May 26 is “World Dracula Day,” an annual celebration of the world’s most famous vampire. This year’s gothic celebration brought to mind a different monster. A monster who, though just as famous, often gets the short end of the stick. Mary Shelley does her creation dirty in her 1818 classic novel, but the monster has also been infamously misidentified in the various interpretations and adaptations of the story across time. (For the last time: Frankenstein was the scientist, not the monster.) That there is a monster at all is a shame. A few small tweaks to Shelley’s Frankenstein story could have resulted in the creature as something akin to an Avenger in the Marvel Cinematic Universe rather than a monster.
A dark and stormy weekend in 1818 would become the archetype of horror settings for centuries to come. It featured a creative competition between literary giants whose influence reaches across contemporary pop culture. Divisive English poet Lord Byron challenged his companions— among whom was a young, precocious Mary Shelley—to each write a ghost story. Shelley’s “ghost story” surpassed those of the more established writers that weekend. It would go on to influence western Gothic horror ever after.
While not at all responsible for Shelley’s novel, originally titled Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, Lord Byron’s influence is apparent in Victor Frankenstein’s Byronic characterization. Byronic figures are proud, moody, cynical, and defiant despite also containing some hidden sentimentality. This archetype evolved into charismatic characters, more swashbuckling in nature. The modern, atypical kind of heroic figure who might take too much pride in being, oh, I don’t know, something like a “genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”
Like all things nowadays, this leads to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Nowhere is the Frankenstein-to-MCU pipeline more clear than in the clunky, much-derided sequel to the franchise’s flagship team-up, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Both Age of Ultron and Frankenstein follow arrogant Byronic scientists who use their unique secret knowledge to create life. The catch is that these creations end up driven to kill their respective creators. In Age of Ultron, Bruce Banner steps into the role of Igor to work with Tony Stark—the MCU’s Doctor Frankenstein. Together, they reanimate a long-dormant peacekeeping initiative called the Ultron Program. The project manifests as an unhinged murderbot, hell-bent on human extermination. Essentially, a modernized, technologically-advanced version of Shelley’s original sci-fi monster.
In Shelley’s novel, Victor Frankenstein establishes the same permission structure as Stark. They allow themselves the pursuit of blatantly immoral technological innovation. Frankenstein believes his monster will “renew life” and is the first step in the creation of a new species. Stark believes Ultron will be a “suit of armor around the world,” protecting the planet more efficiently than the Avengers ever could. Moreover, both scientists feel some kind of moral compulsion to pursue their dark work.
The Frankenstein’s monster archetype is self hatred personified. Ultron, for example, is a twisted kind of MCU doppelganger that represents Tony Stark’s darkest impulses. Ultron’s genocidal plan for human extinction resulted from an assessment similar to the one made by Frankenstein’s monster in Shelley’s novel. They essentially decide: “my creator is the problem and everyone important to him needs to die.” Even Ultron’s initial twisted metal body recalls the deformed, abhorrent form of Frankenstein’s creation. Both Frankenstein’s and Stark’s immediate revulsion at their respective technological marvels alludes to the indelible “Nature vs. Nurture” debate. Perhaps the monsters were not born monstrous. The way those around them acted certainly pushed them there.
Originally intended as a perfected body for Ultron to inhabit, Vision from the MCU is a sort of “Frankenstein’s monster’s monster.” Vision acts as a fascinating foil for both Frankenstein’s creation and Ultron. He represents what could have been if their creators nurtured the monster or Ultron rather than shun them. Like Frankenstein’s monster, Vision’s body springs to life via lightning in a lab, to be the next evolution of an Avengers hero. Since Vision just looks like Paul Bettany in purple face paint, the character’s conventional good looks immediately put those around him at ease. They are thus more trustful of him. Lifting Thor’s hammer and proclaiming that he’s “on the side of life” were all it took to convince the team of his good intentions. Thus, Vision’s character arc completely diverges from that of Frankenstein’s monster.
Vision growing to solve problems with philosophy instead of fists was an inevitable conclusion. At every possible moment, he was treated as the polar opposite to Frankenstein’s monster. Even though Frankenstein’s monster helped a family survive through the winter in Shelley’s work, his grotesque visage compelled them to drive him away. Vision was welcomed with open arms after helping the Avengers defeat Ultron because they trusted him. Loneliness defined the monster’s existence in Frankenstein. His creator could not follow through on his promise to create Frankenstein’s monster a companion. Stark, on the other hand, was all too willing to give Vision “guard duty” over the Scarlet Witch in Captain America: Civil War—an arrangement that ultimately led to a tragic, fruitful romantic relationship. Companionship, if you will.
The thoughtful, nurturing circumstances that caused nascent synthezoid Vision to blossom into a well-adjusted member of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes makes Frankenstein’s plot that much more tragic. The monster wasn’t created evil. Everyone’s derision and shame toward him caused him to resent humans and seek revenge against his creator. If Frankenstein’s monster had been nurtured like Vision was, he could have used his hulking frame and beefy monster strength to act as a Gothic, 19th century superhero. Instead, he killed children rather than save them.
For more Gothic horror of Nerdist Vampire Week, click here