The Uncanny Avengers #10
(Marvel Comics, August 2016)
Writer: Gerry Duggan
A visionary entrepreneur and technologist, Elon Musk, the owner of electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors, is worried about artificial intelligence. Mr Musk is reported by Wired magazine to have this year funded $10 million towards AI safety research.
The concept of artificial intelligences seizing control of the planet has spawned very successful science fiction movies. Perhaps the best example is the cold malevolence of the sentient Skynet military system in the “Terminator” movies (1984, 1991, 2003, 2009, 2015). Upon becoming sentient, Skynet decides the best way of dealing with humans is to initiate a nuclear war. The other popular example is “The Matrix” trilogy of motion pictures (1999-2003), where artificial intelligences farm the vestiges of humanity as a type of biofuel, trapping each person’s mind in an illusory reality while their bodies are leached of electricity.
Long before these iconic movies, Marvel Comics has been exploring rogue artificial intelligences as world-threatening menaces. Since 1968, Ultron, a murderous robot and brainchild of influential writer Roy Thomas, has been the nemesis of Marvel Comics’ premier superhero team called The Avengers.
Ultron is described as created by Dr Hank Pym, the alter ego of the superhero called Ant-Man. Pym is periodically wracked by guilt in creating what is an existential menace to humanity. This particular artificial intelligence has developed the capacity to hate, and that hatred is directed squarely at Pym.
Ultron’s hatred is obsessive. In a storyline called “Age of Ultron” (2013), writer Brian Michael Bendis considered the possible consequences of Ultron’s success in conquering the planet. All other threats to dominance disposed of, Pym is made by Ultron to feel unworthy of subjugation. Pym then plots against Ultron. But as the plot reaches its climax Ultron reveals to Pym that Pym’s consciousness is in fact trapped in a robot shell – Ultron robots ensnare Pym and rip his uniform to reveal a steel chassis beneath – and his mind has become assimilated into Ultron’s systems. Ultron’s cruelty is manifested in revealing Pym’s hellish fate to him, and then re-booting Pym’s memory so as to run the same scenario over and over again. It is the stuff of nightmares.
In this story in the “Uncanny Avengers” title, Pym wears a suit of Ultron components. The character has returned from being lost in space, and has somehow assimilated himself with the evil robot. Pym joins his teammates to deal with a supernatural threat, and he happily and usefully assists the Avengers to save innocent lives from a demon horde. The question is obvious: is this actually Pym, or is this Ultron masquerading as Pym? The macabre idea of a machine animating human flesh again harkens back to “Terminator”.
In order to ascertain the truth, the group’s leader, Captain America dispatches Pym’s ex-wife, a superhero called The Wasp. She quickly forms the view that she is not talking to Pym by suggesting that Pym should relax by a beach. Pym happily agrees, but, as the Wasp knows, Pym does not like the beach. The Wasp then debates the issue with Captain America, leading to an intriguing but far too short discourse about voluntary euthanasia – is Pym, who has made a will in which reads, “Do not resuscitate”, essentially dead and his body being kept alive as the puppet of a duplicitous and violent machine?
While this debate takes place, Pym visits two other team members, Cable (of the X-Men) and the Human Torch (of the Fantastic Four). Cable quietly receives word of the Wasp’s assessment (by way of the character’s own pet artificial intelligence, “Belle”, which manifests as an animated tattoo of a 1940s pin-up girl riding a bomb).
To the Human Torch’s horror, Cable then taunts Pym by denigrating Pym’s achievements. Cable coolly notes that Pym’s other hyperintelligent peers kept innovating, and Pym was never in their league. This causes Pym to blanch, then cough and thrash with indignation, and, with a tearing of flesh, Ultron is finally revealed.
The catalyst for the revelation is intriguing. Are some elements of Pym overlaying the machine? Is “Pym” some scraped-away template of the man’s personality the most prominent feature of which was the dichotomy between his pride and poor sense of self-worth, which Cable exploited? If this is vengeance upon his creator, then Ultron has achieved it in a horrifyingly perfect manner by occupying Pym’s body and using his personality as a mask for deception.
Should this amalgamation of Pym with Ultron be permanent (or as permanent as it can be within the impermanence of American superhero comic books), then this transformation of a significant character property from hero to villain is on par with the inspired, but poorly executed, transformation of the superhero Green Lantern into arch-villain Parallax by DC Comics, of which we have briefly discussed before. Regardless, the current story arc in “Uncanny Avengers” is extremely engaging, with much potential still to unfold.