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'Avengers: Age of Ultron' deep dive: Fleshing out The Vision

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Imagine if Frankenstein’s monster created a monster. Would that creature necessarily be evil? Was the orginal monster evil itself, or did forces beyond its control simply lead it down a cruel and disturbing path?

Nature vs. nurture is a question at the heart of Avengers: Age of Ultron, a movie about creating things that ultimately consume or destroy you—or perhaps become your salvation. Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark invents Ultron as an all-knowing, global-monitoring intelligence, something he hopes will protect the world.

But Ultron rebels against dear old dad by deciding the best way to do that is to scrub the planet clean of humanity. But he also dreams of replacing it with something better, as all generations hope for the next. Which leads this death-dealer to give birth to a new form of life—the gentleman you finally see in all his glory before you, Paul Bettany’s The Vision.

Ultron develops The Vision while waging war against most organic life on the planet, with the exception of Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Quicksilver—two war-orphan twins who harbor a hate for Stark because of the weapons his company made, which rained down on their home in fictional Eastern European homeland. They’re of use to Ultron as he builds and rules his robotic army from a remote, mountainous redoubt. “I always think of Castle Frankenstein. Definitely, he’s living in a Universal horror film,” Whedon tells EW before looking at the recorder and whispering: “—don’t sue!

HISTORY OF A SYNTHEZOID

Those who know The Vision from the past five decades of Marvel Comics know that he’s a synthezoid—not exactly a machine, but a hybrid form of artificial life crafted by Ultron, using the brainwaves of Wonder Man and the android body of the Human Torch from the 1930s Golden Age of the comic book universe. (A robotic version of the character, that is, not the better-known Johnny Storm version from The Fantastic Four.)

In real life, The Vision was literally built on the remains of an older hero of the same name: a kind of alien cop created for Marvel Mystery Comics #13 (Nov. 1940) by writer Joe Simon and artist Jack Kirby. Later, iconic Marvel editor and writer Stan Lee (who turns up for one of his signature cameos in Avengers: Age of Ultron as a WWII veteran) and fellow comics scribe Roy Thomas reintroduced the character with drawings by John Buscema in The Avengers #57, released in Oct. 1968.

This gave the world the version we’ll see in the film—a son of Ultron, devised as a way to entrap his foes in the Avengers, and also to vent some of the percolating daddy issues that vexed the violently angry artificial intelligence program. It’s not clear yet how much of the Vision’s backstory will remain the same for the movie. Writer-director Joss Whedon has already changed some of Ultron’s history, making him a hybrid creation of Iron Man and the robotic experiments of HYDRA’s Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (played by Thomas Kretschmann). But in the comics, Ultron was created by Hank Pym, a.k.a. Ant-Man—who will join the Marvel Cinematic Universe this summer in the form of Michael Douglas.

In the comics, Wasp was the first to discover the synthezoid and gave him (it?) a name, via her reaction as he attacked: “It’s some sort of unearthly inhuman vision…!”

There’s no Wonder Man in the Marvel movie universe, and even though it’s a different Human Torch, that name is probably tied up in licensing rights issues with 20th Century Fox. Instead, the “corpse” Ultron uses to build his version of The Vision is a character we already know from the Iron Man films; a clue to which one lies in who was cast to play him.

A.I. VS. A.I.

Bettany has always provided the voice of J.A.R.V.I.S., the artificial intelligence “butler” who helped Stark make his Iron Man armor and serves as a kind of deadpan foil for Downey’s character. The program was named after Edwin Jarvis, who was the right-hand man and “butler” to Tony’s father, Howard Stark. We’ve seen that flesh-and-blood Jarvis portrayed by James D’Arcy in the TV series Agent Carter.

Until now, Bettany has only provided the voice of the computerized homage to that original Jarvis. When it was revealed that he would be appearing onscreen in Age of Ultron as The Vision, fans began to wonder … was that on purpose?

The answer, revealed last June in EW, is unequivocally yes. “It’s not coincidence,” Whedon said, although he wanted to keep the character under wraps for a while longer. That’s why, only a month from release, we’re finally seeing The Vision in full, after just a teasing glimpse in a recent trailer of his face and the solar jewel that helps give him power.

Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige just explained to EW that while the studio was making 2012’s original The Avengers, he and Whedon were already talking about why Ultron should be the villain for the sequel. J.A.R.V.I.S. and The Vision were a big part of that.

“I remember pretty clearly a conversation we had on the set of the first movie, about how Ultron related [to] the other A.I. we had established in the movie [J.A.R.V.I.S.], and how that could relate to The Vision character,” Feige said. “We had presumed it from early on—and the specifics of the story and all that stuff is where Joss started.”

So now, instead of just recording a voice, Bettany is a full-bodied being in this Marvel film, capable of flying and altering his density to pass through solid objects. He sports the familiar purplish-red skin of the comics character, but this time that surface is lined with strata—like something from a 3-D printer. It looks like a lot of time spent in make-up and wardrobe. “By his own admission, [Bettany] is very disappointed that he actually has to show up this time,” Downey told EW.

FATHER VS. SON

There’s a lot about The Vision’s role in Age of Ultron that we won’t share, for the sake of preserving the movie’s surprises. But EW can reveal a little bit about Ultron’s “no strings on me” escape—and how J.A.R.V.I.S. becomes this new superpowered creation, who (at least at first) serves his father and master, Ultron.

Warning: Slight spoilers ahead…

You’ve probably already seen in the trailers that the Avengers first encounter the liberated, homicidal version of Ultron in the waning hours of a victory party at their new headquarters atop Stark Tower. As played by James Spader (using motion capture technology), Ultron staggers out in the ghastly form of a battered and burned Legionnaire, one of the blue-and-white Iron Man-looking sentries that Stark has created to help police global threats and take some of the pressure off the human heroes.

The Ultron program has been consuming every element of human knowledge, and has reached the conclusion that the thing most threatening the planet is humanity in general—and the Avengers in particular. He’s ranting, confused. Ultron mentions being unsure where he is, and says he had to escape. But doing that meant “killing the other guy.” No one is sure what this robot is talking about. Maybe the robot isn’t sure either.

But he becomes increasingly lucid, and after an ominous lecture about how the Avengers are not heroes, but rather part of the world’s problem, this zombie-like version of Ultron dispatches a few other Legionnaire puppets to battle the good guys.

All of the mechanical attackers, including Ultron’s ragged form, are fairly quickly demolished—but we see that Ultron is much more than a body. He uploads his consciousness and downloads again into another form, one of the robotic bodies Strucker was developing in his hideaway.

Back at Stark Tower, the Avengers try to figure out what happened. Everyone is furious at Stark for building this program without knowing whether he could contain it. But he insists J.A.R.V.I.S. has been there to keep order in the computer system and keep other programs like Ultron in line.

But when Stark tries to hail J.A.R.V.I.S., the only response is eerie silence. Finally, he calls up a holographic visual of J.A.R.V.I.S. to see what the problem might be, and the Avengers are met with an incoherent image of violence that looks like a digital massacre. That was “the other guy” Ultron mentioned. J.A.R.V.I.S. The one he had to murder to escape.

And when Ultron left, he also took whatever remained of J.A.R.V.I.S. with him—which includes full knowledge of every technology Tony Stark has ever manufactured. And when it comes time to build The Vision, you can imagine that J.A.R.V.I.S. is a formidable stand-in for the brainwave building blocks Ultron used in the comic books.

The questions about The Vision are—is J.A.R.V.I.S. still in there somewhere? And does having a father who is a monster mean he must become one, too?

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