The greatness of a villain in a shared universe is measured by how many elements of that universe the villain effects. In Ultron’s case, the robotic baddie’s existence defines that of his creator, Hank Pym and his creation, The Vision, along with a huge part of Avengers history. Before Ultron, Hank Pym was just the other guy who shared a book with Iron Man, Captain America and Thor. After Ultron, Pym was a flawed and profoundly readable character responsible for bringing an apocalyptic evil into the world. Now, Pym’s motivation was to make up for Ultron. Ultron added levels to Pym’s character that weren’t there before. This personal tie to one of the Avengers’ core heroes has always made Ultron one of the vilest threats in the Marvel Universe and has made him a perennial go to for any Avengers writer.
Writers like Kurt Busiek punctuated their Avengers runs with memorable Ultron stories. So, after eight years, it was surprising the most prolific Avengers writer of all time, Brian Michael Bendis, did not use Ultron, other than in the opening arc of Mighty Avengers drawn by Frank Cho. Yes, throughout that run and over in Moon Knight, Bendis teased the arrival of Ultron, but it always seemed like Ultron was a future threat, a pending disaster ready to strike at any moment. Now, Bendis has finally delivered a post-apocalyptic tale of a future ruled by Ultron. But before we look toward the future let’s take a brief look at the past.
Ultron first appeared in Avengers #55 (1968) by Roy Thomas and John Buscema as the Crimson Cowl, a hooded figure who claimed responsibility for creating The Vision. The reveal still shocks, as Silver Age readers were not expecting an inhuman robotic visage to be revealed under the Cowl’s hood. In his next appearance, Ultron upgraded himself using adamantium and soon went up against the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Ultron quickly became an A-list Marvel villain perhaps due to his inhuman appearance as designed by the great Buscema; or perhaps the character was a throwback to the classic age of sci-fi and the concepts of a machine revolution as introduced by such writers as Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein. Ultron wasn’t just another villain; he was a cautionary tale of mankind’s overreliance on machinery. If the great Avenger Hank Pym could fall victim to a machine revolution, who else was vulnerable?
Ultron has been a threat to the Marvel Universe since his creation. He was responsible for the creation of another Avenger, Jocasta, a character Dan Slott put to great use in Mighty Avengers. Ultron is the “father” of Runaways’ member Victor Mancha and is the creator of the villain Alkema. It seems, whenever Ultron appears, the character adds an element to the forever growing narrative of the Marvel Universe. This is why a cross-over event involving Ultron carries so many possible ramifications for veteran Marvel readers. Bendis has been teasing this crossover for a long time and it is finally here. With Ultron’s complex and compelling back story and a battle with the robotic monster usually meaning lasting ramifications for the Marvel Universe, Bendis seems to have picked the perfect threat with which to end his time guiding the Avengers. Does he succeed?
Age of Ultron #1
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciler: Bryan Hitch
Inker: Paul Neary
Colorist: Paul Mounts
The first thing that will strike a reader upon opening this issue is the Bryan Hitch art. Hitch can draw a cityscape like no one else and his establishing shot of Ultron’s world tells the reader just how much has changed for the worse in this age of Ultron. From a headless Statue of Liberty, to a transformed skyline, New York is utterly devastated. The planet seems a primordial waste. Humanity has been wiped out. Mechanical engines of unknown purpose have replaced biological life, as the establishing shots show there is nothing human left about New York, until Hawkeye shows up. Starting with Hawkeye, one of the most human of Marvel’s pantheon of heroes, is a wise choice by Bendis. He is on a rescue mission, hoping to save a friend from a group of villains led by the Owl. A long and exciting battle follows as Hawkeye saves Spider-Man, the ultimate example of humanity’s heroic potential (or is he, is that Peter or is that Otto Octavius?) Bendis gives readers a moment to catch their breath, until the Ultron Sentinels arrive and lay waste to the villains and their hideaway. Hawkeye and Spidey narrowly escape and join their fellow members of the underground.
Ok, there’s the plot recap and it is some exciting stuff, especially when drawn in grand cinematic fashion by Hitch, but make no mistake the opening of the book is the opening of Terminator. Seriously, play the T2 soundtrack while reading this bad boy, because it is an unapologetic “homage.” But on some levels that is ok, as Terminator liberally borrowed from the early Ultron stories. You have read this before: the machines rule, there is a rag tag band of resistance fighters, wash, rinse, repeat. But, the fact that these are the familiar heroes of the Marvel Universe thrust into a landscape, while very familiar to readers, is unfamiliar to the characters, makes for a different take on very familiar tropes. Bendis could have some fun with this setting, as seen in the riveting rescue sequence involving Hawkeye.
The opening is decompressed and not really in a good way, as it is not yet revealed why the world is the way it is, how Ultron succeeded, what happened to the Avengers or who exactly is left alive. The mission statement of the title seems to be to recreate the Age of Apocalypse story using the Avengers and Ultron, which is actually a pretty darn good idea on paper. But at the end of the first issue, all we know is that humanity has been wiped out, the Avengers are underground resistance fighters, the villains still do really dickish things and Captain America is sad. Not much really happens, but that is a frequent narrative technique for Bendis: reveal as you go. It is the character stuff that really grabs you, as each step the story takes, readers will be hoping they see that an old favorite is ok, that not every light of heroism has been snuffed in whatever happened to the world. Let’s just hope these answers come quickly, because there is a huge story here, but in the first issue Bendis always gives us a miniscule, albeit compelling, first bite.