Why you’re wrong about which Avenger is the greatest

The Avengers

Yeah, I know, this is a tech blog and I’m talking about a superhero movie.  But I promise that this is a tech-related post.  You see, settling the question of which character in Marvel’s premiere superhero team has the most impressive abilities is a great way to illustrate something that we technophiles care about.  Go with me on this…

As a parent who occasionally gives rides to carpooling schoolmates of my 15-year old daughter, I have been subjected for the last several months to the ongoing debate of who is the “awesomest” [sic] Avenger. Given that I used to read the old Avenger comics more than a decade before any of the disputants were born, I was tempted to just bowl over these pubescent posers with my superior Marvel knowledge. But I didn’t.

No, this current debate, having filled many a Facebook thread of late, is framed almost exclusively in the context of the blockbuster movie, rather than the original comics themselves, so I want to take it on those terms.  Who is the most impressive character in the movie? Every single answer I have heard is absolutely wrong. Let me explain.

Looking at Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, the Black Widow, Hawkeye, the Hulk, or even Nick Fury or Phil Coulson (and hey, let’s throw in Loki, too), the character having the most impressive set of abilities is… none of those.  Far more impressive than any of those characters is: Jarvis.

In case you haven’t committed to memory all the names that come up in the movie, Jarvis is the Artificial Intelligence that ostensibly helps Iron Man control his suit. (Old school Avengers fans will recall that “Jarvis” was Tony Stark’s human butler in the original comics.) But really, Jarvis is so much more. On the surface, Iron Man tells Jarvis what to do. But if you really listen, it’s more like Iron Man, while manifestly the strongest personality on the Avengers, is himself led by Jarvis, rather than the other way around. And that’s appropriate, since Jarvis’ abilities put Iron Man’s to shame.

Let’s consider just a few examples. When Iron Man (a.k.a., Tony Stark) begins to blast his lasers at the largest of the enemies (a huge, armored alien creature), Jarvis interrupts him, saying, “We will lose power before we penetrate that shell,” and Iron Man immediately stops. When Iron Man needs to get out of a jam and tells Jarvis, “Put everything we’ve got into the thrusters,” Jarvis lets him know that this was already anticipated and already done. Most stunningly, when Iron Man is about to enter a space-warping portal from which he is unlikely ever to return, Jarvis suggests that he place a quick phone call to Pepper (Tony Stark’s girlfriend) for a last-goodbye chat. In these and many similar cases, Jarvis is presented as being one step ahead of Tony Stark at every turn.

Tony Stark speaking to Jarvis

Indeed, Jarvis’ understanding of strategy and context, the ranking of priorities, and even the deep-rooted bases of human psychology, is absolutely astounding. And if one could pull off the technological feat of creating such an artificial intelligence, it would dwarf the accomplishment of Tony Stark in making his suit, Doctor Banner in his ill-fated manipulation of gamma rays, or any other technical achievement presented in the movie (of which there are many). Jarvis is the Holy Grail of AI, smarter than any human, but also wiser and shrewder than most of us.  He goes beyond the Turing Test.

Jarvis is even capable of subtlety, nuance, and humor.  When Iron Man is considering the drastic action of flying down the mouth of a large creature in order to destroy it from the inside, he first checks with Jarvis about this by asking “[Have] you ever heard of Jonah?” to which Jarvis replies “I wouldn’t consider him a role model.”  This response implies that while Jarvis is reluctant and uneasy about the proposal, he does not altogether forbid it.  Iron Man then moves ahead because Jarvis did not exercise the veto power that he implicitly holds.

The movie presents no other character whose every word is respected to this degree.  Since Iron Man is the predominant human character in the movie, i.e., the one who most controls (perhaps manipulates) the others, and Jarvis is the only one who can take control of Iron Man, it’s a logical conclusion that Jarvis is ultimately the most influential of all the characters in the film.

So, if you pay close attention to the dialog and if you have any idea of how hard it is to create even the humblest AI, you can come to only one conclusion about which character possesses the most impressive powers in the Avengers movie. Both literally and metaphorically, Jarvis rules!

In a follow-on post, I’ll explain how movies like this are molding the public’s expectations about AI, and how that in turn affects us who actually build AI systems in the real world.


2 thoughts on “Why you’re wrong about which Avenger is the greatest

  1. Ok so you did mention Jarvis originally being Stark’s butler, but in the movies didn’t Iron Man create Jarvis? So doesn’t that make him superior…?

  2. Good point: maybe the movie suggests that Tony Stark made Iron Man. But is that really conceivable? The movies don’t really depict who was involved in making Jarvis. It could have been the result of a team of scientists. If it were anything like the real world, then that’s what it would be.
    In making his suit, Stark was picking up work of other scientists on his payroll, and combining them together. So even if he personally “made” Jarvis, he’d have done the same thing. Jarvis is too immense an undertaking to be the fruit of one person’s labor.

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