How the depiction of religion in media degrades the real thing

I recently rewatched Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s a great movie, but there was one flaw that stuck out to me that I feel is worth drawing attention to: Ultron’s references to Christianity as a metaphor for the work he’s doing (initiating the apocalypse). First off, let me note that this comes out of nowhere. Ultron is definitely based off Tony Stark, and we see that in his attitude, his snide remarks, and of course his motivations. “He can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it,” says Wanda, “where do you think he gets that?”

Ultron’s religious allegories, however, have no prior basis in character. Stark may well be hiding strong disdain towards religion, but we’re not shown this in either this movie or the previous (it’s been a while since I’ve seen the Iron Man series, so forgive me if I’ve missed something from there). Nevertheless, the references to the words of Jesus (“On this rock I shall build my church.”) and the discussion in the old church with Wanda and Pietro are completely jarring and don’t serve any purpose other than to weakly associate Ultron with religious fanaticism. And why? Ultron’s instability could easily have been established with no references to religion whatsoever. The scene in the factory where he destroys one of his own bodies is a great example of how this could be done, so the mockery of Christianity is irrelevant and distasteful.

Christians, by and large, are terrible at defending our faith, so let me now illustrate why this aspect of Ultron’s character is not only unnecessary, but actually makes the film worse.

Firstly, Ultron is just one of many. Movies and TV shows are filled with such skewed and warped depictions of religion. Mainstream media hardly ever shows Christianity how it is or the outlooks of normal religious people. This is wide ranging: from Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes to Mary Cooper in The Big Bang Theory, the characters associated with religion in fiction are almost always at extreme ends of the spectrum.

Why is this bad? Consider that Age of Ultron made more than $2 billion at the box office worldwide. That is an insane number of people who have watched this movie. Consider also that many of those people would only ever encounter religion through media. This means that without the experience of the real thing, these people’s impressions of religion are invariably going to be shaped by these extreme depictions, and they’ll eventually start to think that real religion is like this, which just leads to more negativity and conflicts in real life. I’ve said this before: unless your story or world is actually providing commentary on a real life issue or topic, make it neutral towards that topic. There is the possibility that Joss Whedon was intentionally trying to say something about Christianity with Ultron’s character, but honestly, I can’t see it. We clearly don’t want to destroy the world, and the God that Christians believe in isn’t the malicious deity that Ultron talked about.

The people responsible for making these movies need to realise that they have the power to enact large-scale societal attitude shifts through the way they depict things, so why spread misinformation? Why foster negative attitudes when you can foster the positive? There’s immense potential in fiction to make people’s outlooks on life better, not worse, and it’s a disservice to society to abuse or not utilise this potential.

And secondly, the simple reality is that people who identify with the religion that is being depicted are going to be hurt by its use in this way, and that means they will enjoy the movie less. Even if money is all you care about, people enjoying your movie less will affect your bottom line. Besides, this isn’t about money or political correctness or taking sides, it’s about something simpler: if you have the choice to either hurt someone or not, why hurt them? Making other people happy is a basic life goal, and that can be achieved through movie blockbusters just as it can be achieved in normal, everyday life.

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