THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS TO MARVEL’S “AGE OF ULTRON” MINI-SERIES, CURRENTLY RUNNING.
In 1968 (our time), founding Avenger Hank Pym (aka Ant Man aka Giant Man aka Yellowjacket) created a breath-taking artificial intelligence named Ultron. Instantly rebelling against Pym, Ultron teamed with the Masters of Evil to take down the Avengers, almost succeeding (for the first of many times). Pym’s creation has been haunting him ever since, always promising to raze and control Earth but never succeeding…until now.
Half the heroes are dead, all hope is lost, and the only option is a time travel Hail Mary. Welcome to the dawn of the Age of Ultron.
“Age of Ultron,” Marvel’s current event epic, written by Brian Michael Bendis with art by Bryan Hitch, Brandon Peterson, and Carlos Pacheco, asks readers two questions. The first is one that has been cropping up more and more in comics over the past six, years or so: “What if the villain wins?”
It’s a juicy premise, one that has been explored in other series like DC’s “Final Crisis” in 2008 and BOOM! Comics’ ongoing, “Irredeemable.” With a world like Marvel’s, one that has always embraced and sought out the shades of grey good and evil we experience in real life, a series about the villain winning is especially intriguing. If the villains don’t kill them, where will the remaining heroes turn? Will they stand and keep fighting or will some of them see the new world order and adapt to it, giving up the moral high ground for something more primal: survival.
Unfortunately though, “Age of Ultron,” before it can adequately address the first question, poses another question; one that is unintentional yet can’t be overlooked.
When is an event not an event?
This storyline has been teased since 2011′s “Avengers #12.1.” Over the course of his nearly decade-long run on “The Avengers,” “Age of Ultron” writer Brian Michael Bendis seemed to always be teasing this story, even before issue 12.1. His first arc on 2007’s “Mighty Avengers” featured Ultron’s return and the series ended (this time with writer Dan Slott at the helm) with the robot taking a bride and once again declaring he will rule the world. And when Bendis re-launched “The Avengers” in 2010, he depicted a horrifying future where Ultron had won, one that Tony Stark witnessed and is haunted by. Issue 12.1 ends with Tony Stark believing that future will now come to pass.
“AU” has been a slow build of a story that doesn’t seem to be heading to a satisfying conclusion. With only 2 issues left (issue 8 was released today), the series only hit its stride at the end of issue 6, finally setting up the plot beyond “Ultron wins.” But those 6 issues are a slow burn.
The first four issues were basically the same story, told from different perspectives. Bendis intentionally started the story after the conquest of Earth by Ultron, stating in interviews that this was an intentional choice. The majority of the heroes who died have died off camera. So readers don’t get any type of flashback to the carnage, but instead just see how the rubble in New York looks a little different from the rubble in San Francisco. And then, its 2 more issues of debating the morality of time travel (The old “Would you go back in time to kill Hitler?” question). Wolverine, as always, is willing to answer that question (“Uh… yeah!”), going back in time to kill Hank Pym (with The Fantastic Four’s Sue Storm along for the ride as an ineffective Jiminy Cricket) and prevent Ultron from ever being created. But that has only led to even further complications, with this action completely re-writing the history of our heroes.
It took 4 full issues for the heroes to come together, 2 issues for their separate time travel plans to go into effect and 2 issues to see the stakes of those time travel decisions. 8 issues in, 2 to go and it’s finally starting to build some steam. Today’s issue 8, a hellish version of the Marvel that results from the death of Hank Pym, introduces the first intriguing wrinkle into the premise, which is that it might not be possible to avoid this apocalypse, just change the players on the board. But even if that is something that is going to be explored (and honestly, I find it more interesting then what is being put forward), it is too late to give that idea its due with only two issues left.
As I read today’s issue, being introduced and brought up to speed on the Pym-less Marvel U, it felt counter-productive to have to learn about this new world when there is so much left unknown in the old one. 8 issues in and we still haven’t actually seen Ultron (we’ve seen his face over and over again thanks to his army of drones, but the villain has yet to utter one line).
Marvel has been promising an ending that is “unguessable” (Bendis’ own words), even though it has been revealed that Angela, an angelic character previously owned by Image Comics, would appear in the story’s final issue. Marvel has also already put out solicits for books after the conclusion of “AU” featuring characters in very different status-quos as depicted in “AU.”
Brian Michael Bendis, the writer of the series, has also said in interviews that this story, specifically the altering of time by Wolverine, plays into the large plots of books he is currently writing, “All-New X-Men” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” implying a greater payoff down the line. And that’s really the problem “Age of Ultron;” all of this build-up with nothing really to show for it.
And as a Spider-Man fan, I have to point out the obvious fault of the character’s inclusion. Though everyone at Marvel emphatically declares that the Spider-Man in the series is Superior Spider-Man (Otto Octavius in Peter Parker’s body), it is very clear that this is not the case. Octavius redesigned the Spider-Man costume, though in “AU,” the classic design is used. And when the conversation turns to killing Hank Pym, in true Peter Parker fashion, Spider-Man is the first to speak against it, despite the fact that the Superior Spider-Man has no problem taking a life.
And though this is a nit-picky complaint, it perfectly captures the problems of “Age of Ultron.” This story was conceived and meant to be released at a different point in time. In the two years since the story was announced, the Marvel Universe has undergone some MASSIVE changes, some at the hands of Brian Michael Bendis himself. But this new status quo makes fitting this story into the larger Marvel universe a much trickier situation, one that the creative team is ultimately unable to do. What it comes down to is that “Age of Ultron” is not an event book. It would have made for a crowning achievement during Bendis’ “Avengers” run, but fails to impress as a stand-alone story.
At this point, I am more focused on Marvel’s NEXT event book, “Infinity,” which was teased over this past Free Comic Book Day. It looks much more focused and primed to affect Marvel more than “Age of Ultron” (especially since its villain, Thanos, is being primed to be a big bad in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as seen in the credits of last summer’s “Avengers” movie). “AU” had so much potential to it, but now, thanks to delay and continually shifting focus at Marvel, this series became a deflated letdown.
So have no fear, this isn’t the end for Marvel’s heroes. It’s not even a beginning. It’s a parenthesis, meant to prove that Marvel doesn’t give up on stories, even if they should be left behind.
All images are courtesy of Marvel.