save them. Compared to other Ultron stories of the past, AOU probably doesn't make the Ultron hall of fame.

But Bendis's story is riveting in that it reflects very real fears about A.I. We live in a world with driverless cars, drones, and computers that can win at chess and Jeopardy. It can't be that long before someone tries to create their own Ultron, can it?

This past summer, my colleague Dylan Matthews talked to Nick Bostrom, an Oxford professor, who theorizes that artificial intelligence will hit a point where it shucks human control and decides that the world may be better off without us.

Bostrom explained:

We did a survey of opinions among some of the leading experts in artificial intelligence, which I report in the book. One of the questions we ask was, "by what year do you think there is a 50 percent probability that we will have human-level machine intelligence?" And the median answer to that was 2040 or 2050, depending on precisely which group of experts we polled.

Elon Musk, the man behind Tesla and a real-life Tony Stark of sorts, is taking Bostrom seriously. Back in August, he expressed how he was concerned about the advancement of A.I. and how we could be "summoning a demon":

Musk added:

Again, this is a very smart man saying this, someone who is taken seriously and is known for being a step ahead in the game of technology and innovation. And what he's worried about is an Ultron-like scenario. The character's relevance remains.


What Ultron will be like in Avengers: Age of Ultron

Though Hank Pym exists in the comic books, he has yet to make appearance in Marvel's cinematic universe. So if Pym is so involved in Ultron's storyline, how do you get away with this story in the movies?

According to director Joss Whedon and the powers that be at Marvel, Tony Stark is going to unwittingly release Ultron upon this world. That's why Stark is spending most of the Avengers 2 trailer looking distraught and pensive.

"It's the end. It's the end of the path I started us on," Stark says in the trailer, which could suggest he believes the end of the Avengers is his doing.

We saw Marvel lay the groundwork for Stark's creation of Ultron back in Iron Man 3, when he showed that he can control Iron Man suits like you would drones (another piece of modern technology we have substantial concerns about). Creating Ultron as a mistake in his remote suit program could make total sense.

In Captain America: Winter Soldier, we also saw the terrorist group Hydra infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D., the government agency that bankrolls the Avengers, causing the team, along with Nick Fury and Maria Hill, to go rogue and use Tony Stark's wealth to fund the initiative. This puts even more of the focus on Stark's position as leader, and even more emotional weight when his greatest creation turns against him.

Even though Pym isn't in the film (that we know of) and Ultron's origin story has been tweaked, the villainous robot should still work, because his story has always been about the fears of our advancement and our relationship with our own creations.

Technology no longer belongs to a select few. It has been democratized, and there are more people working and creating apps and gadgets every day. From our dating livesto driving, our relationship with our technology is more intimate than ever before.

Ultron isn't some being from another land or some supernatural force. He's more insidious, born from our own technology, created by our best and brightest. And that makes Ultron a perfectly-tailored villain not just for the Avengers, but for us as well.

WATCH: All the Easter eggs in the Age of Ultron trailers

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