Avengers: Age of Ultron is about consequences and legacies. The film, from beginning to end, is about dealing with what you have done and trying to understand what you will leave behind. Every major character arc and the film’s entire thematic structure is about this, and it’s the key to understanding the Tony Stark/Ultron/Vision relationship.
The film begins with The Avengers cleaning up after themselves; they’re in the middle of a fight with a holdout Hydra base, confronting the evil organization that had rotted out SHIELD from the core. The mission: to reclaim Loki’s scepter, which they had allowed to get away during the Battle of New York in the first film. Yeah, this is basic continuity stuff, the kind of connected storytelling that comic fans eat up, but it’s also a major early thematic bullet point. They're literally cleaning up after themselves.
Within von Strucker’s base Tony Stark is trapped between his past - the giant Leviathan hanging from the ceiling - and his future, in the form of a vision from Wanda Maximoff. The movie plays coy with whether or not Wanda’s hex-induced visions are nightmares or true future events, but both Tony and Thor find them to be realistic enough that they take action on them.
For Tony the vision reveals his legacy: destruction. He stands above the corpses of all his friends, the only survivor. He believes this is the outcome of his current status as the benefactor of The Avengers, that for whatever reason everything he has done leads inexorably to destruction. This has been Tony’s character arc ever since he woke up in that cave in Afghanistan - he has been a man who has been constantly faced with the repercussions of his actions, from the Ten Rings to his PTSD and the anger of Aldrich Killian (with a pit stop in Iron Man 2 to deal with the consequences of his father’s actions). Tony Stark has learned one thing over the last few years: no matter how hard he tries he keeps fucking up, and that vision only confirms to him that this will continue.
But in indomitable Tony Stark style he doesn’t quit - he tries even harder. Which means he fucks up even bigger. Faced with a world where he has caused the deaths of everyone he knows, Tony overreacts and tries to create the ultimate protection tool for the world - Ultron. He envisions a suit of armor around the planet, and he hopes that this will be his legacy - a way to protect everybody from every threat coming from beyond (it’s important to remember that in his vision Tony saw The Avengers dead in space).
What he hoped to be his legacy instead becomes another consequence. Ultron immediately goes off the rails and begins planning to destroy not just The Avengers but also most of humanity. But it’s important to remember that Ultron isn’t just an AI run amok, he’s Tony Stark’s son. The relationship between Stark and Ultron is complex and fascinating; Ultron is trying to fulfill his father’s wishes, but in a way that his father cannot understand or condone - generational conflict lifted to an epic scale. Ultron is trying to prove his superiority to his father, to rebel and truly change the world, but he has Tony Stark inside of him - his father’s thoughts are present in his programming. Ultron slips Stark phrases into conversation, not even realizing how much of his digital DNA is printed with Stark code. He doesn’t want to be his dad, but in many ways he is. Many men with troubled relationships with their fathers will find this all-too recognizable.
Meanwhile, Tony Stark’s legacy impacts other characters. Wanda and Pietro Maximoff are who they are - willing test subjects of von Strucker - because of Tony Stark. Stark Industries munitions were used to destroy their homes; they spent days trapped in rubble looking at a Stark bomb that could have gone off at any moment. Despite his attempts to rehabilitate his name, the Stark legacy remains that of a weapons manufacturer.
And that legacy taints The Avengers. In Sokovia we see American dollar signs graffitied over images of The Avengers. Their connection to Stark and SHIELD position them as tools of American supremacy*, and having a guy named Captain America in charge certainly doesn’t help. While the Ultron business is about personal legacies, much of the larger thematics of Age of Ultron is about America finding itself in a world post-Vietnam and Iraq, a world where the nation that was once the liberator of Europe is now the imperialist warmonger. Cap skipping all of those years makes this all the more poignant, as he’s the living embodiment of what America once meant to the world, while Tony Stark defines what America has become.
The rehabilitation of SHIELD is a major part of the political thematics of the movie. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier SHIELD was revealed to be literally pointing guns at anyone it didn’t like or who it thought could be a problem. In Age of Ultron SHIELD returns as a rescue agency, ferrying civilians off the floating city. “This is what SHIELD should be,” Cap says, and by extension he’s saying this is what America should be. This should be our legacy - helping others, not killing them. Hope, not fear.
Everything in the movie works along the axes of personal and political consequence and legacy. It’s there when Thor has his vision of Asgard - he is told that he brought hell (or Hel?) to the realm, and that he is responsible for its destruction. It’s there when Hawkeye reveals his family and his movie-opening mortal wounding (and the jokes the other Avengers make about it) take on a new light. His role in The Avengers becomes clearer, as it’s obvious that he’s trying to leave a legacy for his children, to give them a better world. But he also has to deal with the potential consequences of his day job, which leads him to resign from the team when he has a third child.
It comes again in the creation of The Vision, Ultron’s legacy… and ultimately Tony Stark’s as well. While Stark created something that went terribly awry, it also led to the creation of a being who is unique, benevolent, powerful but full of grace. His speech at the end, as he confronts the final Ultron, is just as telling as his ability to lift Mjolnir. Yes, Ultron was a consequence, but in many ways he also led to Tony Stark’s ultimate legacy. From our ashes can rise something far greater.
The Vision also gives us the longview of generational struggle and the way our legacies are perceived through time; he opts to join his grandfather, flawed though he may be, and turn against his own creator. The cycle begins anew, but this time the turning wheel has revealed something hopeful and bright in the form of this new lifeform (how I wish they had called him a synthezoid in order to further delineate the idea that he is not a robot). In many ways The Vision is actually the culmination of Ultron’s plan, as he’s a new step in evolution, a being somewhere between human and machine. But he’s eventually Ultron’s doom, the true evolution that sees each of Ultron's minor body upgrades as exactly the kind of status quo service which Ultron accuses The Avengers of maintaining.
The themes of legacy and consequence truly inform the arcs of Black Widow and the Hulk. Bruce Banner lives in fear of a Code Green, and with good reason - the after action report on the Hydra base assault leaves him terrified that he killed people, and later in the movie he continues to tarnish The Avengers’ legacy by going wild in Johannesburg**. Banner himself is a consequence, a living reminder of the mistake he made, and a perpetually destructive force. So it makes sense that he finds himself drawn to the team’s other living consequence, Black Widow. Natasha Romanoff trained from a very young age - far too young to actually consent - to be a ruthless killer. As seen in Winter Soldier, Natasha doesn’t even have a solid sense of self-identity, thanks to the machinations of the instructors in the Red Room. She has spent her life hiding herself from others - first professionally, later because she has ‘red in her ledger’ - and it isn’t until she meets someone who is equally isolated that she can open herself up.
Pairing these two off is interesting from a character perspective - they really work, and I love how much more aggressive Natasha is than Bruce - but it also creates a thematic through line that pierces all the questions of legacy and consequence. Bruce Banner, an irradiated man whose genes are fucked, cannot impregnate a woman. Natasha Romanoff, a woman who was sterilized by her spymasters, cannot bear a child. While Tony Stark and Hawkeye have legacies that involve new life, while Captain America and Thor stand as the icons for their people and lead them into the future, Banner and Romanoff can only create a legacy through their immediate actions. For these two there is no day but today, and they can’t worry about what comes next. There will not be a child to carry on their work, there is not a nation to guide, and so the third act decisions they make - Natasha bringing Bruce back to the fight and Bruce (in Hulk form!) deciding to take himself away from everyone - are their legacies. They each make the decision to protect people, each in their own way.
At the film’s end The Avengers themselves leave a legacy - a new team. They deal with the consequences of their actions - their new base is in upstate New York, not right in the middle of crowded New York City. Wanda joining the team represents a change in the world’s view of these people, although everything isn’t hunky dory - we know Civil War is coming. One more consequence, because that is what life truly is - a series of consequences, one of which will one day be our legacy.
*this is one of the places where the vaguely international nature of MCU SHIELD gets in the way of clear metaphorical readings, a problem the original comics did not have.
**it’s incredibly important to note that Hulk is only defeated after he realizes that he is endangering innocents and begins to fall out of Wanda’s spell. Bruce can’t see it, but his true legacy is empathy.