Pat Shand here, back with the third installment of In a World…, a series of articles about stories you know and characters you love, but where things may not be what they seem. We’re traveling to strange, alternate realities where familiar faces have been placed in different timelines, places, and maybe even worlds. This time, things get dark with the apocalyptic Marvel event, Age of Ultron.
Back in 2013, shortly after Brian Michael Bendis had finished his long, formative Avengers run, the Age of Ultron event began. It ran for ten issues and had, as Marvel events tend to, a bunch of tie-ins. Bendis scripted the series, with the first issue showcasing Bryan Hitch on pencils, Paul Neary on inks, Paul Mounts on colors, and VS’s Cory Petit lettering. I’ve written previously about how I don’t have the same event fatigue that a lot of comics readers talk about – I think that in a shared superhero universe, big, widescreen, bombastic comics with fun crossovers and high stakes are a huge part of the fun. Can they derail great runs? Sure. In fact, perhaps my favorite Thor storyline, J. Michael Straczynski’s 16-issue run on the title, was cut short by Bendis’s Siege event… and that sucks, but Siege is also the culmination of years of storytelling, and it’s damn good. So I’m totally on board with events, but they do, sometimes, come with the price of other series feeling hijacked when they tie-in.
Not so much with Age of Ultron. It begins in what seems like a parallel world, or perhaps a dark future of the standard Marvel Universe that has been conquered by Ultron. Because of the storyline being so removed from the rest of what’s going on in the Marvel Universe, tie-ins were completely separate from the main ongoing series. You see, the unseen events leading up to the twisted world of Age of Ultron changed the Marvel heroes in such a dramatic way that it’s almost as if we’re meeting them again for the first time when we see them pop up in the main event series, or their tie-ins. While the series does eventually connect back to the standard Marvel Universe, having quite the impact in the form of a celebrated character arriving unexpectedly in this reality, the vast majority of the storyline concerns a future that the Avengers are going to want to desperately avoid.
Let’s talk about the first issue, which kicks off the series with darkness, darkness, and more darkness. Hawkeye is on a rescue mission, and he’s straight up murdering people out here in these streets. Arrows right through the neck. He rescues a beaten Spider-Man from a house loaded with villains, escaping right as the house is targeted by Ultron Sentinels. As Hawkeye and the somehow still quipping Spidey head to safety, we are treated to gorgeously illustrated, devastating artwork revealing the ruins of New York City. They make it into an underground bunker and are instantly harassed by the Avengers, who are concerned that Ultron has “infected” them. Luke Cage is pissed that Hawkeye came back at all, Emma Frost tells him to ease up, and the two heroes are scanned. Once they’re cleared, we see a gut-punch shot of our heroic leader, Captain America, sitting in the broken pieces of his shield off to the side, seemingly unable to stand up and think of a plan. Pretty much every single scene in this issue hammers in the idea that things have gotten bad… and then, with that final image of a defeated Cap, the debut issue closes out.
Bendis, to me, is a writer’s writer – he tells character-driven stories and doesn’t hesitate to have an entire issue of talking heads or let dialogue push forward major moments that other writers would perhaps leave to the artist in this medium. Here, though, he pulls way back for what has to be the most silent Bendis-written issue I’ve ever read, letting Bryan Hitch do his thing. I get it, and it’s necessary to show exactly how bad things have gotten, but both that and the fact that our heroes are largely unrecognizable in their actions made me unable to connect with this one as much as his previous events, Secret Invasion and Siege. It’s cool to see him do something entirely different, but in 2017, with both Marvel and DC’s focus shifting from events focusing on a singular threat to, instead, gigantic cosmic events that focus on alternate realities, I find myself preferring the former. Obviously, I’m writing a series on alternate realities so I am interested in the topic, but the reason I love event comics, the reason that I’ve never felt that event fatigue I mentioned earlier, is because I love big stories focused on characters I care about. That’s the core of it. When the familiarity is removed from the characters, though, to me at least, I find myself removed from the narrative. Age of Ultron has a cool start, and it’s a gorgeous comic, but Bendis’s strengths are his long-term plotting, dialogue, and character development. It’s a pretty good read, but I think as we look back on Marvel’s major storylines, the best events of this era are going to be the ones that focus on the characters we know and love as we know and love them.
That said, Avengers: Age of Ultron, which has virtually nothing to do with the comic it took its title from, is the most ambitious superhero movie ever made – and is also one of the best. It’s crazy to me that that’s a hot take, but it’s definitely a bridge I’m willing to fight and die on, even if I’m the only one.