This post is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Day 1 is all about good scientists, day 2 is for mad scientists, and day 3 covers lonely scientists.
The idea of “mad scientists” is probably as old as science, and it’s certainly been around since the beginning of cinema. There are countless iterations, from Victor Frankenstein to Dr. Jekyll, and it’s easy to see why the concept makes for such compelling storytelling. They’re often tragic heroes in the classic sense, full of noble intentions but undone by their own ambition or shortsightedness. The mad scientist is of course distinct from the “evil genius”. Where an evil genius is typically the villain of a story, using their knowledge and ability for nefarious purposes, the mad scientist is typically a character with noble intentions who is subject to the tragic flaw of being unable to see the consequences of their actions until they’re too late. (Then there are good scientists who are just kind of crazy or reclusive, whom I wouldn’t typically classify as “mad.) To me, there’s no better use of the mad scientist trope than in last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.
Age of Ultron is all about monsters. Specifically, it’s about what makes one a monster, and what causes people to be labeled as such. Throughout the film, which finds the titular superhero team rather strongly disliked and vilified around the world following some of the catastrophic events of previous Marvel movies, we watch as most of the Avengers struggle with the idea that they might be as much monsters as their foes, in both literal and symbolic ways. In fact, many of the heroes specifically call themselves monsters, sometimes seriously and sometimes as jokes. Bruce Banner, of course, literally turns into a monster as the Hulk, who goes from a heroic wild card to a danger to society when his mind is being controlled by outside forces. But even on a personal level, his unpredictable transformations leave him feeling like a monster, someone who is not in control of himself and is unable to have a normal life. Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, considers herself a monster not because of her outward appearance but what’s inside. We learn in the film that she was sterilized as a part of her spy training, and this makes her equally unable to have a normal life the same as Banner, and that makes her a monster in the eyes of large portions of society even if not in the eyes of Banner or rational viewers. Even Steve Rogers, Captain America himself, somewhat jokingly asks what kind of monster would let themselves be experimented on by a German scientist to save their country, while secretly wondering whether he has any place in this world beside the battlefield. At the heart of the film is the idea that others may label you a monster, but what’s more important is whether you allow that label to dictate your actions or whether you rise above and defy the expectations of others to do the right thing, even if those you’re helping don’t want you around.
But Age of Ultron is also about the monsters we create, and as we all know, creating monsters has long been a result of mad scientists’ experiments. Tony Stark is a prime example of a mad scientist, obsessed with achieving his vision but oblivious to the risks and consequences. Ever since the end of the first Avengers, Stark has been driven by his near death experience to find a way to protect the world from threats he could never have imagined. In Iron Man 3, this quest took the form of sleepless nights spent making countless Iron Man armors to deal with every conceivable scenario, but in Age of Ultron his dream has evolved. He hopes to create Ultron, the world’s first true artificial intelligence, and put him in control of a fleet of Iron Man drones in order to maintain peace and security around the world at all times. He wants to end the Avengers, not because they’ve been defeated but because they’re not needed anymore. “Peace in our time,” becomes Stark’s motto, and is the summation of what he’s hoping to achieve through Ultron.
While Stark’s motives may be noble, he displays many of the classic mad scientist failings, despite having his buddy Banner there to try to keep him in check. Banner points out that a world constantly patrolled by Ultron’s Iron Legion would be an awfully cold world, one which would live in fear due to the constant reminders of the threats out there. Like all mad scientists, he isolates himself from his friends who might otherwise provide a voice of reason, saying, “We don’t have time for a city hall debate. I don’t want to hear the ‘man was not meant to meddle’ medley.” He knows Steve Rogers and the others would stop him, so he cuts them out of the loop, only confiding in Banner because he needs him to complete Ultron. And while he believes he understands the cost of failure, in a theoretically diminished ability to protect the planet, he has no idea of the possible consequences of success, and is completely caught off guard when Ultron turns out to be a monster he had never imagined. Ultron represents the worst possible extreme of Stark’s line of thinking, and he decides that in order to save the world from itself he’ll have to destroy it, forcing humanity to evolve.
Like all mad scientists who create monsters, Stark is defiant and unapologetic at first. He denies having done anything wrong, refusing to believe it’s his fault that Ultron turned out this way, even as the others insist he was playing with powers he doesn’t understand. He asks how they would defeat armies of aliens or whatever else they’re unprepared for, and Rogers simply replies, “Together.” Later, as Stark starts to see the error of his ways, he confesses his biggest fear, that his legacy might be watching all of his friends die while he’s helpless to stop it, but despite his noble intentions the end result of his scientific tinkering was still a disaster. The question then becomes whether Stark can learn from his mistakes and change his ways or whether he’s doomed to simply repeat history. As Wanda Maximoff puts it, “Ultron can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it. Where do you think he gets that?”
What makes Age of Ultron somewhat unique compared to other “mad scientist” movies is that it gives Stark an opportunity to not only redeem his mistake but to potentially repeat his failure. Stark’s solution to Ultron is to attempt to create the idealized Ultron he always envisioned. After they steal the invincible body Ultron was building for himself, and Stark recovers Jarvis, his computer software companion whom Ultron attempted to destroy, Stark decides to try again using Jarvis as a template. Stark tells Banner, “This is the opportunity. We can create Ultron’s perfect self, without the homicidal glitches he thinks are his winning personality.” Banner, of course, can’t believe what he’s hearing: “No, I’m in a loop. I’m caught in a time loop, this is exactly where it all went wrong.” And then Stark delivers the film’s key line, part confession/part inspiration, which ties into the film’s major themes and shows a subtle but important change in his thinking:
I know what everyone’s going to say, but they’re already saying it. We’re mad scientists. We’re monsters, buddy. You gotta own it. Make a stand.
Functionally, Stark’s second attempt at Ultron is no different than is first. He’s still messing around with powers beyond his understanding, hoping that things will work out without any way of knowing if they will. He’s still keeping secrets from his friends, and he’s still obsessively pursuing his vision despite all objections. But the difference is this time he’s acting not out of fear but out of hope. He’s fully embraced his role in the world as a monster and mad scientist, and urges Banner to do the same. He’s not being reactive, trying to prepare for unknown threats; he’s being proactive, creating a mirror image of Ultron to join the fight. It’s equally “mad”, and just as reckless and irresponsible as the first time, but the change in attitude is key. His fear has morphed into confidence, and the man who told Captain America that they were destined to lose now believes they can win.
Of course Vision, Stark’s 2nd creation, is not exactly what he expected either. He’s not Jarvis in Ultron’s body, he is something unique, a combination of Stark technology and alien power, just as much a Frankenstein’s monster-esque creation as is Ultron. But where Ultron wants to snuff out life, Vision says that he is on the side of life and that they must destroy Ultron no matter how unique he might be. And like all good creations of mad scientists, Vision acknowledges, “Maybe I am a monster. I don’t think I’d know if I were one. I’m not what you are, and not what you intended.”
In the end, Stark is still just as much a mad scientist as he ever was, and like all mad scientists the line between success and failure, between triumph and disaster, is a very fine one. All of the mad scientists in film history managed to create something scientifically impressive, but the universal refrain in all mad scientist stories is how their blindness led to unexpected results. And while more often than not those results have negative consequences, often serving as a morality fable cautioning of the arrogance of science, that’s not always the case. Some of the greatest discoveries and inventions in history happened by accident, and sometimes the only way advancements can be made is by taking risks and ignoring your doubters. Mad scientists can serve as cautionary tales, but they can also be inspiring in the dedication and determination with which they pursue their goals. While in the real world good science comes only through long thought, thorough research, collaboration, and careful consideration of the ethics involved, there are more lessons to be learned from mad scientists than just warnings. There’s a danger in calling someone a monster, but perhaps an even greater danger in letting others make you believe you’re a monster. And, as Vision describes humanity at the end of the film, “There is grace in their failings.” Did Tony Stark actually learn his lesson, and will he practice “good” science from now on? Probably not. But he can accomplish great things even if he is “mad”.