When the news broke that The Avengers: Age of Ultron movie would introduce the character the Vision, I was hopeful. The red-skinned, brooding android had ignited my childhood imagination. In The Avengers No. 57, published in 1968, the Vision is built by the evil robot Ultron 5 to destroy the Avengers, but almost immediately begins to question his programming. He eventually turns on his master and joins the good guys. What made the original character so compelling was not simply that he was an android that displayed emotions, but that his feelings were hard won.
Marvel Comics is known for imbuing superheroes with recognizable human characteristics. But here was a superhero who was not human at all. Over numerous storylines, the Vision’s inner life would seem richer and more complex than even Spider-Man. As one of pop culture’s first artificial leading men, the Vision was a vehicle for posing sophisticated questions on identity, heroism, and technology. Long before Star Trek: The Next Generation’s Data and Ridley Scott’s version of Philip K. Dick’s replicants in Bladerunner, the Vision embodied the use of a fictional android to explore the hopes and fears of artificial intelligence.
In 1968, the Vision was meant to fill a gap in the Avengers roster. Comic book writer and editor Roy Thomas Jr. told me during a recent phone interview that when he was writing The Avengers, many of the comic’s characters—such as Iron Man and Thor—featured in their own series. He could run with them only so far without contradicting other writers’ story lines. He wanted to develop a protagonist, unrestricted, in any way he chose. When he asked Stan Lee, then editor in chief of Marvel, permission to come up with a new member for the Avengers, Lee consented with one caveat. The hero had to be an android.
Thomas originally wanted to use a long-forgotten character—the Vision—from the Golden Age of comic books, which began in the 1930s and ended in the 1950s. That version of the Vision was a telepathic alien who could control smoke and mist. Thomas retained some of that character’s ghostly powers and gave his version of the Vision the ability to become weightless and phase through solid objects (as well as become diamond hard). In some of the Vision’s first appearances, the artist John Buscema used the superhero’s density-changing power, along with his cape (a mostly useless garment) for dramatic visual effect. One striking panel from his earliest appearance shows the Vision floating along a lightning-struck sky while rain pours around him, his hands holding the cape against his body, as if to protect him from the wet and the wind.
Thomas was also inspired by the science fiction pulps he grew up with and found the seed of the Vision’s ongoing struggle in the 1939 story “I, Robot” by Eando Binder (not to be confused with Isaac Asimov’s famous collection of robot tales). In “I, Robot,” the robot Adam Link tries to mimic human qualities, but through a series of accidents and misunderstandings is hunted down as a murderer. He eventually realizes that humanity will never trust him. Thomas told me that Star Trek’s Spock may also have inspired him. Spock’s sardonic stony persona provided a model of the conflicted mind: emotion vs. logic.
The Vision is a “synthezoid”—a term coined by Thomas. Despite his otherworldly quality, the existential dilemmas he battled felt suitably authentic. When the Vision first wakes in Ultron 5’s lair, he immediately begins to question his identity. Ultron treats him as anyone might treat a machine: He wants the Vision merely to obey. The Vision is mystified and says, “Then the mind is of no use … if it cannot question!”
Superhero dramatics notwithstanding, the Vision was an early incarnation of our essential dilemma with artificial intelligence. How humanlike do we really want our machines to be? Ultron might be evil, but he rightly wasn’t expecting his android to be able to circumvent its own programming. When it turns out the Vision’s intentions are honorable, he is accepted as one of the Avengers, although future storylines would have him used against the team in any number of ways. As a machine, he can be exploited, and so the question of his “soul” is irrelevant. Can a thinking machine ever truly be trusted to live among us? With this question comes, of course, the central fear of the thinking machine. How can we be sure it will have its creator’s best intention at heart? Frankenstein hoped to ultimately conquer death, but his hubris made a monster instead.
In the most important story line in the Vision’s long and complex narrative continuity, it is revealed that his brain patterns are those of another superhero—Wonder Man (real name Simon Williams)—whose mind was recorded by the Avengers in the hopes they might one day be able to resurrect him. Instead, Ultron—with help from Wonder Man’s villainous brother, the Grim Reaper—steals them to be used as the template for the Vision’s artificial brain. But it turns out that Wonder Man never really died. He was merely placed in a state of suspended animation, and he comes back to life. Over the course of a number of issues, the return creates a deep crisis for the Vision and for Simon Williams. Wonder Man wonders if he is less a person if his essence—the thing that makes him unique—can be programmed into an artificial construct. The Vision begins to feel like the doppelganger, recognizing that without Wonder Man, he might be merely a machine with nothing unique or human about him.
In his brief essay “The Uncanny,” Freud describes the eerie sense that come from the idea of the double, often found in literature, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Writer Jim Shooter, who wrote the Wonder Man/Vision conflict in the Avengers comic in the latter half of the 1970s, used that dilemma of the Vision’s true self to reflect on where the heart of identity lies. Questioning his ability to love, the Vision wonders if he can really feel affection, “Or does he merely think he feels?” We see the same question in the recent film Ex Machina. As Joelle Renstrom wrote in an essay on Ex Machina for Slate, advancing A.I. technology might one day blur the line between being an “emotional actor or an emotional being.”
Whether or not authentic heroism requires such a distinction to be made is a problem that the Vision—and his writers—have investigated throughout his long comic career. But heroism requires choice, the ability to discern right from wrong, the innocent from the guilty, and even more importantly, recognizing the value of human life. Making the right choice, however, might be where we most often fail. How can we trust that faculty to a machine?
In January of this year, Elon Musk—along with Stephen Hawking and other technologists—signed a letter by the Future of Life Institute outlining how to make sure the dangers of artificial intelligence don’t outweigh the benefits. Musk put up $10 million to aid the cause, the overarching goal being to guarantee, as the letter states, “Our AI systems must do what we want them to do.” Robert Downey Jr. has said that he based his portrayal of the Iron Man character Tony Stark on Musk, and it is no small irony that in the Avengers canon, Stark invented the dark and murderous Ultron. More to the point, however, is that the film suggests if we want true A.I., we will have to sacrifice some modicum of control. Choice might have to be part of the code.
Sadly, Age of Ultron fails to engage with the Vision’s long history of exploring the human-machine dilemma. For filmgoers who had never known of the character before, nothing will seem lost. But the Vision is not merely one of Marvel’s innumerable superheroes. The Vision’s characteristic struggle to be worthy of his heroic—and sometimes godlike—human companions is lost amid the film’s chaos. But the image of the brave android fighting alongside gods and heroes is something comic fans have wanted to see for decades. Whedon at least understood the power of the idea that Roy Thomas Jr. and the artist John Buscema first conceived on cheap newsprint. If we are going to build thinking machines, we need to trust in our own inherent decency and believe that, like the Vision, a truly advanced artificial intelligence will discover the best of humanity within itself.
This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.