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Another View: Age of Ultron #10 Part 27

The morality of superheroes killing is a recurring idea in Brian Michael Bendis’s Avengers books. Usually, it is raised as an option and shown to be a faulty one. When Clint Barton ignores Spider-Man incredibly whining, childish arguments against killing Norman Osborn (they basically amount to the lame “But it’s wrong! ALWAYS! SO THERE!”), he’s captured by Osborn and shown the error of his ways. Any time the idea of killing is actually discussed and put into action, it is shown to be faulty. Yet, subtle killing happens quite often.

In Age of Ultron #10, Hank Pym and the Avengers kill Ultron. They execute him while laying a savage beating on him. There is no question about if it is the right thing to do or not. Killing Ultron, a sentient lifeform, is the complete and total right thing to do. It is the just and heroic thing to do. And no one questions that. No one questions killing Ultron. Just as no one questioned killing the Skrulls in Secret Invasion. They question killing everyone else. Just not robots and aliens. There’s not even a hint of debate over the concept, it’s simply taken for granted that, while the Avengers don’t kill, that only applies to humans. Aliens and robots, despite being sentient, living beings that should, theoretically, have the same rights and considerations as any human, are Lesser Than. They are slaughtered without a second thought or a moment of hesitation. Norman Osborn is a crazy man whose rise to power ultimately led to him starting a war with Asgard and unleashing a mentally unstable being of near unlimited power. But, of course, killing him would have been wrong because real heroes don’t solve problems with killing.

Hank Pym invented Ultron, so Logan decided to kill him before he could. This was seen as wrong (and the story revealed the action to be wrong for a variety of reasons, none having to do with actual morality). If you want to know how horrible a person Hank Pym is, think about the fact that simply telling him about Ultron and what happens when he invents the robot isn’t enough to stop him from doing it. It’s a challenge to Pym at that point. He is a fucked up, reprehensible person who is hard to classify as a hero at that point. No, really, what kind of person learns that they invent a machine that gains sentience and dedicates itself to killing every human and decides to go ahead and invent it anyway? A terrible, awful person. It’s easy to relate to Wolverine’s first instinct regarding Pym… Yet, the story reveals that Pym is not the one that needs to die; only Ultron.

(By the way, here’s something that never came up, but I’m almost surprised it didn’t: when Logan and Susan Richards return to the present, Logan doesn’t go after Pym. Part of me could definitely see a take on Logan that would involve him deciding that Pym was such a terrible person that, while he won’t kill him, he will fuck him up a bit because he would always invent Ultron no matter what. I want to see that story involving the duplicate Logan from Age of Ultron. He shows up, growls “Remember me?” and Hank Pym wets himself. Good fun for all.)

The only character that seems to recognise what actually happens is Hank Pym as he does what is necessary: kill his child. He is not happy to do this. He watches in what seems to be horror as Ultron is killed. When it’s done, he sits with his head in his hands, depressed and saddened that it has come to this. That is the reaction you would expect from a hero when he is forced to kill a villain. And it is for a robot that we’ve seen, unchecked, would do its best to kill every single person on the planet. There is nothing heroic about mourning its death. Pym’s sadness is not heroic, it’s another example of just how misguided he is. The Avengers are right to kill Ultron and right not to question the morality of it, because it is so obviously the right thing to do. It is the necessary thing to do. What I find sad is that this sort of thinking is reserved only for robots and aliens.

7 Comments

I imagine the Avengers have no qualms about killing Ultron for two reasons.

One, look at that specific team of Avengers. Thor is a centuries-old battle-hardened warrior. Of course he’s killed in battle. Wolverine is a savage assassin. Of course he’s killed in battle. Iron Man is a techno-futurist who had no problem killing the Supreme Intelligence back in Operation Galactic Storm. He sees Ultron as a threat to be overcome, so he’s got no problem with it. The Protector–assuming he didn’t vanish from history as you’ve theorized–is a Kree warrior with no problem killing.

I can’t account for the Beast and Moon Knight. My guess is that Hank would have a problem killing a sentient, but Moon Knight wouldn’t.

There’s a few other ways of looking at it. One is that Ultron is sentient, but not alive. He’s a computer program that simulates intelligence, but he’s not a “life” and lacks the same level of existence as a human soul. You’re not killing him, you’re just turning him off. This argument works unless you want to explore the sci-fi question of whether and at what point artificial intelligence becomes equal to human life. Jim Kruger’s EARTH X trilogy explored this issue in examining whether Machine Man was more “machine” or “man.”

Two, you could argue that they weren’t murdering, but were killing in a life-or-death situation. Assuming arguendo that Ultron is sentient and equal to humans, he’s a sociopathic killer who was prepared to kill on the spot. It’s not like a helpless criminal situation who’s dropped his weapon and thrown up his hands, at which point the cops can no longer use deadly force. Ultron is a killer bent on killing at every opportunity. He’s displayed what the military calls “hostile intent” and is prepared to kill everyone there. Ultron’s defeat may be pre-empting his pending holocaust, but in the specific battle of Fort Jefferson, Ultron is escaping arrest and ready to kill everyone there. The killing is justified, period.

Meanwhile, I took Hank’s collapse at the end as “it’s finally over,” not “Damn, I killed my kid.” I think it’s long been established that Ultron is beyond compassion and redemption. I recollect that it was offered to him during Busiek’s Ultron Unlimited, with him pretty much being like “screw that.”

Oh, and sheesh. I forgot Carol Danvers. Retired Air Force pilot who knows all about an enemy with hostile intent. Again, no problem killing Ultron.

Actually killing may not be reserved for robots alone, anymore, as the idea that AIs are sentient is the whole point of Avengers AI. It was even a big plotline for the end of Remender’s run on Secret Avengers, as well, where the SA with the help of the original Human Torch, basically wipe out a civilization of artificial sentients.

As for aliens, were all the heroes really wiping out the Skrulls?

I’m sure a good number were, like Nick Fury and his Howling Commandos, who have no qualms about killing, and obviously the kill of the moment was Osborn (a known villain) headshotting the Skrull Empress, but comics have always followed the whole “If I didn’t say I killed him, I didn’t” rule, so the actual Skrull bodycount is likely much lower than you think.

And as for Spider-Man and Clint’s argument, we all know Spider-Man (or rather Peter’s) rule, but as far as heroes who kill villains when they have to (as with Ultron in the middle of a battle) versus Clint’s express aim to ASSASSINATE Osborn, that’s where the line is. It’s “killing” versus “murder”, and the latter carries much more significant immoral weight.

Funny thing with the Spidey vs Hawkeye argument is that Clint used to be just as vocal as Peter, on the same side of the argument.
There’s a nice bit about this in Englehart’s West Coast Avengers. I just checked – see issue 29: Mockingbird subtly suggests to be more flexible in the crimefighting approach (as she hasn’t revealed yet how she let the Phantom Rider die), Moon Knight and Tigra are with her. Long-serving Avengers Hawkeye, Iron Man and Hank Pym stick firmly to the ‘Avengers don’t kill’ rule. When team members later get to know about Mockingbird’s experience, Pym & others show understanding – Hawkeye doesn’t, not at all. He’s mostly mad about Bobbi withhelding the truth but he also keeps pressing the no-killing issue.
I’d say that it’s interesting character growth rather than mischaracterisation, but it would be interesting to see Clint reflect on his change in view some more. Or has he, in any series of the past years I might not have read?

“My guess is that Hank would have a problem killing a sentient”

Ellis’s Secret Avengers had a cool bit; early on, Hank is forced, situationally, to kill a bunch of people via some crazy weapon he has invented. A few issues later, Cap needs him to do basically the same thing, and he can’t bring himself to do it.

Yeah, just read Black Summer for an example of why Hawkeye’s Dark Reign-era logic doesn’t hold.

It’s this just basically a case of killing being pitched to the audience as justified when the victim has demonstrated some sort of lack of humanity or proven that they are “less than human”? I always remember that children’s cartoons in the 80s never had a problem with our heroes just shooting a entire squad of robots, but any human opponent had to just be stunned or knocked unconscious. On the spectrum of “justified killing for heroes”, I was always more troubled by the fact that human heroes are always allowed to kill alien life-forms. Aliens might not be human, but they might also be capable of demonstrating more humanity than some human. Of course, every major alien species in comics is usually obsessed with war or is clearly an imperialistic society.

I also never understood why Pym had to be killed just because Logan was certain that Pym would still construct Ultron after being informed that Ultron became a threat to humanity. Even if he did decide to build Ultron again, wouldn’t someone as smart as Pym now improve upon his design having now been privy to the knowledge that his original design was flawed? Wouldn’t he now build some sort of crazy fail-safe that would override any manacle tendencies or (now that he knows his design is flawed) get someone like Stark or Richards to help him with the problem?

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