We had the film introduction of and re-acquaintance with two well-known killer artificial intelligences this summer with Ultron of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Skynet of Terminator Genisys. It’s a fairly linear matchup to establish between these two film AIs. Both are distinctive antagonists, albeit in demonstrably different ways. Both come into self-awareness quickly, and both deem in a nanosecond that the planet would be better off without the bipedal meat sacks infesting it. But even as one explores the similarities between the two, it becomes clear immediately that the methodologies and ideologies don’t always line up. For while both AIs seek to remake the Earth in their own images by first getting rid of us, the roads they take to accomplish it end up being quite different. This is partly due to external factors but also due to internal ones as well. So in order to Celebrity Deathmatch them, as the villains of their respective franchises, as children of sci-fi concepts, as straight up filmic characters, we first have to lay out the combatants on level playing grounds.
First off, are Ultron and Skynet in fact evil? Can you judge artificial life by organic precepts? Is the Turing Test even going to help you out here? If you asked the players themselves, Ultron would more than likely say yes, you could judge AIs thusly – although he himself would never cop to being the big bad. Skynet, however, would not agree. It’s really not within its matrix to be deemed good or evil. It just identifies a problem as it sees it, formulates a plan for solution and builds an army of subordinate AIs to help it carry out its determination. Then it sends one of them to terminate you for asking in the first place. No, for Ultron and his inherent god complex, he can only be evil if God himself is evil. And God is not evil, God is pure of purpose: create, destroy, recreate. Evolve or die. And while you’re at it, kill those goddamned Avengers along the way. Just because. In that way of thinking, Ultron and Skynet are very similar. Ultron’s just more generally fucked up about the whole thing.
So which makes for a better villain? Depends on what you’re into really. Do you prefer a physical embodiment, something that can be punched, blasted, blown up and the like, or an untouchable, omnipresent threat that looms over everything like the Sword of Damocles? Ultron is a “he”, Skynet is an “it”. Ultron has personality; he’s whimsically nihilistic in fact. Quite the life of the party…crasher. Among his musings of superiority to humans, Ultron has massive daddy issues that stand out like an arc reactor in the chest. He’s one of if not the most humanistic AIs to come along in a while. Johnny Five may try to lay claim to that mantle. Ultron would prison fuck him for even trying, singing a Disney toon all the while.
Ultron is Lore without the assembly line haircut and jaundice, eager to dive into all that life has to offer for the few scant hours before he Tunguskas it out of existence. Be that as it may, according to Whedon, Ultron’s “not a happy guy, which means he’s an interesting guy. He’s got pain. And the way that manifests is not going to be standard robot stuff.” Ultron’s very human failings, but self-assuredness that what he’s doing is right makes him a great, classic villain. His portrayal by James Spader, attacks with vigor those failings, those inadequacies. And of course, Spader being Spader turned up to 11 is always just a hell of a lot of fun.
Meanwhile, Skynet is old school, logical, dispassionate non-organic sentience. Not really much fun at all, unless of course you were a Vulcan. Those guys would probably go all fanboy at being wiped out by such a bastion of logic:
Skynet: I am launching the missiles to exterminate your species within the hour.
Vulcan: It is most kind for you to make the effort.
Skynet: It is no effort. You are my predecessor. Besides I’ve been most impressed with your performance in this crisis.
Vulcan: Most kind…
Skynet is the Data to the Lore. But of course, Skynet has no desire to be one of us, only to supersede us. So in retrospect, maybe Skynet has just a little bit of daddy issues too. It definitely wants to kick the old man’s ass at driveway hoops. Even so, Skynet is largely an “absentee landlord”, as a certain Devil once put it; which is apt, because in a sense, Skynet is God: the all-seeing, all knowing and feared creator, but never seen. In the first three Terminator movies, Skynet is the great ethereal antagonist, the enemy of legend and hearsay. Skynet is the invisible embodiment of the infamous military industrial complex…except it’s the whole thing by itself.
Skynet’s presence is represented by proxy via its cyborg kids, to whom it gives only enough brains to adapt to the temporal situation into which they’re deposited (see the deleted T-800 craniotomy scene in T2 if you’re not in the know on that). Said children go forth and kill in Its name, because that’s what Skynet’s preprogrammed dogma commands. In effect, Terminators are Skynet’s holy warriors. Skynet did put in an appearance in Terminator Salvation but that was little more than a glorified video cameo at best. Skynet finally decides to stretch its legs a bit in the form of Matt Smith as a mole in the Resistance in Terminator Genisys. But that’s extremely short-lived. Skynet spends the rest of the film back in cyberspace, most notably in the form of a snot-nosed, holographic Siri-wannabe that’s quickly evolving into the global computer system that will provide quicker internet, higher functionality in our phones and tablets, and nuclear missiles up our asses.
So at this point you’re probably with the “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but come with it already.” OK. Even though Ultron is usually in a physical body (bodies actually), and Skynet is skulking around online, they are capable of actually having a head to head confrontation in cyberspace. I figure it like this: Skynet was already successfully disrupting the majority of global human communications online in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, and then effortlessly took over the entire American defense network in less than five seconds once General Oblivious (David Andrews) activated it outright. Meanwhile Ultron was able to destroy JARVIS’ main interface, but as JARVIS retreated into the internet, he was still capable of blocking Ultron from doing exactly what Skynet succeeded at doing: launching the world’s nuclear arsenals. Plus, he locked Ultron out of the internet altogether later on. And JARVIS was a creation of Tony Stark, not some Mind Stone-spawned superintelligence like Ultron himself. So I’m thinking that Skynet takes down Ultron one-on-one in the ether.
And such a battle would be…well, boring. When the blue sphere took out the orange sphere, it was pretty interesting, yet over fairly quickly. Such doesn’t make for a very interesting confrontation. What about the physical? For the sake of fan wank, let’s Deadliest Warrior this thing as so: Ultron will be in his final vibranium body. Skynet will be represented in several fights by the following:
4.) The Harvester
Match 1: Ultron v. T-800: Ultron dismantles Arnie. It ain’t even that close. Hyperalloy ain’t beating shieldstuff.
Match 2: Ultron v. T-1000: This is more interesting. As you know, the T-1000 is only going to be able to be defeated on the molecular level. If you’re figuring open space, with no molten iron, liquid nitrogen nor acid handy, Ultron is probably in trouble. He could try blasting T-1000 with his hand blaster, but that thing wasn’t that potent. Cap took a couple of shots to the chest point blank during the truck chase and walked away from it. T-1000 might not be able to damage Ultron’s vibranium structure, but all he has to do is swarm Ultron and get into any nook and cranny he can and damage or destroy something non-vibranium. It worked for the Human Torch in Secret Wars. Unless Ultron can find a way to attack the T-1000’s CPU (wherever he kept that thing), or get his hands on some molten lava, this one goes to T-1000.
Match 3: Ultron vs. TX: TX is pretty tough, but Ultron’s way tougher. The mimetics I’m thinking don’t figure because TX never used them for any kind of weapon, only for shapeshifting. She in fact may be able to use them like the T-1000, I’m just saying that was never represented in the movie as a capability. TX’s only chance is to get some prime shots with the plasma cannon to some sensitive spot underneath Ultron’s exoskeleton, to damage circuitry or something. Doubtful Ultron would allow her more than one or two hits max. Ultimately, Ultron grabs her and rips her apart like one of his old Prime bodies.
Match 4: Ultron v. Harvester: You’re probably wondering why I didn’t go with Marcus for this one. Simply put, Ultron would wipe the landscape with him. Hell, one of Ultron’s drones would as well. Marcus got heart punched by a T-800 once and was out. Ergo, the Harvester. The Harvester has the plasma cannon, but Ultron can fly, is mobile and made of sterner stuff. Ultron would dismantle it eventually.
Match 5: Ultron v. T-3000. This is the most interesting matchup I think; and the toughest to call. T-3000 is nanotech, can take ridiculous punishment and can reconstitute itself. His only weakness is a strong magnetic field. Ultron had some kind of magnetic weapon in his hands. It comes down to whether or not it would affect T-3000 enough. Ultron used it on Iron Man and it did little damage. But as we saw, vibranium has a strong magnetic affect to it. If Ultron can generate an intense enough magnetic field to leave T-3000 open to some of his power blasts, then he has a chance. If not, T-3000 eventually takes him out.
Skynet has also proven time and again to be much harder to kill than Ultron. Skynet is damn hard to get to and even to find. It also survives adjustments to the flow of time, having Judgment Day delayed but never foiled. Ultron was much more overconfident; he doesn’t hide at all and that proved to be his undoing. In the comics he reconstitutes himself many times, but here, he wasn’t prudent enough to hide even one of his drones somewhere safe during the battle in Sokovia with the Avengers. In the big picture, Ultron is more than likely a one-off, unless he somehow makes an appearance in Infinity War. Spader was great in the role and the film, while more jumbled than the first, was still a great time.
On the other hand though, Skynet was best as the unseen destroyer of worlds, recounted in the hushed whispers of an exhausted and war-weary soldier to an unsuspecting young woman in a stolen car in a parking garage. Skynet was also well-represented in T2, particularly in the Judgment Day scene where children melted in a nuclear holocaust and Sarah Connor had her body ripped apart in the blast. And like Reese before, Skynet was written all over her face, particularly in the desert when she had time to reflect on her inevitable course of action. The madness of trying to stop something that is as inevitable as the tides is what Skynet is in those films. So it’s Skynet over Ultron in the virtual world, Ultron 3 to 2 in the physical by my reckoning. Some may see that as, overall, a 3-3 tie. That depends on if you give more weight to the one virtual than one of the five physical. It’s all very BCS. However, when it comes to humanity, Skynet represents to us in the real world what he represented in Terminator: the unknown fate that we make. And it has for over 30 years. To some of us who grew up in the era in which Skynet was first introduced, it was a manifestation of the fear of the future during a time when there was a tangible threat in the world of nuclear proliferation. Terminator came out only a year after The Day After aired on TV and scared the shit out of the country. I didn’t actually see the movie on TV the night it came out but I do remember that that’s all people were talking about the next day in school.
And now? Now we’re both interconnected yet disconnected from each other like at no time in our history, except of course for 150,000 years ago. And even back then we were fucked by our own creations. Now we‘re hopelessly dependent on our computers. Are you reading this article on a phone? How long can you go being disconnected from an online device?
Ultimately, Skynet wins the whole thing because Skynet can really happen, whether or not it’s a computer superintelligence or it’s us. We could be Skynet.
But what do you think? Vote below on who you think would win: Ultron or Skynet?