Sunday, June 15, 2014

Review: Age of Ultron

I think it's fairly safe to say that when Avengers 2: Age of Ultron is finally released in theaters, its plot won't at all resemble the crossover event storyline it's taken its sub-title from. Age of Ultron, the 10-issue 2013 miniseries, is, after all, about Wolverine going back in time in an attempt to prevent a horrible, robot-ruled future where most of his friends have been killed. Which was, of course, the same basic plot as this summer's X-Men: Days of Future Past movie.

The comic book series was written by Brian Michael Bendis, a very able, very experienced crafstman who has been writing these stories pretty much continuously for years now, and has thus had plenty of opportunities to find out what works and what doesn't. Like most of Bendis' big superhero epics, this one is really rather good, right up until the point where it stops being any good at all. What's different about this one, however, is how long it manages to be any good at all—it's remains rather strong right up until its final chapter, at which point the likely mandated events that elevate it from basically a big Avengers story into one that will change the Marvel Universe forever—which included introducing a one-time Spawn supporting character for no reason evident in the book itself—occur, and the book devolves into an only tenuously related resolution and a series of teases for other, smaller events (so unrelated to what's come before they need special Marvel "AR" applications to explain them to the possibly confused).

From the outside looking in, this seems to be Bendis' long-in-the-works conclusion to his tenure at the head writer of Marvel's ever-expanding Avengers line (and transition to a similar role with the X-Men line), banged and hammered into a line-wide crossover/event somewhere rather close to the finish line.

The collection begins before Age of Ultron #1, in Avengers #12.1, which is included here, and rightly so. It may not have been branded as part of the series proper, but it's fairly important, even integral. So much so that when Age reaches its climax, large portions of #10 are recycled pages from Avengers #12.1, albeit with a few additional dialogue bubbles super-imposed upon them.

Like the first half of Age, that issue is drawn by Bryan Hitch, in his usual "widescreen" art format, here with his borderless panels atop white pages, like some of Chris Bachalo's recent X-Men art. He'll prove an excellent match for the story and for Bendis, as the former involves several scenes of epic destruction and plenty of rubble, a specialty of Hitch's, and the latter's penchant for scenes of long, drawn-out conversations surely benefits from someone of Hitch's skill at drawing realistic and detailed human faces (although there are relatively few such scenes here; Bendis doesn't write all that Bendis-y this time around).

In the Avengers issue, Spider-Woman Jessica Drew, Agent of SWORD goes investigating a strange energy source and then goes missing, and so SWORD Director Abigail Brand convenes a meeting with the various Avengers squads of that moment in time: adjectiveless, New and Secret (SWORD, of course, is the SHIELD-like organization dealing with extraterrestrial threats).

A search and rescue team including Avengers from each of the major Avengers titles is assembled, and they go to find Spider-Woman, currently in the clutches of The Intelligencia, a villain team made up of various super-geniuses. The energy source was a "Spaceknight" that fell to Eath, but when the Avengers attack to kick the poor mad scientists' asses, the metallic hulk activates itself and reveals itself as Ultron, having stowed away on the space-artifact to get back to Earth after being...away, probably being the menace in a miniseries written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, if I had to guess.

"I am unprepared for this battle," Ultron says. "You will wait." Then he blows up, knocking everyone down and disappearing. Iron Man completely loses his shit. Despite having fought Ultron many, many (many, many, many) times before, he's scared that this time fighting Ultron means the end of the world.

"I've seen the future..." Stark says, perhaps referring to the solicitations for Age of Ultron, perhaps to having seen early drafts of Bendis' script. "This is going to happen and there's nothing we can do to stop it."

And what do you know, Tony Stark was right! From there we journey to "Today," and two, two-page spreads of establishing shots of a meticulously devastated New York City, the "camera" slowly zooming in from shot to shot (Another reason Hitch is so well-suited for Bendis...? Bendis often seems like he'd rather be writing for Hollywood, and is settling for Marvel Comics). We see a pretty elaborate infiltration action scene, in which Hawkeye murders a whole bunch of the apparently now-endangered humans, in order to rescue a captured, drugged, tortured and interrogated Spider-Man from The Owl and Hammerhead, who were planning on trading him with Ultron, who apparently lives in the big city floating over what used to be New York City. Hawkeye returns Spidey to the few surviving heroes left in NYC.

(If you're counting, these are Tony Stark, Luke Cage, cute haircut She-Hulk, Emma Frost, cooler-costume-than-usual Wolverine, Captain America, Storm, Sue Storm, Monica Rambeau, Daisy, Quicksilver and...I think that's it. There are other characters who appear in the background of the first three issues, like Beast and Iron Fist, but they are never mentioned and don't reappear, so they are either art mistakes—at one point, Hitch draws Ben Grimm lying on a cot, while dialogue later refers to him as being dead, meaning that was an art mistake or the heroes were just storing his corpse in their sleeping quarters—or they get killed off-panel between scenes).
A handful of heroes survive in other cities. Moon Knight and badly-scarred Black Widow are in San Francisco, and they've tumbled upon Nick Fury's secret plan to save the world if this exact thing happens (It turns out to be a dumb plan that doesn't work). Taskmaster, The Red Hulk and The Black Panther are in Chicago—I know, where else would one expect to find an African king?

After Cage and She-Hulk do some suicide reconnaissance to figure out why exactly Ultron seems to be trading favors to humans (like not killing them) for superheroes, and where Ultron really is (the future).  Ultron is apparently invading the present from the future using the top half of The Vision and a bunch of super-duper-powerful Ultron drones, one of which is strong enough to do this to a Hulk—
Is that even possible? I didn't think that was possible.
The three factions of heroes eventually arrive in The Savage Land, where Nick Fury's waiting, with a cache of super-weapons and his dumb-ass plan. He wants to use Dr. Doom's time machine to travel into "the future," where Ultron waits, and then destroy the evil artificial intelligence. With guns.

You can probably think of a better way in which to use a time machine in order to stop a robot invasion from the future that also used time travel. Maybe, for example, traveling back to the point where Ultron arrived in the present in the first chapter of this story, or the flashback in which Ultron apparently infiltrated The Vision. Or hey, did you guys see Days of Future Past...? They could travel back in time to warn themselves about this going down before it goes down, so they'll be ready to stop it, just like Kitty and Bishop did to save their team over and over.

Anyway, Wolverine's got a big, dumb idea too, but not quite as dumb as Fury's: Go back in time and kill Hank Pym, the man (and Avenger) who created Ultron in the first place, before he can create Ultron.

Removing a founding Avenger, the creator of Ultron (who created The Vision, who pro-created with Scarlet Witch, which lead quite directly into House of M) would obviously have pretty huge implications for the timestream (none of which Bendis visits at all methodically, instead going with "everything is just bad and different"). It still makes slightly more sense than Fury's plan.

This is the end of the first five-issue "act;" that is, the part that Hitch is/was available to draw on the necessary schedule. From their, the art style shifts rather drastically, with the second "act" art split between two different artists, Brandon Peterson handling the scenes set in the present and future, pencil artist Carlos Pacheco and inker Roger Bonet handling the scenes set in the past. Peterson does a passable Hitch imitation, and while Pacheco's art looks nothing like either of theirs, it doesn't really need to: It's cleaner, smoother and less fussy, the better to distinguish itself from the dark, gritty present of Marvel comics. It's too bad Hitch couldn't have stuck around a little longer, as there's actually relatively little present/future left in the story, with the bulk of it happening in the past.

To spoil things, Fury's team does indeed land in "the future," and are then immediately slaughtered by Ultron, whose army of killer drone-bots are obviously much more advanced by that point.

In the past, Wolverine arrives on the exact day Pym is about to have the great idea to build Ultron, but there's a stowaway, Invisible Woman Sue Storm. These two are, obviously, a unique, even inspired pairing, and to see two such vastly different characters whose paths almost never cross in the crowded Marvel Universe is one of the pleasures of the series. She tries to talk Wolverine out of it, Wolvie tries to talk her into it, with the end result being she lets Wolverine kill Pym, and they return to the "present," only to find a much different but equally terrible future (For one thing, Cyclops is calling himself Cable and is on The Defenders!). There, NYC is again obliterated, only this time by Doombots with rams' horns, controlled by Morgan Le Faye.

So Wolverine goes back in time again to stop himself from killing Pym, eventually coming up with a decent solution to stopping Ultron's invasion of the present that doesn't alter the timestream in any way.

Except for the fact that Wolverine went back in time one time too many.

In the tenth issue, drawn by the previously mentioned artists (well the Hitch and Paul Neary sections are repeats) as well as Alex Maleev, Butch Guice, David Marquez, Joe Quesada and others, the awkward grafting of implications occurs.

The only issue in this book that I read the serially-published, comic book-comic of was Age of Ultron #1, which Marvel actually charged $3.99 for but also provided over 30 pages of content in, while (most of ) the rest of the series was at their regular $3.99/20-22-page price point. If I had purchased #10, I think I would have been fairly furious to find that eight of its 34 pages are simply reprints of that Avengers issue drawn by Hitch and Neary (I wonder if they got paid for that art again?). The gag is, of course, that through time travel, that scene happens "again," with a slight change: Pym sends a message to Tony Stark instructing him how to shut down Ultron before Ultron escapes to initiate his "Age," so we get eight pages of Avengers #12.1 all over again, only on a handful of those pages there are little electronic dialogue bubbles from Pym telling Stark to load a program.

He does, and the day is saved...or is it?

Smart guys Stark, Pym and The Beast are looking at troubling "readings," and they've come to the conclusion that they've "broken" time.

"We've altered the space-time coninuum before," Beast argues. "Time travel has been part of our--"

"But this-- This may have been on time too many," Pym cuts him off.

So, what does broken time mean? Well, there were hints earlier in the story that there are other worlds or dimensions (which isn't exactly a revelation, as trans-dimensional travel has also been a part of all their day-to-day lives), and the book is then dedicated to a series of teasers. Some of these are very, very brief, as in single-image cameos that hint at future storylines involving time-travel (Kang and The Apocalypse Twins, the Indestructible Hulk's time travel, Spider-Man 2099, the original teenage X-Men), but there are a trio of other, slightly longer sequences: The "616" Galactus arriving in the Ultimate Universe (which I believe lead to an Ultimate Universe crossover story called Cataclysm), Hank Pym having an idea involving artificial intelligence (no idea; did this maybe tease the already-canceled Avengers A.I. series, which wasn't very good?) and Neil Gaiman's Angela character appearing in a Marvel Comic for no discernable reason (I guess we'll have to see future issues of Guardians of the Galaxy for that explanation).

Most of the negative issues with the series—aside from its implosion of an epilogue, so hastily and lazily thrown together they didn't even bother to use completely new art for all of it, of course— are fairly minor, somewhere between nitpick and That's not the creative choice I would have made there.

Ultron is strangely absent from his own epic storyline, one in which he has conquered the Marvel Universe. Throughout, he appears as no more present or compelling then, say, the Sentinels in any X-Men comic or the Terminator robots. Aside from a one-panel glimpse in flashback, and a splash page in the Avengers issue, he's just reflections of himself from the off-page future,  generic foot-soldiers that look like himself. We don't understand his motivations any better than what Tony Stark says in an offhanded manner—he hates humanity—and Bendis seems to assume a great deal of familiarity with the character. That, or "robot that hates humanity" is all the characterization he thinks we need.

And even if it is, it would have been nice to get some of the mechanics of the story: How Ultron invaded the present from the future, how he maintained a backwards link through the timestream with Vision, how and where he got all those spaceships and floating cities and drone versions of himself and so on.

One of the mysteries of the first act was why Ultron was bothering to run a protection racket with some human villains, allowing The Owl and others to live in exchange for superhuman payment. Stark guesses that it had something to do with Ultron trying to imitate human feelings and emotions but, um, I didn't quite catch how that worked or works in the context of the story. Was Vision attempting to save them? Did Ultron use them as raw material? What?

Also, it seems strange that Pym didn't play a bigger role. Until the very end of the book, he is simply seen in flashback, but as Ultron's creator and the guy whose life and death the book's moral dilemma hinges on, it seems like he should have been a presence. Presumably he was quickly killed at the outset of Ultron's attack. It might have been something worth noting; also, it seems like he's the only Avenger not at the meeting in #12.1 that kicks the whole thing off.

(I realize it's quite possible that some of this business will be explained in a tie-in to the series, and I see there's an entire additional collection of all the ancillary material, entitled Age of Ultron Companion; that's all well and good, but I can't judge a book based on what might appear in another book. A work should be complete unto itself.)

As for the nit-pickery, I'm well and truly lost as to how time-travel works in the Marvel Universe, as I thought for a long time there were rules about it; that is, that time couldn't ever really be altered, attempts to do so only created alternate timelines where the changes happened, but the "real" or original timeline didn't change at all. Am I remembering that correctly? Did I dream it?

The idea that the time is actually "broken" by all of this abuse is fairly interesting, but I don't really understand what it means, as time travel has been more-or-less constant in every corner of the Marvel Universe since this saw print—Bendis' own X-books, for example, saw not only the original X-Men travel forward from the past, but multiple visitations from multiple contingents of X-Men in the future (This feels like one of those instances of Joe Quesada's attempts to put genies back in bottles, like reducing the number of mutants or breaking up Spider-Man and Mary Jane; to take a problem that isn't really a problem, fix it clumsily, and then everyone either just writes around the solution to keep telling the stories they wanted to tell in the first place, and maybe its even reversed at some point anyway). The idea of holes into other dimensions opening is also interesting, but, again, I don't really see what it's changed (the last few volumes of Uncany X-Force I read involved them visiting other, alternate dimensions, and the Ultimate and Marvel Universes have crossed over repeatedly before, directly and indirectly).

Finally, I was pretty amused by a sequence in Age of Ultron #4, in which Black Widow shows Moon Knight a copy of Fury's plan to save the world in case of an Ultron invasion from the future (which, remember, is to time-travel into the future to attack Ultron):
There's a pretty clever issue of Secret Avengers written by Warren Ellis and drawn by Bendis' frequent co-creator Alex Maleev (#20 in...one of the many volumes of Secret Avengers. It's in the Ellis trade) devoted entirely to Black Widow saving the day via repeated time-travel. Of course, that was a secret, so maybe she's just keeping it secret from Moon Knight.

Finally finally, Hitch's Beast reminds me of Stinkor.


That is all.

5 comments:

JohnF said...

"Is that even possible? I didn't think that was possible."

It's the kind of thing that only ever happens in What If? stories. The entire idea of such stories is to randomly slaughter characters which are basically unkillable in regular continuity. Notice how Thor was killed off-panel before the story even started.
In a "regular" comic no amount of laserbeams-to-the-head is going to take out She-Hulk, but What If? stories just make up whatever shit they need to in order to up the body count.

Eric Lee said...

This series was greatly underwhelming for many reasons that u already pointed out. My biggest gripe is that freaking Ultron is not really in the comic with his name on it. That seems to be the most basic thing to do when writing a comic book.

culturewarreporters.com said...

I vaguely remember Bendis revealing that him [and others, maybe?] had actually worked out step by step how the Marvel universe would have been changed [forever, natch] given Hank Pym's absence.

The thing is, it of course results in everything kind of going to hell, so as "logical" as it might have been the end result was still the same regardless.

Luis K. said...

AVENGERS A.I. WAS AWESOME.

Caleb said...

John,

The funniest example of that in this series is probably the way Black Panther dies, landing wrong and breaking his neck performing a staple of action comics (and movies): Jumping away from an explosion.

Eric,

Yes, that boggles my mind. I read that Bendis' defense was that it's not about ULTRON, it's about THE AGE OF Ultron, but that doesn't really seem to be the case either, as his actual Age would surely be in the future where Ultron's actually at, and where Fury and the others go to attack him during the second half of the story.

Luis,

I read the first issue, and I did not like it at all.