Everyone who reads this blog is probably aware that not only does this event have the same name as the subtitle for the “Avengers” sequel, but that the movie has nothing to do with the storyline of the comic. So anyone who picks this up after seeing the movie next year is going to be in for a nasty surprise. I say “nasty” because aside from any issues with baiting and switching the name may inspire in the reader the comic really isn’t that good. To be fair, I can see what Bendis was going for here and the fact that it doesn’t read like your typical Marvel Universe event at least offers some interest. These things don’t compensate for the fact that the story is a underdeveloped zero-sum-game whose only apparent purpose is to set up future storylines.
All of this started back in the writer’s adjectiveless “Avengers” run where he did a storyline that involved Ultron taking over the world in the future and Kang breaking time in his attempt to defeat the robot and claim Earth for himself. Though the team managed to avert that crisis, it didn’t solve the fundamental problem that Ultron was going to take over the world at some point. A little later, we got a one-off where Ultron found his way back to Earth, escaped the Avengers, and Tony Stark proclaimed doom for all of mankind as a result.
I imagine that “Age of Ultron” was meant to follow that particular issue. In fact, word has it that this storyline was meant to come out before “Avengers vs. X-Men.” So what went wrong? It’s doubtful that we’ll ever know the specifics, but I’m guessing a large part of the blame can be laid at the feet of the man who was chosen to illustrate the event: Bryan Hitch. Hitch is an incredible artist who does epic superhero action better than just about everyone else. He’s also incredibly slow at drawing it, and the fact that he had also teamed up with writer/British TV personality Jonathan Ross to launch “America’s Got Powers” probably didn’t help this project’s schedule. The point at which Marvel realized he’d never be able to draw the whole thing is clear as Hitch only illustrates the first five issues before Brandon Peterson and Carlos Pacheco arrive to illustrate issues six through nine.
But enough about the project’s troubled history! What about the story itself? Well, in the present day at the start of things, we see that New York has been reduced to a mass of rubble and run-down buildings at the foot of Ultron’s space-age fortress. The heroes have already lost, the villains are striking underhanded deals with their robotic overlord to survive, and Hawkeye has struck out on his own to rescue a captured friend. Things are so bad for everyone that the first issue ends with a full-page shot of Captain America slumped down in despair.
While the Avengers and company are able to find out how Ultron is running the show (it involves time travel) and make their own plans for how to deal with it, Wolverine has a different idea. Why not just use a time machine to go back and kill Hank Pym, thus preventing Ultron from ever being created? Along with Sue Storm (because why not) he does just that, and finds out that sometimes the simplest solution isn’t the best one.
Let’s start with the beginning. As impressive as the run-down New York looks in Hitch’s art, starting at this point does the story no favors. While we can see that Ultron’s conquest of the Marvel Universe was total, it’s not something we can actually feel invested in. Aside from a couple pages in the second issue, we see nothing of the robot’s assault or of his domination of humanity and its protectors in the process. It’s hard to care about the current state of anything without the proper context for it. The state of the Marvel Universe at the start of “Age of Ultron” is no exception. In fact, it’s even worse because seeing the world in this state will lead any reader of superhero comics to assume that the reset button will be hit at some point in this story and make everything all right in the end.
I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that’s exactly what happens here. The problem is that the means by which the reset button is hit aren’t all that interesting and are even somewhat nonsensical. Wolverine’s playing of the “He killed your entire family!” card to Susan as he tries to kill Hank Pym is probably the most compelling part of the whole book, yet it only winds up leading to the most arbitrary “bad future” I’ve read next to “Flashpoint.” A world where the Defenders are the premiere superteam? Tony Stark is more man than machine? Scott Summers is now Cable? Morgan LeFay is the most powerful supervillain in the world? It feels like Bendis was pulling these changes out of a hat when, along with the general grimness of this world, he wanted to convince us that Wolverine had made a mistake. You can’t really care about this world when the only thought that was put into its creation was that it had to show that killing Hank Pym was a bad thing.
At this point the story starts heading into, “I think I could’ve written something better territory.” That’s certainly not true, but Bendis gets docked points for making me think that. First off, why did this future have to be a bad one? Why not make a generally happy future where most supervillainy had been eradicated, humans and mutants were living happily together, and mankind had started reaching out to colonize the solar system. It would be a perfect future, except for certain things specific for each character. Say Wolverine had never joined the X-Men and was still at the mercy of the Weapon X program. Maybe the rest of the Fantastic Four had died saving the universe at some point and Susan was left to go on with life without her family. Give them reasons to destroy this beautiful future that they can’t find a way to live in. That’s something we haven’t seen (in a while, if ever) from a time-travel story in the Marvel Universe.
Instead, we get Susan and Wolverine going back to the past again to set things right and steer the story onto its zero-sum-game conclusion. Logan’s actions effectively ensure that the previous nine issues of the crossover never actually happened but also cause complications for the space-time continuum in the process. They also tack on another action to the increasingly long list of ones that are making me warm up to the idea of the character’s impending death acting as a reset button of its own for the actively damaging baggage he’s been accumulating of late. We also get setups for “Cataclysm,” the now-cancelled “Avengers A.I.” series, Angela’s introduction to the Marvel Universe, and what looks like the reason for the multiversal collapse being addressed in Hickman’s “Avengers” series right now. As of now, that last bit is the only good thing I’ve seen to come out of this event.
However, Bendis also fails to deal with a couple of things as he’s wrapping up this event. While his “Two Wolverines” problem was clearly leading to that specific solution, he seems to have forgotten that there were also “Two Susans” at this time as well. The one we’ve followed in the story came back to the present, but we never find out what happened to the other one. Will we ever? I don’t really care, the only enjoyment I’m getting from that is how it provides me with another example of this story’s substandard quality. Same goes for the part where Stark, Pym, and Beast are standing around remarking about how the space-time continuum has broken and boy are they lucky that everything continues to exist in a cohesive linear reality! Their nonchalant acceptance of such a thing doesn’t do anything to sell its importance and the idea that after all of the previous times the timestream has been mucked around with in the Marvel Universe this was ONE TIME TOO MANY is eye-rolling in its ridiculousness. I’m glad that I started reading Hickman’s “Avengers” before this because this does nothing to sell me on the core idea of his runs on those titles.
Then you have the fact that for a series titled “Age of Ultron” the title character barely makes an appearance in it. There’s clever, and then there’s “too clever.” Bendis falls into the latter category here as the villain’s almost total absence is one more reason as to why it’s hard to care about the story itself. My guess is that the writer wanted Ultron’s absence from the main plot to act as a symbol of his complete and total dominance of the world. In other words: The robot has the world on lockdown so bad that he didn’t even need to show up to defend it. The reality is that the heroes’ struggle just feels less personal when they’re struggling against a faceless force here.
If there’s one thing I can’t complain too much about, it’s the art. As I said above, Hitch turns in some fantastic work here with his epic scenes of destruction and carnage throughout the pages he illustrates. Even when he’s asked to draw a whole lot of talking heads, as is de rigueur for a Bendis comic, he crams enough detail and expressiveness into the characters and their environment to hold your attention. Pacheco and Peterson are less impressive in that regard, but not without their strengths. I liked how Pacheco’s style suggested a brighter, less complicated world for the scenes in the past, while Peterson was clearly invested in making the future look as dire as possible with his designs.
All of the artists turn in solid work here, yet it’s all in service of a story that doesn’t really add up to anything in the end. There’s just so little imagination invested in these alternate future worlds and the plot itself that between this and “Cataclysm” I wish Bendis would step back from these things for a while and think about how he can give us something we haven’t seen before in one of these events. This is probably one of the worst things I’ve read from the writer and I’m glad that I waited to read it until after I found the paperback for sale at half-price at Comic-Con. Actually, I still feel that I didn’t get my money’s worth after all that. Nobody needs to bother with this. As for why the upcoming “Avengers” film chose “Age of Ultron” as its subtitle, maybe Joss Whedon is trying to get us to lower our expectations by linking it to this. If that was his aim, then he can consider this “Mission Accomplished.”