Age of Ultron, Part 3

(This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Age of Ultron.  You have been warned.)

In first two parts of this series, I examined whether Tony Stark and Bruce Banner could be held liable for the damage caused by Ultron (probably) and whether Ultron itself could be (probably not under real-world law, possibly in the Marvel Cinematic Universe).  Now we turn to what actually happened in the movie: Ultron was defeated by the Avengers and the last copy of his mind was destroyed by the Vision.  From a real-world point of view we have one non-human entity destroying another in a fictional foreign country (Sokovia).  I have no idea what Sokovia’s legal system is like or whether it would recognize either the Vision or Ultron as legal persons.  So I’m going to punt and apply US law, assuming that both the Vision and Ultron are regarded as legal persons in the MCU.

I. The Facts

After destroying all but one of Ultron’s bodies and burning out his connection to the internet, the Vision confronts Ultron’s last remaining body, itself badly damaged.  After a brief repartee, Ultron attempts to attack the Vision and is promptly killed.

II. Self-Defense

The Vision’s only defense here is self-defense.  He knew that this was Ultron’s last body and that he could no longer escape to the internet.  He and Ultron were alone in the woods, so the damaged Ultron-body did not pose a threat to anyone else, nor could it realistically flee.  Necessity and duress generally do not excuse homicide.  The killing was intentional.  So self-defense it is.  But would it work?

Ultron did make an aggressive motion toward the Vision, so at least some degree of self-defense could be excused, and the attack was imminent.  But homicide in self-defense is generally only allowed if a reasonable person would believe it necessary to prevent one’s own imminent death or serious bodily injury.  It’s questionable whether a single badly damaged Ultron-body could threaten serious injury to the Vision.  Thus, while the Vision could have defended itself, it may have overstepped by destroying Ultron outright.

Some jurisdictions recognize “imperfect self-defense” as a mitigating defense in cases where the defendant (i.e. the Vision) had an honest but unreasonable belief in the necessity of lethal self-defense.  This would bring the charge down to something like manslaughter instead of murder.  But in most jurisdictions it would just be murder.

III. Conclusion

With the caveat that this all happened in a fictional country and represents new legal territory, things don’t look good for the Vision.  The argument for self-defense is pretty weak., and it’s difficult to see what happened as anything other than an extrajudicial execution of Ultron after he had ceased to be a meaningful threat.

36 responses to “Age of Ultron, Part 3

  1. Could Vision prove/argue that leaving Ultron “alive” posed more of a threat than killing him? We saw that, given the opportunity, Ultron would simply make more copies of himself, and attempt to upgrade/evolve himself if left to his own devices. Could Vision argue that he was preventing a similar future attack to the one that happened in Sokovia by eliminating Ultron for good? (Assuming, of course, that he actually did, since we didn’t actually see a “dead body” at the end, we just saw an explosion. I know the law doesn’t usually allow for what someone might do in the future, but Ultron did clearly attempt to end the world by dropping a home-made meteor on the planet. Would the law make an exception for Vision in that case, based on Ultron’s prior actions and the threat it poses to all of humanity?

    • If they’re both considered people in this hypothetical, then the question would be raised about why Ultron couldn’t simply be rendered unable to flee until proper authorities could arrest Ultron for its crimes.

    • “He needed killing” is not a recognized defense, no.

      Even unrepentant murders and genocidal dictators who, given the chance, would kill or seize power again, can’t be summarily executed without a trial simply because it’s likely that, eventually, they would pose a threat. Self-help (e.g. self-defense, citizen’s arrest) has become disfavored over the centuries, notwithstanding some developments such as stand your ground laws. The law is pretty clear that the threat must be imminent, and I don’t think the damaged, disconnected Ultron-body posed that kind of threat.

      • Nate Gabriel

        Would the same apply if, instead of the superhumanly powerful Vision, it had been a sentient squirrel? Possibly one acting under orders from an even more powerful, but absent, heroine.

        If the killer were capable of disconnecting enough of the relevant pieces to kill Ultron but not capable of restraining him or preventing him from rebuilding later, would the homicide be justified then?

      • James Pollock

        Even unrepentant murders and genocidal dictators who, given the chance, would kill or seize power again, can’t be summarily executed without a trial simply because it’s likely that, eventually, they would pose a threat.”

        Tell that to Osama bin Laden. Or any of dozens of others targeted for drone strikes.

      • It’s debatable whether any of those killings were legally justified.

      • James Pollock

        “It’s debatable whether any of those killings were legally justified.”

        Neither is the annexation of the Crimea by Russia.

        Of course, it remains to be seen how much of the comics Vision is in the MCU Vision… it would be a challenge to build a prison which could hold the Vision if he did not choose to be held. (See also Pryde, Katherine).

      • My suspicion is that the justifications here are in the arena of politics (and perhaps in the continuation beyond to other means) rather than of law.

    • Philo Pharynx

      The law wants to avoid needless violence. When somebody is threatening you immanently, you don’t have a lot of choices. Thus violent self defense is justified.

      When somebody is threatening to kill you later, you have many choices. You can get a dog, hire guards, install a security system, call the police, get a restraining order, etc. It’s not reasonable to hunt somebody down and kill them.

      • Ken Arromdee

        When somebody is threatening to kill you later, you have many choices. You can get a dog, hire guards, install a security system, call the police, get a restraining order, etc. It’s not reasonable to hunt somebody down and kill them.

        You have those choices if the killer is a human. Even the most hardened human killer can’t break out of a jail cell with his bare hands. If the killer is Ultron, those choices aren’t going to work. Is it still as unreasonable to kill them if you can’t get a dog, hire guards, etc.?

      • Philo Pharynx

        There are still options you can take – hire a super guard, etc. And we have the other side of the argument. Just because Ultron currently wants to kill you in the future does not guarantee that he will want to kill you when the moment comes.

  2. It seems to be that most likely neither of these characters would be considered legal persons in the MCU. Now in a couple of years that might change, but based upon what we have seen so far I don’t think either the U.S. or Sokovia would consider then any more than objects. Basically software running machinery. In Ultron’s case dangerous machinery.

    • I agree with you. The purpose of this post was to analyze how it would play out if the Vision and Ultron were considered legal persons. The answer (that the Vision pretty much murdered Ultron) sort of complicates the MCU’s view that the Vision is a stand-up guy, as evidenced by, among other things, his ability to pick up Mjölnir.

      • Nate Gabriel

        We have no real reason to trust Mjölnir’s judgment. After all, the only other wielder it’s known to accept is the guy who considers “Hell is filled with the screams of your enemies” to be a compliment.

      • James Pollock

        Mjolnir has had quite a few wielders over the years.

      • Daniel Taylor

        Nate is correct. Since Mjolnir was enchanted by Odin, we only really know that its wielder must by worthy as defined by Odin. Who is not exactly a master of socially responsible behaviour.

        The willingness to execute your enemies is not, of course, considered a flaw in a potential King of Asgard.

      • James Pollock

        “Nate is correct. Since Mjolnir was enchanted by Odin, we only really know that its wielder must by worthy as defined by Odin. ”

        I’ll admit to being somewhat fuzzy on the details, but was Mjolnir enchanted by Odin? In the comics, it’s been enchanted and re-enchanted on multiple occasions, but does the MCU have a definitive answer?

      • Ken Arromdee

        Mjolnir, even in the comics, has been able to be lifted by machines. The movie covers this too, asking what happens if you put it in an elevator. It would be nonsense to say that the elevator can’t lift it, and would lead to questions like “what if you dropped it on the ground, is the moving Earth unable to move it, so it remains left behind in the solar system?”

        So we don’t know that he’s actually worthy, even by Odin’s standards. Maybe Odin’s standards just considers him machine enough to fall under the exception.

      • James Pollock

        “Mjolnir, even in the comics, has been able to be lifted by machines.”

        Perhaps the key lies in the difference between “lifting” (a mechanical process) and “wielding” (an intentional process).

  3. I would submit, however, that Ultron is not necessarily dead. In the movie’s version, Ultron was derived from a complex software entity that Tony Stark discovered within Loki’s scepter, i.e. from the Infinity Stone within it. Assuming it behaved like most software, then Tony didn’t remove it from the stone, just copied it. Presumably the AI is still latent within the stone, which is now residing on The Vision’s forehead.

    Although I suppose the counterargument would be that Ultron isn’t necessarily the same entity as that software construct; rather, it’s an “offspring” of it, resulting from the merger of it with the software Tony and Bruce added to it. I’m not sure if that’s the case, though; I’d need to see the movie again to refresh my memory on how they got from “I found this code inside the scepter” to the emergence of the Ultron AI. So I can’t be sure whether they’re really distinct entities.

    • Yeah. MCU Ultron as we know it being a derivation of elements of Tony’s AIware code combined with the code copied from the Mind Gem…that makes sense. “Distinct entities” fits.

    • The Ultron A.I. is harvested from Chitauri technology. Stark appropriated it from the crashed alien ships from the first film- in other words, Ultron was technically in the first movie, likely on the wrong end of Banners’ “I’m always angry” punch. The Sceptre merely rebooted it, sans memories.

      Whether Ultron is actually dead is irrelevant to the discussion here- instead, what would be asked is a) whether or not Vision believed that this was the last Ultron, b) whether he would reasonably be expected to believe that it was the last Ultron (in the hypothetical event that he DIDN’T think it was the last Ultron but was merely pretending to, ie. he wished to fake Ultrons’ death, but accidentally killed him for real), and c) was the intent to kill Ultron?

      And the answer to al three is “yes”. So if Ultron turns out to not actually be dead but what Vision thought he did could be construed as murder, then he would be guilty of attempted murder.

  4. Craig A. Glesner

    I agree with Megan, I don’t think The Vision killed or destroyed the last Ultron. Remember whose side he is on, not good or evil, the Avengers or Ultron, he declared he is on the side of Life.

    While he may not be human, Ultron is a form of Life. I suspect that The Vision merely put him back in the Mind Stone since all the other times we see The Vision use the Solar Beam it doesn’t flash like the end bit showed.

    So, the charge Counsellor is not murder, it is kidnapping or maybe unlawful confinement. :p

  5. James Pollock

    You’ve left out a defense, and it is an important one, because it quite possibly applies (at common law, it would apply, and would bar prosecution).

    Incapacity.

    The Vision is only one or two days old at the time of the events related.

    • First, we don’t know how the courts would approach someone like the Vision, who has only been in existence for a day or two but whose mind is clearly that of an adult.

      Second, even if the courts treated him as an infant (in the legal sense), he could still theoretically fall under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court (again, analyzing the situation under US law, which I admit does not apply here).

      • “he could still theoretically fall under the jurisdiction of a juvenile court”

        Are you sure about that, James? I thought that there was an age (6 or 8, I think?) below which children were considered to be automatically incapable of committing torts. I don’t remember the name of the classic case, but I think it involved a child pulling a chair out from under his aunt as her fundament descended toward it.

      • In this case I’m discussing criminal liability, not civil liability. Many states do have a cut-off age for criminal responsibility, but many don’t, leaving it open-ended or with the common law rule of 7 years. But the common law is flexible, and a judge could decide that the Vision can be held criminally responsible for its actions.

        But, in any case, you’re thinking of Garratt v. Dailey (no relation), which actually held just the opposite:

        It will be noted that the law of battery as we have discussed it is the law applicable to adults, and no significance has been attached to the fact that Brian was a child less than six years of age when the alleged battery occurred. The only circumstance where Brian’s age is of any consequence is in determining what he knew, and there his experience, capacity, and understanding are of course material.

        In this case, the Vision evidently has the experience, capacity, and understanding to know right from wrong, the consequences of killing another being, that destroying the last Ultron-body would kill Ultron, etc.

      • James Pollock

        [the Vision] “whose mind is clearly that of an adult.”

        Not entirely that clear, actually. He’s not the same as a human child of the same age, obviously, but whether he has mental capacity to form mens rea seems a strong point to consider.

        Judgment comes from experience, and the Vision hasn’t any of his own.

      • I guess this is why I look these things up if it comes up in actual practice. 🙂 Thanks for giving me the case name!

  6. Very interesting discussion these past few posts! I guess the only point I think one could argue from this is that at least it seemed like Ultron was still a possible threat at the time of his “death”. Not exactly a very strong point for Vision’s defense to argue with, though!

  7. Well, Ultron is in the middle of attempting to destroy the entire planet by lifting up a planetoid and crashing it down into the earth as a mass impact weapon. Prior to that, he was attempting to steal software codes that could trigger the launch of nuclear weapons and he was specifically detected at it (although some system not having to do with physical keys mysteriously prevented him).

    If any any time the US or the UN declared war upon him as a sovereign power, which would be easy enough to do, then Vision’s action is easily allowed under laws of war and rules of engagement just as is the action against every Ultron robot they meet.

    • That’s a good point, though as best as I can recall we don’t see much indication that the wider world is even aware of Ultron’s existence, much less has declared war on him. Or in what capacity, exactly, the Avengers are operating as legitimate agents of a government post-Winter Soldier and after the Hulk’s rampage in the unnamed African country. After Age of Ultron it appears that the Avengers are once again in the good graces of some kind of government (the US or some international organization), but that’s less clear at the outset of the film.

      • James Pollock

        Is a war against Ultron analogous to a war against a sovereign country, or is it more like the “War on Drugs”? Is it in some poorly-legally-defined middle ground like the “War on Terror”?

        Would declaring war on Ultron, even if Congress took this step, be constitutional? Or would it be blocked because Ultron is a person (assuming he IS a person) rather than a sovereign nation?

      • Ken Arromdee

        What about piracy law? It applies to aircraft and to areas outside the jurisdiction of any state. If you take a city into orbit, does that count as either an impromptu aircraft, or an area outside a state’s jurisdiction? Could Ultron then be killed as a pirate?

      • The African venue for the Hulk/Avengers fight was Johannesburg, South Africa. Uniforms of local police who showed up and ended up in long-term physiotherapy as a result of encountering a traumatized “Hulk” Banner were easily identifiable.

        That shipbreaking yard where it started is going to be more difficult to pin down, but I’m inclined towards Mauritania’s coastline unless someone with specific expertise pipes up.

  8. There is also the issue of whether or not destroying Ultron’s body would actually result in the destruction of his mind. If his program is stored on hardware (a hard drive or some other form of storage) then it is possible that vision could destroy the rest of the Ultron body and leave the memory storage undamaged but powered down. So would Ultron then be dead, unconcious or some other definition within the law? Human brains cannot be restarted in this manner, so how would the law resolve the situation then? And, if Ultron is reactivated, but is missing memories and functions due to loss of computational power or processes stored in RAM, then is he the same individual that committed the crimes for which the Ultron body was destroyed in the first place?

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