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The Age of Ultron’s Guilt Complex

What makes Guilt so powerful, that a villain can use it to defeat superheroes?

This Guest Post comes from author, blogger, and movie reviewer Paul Asay.


Avengers: Age of Ultron is a pretty spiritual movie. Not just in a thematic, hey-look-there’s-another-Christ-figure way, but in a Scripture-quoting, Bible-alluding, let’s-set-the-final-rumble-in-a-church way. I delve into some of those issues over at my blog on Patheos, but there’s another deeply spiritual theme in play that I wanted to touch on: The power of guilt.

Guilt, as it turns out, is Ultron’s secret weapon.

He tells Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (played by Elizabeth Olsen) that while he can hurt the Avengers, she can destroy them “from the inside.” And she does so by burrowing deep into their psyches and plucking at the exposed nerves she finds.

“I can show you what you truly fear!” — Wanda Maximoff

And there is an element of fear in the weird visions she conjures. But there’s more to it than that. Our Avengers, after all, get fear. They live with it every day. They look at terror and punch it in its face. No, it’s the shame that lays them low.

Under Wanda’s influence, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sees his fellow Avengers die on a hunk of rock as an unknown terror threatens earth. Is Tony scared of such a fate? Of course, but I think his fear stems from the knowledge that he could’ve done something more to stop it. That sense of guilt—that he could’ve done something more to prevent this horrific vision—spurs him to create Ultron (and a movie’s worth of problems to boot).

In his vision, Thor is transported to a decadent world populated with sultry temptresses—a confusing “fear,” but one that makes sense when you think about Thor’s hedonistic, selfish past and his lingering guilt over the man he once was.

Natasha/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) is taken back to her own days as an assassin-in-training, and her lingering guilt over what she was made to do there.

Captain America‘s vision is more ticklish. When Wanda touches him, he’s taken to a post-war celebration, circa 1945. The movie suggests that Cap’s greatest fear is to no longer have an evil to fight—where all his skills might as well be mothballed.

But there’s more to this placid nightmare: The party feels boisterous, out of control. A man is laughing, wine spilled across his shirt like a blood stain. Despite the frivolity, there’s a menace that lurks over the scene that even Cap’s longtime love—young and vibrant—can’t dispel. Remember, Cap wasn’t around for VE or VJ Day. He was submerged in the Arctic, frozen for decades. This is a party full of ghosts and lost opportunities … a wake, mourning time lost and the knowledge that good people were lost, too. People that, perhaps, Cap might’ve saved had he been around.

For Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), fear and guilt are the most explicitly braided. He fears the monster within him, and he’s horribly ashamed of the destruction the beast does. And when Wanda causes Bruce to Hulk out, he can’t forgive himself. The guilt practically paralyzes him. And the end of the movie, the fear and guilt make him run away.

I get that. Guilt makes me want to hide, too. When I’m at my lowest, it’s shame that does me in. And shame feeds itself.

Sometimes it might be a little thing: I’m feeling a little guilty about eating way too much pasta last night. The obvious solution would be to go out for a run and burn some of those calories off. But the guilt I feel makes me, paradoxically, want to eat more (because eating makes me feel better) or hide under the bed covers (and forget how schlumpy I feel).

Guilt, even superficial guilt, can paralyze.

But sometimes shame can hit far more tender areas than our girth. Maybe we fear we’re not being the spouses or parents that we could be, and every time we fall short of our ideal that guilt feeds that worry. We fear that we might not be the people that God wants us to be, and so we run away—from the Bible, from church, from everything that reminds us of the guilt and shame we feel. We hide not from some movie monster, but from ourselves. We are the monsters. We know it better than anyone. What we see inside our own souls can horrify us.

Even Wanda’s not immune: Near Ultron‘s climax, we see her horror at who she is and what she’s done. She looks at the chaos and destruction flying around her and she thinks—and with some reason—that it’s her fault. She did this. She is the thing she fears most.

Clint Barton, a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) rescues her from her own shame—not by making it go away, but by telling her to push through it. It’s not so much what you did with yesterday that matters, he tells her (in so many words): It’s how you use today that counts.

I think that’s a pretty profound moment. We gotta move on. That’s how most of our heroes get past their own fears and shame—to move forward. And, of course, that’s what we have to do, too.

I know, I know, easier said than done. For me, forgiving myself is something I have to work at. I don’t feel like I deserve it. I see the monster in me way too clearly.

But God tells us that what we’ve done doesn’t matter—not to Him, anyway. It’s what we do now that counts. He forgives. And when we fail (which we will) He forgives again. He knows our monsters. He knows our pasts. But He sees the hero in us all, too. He sees the person He loves. And He asks us to get out there and move on.

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]×320.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]Paul Asay is the author of God on the Streets of Gotham and creator of the Watching God Blog at Patheos. His forthcoming book Burning Bush 2.0: How Pop Culture Replaced the Prophet examines some of the ways God communicates with us through entertainment media.[/author_info] [/author]

Still want more Avengers: Age of Ultron talk? We got you covered!

Paul joined us on The StoryMen podcast to talk about pop culture, the power of stories, and way more Avengers!



By Clay Morgan

Clay Morgan is the author of Undead. Say hi on Twitter.