The Power in a Pause – How Fr. Robert Barron (Not Joss Whedon) Made the Vision into an Atheist.

Posted: May 5, 2015 in Comic Books/Graphic Novels, Films
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I’m Catholic. I’m used to people saying I’m silly for believing things that no Catholic actually believes. Being Catholic, I have a deep love of truth. Its both sensationalist, and foolish, to spread lies or misinformation based on an incomplete picture. I’m used to people doing this to my beliefs. I’m not used to Catholic priests doing this to my favorite comic book characters, which is what just happened.

Upon seeing The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fr. Barron declared it a Nietzschian parable. Director Joss Whedon is a proud atheist. And of course, when an artist does their job properly, they do embed, in their work, an imprint of themselves, to varying degrees. On the surface, the claim that Whedon has injected atheism or nihilism into this film is not a ludicrous one. If one knew nothing about the film itself, it might even be an easy conclusion to jump to…without the facts.

Father Barron’s central tenet, the point upon which his entire argument rests, is that the Vision, upon erupting into existence and being asked for his name, replies: “I am.”

Father Barron points out that, in declaring himself “I am” and proceeding to set himself up as a god, the Vision, who is essentially the engine of victory for the heroes, establishes himself as Joss Whedon’s version of Nietzsche’s “ubermensch.” This is dangerous. After all, this is a highly popular franchise, and with the Vision and Ultron spouting off Nietzsche-like concepts, its something that good Christian folks would not want their youngsters to pick up on. This view is problematic.

No, I’m not talking about Whedon’s. I’m talking about Father Barron’s.

You see, Father’s Barron’s entire article falls completely apart once you actually realize what the Vision means when he’s saying “I am.” Don’t get me wrong, Father Barron is a good shepherd, who frequently unlocks the deeper meaning of scripture and the Catholic faith. Yet here he is incorrect. The Vision is not setting himself up as a messiah, not as a god. In fact, he’s not even saying “I am.” He’s saying “I am…” Those two extra periods are essential! The Vision is not declaring himself to be anything because he doesn’t even know who he is! He’s asked for a name and he can’t provide one, so he pauses. Instead of rushing to define himself, he stays quiet and lets his actions do the talking.

Now let’s stop and back up a second. Let’s see the full picture before jumping to conclusions, which is, unfortunately what Father Barron did. In writing this film, Joss Whedon tasked himself with bringing iconic characters to life. One of his strengths in both Avengers films is taking decades of comic book history and breaking it down to give his characters the essential parts of their personalities, the parts of their personalities that make the characters who they are, and keep them faithful to their comic book counterparts. We see this in Captain America’s leadership, we see this in Bruce Banner’s anxiety, in Stark’s pride, in Scarlet Witch’s frailty. So why wouldn’t we see it in the Vision? We would. And we do.

When the Vision makes his first appearance in the pages of The Avengers comic books, he’s created by Ultron to destroy the Avengers. During their first meeting, Hawkeye asks him “Who are you fella?” The Vision’s response: “You need not believe me archer, but, in truth, I do not know.” (The Avengers #57).

In the next issue, when the Vision’s origin is revealed, he cries in anguish to his creator, Ultron: “You’ve told me only what powers I possess – not what I wish to know! Who am I? What name is mine?”

So why does the Vision say “I am…” in Age of Ultron? Its because he doesn’t know who he is.

This is from Avengers #57, after Ultron's first defeat. The Ozymandias poem perfectly sums up Ultron's mentality.

This is from Avengers #57, after Ultron’s first defeat. The Ozymandias poem perfectly sums up Ultron’s mentality.

I certainly don’t expect everyone to have read through every comic book issue ever published before they watch a film, but before they spread lies about someone’s intentions, they should be informed. They should do their research. Could it possibly be that Joss Whedon was simply trying to bring the Vision to the big screen in a manner faithful to the source?

Of course, the real issue here is that Father Barron offered an uninformed version of the film to his readers, and now those readers are irate. Some are calling Whedon “despicable” and accusing him of infusing the film with hate. Interestingly enough, these are likely the very same people who lauded the Whedon-written Captain America line “There’s only one God ma’am, and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t dress like that”, and plastered it all over their Facebook walls.

When one has a following like Father Barron does, its important not to jump to conclusions. Writers like Joss Whedon and Father Barron have a duty to the truth, but now a decent chunk of public perception has been steered away from the truth by an article that was written without having the full picture. Father Barron’s entire argument, in this case, is based on a falsehood. Without the atheistic “I am” that Father Barron hears, the entire remainder of his analysis falls apart. If the Vision does not fancy himself a god, then his opinion that chaos and order are both part of humanity becomes simply an observation, not a declaration of dogma. And it turns out that the marble statue shown over the end credits, which Father Barron says is “a neo-classical sculpture of all of the major figures in the film locked in struggle, straining against one another…in complete conformity with the aesthetic favored by Albert Speer, Leni Riefenstahl, and the other artists of the Nazi period” is actually just a marble statue (not even designed by Whedon) of good guys fighting bad guys.

Father Barron says that Age of Ultron promotes a certain attitude. An attitude that maintains that humans need to move beyond good and evil, like Nietzsche’s supermen. He says that the Vision embodies this attitude, because he “was brought about by players on both sides of the divide, by both Iron Man and Ultron. Like Nietzsche’s superman, he is indeed beyond good and evil.” This is Whedon’s whole point, according to Father Barron. Except it isn’t.

What’s the first thing the Avengers do when the Vision emerges? They test him. Is he good or evil? Only the good can pick up Thor’s hammer, which Vision does. Vision expresses that he has no desire to kill, but realizes Ultron must be destroyed. How is this different from Captain America’s declaration in his debut film that he “doesn’t like bullies?”

It is Ultron, not the Vision, that teaches us about nihilism. And guess what? He’s the bad guy. The only way for there to be peace is human extinction. Its Ultron who thinks he’s beyond good and evil, not the Vision. Where the Vision pauses to discover what is truly good -existence, friendship, kindness- Ultron acts without thought. Ultron declares himself the messiah. “I’m going to save the world,” he says. He’s a machine, utterly focused on his programming. Upon a rock of destruction will he build his church of death. Father Barron thinks that the Vision is presented as the herald of Nietzsche, that Joss Whedon is covertly trying to turn us into nihilists. Ultron is the herald here, and he sows and reaps destruction. He also loses in the end, and I’ve yet to see a scenario where losing attracts people to a cause.

When Ultron becomes self-aware, he processes everything at once. His purpose: “to save the world” is processed at the exact same time as every bad thing the Avengers have done. Does he stop and think about right and wrong? No. He interrupts and disconnects JARVIS, declares himself a savior, and starts a wave of destruction. “Ultron?” Banner asks. “In the flesh!” is the instant reply. The Vision bursts on the scene, and his first action upon getting his bearings is to stop and look at the beauty of New York City. He stops to process the wonder of humanity, stops to ponder man’s achievements, stops to declare that he is on the side of life and that Ultron is wrong, and must be stopped. This is who the Vision is. A powerful, thoughtful, innocently naive individual who clearly sees right and wrong because he has taken the time to look at them. Before anyone knows his name, they know what he stands for. His name is not important. Its not even important to the Vision that he can lift Thor’s hammer. This is not a figure with a messiah complex who considers himself above everyone else. “Who are you?” they ask. “I am…” he pauses…he doesn’t know. This is the power of putting the mission first, this is the power of seeing something going horrendously wrong and acting to end that wrong, this is the power of the selfless giver. This is the power in a pause.

  1. You don’t need to be “good” to be able to lift Thor’s Hammer, you need to be “worthy.” Captain America is probably the “good-est” of all the original movie Avengers, yet he can’t lift the hammer (maybe he’ll lift it someday). However Thor, a god, can lift the hammer. Thor is not more “good” than Cap, but he does have more divine-like qualities.

    So I think The Vision’s ability to effortlessly lift the hammer may be saying something about his divinity.

    I know you feel that the Vision’s “I am …” is not an “I AM.” I would have agreed with you, but Age of Ultron is so full of biblical allusions and quotes, that it makes me think that the “I am …” is indeed another Judeo-Christian reference.

    • J.R.Meehl says:

      I understand your point James. But the facts don’t line up with what you’re saying. We can’t just throw 50+ years of comic book history out the window and decide on our own what things mean. For example, in Thor, when Thor is kicked out of Asgard, if someone decided “hey, Odin kicked him out! This is clearly an allegory to how unfair kings can be and how monarchies are always bad.” That would be silly, because we know that Thor is repeatedly banished from Asgard in the comics when Odin doesn’t deem him worthy.

      You’re right about being “worthy.” I was referring to “good” as being a good person and not a bad person. But here’s the thing. We need to look at the source material. Joss Whedon LOVES comic books. He’s going to keep things as close to them as he can. In the comics, there are people who are not gods that lift the hammer. Beta Ray Bill for one, Captain America for another. And in the Marvel films it is well established that the Asgardians are not divine.

      And again, with the “I am…” thing. Look at his face when he says it. In the first two comics of the Vision’s existence, he’s in anguish because he doesn’t know who he is. The picture in this article is from directly after he finds out who he is, an android with the brain patterns of a dead former bad guy. The Avengers still accept him. Its not really up for debate. Would you say “Black Widow is not really a former spy, its a metaphor.”? Nope. Would you say “well, Cap’s leadership is a nice touch that was added by all the screenwriters”? No, because Cap is a leader, and Natasha a former spy. Its who they are.

      • On the contrary, extensive knowledge of comic book history should not be necessary to make an informed judgement about this movie. A literary analysis should concern itself primarily with what is inside the text itself. The historical/cultural context in which a work is situated is of secondary importance.

        I got a very divine-like vibe about the Vision from watching Age of Ultron. You may argue that this is not true to the character of the comics, but as far as the movie is concerned there is evidence to support his divine-like nature (worthiness, levitation, his use of a cape, eeriness, and an apparent biblical allusion). I can’t prove that this is what the filmmakers were trying to do, but we must question why they used the phrase, “I am?” There are so many different ways to simply declare self-awareness. Why not use, “Who am I?” or “I think … therefore I am.” or “I know not who I am?”

        Thank you for writing the article. It has been a lot of fun to discuss the movie.

      • J.R.Meehl says:

        You’re right that you don’t need to know comics to analyse the film. But when there are questions about the film’s content, and you’re looking for evidence to answer those questions, you need to go to the source material. What if someone were to claim that Black Widow isn’t Russian, she’s just pretending. They could use evidence from the films to support this. But looking at the source material, you can say that, no, she’s Russian.

        You mention four things that aren’t backed up by evidence. Worthiness? You don’t need to be divine to lift Thor’s hammer. Cap almost does it. Beta Ray Bill does it in the comics. Levitation? He flies…that’s a super power he has in the comics. Cape? He copies Thor. And eeriness…not really a divine trait?

        Thanks for your thought out responses as well. I enjoy the discussion with fellow intelligent human beings. 🙂

  2. Clark says:

    I’m really glad to find someone writing about the Nietzschean themes in “Age of Ultron,” particularly from a Christian standpoint. I think that both you and Father Barron have worthwhile points to make.

    However, while we’re on the subject of not jumping to conclusions, it’s worth noting that Nietzsche hates nihilism. Whedon is certainly not trying to covertly turn us into nihilists, and if he were, Nietzsche would hardly be the text to use. In “Age of Ultron,” Whedon is very heavily focused on a Nietzschean affirmation of life – quite the opposite of nihilism! And it’s also gratifying and worth noting that Whedon very determinedly roots out some of the more problematic strains of Nietzsche’s thought, replacing his contempt for the weak with a finale that focuses primarily on saving them.

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