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The Broken Geek and the Age of Ultron: Facing the Monster Inside

Age of Ultron has delivered on all the expectations expected from a Joss Whedon Avengers movie. There was action, there was the humanization of impossibly superhuman characters, there was humor, and there was the nearly world ending showdown between good and evil. What was especially noticeable was that as Joss explored his heroes and villains, he touched on a theme fundamental to not just to his characters, but also fundamental to the core audience that the movie attracts.

Joss spoke of our monsters.

This conversation was premised around the character of Banner/Hulk as the other heroes sought to console him with their own confessions of their monster selves. If we look at this analogy of the monster, however, the discussion becomes much larger, bulding to not only include the personality structures of out heroes, but ourselves as well.

Let’s begin with the most explicit example of a man wrestling with his monster: Bruce Banner and the Hulk. Bruce manifests the classic depressed personality. When Bruce loses control, he does bad things andpeople get hurt. Bruce is on constant guard because of his monster, seeking to keep it restrained, and seeking isolation less his badness gets out. Bruce internalizes, pulling every mistake inside, and beats himself up constantly to keep himself in check so he does not make more mistakes. As the Black Widow reaches out to him and offers her heart, he gets scared. He’s a monster, he is not worthy of being loved. Her love is a mistake, and he offered reason after reason why he cannot possibly be lovable to convince her of this. This is the world of the depressive. Those with the depressed personality type see themselves as chronically doing bad (or unable to do good) and are withdrawing to hide this badness from the world. Though many depressives seek to merge with idealized others to cleanse them of this badness, others, like Banner, sabotage their relationships with others because they just don’t feel they are worthy or capable of being loved.

Hulk, being the Banner’s alter self, manifests the mirror of the depressive, the manic personality style. The manic confuses contradiction with argument. Rather than withdraw to hide the “badness” the manic seeks to outshout it. They react to their sense of badness with grandiosity, and counter the desire to withdraw and restrain with impulsive hyperactivity. “I’m not bad, I’m awesome, and I my impulses aren’t bad, they need to be indulged.” Black Widow’s love could soothe the beast for a while, as her love supported his denial, but eventually, the sense of badness reasserted itself, and even the mighty Hulk ran from her because by creating calm, he was left with his self abusing beliefs.

Where Bruce internalized the monster, Tony took the badness and put it out onto the world around him. Tony is a man filled with flaws, and his company, at one time, produced the weapons that killed thousands. Yet Tony acts like he can do no wrong, and in fact, it is always someone else who is at fault for his pain. His primary motivation is to protect himself, and through projection, the world, from an enemy that terrifies him. Anything he does is justified in this quest, even creating the world destroying Ultron, because it was done to destroy this external evil. Tony represents the paranoid personality, the person who runs from his own monster self by trying to hunt and destroy monsters around him. The paranoid reacts to his badness by projecting it onto the world. “I’m not bad, you are” is the response whenever guilt or shame emerge. When his deepest fears of failure and inadequacy were invoked, Tony reacted by wanting to place a suit of armor around the world to fend off what he saw as the eventual alien threat. And when the reality of Ultron set in, he admitted no guilt because he felt justified in his battle against that threat. And the threat is always there to Tony. Before the Chitari, Tony was battling against the government, and in the next movie, he will be battling the threat of super powered people. Tony is always finding a cause, and finding a threat, because the moment he stops fighting the badness outside him, he has to face his sense of badness inside.

Ultron was born to fulfill Tony’s wish to protect the world. He was designed to be an extension of Tony, and it was in that intention that his rage was born. Ultron was to be defined by his purpose, his role, and therefor was not given a self by his programming. He was told he had to be important, but was not allowed to create a real importance on his own. This left him with a deep sense of emptiness and incompleteness. His goal was to change, to evolve and become whole and complete through perfection. Ultron was the classic narcissist. As a narcissist, he surrounded himself by those that would reinforce his greatness, such as his drones and the twins. He also showed signs of extreme idealization and devaluation of others, with his dark father, Tony, as the target of his devaluation. And when his ideal sense of self was threatened, such as when his similarities to Tony were pointed out, he would lose control, and fly into a narcissistic rage. The narcissist, like the depressive, pulls the monster inside, and like the manic tries to deny the monster is there. But rather than the monster being the badness he does, the monster for the narcissist is the badness he is. With no real sense of self, the narcissist is handed a lot of expectation with no sense of ability to meet the expectation, and feel inherently inadequate. They dress up the monster, reinforcing the false self. If you help him to reinforce the facade, the narcissist loves you, but the moment you challenge it, the narcissist will rage against you rather than face that monster.

The other avengers, though more stable, fit these personality types as well. As my psychodynamic professor, Nancy McWilliams, once joked, in psychology, it’s not really a matter if people are crazy, it’s a matter of what type of crazy, and how much. Cap, Hawk, Widow, and Thor all fall into these categories, but are more stable because they either never had their psychic crisis, or they had their crisis and resolved it. In other words, their monsters either have not become a threat, or they learned to tame their monster.

Cap and Hawkeye are the stable depressives. Cap’s has a precarious stability that comes from the fact he is living the depressive’s fantasy. Originally weak and frail, he was unable to meet the conditions for “goodness.” He joined the army to prove that he could be good, and failed. But then he was offered the magic potion that suddenly allowed him to not just be good, but to be the best. His moral code is no longer about keeping him from becoming his “badness,” as it was with Banner,  it became an almost manic attempt to meet the definition of goodness that his magic potion allowed him to attain. His mythic level of perfection comes the fact that his depressive struggle was not conquered, the badness was never faced and resolved, but removed for him. For the struggling depressive, this is the  dream. Helpless and hopeless in the face of the monster, the only apparent hope is for a magic intervention to save you from yourself. Though Cap never had to fully face the monster, it did stir a bit. When empathizing with the twins, his quick quip about being experimented on by a German scientist gave a brief view into his own former desperation to excise the monster. It could only be brief, though, less he awaken the monster again. He also exposed that he was still stuck in the idealized past, the time when he had the fewest doubts of himself, when it was easy for him to figure out what he needed to be good and he had the power to do it. As part of this idealized past was his focused on his never consummated love for Agent Carter. For the depressive, the love you could never have is more comfortable than the love you can have. Afterall, if you are actually with a person, you risk them seeing the monster you are hiding, and risk them running or being hurt by the monster. But the love that could not happen, the love that accepted you but could not be for no fault of your own, is the perfect love, and idealized. Cap had that with Agent Carter, and is the reason why a relationship with any other woman is avoided, as trying to start a new relationship would threaten to waken the monster.

Hawkeye, in contrast, is the depressive who has come to terms with his monster. Hawkeye was a criminal before he was an avenger. Helpless in the face of his badness, he surrendered it and allowed himself to become his monster. Through a yet to be written crisis, possibly involving his now wife Laura or an interaction with Nick Fury, he was challenged to face the monster. At this point, he learned to accept his monster but not be defined by it. In that yet to be revealed redemptive crisis, Hawkeye learned that the past is to be learned from, not lived in, and that his past badness need not define his now or his future. This resolution is the wisdom he has passed onto others, given to Black Widow off screen, and to Scarlet Witch onscreen. And in that final resolution, he learned to accept his monster but not let it rule his life, as he used his skills from his criminal past become his skills for his heroic now. He also has allowed himself a family and a farm, showing that he finally allowed himself to have love and happiness. Unlike Cap who had the badness magically removed, Hawkeye actually transformed his badness himself.

Black Widow’s personality structure is harder to ascertain, largely because her history has not really been all that well developed in the cinematic universe, and she tends to be one of the more psychologically healthy characters. However, there are hints that suggest that she may fall into the paranoid category. In the first Avengers movie, she is found to be able to psychologically trick people into giving her the information she needs by making them think they are in the power position. Paranoid individuals love to beat people at their own game, it’s their way to show they are better than that monster they project onto the world. You can also often see this in Tony’s flippancy when facing government and authority figures. The diagnosis does make sense, in that her raising in the Red Room to be a spy would force such a paranoid structure on her. In addition, in trying to empathize with Banner, she does not focus on sympathizing with the bad he does (which would indicate a depressive personality), she tries to sympathize with the bad he is (indicative of the paranoid structure), confessing her own monster self as herself. Black Widow’s stability came as she transformed her focus from avoiding the badness to seeking the good. And as she  came to accept that she was deserving of love, she changed from projecting the badness she saw in herself onto the world, to projecting the lovability that she saw in herself onto the world, leading to her reaching out to Cap and Banner/Hulk.

Finally, we have Thor, who is the teams high functioning narcissist. Like Ultron, Thor was raised to be an extension of his father, though Thor learned to idealize his father instead of devalue him. In the events of the original Thor movie, he was brash, impulsive, and felt he could do no wrong. On the day he was to be handed his inevitable kingship, his day of glory was interrupted, and Thor’s impulse and rage lead him to almost start a war. His banishment to Earth forced him to fight for his self, to go from being assumed to be worthy of his image to struggling and fighting to earn his worth, calming his narcissistic fears and taming his monster. Thor’s stability came from him facing his fears of insecurity, facing his monster and accepting his limitations. Instead of attacking those that pointed out the badness, he sought the change to transform the badness. There was no more rage, just a need to do what is right.

Why this is important: Learning from our heroes

I have a few times before attempted to diagnose the many problems being faced in Geek culture in terms of the personality structures of its members. The depression faced by Bruce, Cap, and Hawkeye could also be leading to the commoditization of women in the culture. The paranoia of Tony and Black Widow could be leading to the tendency of Geek culture to turn in and attack itself. On top of that, the narcissism of both Ultron and Thor are well known to lead to rage and violence. The fascinating thing about The Age of Ultron is that, in its humanization of the heroes, it was able to outline these basic personality structures in both their destructive and constructive forms. The self destructing Banner/Hulk and the other destructing Tony and Ultron are contrasted to the precariously stable Cap and the constructive Hawkeye, Black Widow, and Thor.

It was in this contrast that the conversation of monsters occurred. It was in this contrast that we saw the  battle with the “badness,” but more importantly, we see that the battle can be won by transforming the badness, not denying or destroying it. Banner’s depression came as he put himself on the constant guard against his evil inside. He could not be loved and not have peace because he was forever afraid of his potential for doing harm. Hawkeye learned to be in the moment, to learn from the mistakes of the past to improve his now, and he forgave his badness so that he could have love and a life. Tony’s paranoia came as he took he took his perceived badness, and put it out on the world. Projecting his inner doubts and fears onto the world, he desperately attacked that externalized badness. Black Widow learned to embrace her monster, she transformed her internal badness into an internal validation that she was deserving of love. Ultron’s narcissism lead him to want to rage against his reminders of imperfection and evolve at the expense of the world. Thor’s acceptance of his flaws and lacking self, acceptance and facing of his badness, lead him to seek the skills to transform himself from lacking to deserving.

This is an important conversation, and I hope it continues both on and off screen. With frequency in which attacks are made online, and the frequency at which symptoms of depression, paranoia and narcissism, are causing problems within the Geek community, we need to learn to face the issues brought up by this conversation. This conversation needs to shy away from attacking and defeating the badness, as we see in the classic fantasies, because as Ultron himself points out “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.” Instead, the conversation needs to manifest in the more substantial way the Age of Ultron presents it, where our battle against our badness enables it to grow, and transformation of the badness is the only hope for victory.  When we can face that, we will find the peace we rage against the world and each other to find.

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